Last week wasn't the best of times for the UK games industry. We reported that indie dev The Code Monkeys shut its doors after 23 years and on Friday Bizarre Creations – who produced the brilliant Project Gotham Racing for Microsoft, as well as the criminally underrated Blur – finally closed after owner Activision failed to find a buyer for the troubled studio.
To cap off a miserable few days, reports trickled through of redundancies at Rare's countryside HQ, with rumours that the firm's entire art department was at risk.
While all three of these tales are distressing, the one that hits home the worst for us personally relates to Rare. In case you didn't know, Nintendo Life's offices are based just a short drive from Rare's Warwickshire home, and the developer has a near-mythical status in this part of the UK.
Of course, geographical concerns aside, there are plenty of other reasons to love Rare. Those with good memories will not doubt recall the days when the company went by the name of Ultimate Play the Game, and crafted such 8-bit mega hits as Lunar Jetman, Sabre Wulf and Knight Lore. However, as Nintendo fans, the love affair began when the firm switched its name to Rare and became one of the first western developers to support Nintendo hardware.
A string of brilliant games followed, with Snake, Rattle and Roll, Battletoads and R.C. Pro-Am being three examples. An exclusive publishing agreement with Nintendo in 1994 heralded an era of even greater games, with Donkey Kong Country, Killer Instinct, Jet Force Gemini, Blast Corps, Diddy Kong Racing and everyone's favourite Bond game, Goldeneye 007. Rare's close working relationship with Nintendo seemed to virtually guarantee best-selling releases, and during this period the company became one of the most highly-esteemed studios in the world. So well regarded that Microsoft paid a whopping $375 million to purchase the entire firm and make it the centrepiece of its internal development division in 2002.
Rare's final game as a first-party Nintendo developer was the lacklustre Star Fox Adventures on the Gamecube, although it wouldn't be the company's final release on Nintendo hardware, thanks to an agreement with THQ that saw titles like It's Mr Pants! and an updated Sabre Wulf come to the GameBoy Advance.
Since joining the Microsoft stable, Rare's fortunes have been decidedly mixed. Its debut Xbox title Grabbed by the Ghoulies failed to ignite consumer interest, and Conker: Live and Reloaded also struggled at retail. With the launch of the Xbox 360 in 2005, Rare's importance as one of Microsoft's first-party teams was obvious – the machine was sold off the back of games like the underrated Kameo: Elements of Power and eagerly-awaited FPS sequel Perfect Dark Zero.
The brilliant Viva Piñata followed, the game which arguably came closest to recapturing the spirit of the firm's glory days with Nintendo. Its sequel was equally entertaining, as was the Nintendo DS off-shoot Viva Piñata: Pocket Paradise, but Rare's next big-name venture was less successful. After months of rumours and speculation, Rare resurrected N64 favourites Banjo and Kazooie to star in the riotously inventive Banjo Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts. Half platform adventure, half customisable racing game, it divided critics and failed to sell in significant numbers. It remains something of an underrated classic in the 360 catalogue, entirely at odds with the graphically slick racers and bloodthirsty FPS games that so typify the format.
After proving its worth with the Xbox 360's Mii-like Avatar creation system, Rare then went on to become a key player in the development of Microsoft's controller-free Kinect system. Kinect Sports is, according to Microsoft itself, one of the best-selling first-party Kinect titles. However, its critical and commercial triumph doesn't seem to have been enough to prevent this week's unpleasantness, and despite the highly playable nature of the game, it hasn't stopped hardcore Rare fans from voicing their disapproval of the company's new direction.
So it begs the question – should Rare and Nintendo reunite? It's arguable that Rare enjoyed a much more profitable relationship with the Kyoto-based gaming giant than it currently does with Microsoft. While the games released for the Xbox and Xbox 360 have been far from terrible, many fans would suggest that they've failed to match the slices of digital brilliance that emerged from the company back in the Nintendo days.
It's painfully obvious that much of Rare's current problems stem from the fact that its target audience isn't the average 360 owner. The company's predominately light-hearted titles belong on a Nintendo machine, and we'd be almost certain that a rekindled union would yield some incredibly successful releases.
Just look at the way in which Nintendo has worked with Retro Studios to resurrect Donkey Kong Country – a game that was born at Rare, ironically – and turn an ageing 2D platformer into a million-selling smash hit. Although we're sure they would be loathe to admit it, there must have been some sullen faces at Rare when they saw the exemplary job Retro Studios did with the franchise. One can't help but shake the feeling that Rare should be involved in similar projects, working under Nintendo's watchful eye.
Another thing to remember is that Rare has recent experience of working on Nintendo hardware – lest we forget the aforementioned Viva Piñata: Pocket Paradise and the brilliant DS port of Diddy Kong Racing, the latter of which was published by Nintendo itself. That might indicate that the door is still open, at least from the Japanese veteran's perspective.
Of course, much of this is wishful thinking. Microsoft will be unwilling to give up such a vital studio, especially when it's attempting to push Kinect into more homes. Rare's expertise in creating fun, intuitive experiences will prove invaluable, and it was the firm's development work with the Kinect software that paved the way for many of the games seen so far on the fledgling format. There's also the small matter of Microsoft owning 100% of the company rather than a limited share that could be easily bought out, and the recent installation of Scott Henson as studio manager is a clear indication that it's looking to assert more influence over Rare, rather than less.
Whatever the future holds, we sincerely hope that the unfortunate fate that has befallen Bizarre Creations and The Code Monkeys isn't going to repeat itself at Rare's Twycross HQ, because the studio remains one of the best UK-based developers on the face of the planet. While we'd dearly love to see Rare making games exclusively for Nintendo consoles (and who knows – they may even support the 3DS in the future, if rumours of a new Banjo Kazooie game are to be believed), we're keen to see what the company has up its sleeves regardless of the platform it happens to be on.