Rare is one of the UK's most respected and adored software houses, with a lineage that goes back more than 30 years. While the company is now wholly owned by Microsoft, for a large part of its lifespan it was closely affiliated with Nintendo - initially as a third party creator of software for the NES and Game Boy, and then as a "second party" studio in which Nintendo was a major shareholder.
From the time of its first Nintendo release in 1986 to its purchase by Microsoft in 2002, the studio produced a dazzling array of content for Nintendo's systems, including many of the titles which are now regarded as the best the company has ever produced. Taking this into account, it feels rather odd that Rare Replay - a celebration of Rare's history which launches this week on the Xbox One - isn't coming to a Nintendo console. Granted, it's a compilation produced by a first-party Microsoft studio and in that respect it's rather naive to expect a Wii U edition, but when the disc contains as many Nintendo hits as this one does, it's jarring all the same.
In case didn't know already, Rare Replay pulls together many highlights from the firm's illustrious back catalogue, including several ZX Spectrum smash-hits from the time when it was known as Ultimate Play The Game. 30 different offerings are included, with the earliest being 1983's Jetpac and the most recent being 2008's Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts. In-between you'll find a large helping of Nintendo-flavoured goodness - in fact, half of the games included here originated on Nintendo hardware. NES classics such as Cobra Triangle, R.C. Pro-Am, Battletoads and Snake Rattle 'n' Roll are joined by N64 gems like Jet Force Gemini, Blast Corps, Conker's Bad Fur Day and Banjo-Kazooie. The SNES era is sadly absent, thanks to the fact that Rare was laser-focused on the Donkey Kong Country series at this point, which naturally cannot be included here. It's also a shame - but understandable - that Rare's many contributions to the Game Boy library are missing. Granted, many of these were licensed titles (The Amazing Spider-Man, WWF Superstars, Beetlejuice) but to ignore them is to ignore a large and very profitable sector of Rare's business in the early '90s. Still, the fact that 1994's Battletoads Arcade makes the cut means it's not all bad - this coin-op exclusive title is a joy to behold, dialing up the gore and boasting impressive sprite-scaling effects.
Because Rare changed hands in 2002, there are notable gaps in Rare Replay's story. The aforementioned Donkey Kong titles are (predictably) nowhere to be seen, a massive oversight when you consider how vital those games are to the tapestry that is Rare. This of course extends to the sublime Diddy Kong Racing - one of the finest N64 driving games and the only kart racer that truly gave Mario Kart a run for its money. Star Fox Adventures is also understandably absent - although many won't lament that fact - as is GoldenEye 007, although its exclusion has little to do with Nintendo, and more to do with Rare wanting to pick titles which boasted characters it had produced itself.
The 30-odd titles that have made the cut vary in quality, despite their classic status. The early Spectrum games - so ground-breaking at the time of release - have not aged well. Coming from a time when keyboard control was the norm, they feel restricted and often frustrating, although it's still easy to see why they were so striking when they arrived on the market back in the early-to-mid '80s. It's not until you hit the NES-era titles that Rare Replay really starts to show value for money; the company's mastery of Nintendo's 8-bit hardware is beyond debate, and games like Cobra Triangle and R.C. Pro-AM boast smooth sprite movement and excellent control.
The N64 titles benefit from a resolution boost, and some come off looking better than others. Killer Instinct Gold, which mixes 3D backgrounds with traditional 2D sprites, looks very rough around the edges. The fighters are a fuzzy, pixelated mess, but thankfully the insane, combo-heavy gameplay shines through. Banjo-Kazooie and its N64 sequel remain fantastic, arguably some of Rare's finest work on the N64, while Blast Corps is such an amazingly playable title anchored to such a great core idea that it's a real wonder that no one else - Rare included - has tried to replicate it in the years since.
What really makes the package so tantalizing for Rare fans is the video interviews included as bonus unlockables, gained after earning "stamps" in each title. The process is a bit fiddly to be honest, and unless you're truly dedicated and willing to play quite far into each release, you may end up missing much of the bonus content on offer. However, these special interviews - featuring past and present Rare staffers such as Gregg Mayles, Wil Overton, James Thomas, Kevin Bayliss, Chris Sutherland, David Wise and Simon Woodroffe, as well as many others - are a pretty powerful incentive to keep playing. Not only do they touch upon Rare's magic, but they also reveal how titles came to be, and uncover some unreleased or cancelled projects that the studio was working on in the past.
Rare Replay may be missing some key releases and may lock away some of its most appealing exclusive content until you've played a fair few hours, but it's how a collection of this type should really be done - and it pains me that it's not on a Nintendo system. Excuse the rather harsh tone, but it's almost as if Xbox owners don't really deserve such a lovingly-crafted selection of titles, many of which were coded for Nintendo hardware in mind and created during a time when the Japanese company arguably represented the very best gaming had to offer.
To utter such sentiment is of course foolish and an example of the hopelessly nostalgic heart ruling the mind; Microsoft paid good money for Rare at a time when Nintendo seemed unwilling to do the same, and as such it is Microsoft's customers which should of course benefit from this veritable treasure trove of classics. Still, casting your mind back to the likes of Banjo-Kazooie: Grunty's Revenge, Banjo-Pilot, Diddy Kong Racing DS and Viva Piñata: Pocket Paradise - all games for Nintendo systems produced by Rare after it was snapped up by Microsoft - you can't help but wonder if a Wii U version of this very same collection could have been possible. Perhaps if the Wii U had sold at the same explosive rate as its forerunner, such a far-fetched reality may have come to pass, but it's highly unlikely; Rare's last Nintendo games were all for handhelds, a sector of the market that Microsoft has traditionally never had any interest in. Commercially, it made sense to support the Game Boy Advance and DS as it wouldn't impact the sales of Microsoft's domestic systems and would allow the company to make some money out of its rival's portable fanbase - a fanbase that was totally out of reach to the American giant. The same could not be said of the Wii U, which is a direct competitor to the Xbox One.
Resigned to the fact that Rare Replay will remain an Xbox One exclusive until the end of time, I've no real option but to recommend it in the highest manner possible to those of you who happen to own Microsoft's current home console. Not only is it a brilliantly constructed tribute to one of the world's most esteemed game-makers, but it also offers insane value for money and delivers a solid illustration of just how important Nintendo's hardware has been to the evolution of not just this one, legendary studio, but the games industry as a whole.