You're probably sick to death of us mentioning Rare on Nintendo Life – especially since the company has long since parted ways with Nintendo itself and is now firmly ensconced as a Microsoft studio. Still, we have our reasons – Nintendo Life Towers is located in the English Midlands, just a short drive away from Rare's Twycross HQ – and just because it no longer works on Nintendo hardware that doesn't mean Rare's contribution to the incredible history of the Japanese firm should be ignored; that's certainly the stance that Rare itself is taking, as a new exhibition proves.
Rare: From 8-Bit to Xbox One is currently taking place at The Herbert Art Gallery & Museum in the city of Coventry, just down the road from Rare's offices. This exhibition showcases the complete history of the studio, from its days as Ultimate Play the Game operating out of a tiny cottage in Ashby-de-la-Zouch to its more recent escapades, namely the epic online pirate simulator Sea of Thieves. As diehard Rare fans, we simply had to pay a visit.
"This started a long time ago, just after Kinect Sports Rivals," explains Rare Lead Engineer James Thomas, who spearheaded the team that pulled the exhibit together. "Our facilities manager was basically saying that they were tidying up the maintenance shed and they had a load of hardware, games, magazines and other stuff that needed tidying up. My eyes lit up at this point! I’ve been there long enough to know that I’ve seen cupboards with stacks of old merchandise or old games, so I saw this as an opportunity for us to pull it all together."
The arrival of Rare Replay – a collection of the company's most beloved titles on Xbox One – gave the project additional importance, although Thomas reveals that his archival work began before the compendium was even in production. "I went around the whole company, going through cupboards and stock rooms, pulling together everything I could find; cartridges, design docs, everything. Eventually, I started documenting it and listing it to make sure we knew what we had, because by no means did we have a complete collection – everyone who has worked at Rare will have taken their own mementoes when they left, which is fair enough. You worked on it, those are your design docs. But equally, there’s the fleetingness of what is important. What do you keep now thinking it’s going to be historic? In the exhibition here at the museum, they’ve got an Apple iPod. My wife is a curator here and someone asked her, 'why have you got an iPod here?' She said, 'you’ve got to have one in there because at some point that will become part of history.'"
Thomas' work in cataloguing all of this material proved invaluable when it came to creating the excellent bonus material for Rare Replay. "It was quite fortuitous that we had all that stuff together because it meant that we could fill out all the Rare Revealed videos and we could get all the sprites that we needed for any artwork," he explains. "Also, a lot of the ROMs that we shipped on Rare Replay came from the stuff that myself and a couple of other people found during that time. It was all organised, but it was just that no one had an idea of the complete picture, so getting it all in one place really helped with that."
After Rare Replay launched, that's when the idea of having a proper public exhibit of all this amazing material arose. "Sea of Thieves started, which meant the archive got bundled up, tidied away securely," Thomas recalls. "Last summer, my wife started telling me about this summer’s exhibition at The Herbert, which was going to be based around toys, games and play. They try to do something that’s quite engaging because it’s the school holidays. They decided to do the history of play, and how play has evolved over the years. You have everything from sticks and hoops right up to, obviously, video games. I got Leigh Loveday and Dale Murchie together from the Rare Replay team and we started putting a picture together to show to Craig Duncan, the studio head. We wanted to try to make sure it wasn’t an advert. It could have been so easy to just say, ‘buy Sea of Thieves!’ but we wanted it to be more than that, so we ended up splitting it into two. We wanted to show the history of Rare, and hopefully by extension, the history of gaming, because Rare has been going since the early '80s.'"
This first room of the exhibit is packed with items that will catch the eye of any gamer, not just those who consider themselves to be Nintendo or Microsoft fans. There's a Famicom console with a development board sat awkwardly on the top; Rare's founders, Tim and Chris Stamper, famously reversed-engineered the console in order to secure a development deal with Nintendo. Sat next to this is a SNES with a massive plastic device crammed into its cartridge slot, which is emblazoned with the iconic Donkey Kong logo – no prizes for guessing what this dev cartridge was used to create.
Elsewhere, there's a Donkey Kong plush, pages of concept art (some of which is for games that ever saw the light of day), a stretchy Battletoads figure, a Conker's Bad Fur Day beer glass and – perhaps most interestingly of all – a glass cabinet filled to the bursting point with boxed Rare titles, such as Donkey Kong 64, The Amazing Spider-Man, Solar Jetman and even Beetlejuice. There's certainly no shortage of cool things; it would seem that the real problem was knowing where to stop. "We could have probably filled the rest of the 'play' exhibition if we wanted to!" laughs Thomas. "It was hard because I had to actually take a step back and ask myself if the general public would be excited about it. We had a load of concept art and design documents from either early NES games or SNES games that never made it, and for me they were super fascinating, but they didn’t give a snapshot of the history of the company. What we did was choose roughly twice as many objects for each of the decades and then ask what fits best with the story, so we could vary the objects we show, rather than just going saying, 'this is how games were made.' It was a good test to show it to some of the curators here, as well; to actually show the objects to non-players and ask if it makes sense and is this interesting – that's a nice test to see whether we’d chosen the right material."
The second room is devoted purely to Sea of Thieves, which is understandable – it is Rare's current opus, after all – but there's an important reason for so much space being devoted to it. "I do careers talks every now and again," explains Thomas. "When you go to the younger age group, even college or GCSE, not a huge number of people know what roles are available in game development, so we thought we’d take this opportunity to say, 'these are the different functions, these are the different people that can come together, the different skills that you need to create a modern video game.'"
What's really amazing is the amount of time and effort that has gone into creating this exhibition. "Over the last 9 months it’s been a slow and steady build-up," Thomas reveals. "Going back and forth between ourselves and the museum, making sure the text that we want to put on is museum-friendly, and so on. There was a tiny bit of fighting between Rare’s slightly more laid back tone and the museum’s slightly more academic tone, so we had to find a nice compromise between the two!"
While the exhibit has had the misfortune of opening during one of the biggest heatwaves the UK has seen in decades, Thomas says the reaction has been a positive one. "I think what a lot of people don’t realise is that Rare is on their doorstep," says Thomas. "Also the people who run the museum have been really fascinated by how the kids have taken to it. There’s an Xbox, N64 and SNES for people to play, and I think a lot of people just expected the kids to go off and play that, but so many of them have been equally intrigued reading how these things are put together. One of my friend's kids thought that the NES and the Spectrum were artistic choices! We had to say, 'actually, no. This is history. That’s what gaming has gone through to get to where it is now.'"
Given that it is helping to spread the good name of the studio, it's only fitting that the exhibit has been well-attended by staff. "We had a lot of Rare-ites on the opening night," says Thomas. "There were about 20 or 25 people who made the march from Twycross for the evening, and we got their seal of approval as well. Some even found out things about Rare they weren't aware of, which meant that we'd done our job, so that's good."
But what about the Stampers themselves? As the founders of the company, this exhibit is, on so many levels, a tribute to their legacy; have they visited it? "I don’t know whether the Stampers have come in," replies Thomas. "I'd like to think they will. I hope we’ve tried to make something that’s for old and new. Given the number of former Rare staffers we worked with on Rare Replay, with the videos and interviews, it's clear we want to make sure that the people who worked on these games are with these games forever; hopefully, they can see it all here."
Speaking of the Stampers, the siblings were famous for locking the down the studio and only occasionally speaking to the gaming press. Ironically, since Microsoft has taken over – a company which would have good reason to expunge the Nintendo era from Rare's history books – the company has relaxed this secretive stance. "Over the years we've become a far more open studio," says Thomas. "I think we try to let people peek behind the curtain more often. You can see that with the Sea of Thieves development blogs that Joe Neate puts out every week. I think the way Craig Duncan talks to the media is far more open as well. We’re getting more press to the studio far more often than we ever used to. We're also trying to appreciate the past far more often; Rare Replay was a big celebration, but in recent times we've seen Conker, Battletoads and Killer Instinct all appear again, and we're open about our history."
Rare may have moved on from Nintendo hardware, but this excellent exhibit shows the firm isn't turning its back on the games which made it famous; it's a refreshingly open look at the rich history of a company that amazingly remains largely unknown to thousands of people in the English Midlands. Hopefully, the show – which runs until the end of September and is free of charge to enter – will change that. Even during the short time we spent at The Herbert, we noticed more than one family walk through the exhibit, with parents excitedly pointing out old consoles and sharing their memories of these classic games with their offspring – the next generation of players.
Rare: From 8-Bit To Xbox One is now on at The Herbert Art Gallery & Museum and runs until September 28th, 2018.