A ridiculously generous and thoughtfully presented compilation packed with bona fide classics and obscure gems.
With this hardware generation seemingly locked into a cycle of re-releases and remasters, it takes a certain stroke of genius to make a common or garden compilation appealing. Generous to a fault, and stuffed with more than its fair share of stone cold timeless classics, Rare Replay hits the bullseye.
The beloved Britsoft studio turns 30 this year, having emerged from 8-bit powerhouse Ultimate Play The Game in 1985. To celebrate, this low priced bundle brings together a neat 30 titles from across the company's history, encompassing everything from the ZX Spectrum through to the Xbox 360.
For the sake of being thorough, here's what you get:
Jetpac, Lunar Jetman, Atic Atac, Sabre Wulf, Underwurlde, Knight Lore, Gunfright, Slalom, R.C. Pro-Am, Cobra Triangle, Snake Rattle 'n' Roll, Solar Jetman, Digger T. Rock, Battletoads, R.C. Pro-Am II, Battletoads Arcade, Killer Instinct Gold, Blast Corps, Banjo-Kazooie, Jet Force Gemini, Perfect Dark, Banjo-Tooie, Conker's Bad Fur Day, Grabbed by the Ghoulies, Kameo, Perfect Dark Zero, Viva Piñata, Jetpac Refuelled, Viva Piñata: Trouble in Paradise, Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts.
The selection is such that while you may be disappointed that a particular favourite isn't included, the sting will be soothed by the presence of at least one other beloved hit, or new favourites you never even knew existed.
Certainly for aging Spectrum gamers, the compilation is a treat. Seven of the games - almost a third of the package - draw from those early Ultimate years, including games which predate the formation of Rare as a separate company. Jetpac is included - the first game ever from the company - and is as brilliant a piece of twitch game design as you're likely to find. Atic Atac, for my money the pinnacle of Ultimate's design ethos, is also included, along with the entire Sabreman trilogy: Sabre Wulf, the clumsy sequel Underwurlde, and isometric pioneer Knight Lore.
I loved revisiting these games, even the slightly ropey ones like Lunar Jetman, and there's been no retrospective editing to mask their age. Colours clash just as they're supposed to, while the speed of Knight Lore still chugs as it tries to fill rooms with moving pseudo-3D objects. There's a purity to the way they've been preserved that makes their presence on the Xbox One rather delightful.
More than the chance to go back to games I already know and love, what pleased me most about Rare Replay is how many new games it introduced me to. As someone who took the Amiga-to-PlayStation route through the 1990s, much of Rare's Nintendo output had passed me by. Discovering a treat like Digger T. Rock, very much a direct ancestor of Spelunky, is arguably more valuable than the easy recognition and nostalgia of wallowing in Speccy titles.
Some of the titles are a little cheeky. The brilliant and under-rated gravity-wrangling exploration game Solar Jetman was actually developed by Manchester studio Zippo Games under the title Iota and only had the Jetman branding attached later. Does that make it an official Rare game?
That's especially confusing, given that the seminal Goldeneye is omitted on the basis that it's not considered a "Rare game" so much as a game that was developed by Rare. It does seem odd to be celebrating Rare's success without one of the most important and successful games to come out of the studio, but we get Perfect Dark instead and that is both a more interesting and varied game, and with its alien sidekick called Elvis, more indicative of the Rare house style.
Indeed, what's most impressive about experiencing so much of the studio's output in one sitting is how consistent that style has been over the decades. It's hard to think of another studio, anywhere in the world, with such a singular body of work across such an impressive timespan. Rather than game developers, I found myself realising that Rare arguably has more in common with animation powerhouse Cosgrove Hall than any fellow game studio.
That's especially notable when you come to the troubled changeover period after Rare was bought by Microsoft. Fans tend to see this as the slump period, with Grabbed by the Ghoulies a particularly awkward gear change (ever self-deprecating, the company pokes fun at its perceived failure by stuffing dustbins in Banjo Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts with copies of the game). Yet experienced in the context of Rare Replay, the studio's occasional wobbles are easier to enjoy. Ghoulies still has its problems, but it also has a charm and character that is almost entirely absent from the AAA console space in 2015. Only Perfect Dark Zero leans towards the generic - a flavourless sci-fi shooter that stands out even more alongside such memorable sibling titles.
Not every game has made it through the process with its dignity intact, however. Demolition oddity Blast Corps is still huge fun, and arguably works better on the Xbox joypad, but N64 stablemate Jet Force Gemini is virtually unplayable in its current state thanks to twitchy movement and weird control mapping that can't be changed at the moment. A patch that will support dual-analogue controls is on the way.
There's so much in the package that it's easy to overlook just how nicely the package itself has been put together. The theatrical presentation suits Rare's oddball personality, but also allows for the chronology of the titles to be celebrated. Most of the titles are included in the initial download, while Xbox 360 titles already available via Live Arcade are automatically downloaded as separate files which can then be launched from the Rare Replay menu. If you already own, or owned, those games then any achievements earned will carry over.
It's here that Rare Replay starts to pull itself into something more than just a pile of old games. Every game offers Stamps - a sort of self-contained achievement system, running parallel to the 4000 Gamerscore already on offer, providing over 300 badges across all the games. Some can be earned just by sampling a title for the first time. Others demand you invest time and effort in the game in question.
For the smaller, simpler games at the start of the timeline, there are bonus "snapshots" - mini challenges that supply extra Stamps for completing certain objectives against the clock, or otherwise playing the game in different ways. In principle it owes a lot of Nintendo's NES Remix bundles, and is a nice way of balancing out the disparity in content between the early and later titles.
Stamps are not only a measure of how invested you are in your retro journey, they're also used to unlock bonus content. A whole suite of extra material is included, from video documentaries about the evolution and production of certain games to unreleased music and an entire section devoted to games that never got completed or released.
It's this last section that will be of most interest to fans, so of course those are the ones you need to earn the most Stamps to unlock. There's no real benefit to this linear unlock system, and it's frustrating to know that a lot of fascinating material is going to remain locked away unless you can devote hours to every game in the compilation. I'd have preferred the option to choose which content to access with the Stamps you've earned.
The bonus material also skews heavily - if somewhat inevitably - to the studio's later releases. That's not to say it's not a pleasure to see how Banjo Kazooie or Viva Pinata took shape, but the absence of any insight into the studio's formative years is a let down. Why, for example, is there no mention of the legendary Mire Mare in the unreleased games section?
And, for that matter, where are Chris and Tim Stamper, the founders of the company? They've always been famously reticent to give interviews, and left the studio in 2007, but Tim Stamper has been very active on Twitter in recent months, sharing design documents and development notes from Knight Lore. The package references the brothers a lot, both overtly and in sweet in-jokes, but having a 30th anniversary celebration of Rare without the reclusive creators who started the whole thing casts a slightly melancholy pall over the otherwise jubilant proceedings.
But there I go, playing the old "woulda coulda" card like a grumpy old retro git. There are things I would liked to have seen in this compilation, but what is included is already so stupidly, brilliantly generous that you'd have to be a complete monster not to be won over. Add in the incredibly low price - just £19.99 from the Xbox Store - and the sheer number of absolute classics steamrollers over any minor complaints you might muster. There are few games developers that could even justify such a tribute, let alone deliver it with such style. Here's hoping it marks the start of a long awaited Rare comeback.