Rare Replay's Nintendo 64 games run at 1080p
Digital Foundry analyses the Xbox One versions of Rare's classic N64 line-up.
30 games from one of the world's most celebrated developers packed into a collection for just £19.99 - Rare Replay represents remarkable value, with a range of titles spanning early Spectrum hits such as Jetpac and Sabrewulf to modern releases such as Perfect Dark Zero and Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts. One of the key selling points of the package is the inclusion of the majority of Rare's N64 line-up, with the likes of Blast Corps and Jet Force Gemini available on console for the first time since their launch in 1997. But the big takeaway is this: Rare has delivered each and every one of its N64 offerings at full 1080p resolution, though overall results are a little mixed.
Rare's strategy in bringing its N64 back catalogue to Xbox One follows two distinct approaches: where there is an existing Xbox 360 remaster, that's the version included in Replay, operating under the backwards compatibility virtual machine revealed at E3. Where there is no existing Xbox 360 work, the firm appears to have deployed an N64 emulator, running the games 'as is', albeit with a massively improved native rendering resolution.
The classic Perfect Dark and the two N64 Banjo-Kazooie titles adopt the former approach, with all three handled via 360 backwards compatibility mode. Each game gets a separate icon on the dashboard outside of Rare Replay (though they can be accessed through the collection, too), while the quality of the conversion work is identical to the original Xbox Live Arcade releases. This means we get native 1080p visuals for all three games including full widescreen support and 4x multi-sampling anti-aliasing (MSAA). Already we see an upgrade over the first release of the Xbox 360 virtual machine - there we saw native 1080p games downscaled to 720p, then upscaled back to full HD again. Thankfully, Microsoft now appears to have corrected this oversight.
Perfect Dark on Xbox Live Arcade set the standard for a modern re-release of a classic N64 title, with 4J Studios delivering a welcome 1080p upgrade along with 60fps gameplay and reworked graphics that made the original artwork more palatable for display in high definition, without compromising the original artistic vision for the game. The Banjo-Kazooie games were also given a similar treatment, though these remasters are limited to 30fps with little in the way of visual changes, outside of rendering in 1080p with anti-aliasing and refactoring the presentation to better support widescreen displays.
Performance is also identical between Xbox 360 and Xbox One with Perfect Dark offering up a solid 60fps experience that further enhances the remastered visuals and dual analogue controls - it's the definitive way of experiencing Rare's classic shooter. The use of 360 backwards compatibility mode also means Banjo-Kazooie and its sequel remain locked at 30fps, dashing any hope a performance upgrade could be on the cards. Gameplay still feels smooth and responsive, clearly delivering a firm improvement over the N64 originals. However, we feel the lack of a 60fps is a bit of a missed opportunity, but easily forgivable bearing in mind the wealth of value Rare Replay offers, the high standard of these particular conversions and the quality of the games themselves.
Blast Corps, Jet Force Gemini and Conker's Bad Fur Day have never been re-released before on any platform [UPDATE 11/8/15 11:12am - actually, Conker was remastered and expanded for the first Xbox in Conker: Live and Reloaded], and as a result haven't previously received the same 1080p remastering employed by 4J Studios. It's been possible to play these games in 1080p with widescreen support via emulation on PC for several years, which is enough to provide a lovely boost in visual fidelity over running on an N64, but never on console.
With Rare Replay, rather than manually porting each game across to provide an 'idealised' version of these N64 classics, it seems the minimal amount of work has been done in getting the games up and running on the Xbox One. We suspect emulation is used instead of directly porting over each of the games individually to the hardware, with what looks like the same baseline emulator handling all four titles. This provides purists with the original unaltered versions of Killer Instinct Gold, Blast Corps, Jet Force Gemini and Conker's Bad Fur Day, but with some basic upgrades in the form of native 1080p resolution and 4x MSAA, which allows image quality to match up with 4J Studios' previous N64 conversion work.
Polygonal elements in KI Gold benefit from 1080p rendering, with clean-looking background details. However, the upscaled 2D characters don't fare too well in comparison, appearing blurrier than we'd like to see. Perhaps an alternative 240p mode upscaled with scanlines would have worked better for this particular game, where the focus is on the characters rather than the environments.
Disappointingly, aspect ratios also remain mostly locked to a 4:3 perspective, with only Jet Force Gemini featuring 16:9 cut-scenes, whereas the Banjo-Kazooie titles and Perfect Dark were given flawless widescreen presentations via their Xbox 360 remasters. The lack of widescreen support is perplexing considering it is possible to open up the viewpoint of most N64 games via emulation on the PC, expanding the amount of detail visible across the length of our HDTV. Not all games can be successfully forced into displaying natively in 16:9, but most titles work just fine. [UPDATE 11/8/15 11:14 - Jet Force Gemini does have a widescreen mode in the options - there's a comparison image above.]
For the most part the bulk of the N64 games in the collection sensibly map actions to the Xbox One gamepad, with movement generally handled by the left stick and key actions assigned to the face buttons and triggers - in comparison with playing using an N64 controller on original hardware, the change feels natural and we have no issues comfortably settling down. However, not every game has been given the same level of consideration in this area: gameplay in Jet Force Gemini is incredibly frustrating as a result, let down by some poor button mapping choices. The N64's C button actions, which include jumping, crawling and evading, are directly applied to the right stick, making it easy to constantly pull off the wrong move during shootouts.
In terms of performance, running under emulation almost certainly rules out any potential upgrade to 60fps without additional re-writing of the original game code. While overclocking the simulated console is possible using emulation, this doesn't always lead to a boost in frame-rate as found in PC gaming, and introduces a whole host of potential incompatibilities.
Blast Corps, Jet Force Gemini and Conker's Bad Fur Day are all capped at 30fps, while Killer Instinct Gold tops out at 60fps - metrics in line with top-end frame-rates seen on the original N64 versions of these games. However, performance is limited by the original N64 code and the quality of the emulation. Both Blast Corps and Jet Force Gemini take hits into the mid-20s under load, with more complex scenes and alpha effects responsible for the drops in frame-rate. Gameplay isn't too badly affected in Blast Corps, but the resulting judder intrudes more noticeably on Jet Force Gemini gunplay, where quick responses and accuracy play a more fundamental role.
On the one hand, the variable performance is reflective of how inconsistently these titles ran on original N64 hardware, but on the other it's a shame these aspects couldn't be improved when Perfect Dark and the Banjo titles are handled so well. On top of that, we also see screen-tearing artefacts that weren't present in the original release due to the way emulation is handled. Thankfully, this is limited to the overscan area at bottom of the screen, so it's barely noticeable on most screens and completely invisible on others, but regardless, it's strange it is there at all.
Based on our tests so far, Rare Replay obviously offers phenomenal value but it's clearly a mixed bag when it comes to the consistency of how each title is handled on Xbox One. Thankfully, the quality of the actual games is mostly excellent, showcasing rewarding gameplay and ambitious design few other developers could match at the time. The poor controller mapping makes Jet Force Gemini difficult to play properly, though this isn't a problem for the other N64 games in the collection. Perfect Dark and the Banjo-Kazoozie games are clearly the standout titles here, with 4J Studios' original conversion work still holding up nicely, though obviously we would have loved to play the Banjo titles at 60fps.
The rest of the N64 line-up is less impressive, though in many ways probably more authentic to the original games in terms of their variable performance. The native 1080p presentation and use of anti-aliasing provide a higher standard of image quality, but Rare Replay's supreme value clearly comes at a cost - not everything can receive the same care and attention 4J lavished on their Xbox 360 remastering projects.
What our N64 testing highlights is the Xbox One backwards compatibility code hands in a robust showing, perfectly mimicking each game's showing on Xbox 360. The question is to what extent the virtual machine can handle more challenging fare - we'll report back on that soon as we dig into Rare Replay's Xbox 360 titles - and beyond that, let's not forget we also have all four Gears of War titles to examine in the forthcoming Ultimate Edition.