For a mere $30, gamers can enjoy over thirty years of nostalgia, wit, charm and incredible gameplay from one of gaming’s most storied and venerated studios. From the pixelated glory days of the ZX Spectrum through to the high-definition Xbox 360, Rare Replay is a compilation of Rare’s wares spanning the developer’s thirty-two-year history.
Exclusive to the Xbox One — Microsoft snapped up Rare in the early ’00s — there are thirty games crammed into the collection. Not all are on the disc, however, should you choose a physical copy. While the disc only demands 11 GB of space on your Xbox, eight titles originally released on Xbox 360 have to be downloaded to your console — such are the requirements of Microsoft’s backwards compatibility system. In total, Rare Replay will consume 50 GB of space, 38 of which you’ll need to download. You’d better have a speedy internet connection.
Once everything has downloaded and installed, however, the experience is (mostly) seamless. Rare has gone to incredible lengths with this collection, particularly on the presentation front. Boot up Rare Replay and you’ll be greeted with an all-singing, all-dancing musical number featuring dozens of characters from the company’s games, extolling the virtues of their various franchises. It’s marvellous — I watched it every time I reloaded the game, it’s that good. It also establishes nicely Rare’s theme for presenting the games: a theater, with every title contained within. You scroll through animated posters for each game, complete with unique effects and soundtracks, while clicking on a specific poster will throw giant red curtains onto the screen that then open to reveal your game of choice.
It’s incredibly slick, however the games that are pulled in from the Xbox 360 live in their own separate worlds — you can access them from within Rare Replay, but you’ll then boot into Microsoft’s emulation software for 360 titles. It’s jarring, but the ease with which you can move back into Rare Replay proper negates any ill effects.
What, though, of the actual content of the thirty games Rare and Microsoft has procured for this collection? Well, for starters, don’t get your hopes up for all of Rare’s Nintendo classics to be here. Donkey Kong and GoldenEye are nowhere to be found, as Nintendo still owns their rights, while dozens of other titles from Rare’s glory days on the NES are missing. Replay is, instead, more of a highlights reel of the studio’s history, rather than an exhaustive list of their accomplishments. Unfortunately, however, that highlights reel is a little faded in places.
Nostalgia fans will get the biggest kick out of this bundle. There are several classic titles here that helped define the ’80s gaming scene. Rare’s first game, when they were known as Ultimate Play The Game (there’s a mouthful), was released back in 1983. Jetpac was critically acclaimed in its day. It’s deceptively simple gameplay — an astronaut floating around a small stage, collecting pieces for his rocket as aliens attack him — was bolstered by a steep difficulty curve, while graphics and sound effects were highly polished (for the time). Or take ’84’s Knight Lore, a game that used isometric 3D to such a great effect that it helped popularize the genre and spawned a number of clones, while its use of a “world” rather than fixed stages was notable at the time. And of course there’s Sabre Wulf, whose beautiful graphics, maze adventure gameplay and punishing difficulty made it a fan favorite and sales success in ’84.
However, what these games all have in common is the simple — and, yes obvious — fact that they are now very dated. With the possible exception of Jetpac, the first seven games in Rare Replay are incredibly frustrating to play. Yes, they’re difficult, but it’s their outdated control schemes that really hinder progress. Knight Lore, in particular, is almost unplayable, given the inaccurate placement of its character within its isometric world. There’s also a notable amount of repetition in gameplay themes — while each game has its own unique identity, several simply blend together in their core objectives. Of course, it’s harsh to critique them from a modern viewpoint after decades of refinement and progress, but it should be noted that — while fun to drop into — there’s only a small minority who will actually complete these first few games.
Get into the NES-era, though, and things improve remarkably. These titles have stood the test of time, both in graphics and gameplay. R.C. Pro Am and its sequel feel remarkably tight as you throw its R.C. cars around tight bends and over jumps. Cobra Triangle is an utterly magnificent game that constantly switches from racer to combat to puzzle to challenge as you pilot your speedboat — its graphics also scream “Classic NES.” Solar Jetman is as difficult as ever, but keeping your spacecraft aloft — with its surprisingly mature physics — feels as good as it did in 1990. Then there’s Battletoads. Famed for its punishing difficulty, crude humor, incredible graphics and constantly changing gameplay, if you’re one of the few skilled/mad enough to complete it, you have my infinite respect. (I’ve always preferred Battletoads Arcade, which is included here — it’s a more direct beat-em-up game, but it feels stupendously good to play despite releasing over twenty years ago.)
Really, Rare should be commended for all of these releases. They’re presented in 1080p, with every crisp pixel squeezed into the original 4:3 aspect ratio (a stylized border surrounds each game to fill out widescreen displays, though this can be deactivated). For purists, there’s even a CRT filter that can be activated to mimic the style of old CRT televisions. It’s eerily accurate, complete with lined screen and bulging sides, but most will ignore it. Rare has also included an auto-save feature and a VCR-style “Rewind” feature that lets players go back seven seconds in each of these sixteen titles, offering a redo of sorts for any egregious errors.
Clearly a lot of effort went into making these old games look their best on our modern, Ultra HD screens. However, the same can’t be said of some of Rare’s N64 efforts. Yes, there’s 1080p resolution and the Xbox’s anti-aliasing and extra oomph means that they’re looking their best — but Rare has made no attempt to update graphics or improve textures, something that really stands out in 3D games far more than on 2D NES titles. These are the games as we all remember them, but that’s not always a good thing.
Killer Instinct Gold’s 2D sprites looked blurry and outdated back in 1996, so there’s no reason this fighting game will look any better in 2014 stretched across 50-inches (your size will of course vary). Plus, the original SNES game was much better (your opinions will of course vary). Blast Corps, however, remains as explosively good fun today as ever. Tasked with clearing the route for a nuclear missile carrier, you’ll bash your way through buildings, bridge gaps and jump between vehicles. Sure, the destruction engine is rudimentary by today’s standards, but the gameplay keeps it feeling fresh.
Jet Force Gemini, meanwhile, is a reminder that you don’t have to go back to the ’80s to find a truly unusable control scheme. Just like on the N64, I gave up almost immediately on Rare’s third-person shooter. Back in ’97, its control scheme was obtuse by modern shooter standards, but mapped to the Xbox One it just doesn’t work. Whereas the original used the N64’s C buttons, Rare inexplicably mapped the same controls to the right analogue stick — you’ll be flicking up to jump and down to crouch, while moving left and right causes you to strafe. So many complained that Rare have patched in “Modern” controls — the thumbsticks now (mostly) do what you’d expect.
Another title than could really benefit from a patch is Conker’s Bad Fur Day. Rare’s glorious masterpiece, which mixed toilet humor, curse words and cartoon gore into one incredible game featuring a hungover squirrel is still an excellent game to this day. However, this is the N64 version, not the Xbox remake, Live and Reloaded. That means 4:3 presentation, inferior graphics and wonkier controls (who the hell inverts the camera’s horizontal plane?). Sure, the Xbox version was heavily censored, but its controls and its widescreen, updated graphics made it a much easier game to play. It’s still a great game to play through, but why Rare couldn’t remove the censoring on the Xbox version and chuck that in instead is anyone’s guess.
It’s all the more jarring given that Banjo-Kazooie, Banjo-Tooie and Perfect Dark all benefitted from HD remakes for the Xbox 360, so they look pretty incredible compared with the other N64 games. Perfect Dark in particular is gloriously crisp, but all three shine in their own ways. The Banjo games are quintessential Rare, crammed with humor, strong gameplay and loveable, memorable characters.
Jump into the Xbox era and opinions will start to split. Nintendo refused to buy Rare in the early ’00s, which led to Microsoft grabbing the studio for its first-party lineup. Since then, gamers have been divided on Rare’s output, but it’s here that the Rare Replay bundle really starts to shine in terms of value. If you ignore the utterly average Grabbed by the Ghoulies (as most did when it launched in 2003), there are seven high quality titles to play and enjoy. From action beat-em-up Kameo to the polarizing Perfect Dark Zero to another Banjo-Kazooie game, there’s a lot on offer here.
A personal favorite is Viva Piñata. Rare’s farm simulation swapped animals for colorful piñata, each with their own candy-themed name. It was slow, designed for casual gamers, tasking players with turning a barren piece of land into a beautiful, piñata-filled farm. I loved it, playing the first one and its sequel (also included) for many hours on the 360. Almost a decade later, Viva Piñata is still disarmingly pretty, while its relaxing gameplay is the perfect way to end a long session with some of Replay’s many other titles.
It did, however, throw up one of several issues I had with Rare Replay. With this many games, it was never going to be perfect, but it’s the separation of the Xbox 360 titles that can cause the most issues. Jumping into 360 games could occasionally lead to crashes, or freezing, or the games not loading properly. Viva Piñata failed to detect my profile properly the first time I played — I spent two hours cultivating a garden only to realize I couldn’t save my progress. A couple of times, particularly in the N64 titles, sound effects or audio also wouldn’t play. These occurrences have been rare (excuse the pun), but that’s the tradeoff for this much content.
Speaking of which, for true Rare fans — and there are lots of them — they’ve has included several documentaries and features about the studio and the makings of certain games. They are fascinating insights into the history and backstory of some of your favorite titles, but are oddly locked behind a unlockables system. Playing games and completing certain milestones in the games of Rare Replay will unlock stamps (there is also 10,000 Gamerscore on offer. Yes, really). These stamps will gradually unlock the various featurettes about Rare. Sure, it encourages you to play through the games, but for some of the older, more frustrating titles, one wonders how many will be denied the chance to see a film because they couldn’t be bothered battling with Knight Lore’s controls.
There’s still more to enjoy, though. Outside of the main games, Rare has included Snapshots. These are bite-size chunks of the first 16 titles, offered as individual challenges for players to compete against one another in, including playlists, offering rapid challenges in quick succession. Battletoads’ Turbo Tunnel section is transformed into an endless runner, for instance, while Jetpac will task you with killing a certain number of aliens within a time limit. Snapshots are an interesting addition, one which undoubtedly adds to each game’s replay value — it also offers quick, drop-in gameplay to those who don’t want to commit to playing through a full game.
Really, though, that gamers have this much choice is nothing short of astounding. Sure, not every game is a classic and some are nigh on unplayable (curse you, early control schemes), but there’s still an incredible wealth of content here. What’s more, Rare is polling gamers to see if there are any other games they’d like to be released as DLC, so there could be even more to play in the near future. That it’s all available for $30 is perhaps the sweetest part of the deal — Microsoft could have easily charged full price and it would still be something of a bargain. For a dollar per game and with hundreds of hours of potential gameplay, Rare Replay is an incredible dedication to one of gaming’s greatest developers.
Watch Rare’s glorious musical number below:
Rare Replay is available now on Xbox One.
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