I’ve always wondered, what if Nintendo bought Rare in the Gamecube era? What would Nintendo’s dire sales for the Gamecube have been like? What would Nintendo be like today?
That’s what I’m gonna write about today, in the form of an alternate history document. We can pretend some other universe had all this happen, and imagine the fallout side effects. Good and bad both. But of course, as an alternate universe story, I’m gonna make it kind of best-case scenario. It’s more fun that way.
Introduction: Why I’m Writing About What if Nintendo Bought Rare
(We’re not to the What if Nintendo Bought Rare alternate history part yet. This is the background)
Obviously, as a major Banjo-Kazooie megafan, the sale to Microsoft hurt my heart from childhood and still hurts today. But it hurt me even more after I read Emily Rogers’s excellent A Dolphin’s Tale: The Story of Gamecube. I’m gonna use a ton of quotes from that in this intro–it’s my canonical text for this whole alternate history. It’s a Greek tragedy where just a few bad choices sent everything in the wrong direction. Microsoft never needed Rare, and never did well with it. Nintendo very much needed Rare, and the Gamecube suffered greatly for it.
But it still happened. Practically inevitable, yet easily remedied.
In the beginning of the Gamecube’s development, Rare was still treated as one of Nintendo’s core studios. They owned only 49% of the company, yet gave it special treatment above even Nintendo’s closest partners like HAL, Intelligent Systems, and Game Freak.
From the article:
On May 4, 1999, the internet swirled with rumors from an IGN article describing Nintendo’s next gen console code-named Dolphin. The source told IGN that four companies (Rare, Retro Studios, EAD, and NST) already had development kits and were currently in the process of creating software for the Dolphin.
Retro Studios, a brand-new investment inspired by Rare’s N64 success, also got access, but very quickly went awry–Retro ended up costing Nintendo a ton of money and lots of canceled games. That we got Metroid Prime out of it was a miracle. EAD was all of Nintendo’s internal teams, while NST, Nintendo Software Technology, was their Redmond-based American team, who ended up releasing Wave Race Blue Storm and 1080 Avalanche. They were a reliable B-team studio up until the Wii era, where everything fell apart.
That’s to put into perspective how important Rare was. Alongside two ambitious smaller studios, EAD and Rare were the Gamecube’s anchors.
Asked how he felt about Rareware’s E3 2000 lineup, Shigeru Miyamoto said that Rare had been very influential on the industry, and they had encouraged Nintendo to experiment with more genres.
“We are very thankful that Rare is creating such great games. Rare has done a lot for the gaming industry. All of Rare’s games are 3D, but they all have very different gameplay. They are encouraging us to create a different genre of games that departs from 3D adventure gaming,” said Miyamoto.
The problem was, Nintendo grew impatient with Rare. Turmoil in the studio, some staff leaving, and delayed games, got everything in a mild frenzy. Something totally workable, just a studio in transition. But it helped cause the problems we got.
Nintendo’s George Harrison talked dirty about Rare after the fact, saying:
Rare didn’t deliver a single game for us at the launch, when their history had been to make some really great games for us in the past. That hurt us, and it led us into this gap of titles, starting after the launch and lasting for about seven or nine months until Mario Sunshine came out. Consumers want consistency. They would never buy a DVD player that had only one or two good movies a year; they want consistency and variety, and we’re trying hard to make sure that’s not only resolved for the GameCube, but as we go into the next system.
That’s a huge problem Nintendo has had with every console since, except the Wii. The 3DS was barren for a year, the Wii U was in dire shape for two, the Switch had a huge gap between Zelda and Mario Odyssey. I wish they learned from their mistakes with the Gamecube!
The turmoil at Rare happened at the worst possible time. Other companies wanted to buy it out, while their project delays annoyed Nintendo. So, in the end, Nintendo President Yamauchi Hiroshi passed up a buyout–the bidding war pushed the price too far up. Especially for a studio that released only three games from 2001-2002!
We modern people see what a stupid decision that was. Rare was worth the extra $300-400 million Nintendo would have to spend, obviously. But Nintendo back then just wasn’t the kind of company who took kindly to its Western developers… Screwing over Argonaut Software, domineering over Nintendo Software Technology, and letting their DMA Design partnership die… It’s just sad. Rare was a victim of that, and also caused it in large part.
That left a huge hole in the Gamecube for the rest of its run. Nintendo published four new titles in the Gamecube launch window. Then (in America) just 7 in 2002–just 11 for the entire first year-and-a-bit. 9 in 2003, 11 in 2004, 11 in 2005, and 4 in 2006.
Those are EXTREMELY LOW numbers for Nintendo. When it comes to Nintendo, first-party tentpole releases are vital, and they just didn’t have the juice in the Gamecube era.
Comparatively, the Wii released (in America) 17 new games in the first year-and-a-bit, in addition to an avalanche of Virtual Console releases, Wii channels, and other new features. The Wii U, which horribly lacked tentpole releases early on, actually had 20 first-party releases (too bad zero of them were system-sellers).
By letting Rare go, Nintendo made a horrible mistake. They lacked releases. Their attempt to pivot to mature, core gamer titles flopped–remember Geist?–and their third party partnerships didn’t pan out–remember the Capcom 5? If not for the Wii’s mammoth success, Nintendo wouldn’t be around anymore, I suspect. Not as a hardware developer.
And Rare, of course, didn’t fare well under Microsoft. Canceled projects out the wazoo, mass staff departures, middling games that took years to come out… Rare made a financial comeback in the Xbox 360 age, but the damage was done and the studio changed forever–not in the way any of us wanted.
But What If Nintendo Bought Rare??? I Want to Know!!
Fine, fine I’ll get to it.
I just wanted to fill you in on the background of it all.
Rare being sold was clearly a bad thing for Nintendo, and probably for the whole gaming industry. If Rare had made a smoother transition without the corporate and console shift, with a stable financial backing from an admittedly overbearing parent company, they’d undoubtedly still be putting out plenty of interesting, cool games on Nintendo platforms. They’d have released so many fun projects on the Gamecube, Wii, 3DS, and beyond. Maybe they could have saved the Wii U haha just kidding. (But what if)
So my alternate history will cover that scenario, of what if Nintendo bought Rare. It’s not one butterfly effect, but it starts with a couple minor shifts around the same time that snowball into a very different Nintendo, one I think is all-around better. It’s not a strictly realistic alternate history, but hey that’s always gonna be the case with these things.
Remember, most of the stuff below is fictional!
So let’s start our What if Nintendo Bought Rare timeline…
Part 1: A Shifting Stage
It was late 1998 and development was wrapping up on the game Super Smash Brothers for the Nintendo 64. Director Sakurai Masahiro had managed to cram twelve characters from all across Nintendo’s core N64 franchises. He even managed to get in Ness to help promote the upcoming Earthbound 64!
Then he got a call from up on high. That new Banjo-Kazooie game’s a big hit. Add that bear and bird to your crossover game. A Rareware franchise, which meant extra legal hoops to jump through, but hey, same thing with Pokemon and Earthbound and Kirby. Problem was, the game was really close to finished! Sakurai was a maniac developer but there was no way he was getting a whole new character made and tested THAT quickly.
So, with just a couple weeks to go, the team threw together a hidden unlockable stage called Mumbo’s Mountain. Banjo and Kazooie made a cameo appearance running around in the background, but the stage was mostly just a big sloped mountain with some platforms and some Mumbo magic effects now and then–the secrecy of it was the main appeal.
What a cool secret… It could only be reached by players dedicated enough to play the game for 20 hours! (When the tournament scene came around, this requirement quickly became the bane of Smash players around the world…)
This small feat bolstered Banjo-Kazooie’s status as one of Nintendo’s new flagship franchises–and made fans constantly question why the company only gave it a hidden stage! Playground rumors just would not go away in every elementary school in the developed world.
With Nintendo officially canceling the N64DD in early 1999, they were in pretty bad shape for the N64’s closing years–they had to shift most N64DD projects to the Gamecube which would leave their current console a little dry for a while. But thanks to Banjo and Pokemon’s big successes in 1998, they had new franchises to milk for all it was worth.
Banjo-Tooie, a sequel, was greenlight immediately, and so was a Gameboy Color spinoff that would end up being canceled. There was also interest in an animated series–Pokemon localizer 4Kids negotiated for the rights, although nothing came of it–and a Corocoro Comics manga series ran for a few years, although not localized into English until the 2010s.
With the Gamecube set to release in 2000 and Rare getting the development kit in 1999, a major decision was made–Banjo 3 would be developed simultaneously with Banjo-Tooie, harnessing the Gamecube’s power to try and make a Fall 2001 release, while Banjo-Tooie would push the N64 to its limits in 2000.
In the meantime… Rare was still releasing quality titles left and right, but things were getting a little less steady. So many simultaneous projects left teams competing with each other, and Conker’s Bad Fur Day was going off in its own strange direction that looked sure to be a commercial flop. Perfect Dark was delayed, and Donkey Kong 64 was so jumbled it required a whole new peripheral to function! Jet Force Gemini fared surprisingly well, as a bit of an oddball release–its Gameboy Color port ended up being one of Nintendo’s worst-ever published titles, though.
Rare sure had some turmoil in these times. Goldeneye and Perfect Dark developers fled the studio to form Free Radical, who immediately inked a deal to make a Playstation 2 shooter called Timesplitters. And the Stamper Brothers who owned the majority stake in Rare were really antsy to sell. Nintendo still hadn’t approached them, and their buyout deal deadline was not too far away.
Part 2: Launch Window (What if Nintendo Bought Rare)
By the time Banjo-Tooie came out to rave reviews and great sales in late 2000, Rare was already in the midst of a growing bidding war. Activision and Microsoft were looking to buy up the company, and the price tag was getting big. Meanwhile, delays at Nintendo meant the Gamecube had been pushed to late 2001, and a good launch was critical–the Playstation 2 was already a huge success and they needed to get out the gate better than ever.
The problem was, Rare wasn’t quite ready either. Banjo 3, now titled “Banjo-Kazooie: High-Flying,” had hit development snags, and was being rebuilt around a vehicular combat focus–people loved the first-person shooter elements of Banjo-Tooie, and more multiplayer is exactly what they wanted to deliver–essentially a companion to their handheld project Diddy Kong Pilot, a title that strangely never saw the light of day.
Rare had so many projects in development on the Gamecube:
- Banjo-Kazooie: High-Flying
- Perfect Dark Zero
- Conker’s Other Bad Day
- Star Fox Adventures: Dinosaur Planet
- Grabbed By the Ghoulies
- Donkey Kong Racing
- Quest: Elements of Power
- Untitled Racing (no details known)
- Untitled Action (rumored to be a Battletoads game)
On the Gameboy Advance, they had several other projects in the works as well, including:
- Perfect Dark (GBA port)
- Donkey Kong Coconut Crackers
- Diddy Kong Pilot
- Donkey Kong Country (GBA port)
- Killer Instinct
- Banjo-Kazooie: Grunty’s Revenge
- Sabre Wulf
- Untitled Action (also rumored to be a Battletoads game)
(Yoast says I haven’t used the keyword for this article enough, so here it is haphazardly thrown in: What if Nintendo Bought Rare)
However, almost none of these projects were even close to ready in time for the 2001 launch, and that left Nintendo high and dry. Their other Western partner, Retro Studios, similarly missed out on every launch window opportunity; their four games in development were all canceled and Metroid Prime became their sole project. But Rare wasn’t willing to make those kinds of decisions, and the company went into very clear chaos.
All this while the company’s relationship to Nintendo had become increasingly fraught–it might have spelled doom for them if not for a few saving graces near the end of 2001.
For one, a crafty small team of just a handful of developers had been working on the side on a small N64 game called Perfect Dark Velvet for about a year now. It was basically an expansion pack to the original game, with new maps and missions and multiplayer content, set to be the swan song to that console along with Earthbound 64 (now titled Earthbound Family), which after yet more delays finally came out to thundering obscurity in December 2001 and never even got a PAL release. But Nintendo funded this small side-project enough to get a simultaneous Gamecube release!
Perfect Dark Velvet is a mostly bare-bones game, lacking the original game’s deep content and focused mainly on a few core stealth gimmicks. The multiplayer modes are plentiful, though, and that helped the game stand pretty well against that year’s juggernaut on Xbox known as Halo. It turned out that Nintendo made a really good bet with this one, because it marked a step towards a future fast-approaching the world of gaming.
Rare got another consolation prize with Super Smash Bros. Melee; this time, Banjo and Kazooie were finally featured as a playable fighter, and other Rare games were featured as unlockable trophies. Lucca from Earthbound Family couldn’t say that much…
The inclusion led to more than a little complaining online. Where was Banjo-Threeie? Why did it have such a fleshed-out Space World 2001 demo but nothing else since?
Well, restarting the game and restructuring the whole thing around vehicles and aerial exploration probably explains things, but none of that had been announced at the time. Developers at Rare weren’t even sure they’d still be working on the Gamecube in a year, after all.
In the end, Rare managed to squeak out just two games for the holiday season in 2001. Perfect Dark Velvet, and a Killer Instinct port for Gameboy Advance that played better than Super Nintendo but not quite as well as the arcades. Nintendo was not pleased.
But the Gamecube launch window ended up being pretty healthy, in the end. From the U.S. launch date in November 2001 to the end of the year, the console had quite a few major releases:
- Luigi’s Mansion
- A brand-new IP from Miyamoto Shigeru
- Wave Race: Blue Storm
- Perfect Dark Velvet
- Simultaneous release for N64.
- Star Wars: Rogue Squadron II: Rogue Leader
- Super Monkey Ball
- A brand-new IP from Sega of all companies
- Pokemon Concert!
- A $50 tech demo
- A brand-new IP from Clover Trick
- Super Smash Bros. Melee
- Quickly became Nintendo’s best-selling game on the system
- Released the same day as Earthbound Family, also developed by Itoi and released simultaneously on the GBA. A brand-new IP
If there was anything to theme the Gamecube’s launch over everything else, it was that Nintendo was willing to throw anything against the wall and see if it stuck. They knew they had a rough transition from the difficult final years of the N64 and the ill-fated N64DD, so they let their various studios go wild producing whatever the hell they wanted, it felt like.
This would be a recurring feeling throughout the Gamecube’s lifespan. Because… Dang they did some weird-ass stuff.
(Yoast says I haven’t used the keyword for this article enough, so here it is haphazardly thrown in: What if Nintendo Bought Rare)
Part 3: The Buyout
It was a tough time for Nintendo. Sales were bad, and their flagship titles were struggling; even Super Mario Sunshine felt like interest was flagging, while Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker had annoying controversy online about the art style.
But their two Western studio investments were an even more stressful situation. Retro Studios was in desperate need of bailing out, with a horrible CEO who wasted money and (allegedly) hosted porn sites on company servers. Rare was a studio that now worth a fortune million thanks to a bidding war between Activision and Microsoft, but also delivering just about zero major projects for the Gamecube.
What were they going to do?
Well, for Retro Studios, the answer was easy. In early 2002, they paid $1 million to gain full control of the studio, sent their Japanese team in, and kicked asses until Metroid Prime came out in Fall 2002 and blew everyone away.
For Rare, though, it was a much tougher situation, not least of which because the Stamper Brothers actively wanted to sell the company. President Yamauchi, just about to retire, was against the massive price tag. But Rare had been so ingrained in Nintendo’s history, and the company held so much promise, that in the end, the bullet was bit.
What if Nintendo bought Rare? Well, they did in May 2002, shelling out the remaining 51% of the company for over $400 million.
At the time, this was considered an absurd event, covered in the business press as another sign of Nintendo’s weakness. They had to buy out one of their most important studios for an eye-popping sum, right as the Gamecube was in the middle of flopping and Rare had released just one game for the whole system. Did they even have the cash to burn on something like that? New President Iwata Satoru expressed great confidence in the company, but also acknowledged that there would be a necessary reorganization.
That, of course, meant project cancellations and even more delays. Another staff exodus came about, expectedly.
Conker 2 and a few untitled projects were first on the chopping block. An unannounced Killer Instinct 3 stalled out early around this time as well. Donkey Kong Racing, a title originally set for holiday 2001, was so far delayed that in the end it too fell to cancelation; it overlapped too much with Nintendo’s own Mario Kart Double Dash, in corporate eyes (this would later prove ironic). That would be the last Donkey Kong game Rare worked on for quite some time, as internal EAD teams took the reins on for projects like Donkey Konga.
All in all, 2002 was another quiet year for Rare, and Nintendo’s purchase did not seem wise in quick retrospect. Banjo-Kazooie: Grunty’s Revenge on Gameboy Advance hardly satiated fans while their quick-and-dirty Gamecube port of Jet Force Gemini mostly went under the radar. Star Fox Adventures: Dinosaur Planet did well, but under expectations.
2003 would have to drastically change things. Fortunately Rare was in exactly the position to pull it off, with several projects nearing completion all at the same time. They just had to hope Nintendo’s own follies didn’t mess things up.
(Yoast says I haven’t used the keyword for this article enough, so here it is haphazardly thrown in: What if Nintendo Bought Rare)
Part 4: Games and Gimmicks
Nintendo’s own follies did, in fact, mess things up a fair bit.
2003 was Nintendo’s big year in general. If the Nintendo Gamecube flopped, they might go the way of Sega, they feared. Selling the system at a loss wasn’t helping sales and 3rd party publishers were jumping left and right. So that’s why their big flagship release was…
An incredibly expensive creative software suite???
The Mario Studio was Nintendo’s repurposed reimagining of their canceled Nintendo 64DD plans, and one of the most ambitious software suites any game company has ever produced.
It was an art program, a tool, a toy, and it was all cross-compatible in surprisingly deep ways.
It existed across hardware, across software, across mediums. Nintendo wanted to create their very own metaverse, as we’d call it today, and the only problem was the infrastructure wasn’t there and the gimmicks were far too powerful to grab anyone’s attention.
The main Mario Studio software came bundled with a mouse and keyboard, plus the four main Mario Artist games: Polygon Studio, Paint Studio, Minigame Studio, and City Studio–originally called Sim City 64 until Nintendo lost the license. This was well over $100 to begin with, but the features were robust and extremely interesting. With the Gamecube internet adapter and a monthly subscription, users could also access the online community and even download new content–although memory cards sure filled up fast, an issue Nintendo never adequately solved (the GBA memory cartridges were a very sorry thing I must say).
The Gameboy advance also received its own camera, complete with an SD card slot, to assist the creative process. It was, too, very expensive. Nintendo, being itself, also included E-Reader functionality with Mario Studio, and allowed offline users to gain access to certain downloadable content, sold in randomized card packs. They even had kiosks in Blockbusters and Wal-Marts and other stores that let you add extra data to your memory cards. Even some arcade games on the Triforce system had this!
It was genuinely impressive stuff for 2003. But it required expensive hardware and software, a Gameboy Advance, multiple peripherals, and a lot of patience. It was never going to catch on, even if it is lauded by its cult fandom today.
This isn’t a write-up of the Mario Studio software suite, since Rare made no dedicated software for it. But it made a huge impact on the Nintendo Gamecube, and Rare felt the force of the impact.
The Mario Studio series was a novelty to most and too expensive for Nintendo’s ambitions. Similar games fell prey to this same problem of too many peripherals, like Mario Party-e, Legend of Zelda: Four Swords Adventures, and Sonic Heroes’s robust cross-platform Chao Garden mode. But none of those were trying to be Nintendo’s big new endeavor.
Several big Nintendo titles throughout 2003 and 2004 were heavily advertised to be compatible with Mario Studio’s creative features, but in the end very few players actually took advantage of all of it, and it ended up being a waste of resources. Today, we look at it fondly. But back then, it was yet another business disaster. After the Rare purchase in 2002, it genuinely seemed like Nintendo was on the precipice of disaster.
Here’s a small selection of some of the games that worked with Mario Studio:
- Despite releasing in 2001, the game had secret code that allowed Mario Studio players to design a special habitat for their virtual pets. Forward-thinking Iwata as always.
- This obscure 2002 release, similar to Cabbage, has an entire level editor function that can only be accessed with Mario Studio Polygon. It’s bizarre and very welcome.
- Animal Crossing E+
- A total re-release of Animal Crossing from the year prior, but with a whole slate of minigames–including ones that can be designed and manipulated in Mario Studio. Then there’s the E-reader functionality which is much more pointless.
- Pac-Man VS.
- With Mario studio, players could design their very own mazes for this multiplayer Pac-Man game, as well as their own player and enemy avatars. It felt more like on-disc DLC than actual connective content, though.
- Super Monkey Ball 3
- I’m not clear on what this one actually adds, sorry; I haven’t played this yet and there’s not much information online.
- Stage Debut
- Nintendo’s flagship game that took advantage of all the Mario Studio software to let you… start an idol music group? I don’t understand this??
Not many games allowed for importing Mario Studio content into the game, as it took a lot of extra work. Many games, though, allowed EXPORTING that content into Mario Studio, and that’s where Rare came in very strongly. Nearly every game they released on the Gamecube had some sort of connections.
Just with a save file on hand from games like Perfect Dark Velvet and Jet Force Gemini allowed players to gain exclusive materials in the Mario Studios games–some costumes for the City Studio characters. That was included on-disc, though. It was future-proofed first with Star Fox Adventures, where the game itself had an export feature hidden in a secret room halfway through the story. 3D models of Tricky and R.O.B. would be downloaded to the player’s memory card, then when the player opened up Polygon Studio, these 3D models would be fully functional and ready to go.
And, of course, Banjo-Kazooie: High-Flying had connectivity too. Some hidden Stop-and-Swop eggs throughout the game that finally, FINALLY had a purpose, but only if you took them to Mario Studio where they turned out to be a whole pack of pre-made City Studio worlds complete with Rareware characters and objects. In some ways, it was a whole hidden sub-game. Just exploring the beautifully crafted levels took up countless hours of my childhood.
But that’s all a little pointless if the actual Banjo-Kazooie 3 wasn’t amazing. Thankfully, it was… Well, in retrospect at least.
As one of the Gamecube’s flagship 2003 releases alongside Mario-Kart: Double Dash!! and Star Wars: Rouge Squadron III, Banjo had to deliver a finely crafted experience, and had to deliver exactly what fans had been craving for 3 years straight.
Rare didn’t deliver the cutesy collect-a-thon platformer people asked for. Instead, it gave us something a little different–basically the mantra of the Nintendo Gamecube at this point.,
Rare wanted to experiment with genre, and it wanted to bring that PS2 energy to the Gamecube in their own way. After successes like Jak & Daxter, Grand Theft Auto III, Ratchet & Clank, it decided that going hard on combat was the best way to make Banjo-Kazooie stand out in a sea of platformers. Well, the sea on the Gamecube since it drifted much closer to what was already on the PS2 and Xbox.
Nintendo canceled the Conker sequel, but Rare kept the spirit alive in part through this excellent game. The collect-a-thon elements were still there, and Banjo and Kazooie still jumped around big hub worlds. But everything was much more vertical. The collecting was less notes and jiggies, more machine parts and neat weapons. It was very easy to create different vehicles for combat, with over 150 combinations of parts and weapons to make for varied gameplay styles. But everything was destructible and wore down, so players would never be able to just stick with one set the whole game. It made traversing the huge vertical worlds fun, and it made fighting the enemies even more fun.
Many players didn’t like this at all. Reviews were notably a little more mixed than either of the two originals. But the game sold like hotcakes, especially after everyone realized the multiplayer–splitscreen or LAN–was fantastic. I personally played well over 100 hours just fighting with my friends or exploring the huge maps together. This proved to be the model for Nintendo to come later on.
Rare released a few other games in 2003. First up was Kameo, a well-liked adventure game that disappointed a little saleswise but had great critical acclaim. The lack of connectivity to Mario Studio and the lack of multiplayer made the Nintendo enthusiasts and GameFAQs crowds annoyed, but the thing worked just fine. I’m pretty sure they just didn’t like a girly main character.
There was also Arc Angel, a futuristic racing combat game that had the very unfortunate timing to release just a couple months before F-Zero GX, Kirby Air Ride, and Mario Kart Double Dash!!, which all outperformed it in speed and polish. Arc Angel was a lot more of a car combat game in that Twisted Metal vein, but it had just enough racing to make people confused why Nintendo would release four games in the same genre in one year. (They would repeat this same process in 2004 and 2005…)
Lastly, the 2D platformer GBA game Sabre Wulf was so promising that Rare cooperated with fellow UK studio Traveller’s Tales and actually got it up-ported to the Gamecube for a simultaneous release. Nintendo wasn’t one for multi-console releases like many third-parties, but Rare would increasingly lean in that direction. I don’t know why this was one they chose for that process, but hey, we got Sabre Wulf on the Gamecube somehow.
Three Gamecube releases in one year–in addition to a couple throwaway GBA releases–still pales in comparison to the output Rare had in the N64 era. But it was enough to stop the self-inflicted gut wound Nintendo brought on itself with the Mario Studio series.
Part 5: Shooter Advent (What if Nintendo Bought Rare)
Shooter games absolutely exploded in the 6th Generation of video game consoles. The culture increasingly revolved around friends getting together around the couch, or increasingly online, and blasting each other with all sorts of weapons.
Halo, of course, was the crown jewel of the Xbox for its two years. The PS2 had Timesplitters. The Gamecube, well…
The main two shooter games on the console were Perfect Dark Velvet and Jet Force Gemini, basically two N64 ports released to minimal fanfare. 2001, 2002, and most of 2003 would remain that way.
Banjo-Kazooie: High-Flying, as well as Kirby’s Air Ride and Mario Kart Double Dash!!, proved that Nintendo players were also starving for multiplayer content. Co-op, versus, asymetrical, it didn’t matter. Video games were suddenly all about multiplayer.
Nintendo of America had a new Vice President of Sales and Marketing, Reggie Fils-Aime. And this guy was about to turn the Gamecube around as best as he could. While already preparing for the next console, he made sure 2004 and 2005 would be the Era of the Multiplayer Shooter.
You saw cooperative and competitive multiplayer in nearly every single Nintendo release in 2004 and 2005. I’m talking Metroid Prime 2. Pikmin 2. Geist–a very barebones one. Custom Robo. Star Fox Assault–secretly wonderful, gotta be honest. Battalion Wars. Too Human. The utterly ridiculous Donkey Konga series with its bongo peripheral controller was heavily marketed as a big multiplayer release, although it was a bit of a hard sell with the fucking bongos.
Nintendo even paid extra money to get exclusivity for Timesplitters 3–and integrating its custom map tools with Mario Studio, obviously, because that’s what Nintendo was like.
Most of this, though, was side-modes and sub-games within primarily single-player experiences. Thanks in part to Mario Studio’s big push, and the phenomenal success of Phantasy Star Online, though, Nintendo allowed Rare to pursue one of their greatest ambitions… Releasing a whole third-person shooter MMO!
That was Quest: Elements of Power.
It had a high-fantasy setting, popularized by recent cultural phenomenons Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter, and sharing more than a little DNA with fellow Nintendo releases Kameo and Baten Kaitos. But unlike what people expected, it wasn’t a big scope RPG, but rather a multiplayer shooter with persistent worlds and organic maps all linked together with a central hub world where players could interact with NPCs and join their friends’ games.
It was an MMO, sort of, but not quite how we’d see them today, since it wasn’t anywhere near seamless. It was mostly just a normal multiplayer shooter with a hub world. And that’s fine, honestly.
Quest: Elements of Power was timed perfectly to release in October 2004, one month before Xbox’s Halo 2 stormed the world, and one month before Metroid Prime 2, which was Nintendo’s other big holiday release. The online focus of the game cut into sales, for sure, but it was popular enough to keep the Gamecube afloat for a while and make sure its online functionality wasn’t a total joke.
Somehow, it was just popular enough to convince Nintendo to port over the experimental social RPG HomeLand, which you can rest comfortably knowing was a major financial bomb but with a cult playerbase to this day. That’s just what the Gamecube was like.
Quest helped Nintendo survive the Gamecube, and helped make sure the Rare purchase wasn’t a complete waste. Now they had a whole new IP to take advantage of with their next console, which was going to be much bigger, much more advanced–well, not technologically, but we all know how that went.
The rest of Nintendo’s Gamecube releases in 2005 and into 2006 were pretty quiet. All the biggest titles had launched already, and now Nintendo was putting all focus on the DS and the upcoming Wii. There were some really weird releases here and there, but mostly it was quiet.
The DS launch was pretty spectacular; its launch slate of 15 games included heavy-hitters like Super Mario 64 DS and Rayman DS, along with smaller titles like Echo-Delta DS and Drill Dozer. Rare’s only launch window release was an upgraded port of Donkey Kong Coconut Crackers, but they would soon be contributing quite a lot.
First in 2005 was a near-perfect port of all three Donkey Kong Country games, previously released for Gameboy Color and then Gameboy Advance. It’s something we take for granted today, but back then people were ecstatic for the ability to play three decade-old Super Nintendo games on the go, all on one cartridge, with no compromises.
Then at the end of the year was their biggest title, which went along those same exact lines– Banjo X.
It’s an enhanced remake of Banjo-Kazooie and Banjo-Tooie put together, with a lot of fourth-wall breaking about the characters being forced to redo the same story over again. Rare and Traveller’s Tales worked together to make exactly the kind of game nostalgic fans would go crazy for. Better graphics, connective tissue between the games, and increased focus on the multiplayer minigames with a new Mario Party-type mode. The bird and bear were finally back in a true collect-a-thon adventure! Just, uh, the exact ones from the Nintendo 64!
The big gimmick here was that it launched simultaneously, same-day, on the Nintendo DS. The DS version, co-developed by Nintendo Software Technology, put even more emphasis on the first-person shooter elements and made that a core part of the experience. The game was stripped down considerably in terms of graphics and scope, but it was still the same core experience.
Banjo X on DS was also one of the launch titles for the Nintendo DS Wi-Fi Connection service, along with Mario Kart DS and Animal Crossing: Wild World. It was exclusively done for the shooter elements, but that was more than enough for handheld gamers in 2005 and 2006.
Part 6: Other Studios (What if Nintendo Bought Rare)
Nintendo’s relationship with Rare was an important factor in the Gamecube not completely sinking the company, and in some way, Nintendo gained much closer ties to other third-party studios, especially Western ones.
Its purchase of Retro Studios paid off well, with the acclaimed Metroid Prime Trilogy, its purchase of Monolith Soft paid off with the respectable Baten Kaitos games. The American branch Nintendo Software Technology was increasingly involved in developing fun new games, and Silicon Knights released three solid Gamecube titles with a promising future ahead of them for the next generation–although that sure didn’t pan out.
Most exciting was Factor 5, who had already been pushing the Gamecube hardware to the limit in its early years, and was among the first developers to work on the Wii. They had an exciting fantasy-dragon action game called Lair in the works–although it would be canceled in favor of their Kid Icarus reboot–and a Rogue Squadron Trilogy ready for the Wii launch. Factor 5 would be acquired by Nintendo pretty soon after, as we know, so it was exciting to see them do their thing.
We also can’t forget about Sega. The studio was so fragmented after closing its hardware division, but largely stuck to Nintendo and released so many classic games. Sonic Adventure, Phantasy Star Online, Jet Set Radio Future, Crazy Taxi, Shenmue II, Super Monkey Ball… And we can’t forget Billy Hatcher, an out-of-nowhere smash that got a sequel, a racing arcade spinoff, and a cartoon all in a three-year time span. Sega would prove to be a valuable third party partner going forward.
Nintendo always had a rocky relationship with third parties… Their Resident Evil exclusivity deal infamously got blown up after Resident Evil 0 sold poorly and Resident Evil 4 would be released on PS2 and Xbox on the same day as Gamecube. Other publishers stopped releasing titles on the system altogether after not enough support and poor sales. It’s been a long cycle of publishers currying favor with Nintendo and then dropping support, and in return Nintendo has often treated some third parties with favortism then ignoring them at other times. Rare, in some ways, helped Nintendo change this attitude.
That would be very important for the release of the Nintendo Wii in 2006. A bold new console with a unique controller that would change the world.
Part 7: Revolution (What if Nintendo Bought Rare)
The Nintendo Wii was Nintendo’s do-or-die moment. The Nintendo DS was doing exceptionally well, and the Gameboy Advance was winding down its historic run, but the Gamecube struggled massively. What was Nintendo going to do but try as hard as possible?
With an absolutely stellar selection of launch window games, the Nintendo Wii rocketed into store shelves on November 19th, 2006. I was there. So was Rare, with a deluge of titles in the first few months.
Just from first-party titles and major third party exclusives, the Nintendo Wii’s launch window was stellar:
- Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess
- Simultaneous Gamecube launch
- Wii Sports
- Wii Play
- Excite Truck
- Wave Race: Free Ride
- Developed by Nintendo Software Technology
- WarioWare: Smooth Moves
- Fire Emblem: Path of Radiance
- Enhanced Gamecube port
- Baten Kaitos Origins
- Simultaneous Gamecube launch
- Phantasy Star Online Saga
- Enhanced Gamecube port
- Cabbage Garden
- Developed by Rare, Brownie Brown, and Skip Ltd.
- Mario Studio Wii
- Enhanced Gamecube port
- Rayman Raving Rabbids
- Red Steel
- Perfect Dark Zero
- Developed by Rare
- Star Wars: Rogue Squadron Trilogy
- Enhanced Gamecube port
- Quest: Cascade
- Developed by Rare
- Enhanced Gamecube port
- Sonic and the Secret Rings
- Super Monkey Ball: Banana Blitz
- Developed by Rare and Nintendo Software Technology
From November 2006 to about February 2007, Nintendo and its closest partners (mainly Sega and Ubisoft) flooded the market with huge quality games. Most of these would become family room staples for years to come; all of them would have long-tail sales stretching on until the Wii’s official discontinuation in 2013. Sure, seven of these were Gamecube ports, but they found a whole new audience on the instantly popular Wii.
Rare’s Wii Launch Games (What If Nintendo Bought Rare)
As for Rare, they had four games in the launch window. Battletoads on launch day, Cabbage Garden in early December, Perfect Dark Zero in January 2007, and then Quest: Cascade in early March 2007, right at the window where I’m not sure if it actually counts as launch window anymore. It’s up to your judgment.
Battletoads was a pretty stripped-down affair, a remake of the original NES game and its Gameboy sequel with fancy hi-res 2D graphics and (thank the stars) optional motion controls. Easy difficulty options made it much more popular than anyone was probably expecting. This probably should have been a Wiiware game, not a $30 retail release, except Wiiware didn’t come out until 2008.
Next was Cabbage Garden, a collaboration of various studios who were trying to come up with the Wii’s “Killer App” for Nintendo. They succeeded, as should be very obvious to anyone reading this. The story of how Itoi Shigesato and Tim Stamper met and ended up creating the sequel to Gamecube’s Cabbage is a very long one better served with its own article.
The short of it is, Nintendo had been developing a virtual sim concept for a long time; Cabbage was a Gamecube launch title and didn’t meet their expectations, but it was definitely a big goal. After Mario Studio’s ambitions flopped and Nintendo’s DS project Nintendo Dogs was scrapped, Rare and Itoi, along with collaborator studios, developed a much more focused, much more fun virtual pet experience. And thanks to the Nintendo DS’s easy connectivity with the Wii, they could launch a DS companion on the very same day. People took their pets out on walks, raised them for all sorts of minigames, and endlessly debated how the very complex breeding system.
The key, I think, wasn’t just the Wii and DS link. It was the way you could check on your pets without the disc even in with the Wii Channel. The way you could send your Miis in to interact with them. The way you could intricately build up your garden and show it off online. Cabbage took a lot of what people love Animal Crossing for, but in a whole new, very Rare execution.
People got EXTREMELY ATTACHED to their pets. I remember my Grandma talking about hers for hours at Thanksgiving in 2007, while I was mostly trying to play Link’s Crossbow Training.
Perfect Dark Zero was a bit of a disappointment, although any competent shooter for the Wii was welcome back then (sorry Red Steel). It had been worked on for six whole years at that point and it came out just being… decent? Rare had made so many shooters by then that it was a bit underwhelming.
Then, last but certainly not least was Quest: Cascade, the sequel to Elements of Power. This one focused significantly more on co-op and story mode than before; Rare probably thought it would be more exciting with online play if the game was more about fighting large monsters and bosses together rather than tearing each other apart in small arenas. It differentiated itself well from the Halos and Resistances on Xbox and PS3, and predicted the rise of Monster Hunter a few years later. This is often seen as the black sheep of the series, especially because it didn’t let you carry your character’s progression data from the Gamecube to the Wii! Why, Nintendo, why! But hey, people still love this.
All four of Rare’s launch window games were hits, but they would pale in comparison to the rest of 2007, often considered the best year Nintendo has ever had.
Part 8: Nintendo’s 2007 and 2008
Rare started off 2007 pretty strong with the ever-popular Quest: Cascade and the mildly underwhelming Perfect Dark Zero. But boy did they have more stuff coming.
2007 for the Wii saw so many gargantuan classics that it boggles the mind. Metroid Prime 3, Billy Hatcher 3, Mario Galaxy, Timesplitters 4, Fire Emblem Radiant Dawn, Battalion Wars 2, Kid Icarus Uprising, Zack & Wiki… Super Smash Bros. Brawl! But we can’t forget Rare’s own Banjo-Kazooie: March of Klungo, often considered the crown jewel in the entire series.
Rare, along with Traveller’s Tales in co-development, made a game simultaneously tight and focused, as well as expansive and immersive. That’s generic video game reviewer terminology right there, ain’t it. Sixteen worlds to explore, all linked together in interesting ways, but each of them a very quick experience you can plow through in a sitting. The game became super popular with speedrunners, obviously, but it became very popular with general audiences, too. Families loved the asymetrical co-op options, racing to complete jiggy objectives together, while older audiences appreciated the top-notch humor.
It’s a constant, unceasing argument of which one was better–Super Mario Galaxy or Banjo 4. According to reviews, it was, of course, Super Mario Galaxy. But both of them, released just a couple months apart, stand as some of the best releases the Wii ever put out.
Rare was also busy putting out free updates and paid DLC packs to Quest: Cascade and Cabbage Garden, expanding those games over time, and also filling up that tiny Wii flash memory like crazy. Mario Studio Wii, while significantly pared back in ambition from its Gamecube predecessor, was also a major contributor to the storage capacity gobbling. It got bad enough that future reissues of these games would come with their own USB flash drives, just in case you didn’t own an SD card–it was a weird time in 2007.
Also on Wii, Rare released a new version of Arc Angel, a new version of Blast Corps, and its own Yoshi platformer called Yoshi’s Lick–don’t even try to think about how that one went down for annoying middle schoolers–and all three did respectably, especially with the gimmicky Wii stuff, but none are particularly beloved today… Even still, it’s insane to look at something like Blast Corps Demolition Crew as a 2-million-copy selling behemoth. The magic of the Wii, though, let that happen anyway.
Yoshi’s Lick is notable though because it’s the first time Rare ever handled a core Nintendo IP other than Donkey Kong–and the first core Nintendo IP on a console since Donkey Kong 64, eight years earlier!
That would soon change quite a lot.
In 2008, with Mario Kart Wii and Wii Fit tearing up the charts, Wiiware also kicked off and gave people their first taste of tiny digital titles. Rare joined the frenzy with plenty of smaller titles–extremely small, with that 40MB size limit–including Jetpac Refueled, Sabre Wulf Resurrected, and Atic Atac Arcade, three remakes of classic ZX Spectrum games.
Later on, they also released several entries in the Tiny Cabbage series–they consisted of different minigames your pets could participate in directly, and grow into even more different forms if they could master each one. For $5 games, ten in all, they basically snuck a whole party game in under our noses, which they promptly acknowledged on the Wii U with the disc-based re-release. If not for Nintendo, I bet these would have been a hit on iPhone.
It was interesting to see how much Rare was diving into the casual gaming space all of a sudden. Sure, the Wii had its adult titles too–Disaster Day of Crisis comes to mind–, and it would get more and more of those later on. But Rare’s action game output quickly disappeared, because their first retail game of 2008 was Wii Champions.
Yeah, another Wii minigame collection with Miis. It was sort of based on that Ninja Warrior, Takeshi’s Castle style format, with a big progressing obstacle course and a bunch of strange tasks. Sometimes motion controls, sometimes normal controls, sometimes balance board, depending on the mode. And, a one-off rarity for the Wii, not even advertised, up to 8 players, with four using the Gamecube controllers and 4 using the Wii remotes! The absolute chaos this causes is worth a try, at least once in your life. Although the Wii Mini model got rid of the Gamecube ports, so be careful.
Then they released Wii Sports Revolution, which was a direct sequel to the original Wii Sports but focusing more on the extreme sports side of things. These games were incredibly fantastical and silly, especially the skateboarding mode which was basically a parody of Tony Hawk. I’m not sure why Nintendo saw the need for this when Wii Sports Resort was around the corner, but oh well.
Later on, in what was a huge media frenzy at the time, Rare made the Goldeneye Remake, faithfully recreating the original N64 game with updates. It was a big deal then, but I’m not sure it’s that worth talking about, honestly… It’s just an enhanced port, just like Rare has done so many times with less popular titles. A bunch even on the Wii!
Rare’s Wii output, honestly, sort of ground to a halt. Yes, this studio was HUGE by 2008, but it felt like they hit a certain threshold and became utterly unable to keep up. Quest and Cabbage probably held them up a lot, and so did their burgeoning DS game library.
The DS isn’t quite as interesting; it’s mostly ports and reimaginings. But it was stuff like Diddy Kong Racing DS, Perfect Dark DS, and Mickey Speedway DS. All welcome ports of classic games, but it’s not as interesting today as it was back then. We’re spoiled! I think these tend to be the definitive ways to play the games, yeah, but they’re stuck on the DS and Nintendo doesn’t seem interested in bringing them back anytime soon.
There were reports around this time that Nintendo was beginning another cycle of promoting edgy, adult-focused games like it did in 2004-2005 for the Gamecube. The Nintendo E3 2008 press conference was one of the most infamous sorry displays in the event’s history. It probably did more damage to Nintendo’s brand than anything else in the last 20 years. So we can understand they wanted to pivot hard to keep core audiences from drifting away.
That’s how we got projects like The Conduit, Dead Rising, The Grinder, MadWorld, Spyborgs, Sin & Punishment 2, and Grand Theft Auto Vice City Stories–that last one felt like an insult at the time, comparing it to Grand Theft Auto IV, but whatever. Games that tried to be more adult, T or M rated instead of E or E10+. The true target audience was more the 14 or15 year olds who were drifting over to Xbox 360 and PS3 than actual adults, but that’s gamer culture of the late 00s for you.
Most of those games didn’t really hit, but many of them are looked at fondly today. They served their purpose in keeping some teens around, playing Quest: Cascade and buying its expansion discs when they’d otherwise be going towards Call of Duty: Modern Warfare and Halo 3: ODST.
Of course, Project H.A.M.M.E.R. also released in 2008, to thunderous, well, applause I guess. It was good! People liked the story and world, I guess. The gameplay was a bit stale, especially compared to stuff like Sin & Punishment and MadWorld, but it’s nice to have a new IP from Nintendo.
Monolith Soft, Nintendo’s growing Tokyo-based subsidiary, also emerged from this with the fantastic Xenoblade Chronicles.
Rare, as well as its cousin Western studios Factor 5 and Retro, were surely working on more adult stuff too. Would this finally mean Conker’s Other Bad Fur Day? Could Quest 3 be releasing soon?
Well, no. Rare was extremely busy with ambitious projects that would take years to release, but their corporate hands were tied with a rope made of gold–the casual projects were just way too lucrative.
Wii Sports Resort released in 2009 along with the Wii Motion Plus adapter that enhanced games in a big way. Games like Red Steel 2 actually worked the way the developers intended, and Quest: Cascade got the first-ever online patch for a Wii game to support it. Rare co-developed the game along with Nintendo EAD and it made a boatload of cash for everyone involved.
Soon, we got Wii Sports Frenzy in 2010. Wii Play Motion in 2011. Wii Champions Plus in 2012. Rare had fallen into a trap of half the studio working on Quest and Cabbage, the other half working on these highly lucrative Wii games, and the other half… Oh wait.
So what was Nintendo going to do about Rare’s cash cow franchises?
Part 9: Banjo Studios (What If Nintendo Bought Rare)
Banjo Kazooie: March of Klungo was a phenomenon, and so was Banjo X on DS for that matter. The whole world felt Banjo fever and Nintendo was caught completely off-guard. Crap!
Rare had so many projects juggling around that they couldn’t manage to churn out a slew of sequels and spinoffs. So a new endeavor was needed. To meet that, Banjo Studios launched in 2009.
Banjo Studios existed as a licensing subsidiary, a joint venture. Nintendo owned 50%, while Cartoon Network Studios (itself a subsidiary of Warner Bros.) owned 25%. Traveller’s Tales (later bought by Warner Bros.) owned 15%, and Itoi Shigesato’s Hobonichi owned 10%.
Banjo Studios took the most famous IP of Rare–Banjo-Kazooie and its very close IP relatives Cabbage, Conker, Sabre Wulf, and Timber, and put them under the purview of the joint venture. Nintendo ultimately owned the franchises, but Banjo Studios would be in direct control. That includes games, merchandise, adaptations, and other rights issues.
This is some corporate minutia you might not be weird enough to understand. I’m sorry about that; business is confusing. But Nintendo’s done this many times. Warpstar, the joint venture that controls Kirby. Pokemon Company, whose headquarters was one floor above one of my jobs once. Flagship made many classic GBA games as well as most Resident Evil games. Marigul made some of Nintendo’s weirdest titles. And NDCube and Monolith Soft were both joint ventures at one time.
I’d say though this is most similar to Flagship. Banjo Studios was created by several independent companies… But its output consists solely of Nintendo-owned properties (and Cabbage which Itoi owns 50% of). The others are just collaborators.
But this meant a central controller to manage two of Nintendo’s core franchises, Banjo and Cabbage (and their spinoffs). While Rare was so busy with other projects, they could collaborate with other studios to help deliver new projects faster.
Traveller’s Tales quickly leapt on board with Banjo 5, first as a co-developer and then a full developer later. Two other future Warner Bros. subsidiaries worked on spinoff projects as well. Rocksteady Studios, developer of 2009’s acclaimed Batman: Arkham Asylum, and Monolith Productions, developer of F.E.A.R. (not to be confused with Monolith Soft, sorry), both were announced for Banjo-Kazooie related titles. Q-Games, a 2nd party partner of Nintendo, and Factor 5, fresh off the masterpiece Kid Icarus Revelations, were also working on Banjo Studios titles at different points, although details are still murky.
This wasn’t Nintendo’s usual style. Nintendo usually had partner developers constantly pitching projects and going through long approval processes. The pleathora of failed projects from Retro Studios makes that clear. But Banjo Studios was a top-down approach, hiring out studios under Nintendo and WB to work on projects the Banjo Studios creatives controlled. The goal was a yearly release cycle, much like Call of Duty or Assassin’s Creed or old Spongebob platformers. And they worked their best to meet the demand. We can debate the effectiveness of this approach, but it created a very different culture.
It would be a while before a substantial game would release from this endeavor. Banjo Pilot, a simple racing game for DS, would be up first, co-developed by Monster Games of Excitebots fame. But nothing else for a while.
Before the big new games, an animated series. In the 90s, 4Kids tried making one, but the pitch was rejected. A lot of crappy CGI animated spinoffs existed in the 90s. So I’m mostly glad that never happened… We’d probably never have gotten the 10s version.
This time, Cartoon Network Studios would create it directly, which led to much higher quality. Banjo-Kazooie: The Series launched in 2010 to great acclaim. Yeah, this was in the midst of the CN Real insanity (cw: TV Tropes), but Cartoon Network was also really pulling itself out of the mud around this time. Endeavors like Young Justice and Thundercats didn’t land, but shows like Banjo and Adventure Time really took off.
For how obsessed I was with Banjo 3 and 4 as a kid, I’m surprised I never really took to the cartoon. I guess I didn’t meet the demographic. Entering high school, growing out of my cartoon obsession… It just came out at exactly the wrong time for me to be a huge fan. Afterwards, watching it as an adult after college? Hilarious stuff, and a genuinely gripping story in later seasons. But there’s no way I would have gotten into it back in the early 2010s.
After Last Story developer Artoon folded, its successor Arzest developed this hidden gem–one of the last original Nintendo DS games, titled simply Banjo-Kazooie RPG. Its early 2012 release probably doomed it saleswise, but its retelling of the story of GBA game Grunty’s Revenge was excellent and the combat system was extremely fun. Some say Itoi Shigesato had a direct hand in this game for all its Earthbound influence, although he’s never spoken about it.
A final Wii release from Banjo Studios was better-received, saleswise. A multiplayer focused, combat-heavy first-person shooter called Banjo vs. Conker came out in late 2011 and served as a technical swansong for the console from Monolith Productions. It nearly made up for the stagnating Quest: Cascade, which hadn’t received any extra content since 2009! Nintendo players too poor or young to get an Xbox 360 ate this one up in droves–even if Conker’s adult humor got toned down significantly.
When the 3DS launched in March 2011, it completely lacked the software we’ve come to expect from Nintendo. Almost a complete reversal from the Nintendo Wii’s fantastic launch and the Gamecube’s surprisingly robust roster. Nintendo partner Vitei released Steel Diver, while Monster Games released Pilotwings Resort, and HAL Laboratory released Eggerland Kingdom. Aside from that… not much else.
A few months in, Nintendo released a trio of 3D N64 re-releases. From Q-Games, Star Fox 64 3D. From Grezzo, Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time 3D. And from Banjo Studios and Traveller’s Tales, Banjo X 3D–an enhanced port of the DS version, not the Gamecube version, unfortunately.
I don’t know why three delayed ports were targeted as the killer app for the 3DS, or why they released it in such dire state. Why not wait for November 2011 so Super Mario 3D Land and all these ports could come out in the launch window? It’s bizarre, and probably hurt the 3DS long-term.
Banjo Studios would be fine, but Rare itself was noticeably absent from the 3DS’s first year. Despite being freed from direct oversight of Banjo and Cabbage, its development speed was still nothing like its past self. That was a trend that would continue throughout the early 2010s.
Part 10: Doldrums (What if Nintendo Bought Rare But Misused It In the Wii U Era)
First off, people (perpetually online teenagers) were sort of angry at Rare by the Wii U era. They had all these classic franchises, and did very little with them. Games like Kameo, Perfect Dark, Jet Force Gemini, and Conker barely existed anymore. Quest and Cabbage had faded into the background as Wii-era fads. With Rare making so many Wii Sports games, gamers were upset.
The 3DS launch didn’t inspire much confidence in Nintendo. The Wii U launch went just as poorly.
The main launch titles for the console were:
- New Super Mario Bros. U
- Released one month apart from New Super Mario Bros. 2 on 3DS! Why! The worst business decision ever made augh!
- Nintendo Land
- A gimmicky party game to show off the Wii U’s capabilities, and secretly pretty depthy. The minigame worlds included Mario, Animal Crossing, Zelda, Metroid, Banjo, and Luigi’s Mansion, as well as some surprising inclusions like Balloon Fight and Kameo.
- Brothers in Arms: Furious 4
- A frenetic multiplayer co-op focused World War 2 shooter inspired by Inglourious Basterds, exclusive to the Wii U until it flopped hard and got ported to PS4 and Xbox One.
- Custom Robo XX
- A multiplayer-focused robot builder from Project Sora, created by Sakurai Masahiro of Smash Bros. fame. A simultaneous Wii U and 3DS release.
- Game & Wario
- A gimmicky party game (which I love).
- …And a bunch of ports from Xbox 360 titles.
I’ll argue that every single one of these games was at least good, and some even great. But they weren’t system sellers, not even close. The Wii U took some time to take off, but by the time it did, it was too late. Where were Smash Bros., Mario Kart, Cabbage, Wii Sports, Zelda, Quest? None of these had even been ANNOUNCED except for Mario Kart and Smash Bros., and those only in passing. Banjo 5, Rayman Legends, and Pikmin 3 were supposedly imminent, but kept getting delayed way past the launch window.
All of Nintendo faced major pressure, and the Wii U was eventually written off and ignored in favor of the Nintendo Switch. But it had so many special games that are still great today. I for one loved Hyrule Warriors, even if it was just dumb fun. The HD remasters of Wind Waker, Twilight Princess, and Star Fox Adventures were all very welcome as well. And nothing beat dicking around on Miiverse while watching anime on the TV.
Rare’s first release for the Wii U was originally supposed to be a true Jet Force Gemini sequel, but it was scrapped when Nintendo thought it overlapped too much with Custom Robo XX–crazy how overlapping games mattered to them when they released four mainline Mario platformers in 24 months. Instead, their first game was Wii Sports Club, a freemium title released in late 2013. It had most all the fun sports from the previous four Wii Sports titles, but you had to pay separately for each one, and it was digital only for the first year. Sigh, Nintendo.
And aside from Wii Sports Club… That was it. No other main Rare releases for the first two years.
Apparently, at this time, Nintendo’s various studios and partners were all deep into ambitious projects, Rare included.
- Retro Studios, silent since Ice Climbers Return on the Wii in 2010, was working on some unknown 2D platformer;
- Nintendo Software Technology, mostly working on Mario vs. Donkey Kong spinoffs, had its first big Project H.A.M.M.E.R. successor in the works;
- Factor 5 had been hired by Disney and Lucasarts to make the next Rogue Squadron game;
- Next Level Games was deep into Luigi’s Mansion 2 for Wii U;
- Arzest was working on a brand-new Princess Peach title for 3DS;
- Q-Games was working on an experimental adventure game called Tomorrow Children;
- Intelligent Systems had a new untitled Fire Emblem, and the crossover RPG Fire Emblem x Quest;
- Banjo Studios had Banjo 5, Cabbage 3, and several unannounced titles;
- HAL Laboratory had a slew of Kirby titles all for 3DS;
- Monolith Soft had its eventual Xenoblade Chronicles X and another canceled 3DS project;
- PlatinumGames had Wonderful 101, Bayonetta 2, and Vanquish 2;
- Monster Games had Diddy Kong Racing Transformed, its most ambitious racer yet;
- Mercury Steam had the Metroid 2 remake for 3DS;
- Game Freak had the next Pokemon generation, obviously, but also a mysterious game known only as Project Town;
- Project Sora had Super Smash Bros. 4;
- Nintendo EAD had a new 3D Mario game and a new open-world Zelda game, both in development for many years, as well as the surprise hit Splatoon.
That’s a LOT of studios, all working on projects that could each become the Wii U’s killer app.
And yet, none of them did.
Most never came out for Wii U and skipped it for Switch. Some didn’t come out at all, like Factor 5’s Rogue Squadron continuation and Fire Emblem x Quest. The Wii U ended up having a bunch of hits come out in Fall 2014, then practically nothing for the next 2 years. Nintendo had a mega software problem on its hands, transitioning to HD games poorly and fumbling the ball on modern online gaming practices.
Gone were the day of Wii Channels and disc-based expansions. DLC and social media integrations ruled the day.
Rare, for its part, finally released Quest: Descend in Fall 2013. It finally allowed players to take their character progression from the Wii to Wii U seamlessly, thanks to Nintendo Account integration. But the game didn’t have the robust online community that the first two had. Probably due to being stuck on the Wii U…
Banjo 5, developed by Traveller’s Tales and Rocksteady, came out in Fall 2014. Titled Banjo-Kazooie: Egg City, it was conceived as a soft reboot of the series, turning the connected platforming worlds into a seamless open-world environment. Basically, a kid-friendly Grand Theft Auto title. It felt a lot more like a Lego game than a Banjo game at times, and the experimental vehicle-building elements were roundly rejected by fans. Fans, as they are wont to do, called it the death of the franchise. People still speak of Egg City with disdain, in the same breath they curse The Last Jedi and Metroid Prime Federation Force. It’s actually a really good game though. Seriously, try it.
The Banjo-Kazooie movie came out in 2016, a Japanese production by Marza Animation Planet. But it lacked the British humor the series was famous for… And just sort of sucked in general. I’m surprised it didn’t kill off the Mario movie that took forever to come out.
Cabbage 3, due to growing ambition, never came out on Wii U. Itoi took an increasingly hands-on approach with the game, unusual for the time, and that caused the development cycle to spiral.
Rare, inspired by the huge success of games like Xenoblade Chronicles and Mass Effect, started working on a project of their own that they thought could match the scope. It was pegged for a late 2016 release date right at the start, but everyone knew it would be deep into the next console generation.
Instead, their only other major release this generation was a 3DS hybrid card game/RPG called Animal Advent; think a cross between Dokapon Kingdom and Hearthstone, and you’re sort of on the right track. Rare’s answer to Puzzles & Dragons, basically. It was weird, addictive, and exactly what made the 3DS work so well. And it’s tragic it sold like crap.
Nintendo’s growing pains. Rare’s doldrums. It was tough being a Nintendo fan circa 2015. What if Nintendo bought Rare? Well, we sure found out it’d be a whole lot of nothing. Not even a bunch of mediocre sports games.
It felt like Rare was being mined for IP, while the studio itself languished. Recognizable franchises being carted off to other studios and Rare itself doing whatever.
One prime example of that was the rebooted Killer Instinct game. A digital-only release at first by Lab Zero Games, it was supposed to be a low-key affair. Nintendo’s first foray into season-based online games with a drip-feed of content. But it turned out to be pretty dang popular, and lasted all the way into the Switch with three entries so far. No involvement from Rare, though.
By the time the Switch came out, though, these doldrums would get figured out, thankfully.
Part 11: The Modern Rare, A Changed Nintendo
And now we arrive at the newest generation, the Nintendo Switch. It’s been a phenomenal success, the best-selling console since the PS2. And Rare finally found its footing, its place in the Nintendo ecosystem.
The Nintendo Switch actually had the smallest notable launch window library of any recent Nintendo console:
- Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild
- Simultaneous launch on the Wii U
- 1-2 Switch
- A $50 tech demo
- Mario Kart 8 Deluxe
- Wii U port
- Quest: Deep Descent
- Wii U port, now co-developed going forward by Monolith Productions
- Croc HD
- An HD remaster of Croc and Croc 2, old PS1 platformers. Argonaut Software founder Jez San teamed up with Q-Games to create this project and wow it was actually pretty great.
- Super Bomberman R
- An exclusive Bomberman that… sorta sucked but that’s OK
- I didn’t forget this, neither should you.
The games were mostly Wii U ports, similar to the Wii launch that rereleased many Gamecube games. But since nobody actually bought the Wii U, this gambit worked perfectly. Mario Kart 8 and Breath of the Wild are two of the best-selling games ever, and all seven of these launch titles sold several million copies each.
Rare’s first-year releases were mostly smaller games meant to supplement the juggernaut releases like Mario Odyssey, Splatoon 2, Xenoblade 2, and Kid Icarus Legends. Probably repurposed 3DS titles, honestly, but that’s okay. They had Yoshi’s Cookie Factory, a puzzler. Sabreman Stampede, a free-to-play Monster Hunter clone. Spirits of Heaven, a new IP virtual board game. All budget titles that filled in the release gaps.
It wasn’t huge, but that’s OK. We all got distracted by the big unvieling, the Rare project they’d been working on since 2012…
Dream: Land of Giants!
I don’t know how or why they did it, but holy crap, it worked so well. This ancient canceled game from the Super Nintendo, resurrected into one of the finest adventures I’d ever played. Remember the absolute mania when this thing came out? I put in 30 hours in a single week. For me as a working adult, that’s crazy.
Rare as a studio wasn’t the manic-paced frenzy it once was. But when they released games like Dream, that’s totally alright! Quality totally rules over quantity these days.
Since Dream came out in early 2019, Rare itself has released three games–
Conker’s Other Bad Day, a major wish-fulfillment game for fans and staff alike. It briefly rivaled Splatoon for the competitive shooter of choice on the Switch;
Kameo 2, pretty solid, along with the original Kameo getting its lovely HD remaster;
And that surprise out-of-nowhere smash, Donkey Kong Country 4. TWENTY YEARS after Donkey Kong 64, we finally got a brand-new game with Retro Studios and Rare working together. Honestly perfect.
Aside from those, Cabbage Wonders and Banjo-Kazooie: Breegul Bonanza both bounced onto the Switch to huge success, although had Rare became increasingly distant from both properties by then. Quest: Deep Descent continues to be an online success, although it’s never escaped its niche. Killer Instinct 3 continues to be popular today, even after the scandals and drama with Lab Zero Games that delayed it for so long. And Jet Force Gemini 2 is FINALLY slated for release next year with Nintendo Software Technology at the helm.
Even while Rare has slowed, Rare’s many franchises have branched out considerably. It’s harder than ever to separate Nintendo and Rare, even if there’s still some small official difference. I’m sort of glad for that. Rare gets to make two masterpieces with Dream and DKC4, while other studios can continute their legacy elsewhere.
For Donkey Kong Country’s 30th anniversary in 2024, Rare released the utterly insane gimmicky online game Donkey Kong Country 99, and while I don’t know if it’s GOOD, it’s definitely one of my favorite games to play these days. That’s pretty much the last thing we’ve seen out of Rare. As long as Nintendo doesn’t do something insane and stupid again, which is never a guarantee, I’m confident in any project that studio will put out.
What if Nintendo Bought Rare: The Complete Games List
Here’s the list of all games developed by Rare or based on Rare franchises, from 2000-2024. [This is a WIP because I probably made some mistakes in here]
What if Nintendo Bought Rare: The Games
|Mickey’s Speedway USA||N64||2000|
|Donkey Kong Country||GBC||2000||Port|
|Donkey Kong Country 2||GBC||2000||Port|
|Jet Force Gemini||GBC||2000|
|Mickey’s Speedway USA||GBC||2001|
|Donkey Kong Country 3||GBC||2001||Port|
|Perfect Dark Velvet||N64, GCN||2001|
|Cabbage||GCN, GBA||2001||Developed by HAL Laboratory and Noise; “Development Assistance” credit to Tim Stamper|
|Star Fox Adventures: Dinosaur Planet||GCN||2002|
|Donkey Kong Coconut Crackers||GBA||2002|
|Banjo-Kazooie: Grunty’s Revenge||GBA||2002|
|Jet Force Gemini Plus||GCN||2002|
|Banjo-Kazooie: High Flying||GCN||2003|
|Sabre Wulf||GCN, GBA||2003||Co-developed by Traveller’s Tales|
|Donkey Kong Country||GBA||2003||Port|
|Diddy Kong Jam||GBA||2003||E-Reader pack-in title|
|Mario Studio: City Studio||GCN||2003||Developed by Nintendo EAD; “Rareware Scenario” development|
|Quest: Elements of Power||GCN||2004|
|Donkey Kong Country 2||GBA||2004||Port|
|Donkey Kong Coconut Crackers||DS||2004|
|Donkey Kong Country 3||GBA||2005||Port|
|Timesplitters 3: Future Perfect||GCN||2005||Developed by Free Radical; “Arcade Mode” development|
|Donkey Kong Country Trilogy||DS||2005|
|Banjo X||GCN, DS||2005||DS version Co-developed by Nintendo Software Technology|
|Wave Race Advance||GBA||2005||Co-developed by Nintendo Software Technology|
|Cabbage Garden||Wii, DS||2006||Co-developed by Brownie Brown, Skip Ltd., and Hobonichi|
|Battletoads||Wii||2006||Co-developed by Nintendo Software Technology|
|Perfect Dark Zero||Wii||2007|
|Quest Channel||Wii||2007||Nintendo Wii Channel for news, community, and DLC updates|
|Banjo-Kazooie: March of Klungo||Wii||2007||Co-developed by Traveller’s Tales|
|Arc Angel: Risen Racers||Wii||2007|
|Blast Corps Demolition Crew||Wii||2007||Co-developed by Nintendo SPD|
|Yoshi’s Lick||Wii||2008||Co-developed by Nintendo SPD|
|Sabre Wulf Resurrected||Wiiware||2008|
|Atic Atac Arcade||Wiiware||2008|
|Wii Sports Revolution||Wii||2008||Co-developed by Nintendo EAD|
|Diddy Kong Racing DS||DS||2008||Port|
|Quest: Cascade – Elements Pack||Wii||2008||Expansion disc|
|Project H.A.M.M.E.R.||Wii||2008||Developed by Nintendo Software Technology; “Multiplayer Development” credit|
|Super Smash Bros. Brawl||Wii||2008||Development assistance credit; developed by Sora Ltd. and more|
|Captain Rainbow||Wii||2008||Developed by Skip Ltd.; features Rareware characters Fulgore, Jetman, Timber, Captain Blackeye|
|Tiny Cabbage||Wiiware||2009||Ten separate minigame releases.|
|Perfect Dark DS||DS||2009||Port|
|Quest: Cascade – Mega Map Pack||Wii||2009||Expansion disc; co-developed by High Voltage Games|
|Quest: Cascade – Villains Pack||Wii||2009||Expansion disc; co-developed by Monster Games|
|Wii Sports Resort||Wii||2009||Co-developed by Nintendo EAD|
|Banjo Pilot||DS||2009||Developed by Monster Games|
|Cabbage Pocket Paradise||DS||2009||Co-developed by Brownie Brown|
|Digger T. Rock: The Mystic Tunnel||Wiiware||2010|
|Mickey’s Speedway DS||DS||2010||Port|
|Wii Sports Frenzy||Wii||2010||Co-developed by Nintendo EAD|
|Banjo-Kazooie: The Series||TV||2010||Aired on Cartoon Network (2010-2015) and Boomerang (2016-2017).|
|It’s Mr. Pants||DSiware||2011|
|Wii Play Motion||Wii||2011||Co-developed by Nintendo EAD, Arzest, Chunsoft, Good-Feel, NDcube, Skip Ltd., and others|
|Streetpass Mii Plaza||3DS||2011|
|Timber’s Excellent Adventure||DS||2011||Developed by Grezzo and Traveller’s Tales|
|Banjo vs. Conker||Wii||2011||Co-developed by Monolith Productions|
|Banjo X 3D||3DS||2011||Developed by Traveller’s Tales|
|Cabbage Pocket Paradise 2||DS||2011||Co-developed by Brownie Brown and Arzest|
|Banjo to Kazooie no Kaado Faitaazu||Arcade||2011||Developed by Arzest and AQ Interactive|
|Wii Champions Plus||Wii||2012|
|Banjo-Kazooie RPG||DS||2012||Developed by Arzest|
|Nintendo Land||Wii U||2012||Banjo Land|
|Tiny Cabbage Complete||Wii U||2013||Port|
|Wii Sports Club||Wii U||2013||Port, mostly; co-developed by Nintendo EAD|
|Kazooie||3DS||2013||Developed by Brownie Brown (1-Up Studios)|
|Quest: Descend||Wii U||2013||Developed by Monolith Productions and Rare|
|Streetpass Mii Plaza: DLC||3DS||2013||Co-developed by Good-feel, Grezzo, Prope, Arzest, Factor 5, and others 2013, 2015, and 2016|
|Super Smash Bros. for Wii U and 3DS||Wii U, 3DS||2014||Development assistance credit|
|Banjo-Kazooie: Egg City||Wii U||2014||Developed by Rocksteady and Traveller’s Tales|
|Warioware: Full-Tilt||3DS||2014||Pinball game developed by Intelligent Systems; heavily features Conker and Timber|
|Killer Instinct Zero||Wii U||2015||Developed by Lab Zero Games|
|Banjo-Kazooie (Movie)||Film||2016||Produced by Marza Animation Planet; grossed $28 million domestic and $77 million worldwide|
|Killer Instinct Clash||Switch||2017||Developed by Lab Zero Games|
|Quest: Deep Descent||Switch||2017||Port, Post-launch content developed by Monolith Productions|
|Croc HD||Switch||2017||Development assistance credit; Developed by Q-Games|
|Yoshi’s Cookie Factory||Switch||2017|
|Spirits of Heaven||Switch||2017||Co-developed by NDcube|
|Sabreman Stampede||Switch||2018||Co-developed by Namco Bandai|
|Cabbage Wonders||Switch||2018||Developed by Skip Ltd., 1-Up Studios, and Hobonichi|
|Dream: Land of Giants||Switch||2019||Co-developed by Nintendo EPD, Monolith Soft, and Traveller’s Tales|
|Donkey Kong Country 4||Switch||2019||Co-developed by Retro Studios and Monster Games|
|Donkey Konga Slam||3DS||2019||Co-developed by Namco|
|Conker’s Other Bad Day||Switch||2020||Co-developed by Skip Ltd.|
|Conker’s Other Bad Day: Quest for Toilet Paper||Switch||2020||Expansion Pack DLC|
|Banjo-Kazooie: Breegul Bash||Switch||2021||Developed by Traveller’s Tales and Rocksteady|
|Killer Instinct Tide||Switch||2022||Developed by Reverge Labs, Future Club, and Iron Galaxy Studios|
|Kameo HD||Switch||2022||Remaster, co-developed by Grezzo|
|Banjo Pilot League||Switch||2023||Developed by Monster Games|
|Donkey Kong Country 99||Switch||2024||Co-developed by Nintendo Software Technology|
|Banjo-Kazooie Memories||Switch||2024||Remaster; co-developed by Grezzo and Traveller’s Tales|
Conclusion: What if Nintendo Bought Rare, Indeed?
OK so, What if Nintendo Bought Rare alternate history timeline thing finished.
As always, I got carried away and made this in much, much more detail than I originally planned. I shudder to think of the final wordcount here. But I think this mental exercise basically summed itself up as… What if Nintendo trusted its Western partner studios more?
What if Nintendo bought Rare is just the conduit to that overall question.
Time and time again, the theme from the 90s up to the 10s was that Nintendo’s Japanese studios constantly interfered with or neglected its Western studios. Argonaut, DMA Design, Rare, Silicon Knights, Factor 5, Vitei, Monster Games, Nintendo Software Technology… So many promising talented teams that fell apart. It wasn’t always Nintendo’s fault. Sometimes it was despite Nintendo’s best efforts. But it was a consistent pattern. I’m honestly surprised Retro Studios survived its chaotic beginning in real-life, because it feels exactly like those other studios.
What if Nintendo just treated those studios a little better? Not just treating them like temporary resources. I think they could have helped rein in some of Nintendo’s more idiotic periods, like refusing to adopt online gaming until way too late. They couldn’t have made a major impact on the Wii U’s failure and the 3DS’s struggles, I think, but they’d have at least made the software droughts a little more bearable; I nearly fell off gaming altogether thanks to Nintendo’s horrid 2015-2016.
Yeah, this timeline was extremely self-indulgent. But I hope it means anything to anyone else.
I had a lot of fun dreaming up this alternate What If Nintendo Bought Rare timeline. There’s more to be done with this type of thing, you know! I’ve always wanted to game out the massive world-changing difference if Nintendo had actually won the Harry Potter rights… If you want more, let me know.
If you find any corrections, leave a comment. There’s bound to be some errors with our-timeline and fake-timeline events not matching up, I just know it.
Also, check out some of my other awesome gaming-related blogs:
What if Nintendo bought Rare
Hopefully Yoast will forgive me for this: What if Nintendo Bought Rare
What if Nintendo bought Rare