Battletoads

Welcome to our weekly open thread for the discussion of gaming plans, nagging questions, and whatever else we feel like talking about. No matter what the topic, we invite everyone in the comments to tell us: What Are You Playing This Weekend?

This weekend, I’ll continue digging through the treasure trove of goodies packed into the Rare Replay collection Microsoft put out this week for Xbox One. It’s an anthology that bundles up 30 of the most notable games created by the legendary British studio Rare Ltd., stretching back to its days as Ultimate Play The Game in the mid-’80s. You won’t find anything starring James Bond or Nintendo characters here, but the rest of the studio’s landmark works are well represented.

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Not all of them have aged gracefully. Rare’s pioneering work in using an isometric perspective—that distant, not quite top-down view of a game’s action—to create proto-3-D environments on early PCs might have been revolutionary at the time, but not having grown up with those games, I’ve found them unwieldy to the point of near-unplayability.

Some of the later games suffer as well, like Jet Force Gemini, the studio’s ambitious attempt at making a fast-paced third-person shooter on the Nintendo 64. Its controls were maddening even in 1999, but with 16 years worth of refinement and standardization to games of its ilk, it comes off as a misguided relic unfit for anything but the N64’s bizarre trident controller. Yesterday, Rare released a downloadable update that added optional “modern controls.” They make it bearable but can’t overcome all the archaic quirks that arise from modernizing something as idiosyncratic as Jet Force Gemini, like the inability to move the camera with the controller’s right stick outside of the game’s aiming mode.

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These warts are just as important as the package’s hits, though. Rare Replay is a fine nostalgia and curio piece, giving old fans a chance to relive and interested outsiders an easy way to jump in, but it also has so much value as a distilled history of one of gaming’s most prolific and innovative development houses. Collecting these games and laying them out side-by-side gives us a stunning condensation of the rapid evolution of video games as a whole, from primitive 15-color adventures on the ZX Spectrum through the detailed cartoon-come-to-life sprites of Battletoads Arcade and up to near-modern day.

Cobra Triangle

But more importantly, it’s an all too uncommon opportunity to experience the experimentation and growth of a single, long-lived game studio. While it can’t be considered a complete picture without Donkey Kong Country and Goldeneye, Rare Replay portrays a developer that was constantly at the forefront of game design and technology but never let a desire for innovation disrupt its distinctly cartoonish voice. It goes all the way back to 1983’s Atic Atac, a madcap distant relative of The Binding Of Isaac that’s full of sly tricks and humor. (One of the playable classes is “serf.”) And those googly eyes, notoriously plastered to nearly everything in Banjo-Kazooie, have their roots in Jetpac, Ultimate Play The Game’s debut, where they adorn the globular aliens of level 8. Even Rare’s more serious outings, like Jet Force Gemini or Perfect Dark, aren’t completely humorless.

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Time and again, Gameological has joined the many critical and academic voices lamenting the sad state of video game preservation. With its reliance on the Xbox 360 re-releases of the Banjo-Kazooie games and Perfect Dark, Rare Replay isn’t as pure an example of preservation as, say, the upcoming Mega Man Legacy Collection, where the first six Mega Man games have been rebuilt for modern platforms in a way that mimics the NES originals down to their most severe technical limitations. It is an important release, nonetheless—an unabashed and, at $30, relatively unselfish celebration of Rare’s artistic history. With the story it tells through Rare’s games—and more explicitly with some interesting documentary materials—it’s the kind of proud, thorough, and illuminating retrospective this medium needs more of as it continues to march further away from its oft-disregarded roots.