I got myself an Xbox 360 last Christmas. It was purely coincidential (or was it?) that I found the premium edition along with Perfect Dark Zero and NFS: Carbon for only 120 euros new. If it wasn’t for that super bargain I may not had been writing these lines about one of my most liked developers: Rare.
Up till then, I had been chiefly a Nintendo gamer; as such I had played and loved most Rare games after Donkey Kong Country, even the more obscure ones like Jet Force Gemini or Blast Corps. Classics like Banjo-Kazooie, Donkey Kong Country 3 and GoldenEye all enjoy the view from the top of my favourite game list. Obviously, I was full of anticipation when the GameCube was just getting released, sure that Rare’s slew of great games would continue on Nintendo’s latest console. The announcement of Microsoft buying and Nintendo selling hit me hard. I knew I wouldn’t be playing Perfect Dark Zero or Donkey Kong Racing any time soon, if at all.
Things didn’t change much during last gen since Rare wasn’t all that active during that period. I didn’t even try Star Fox Adventures (though I’d like to try it now)… Games Rare designed for the original Xbox seemed heretical to my preteen eyes, as anything they made could only be associated with Nintendo in my book.
When I got that Xbox 360 with Perfect Dark Zero, again I didn’t expect much from the game. I remembered hearing a lot of criticism during X360’s launch… How the game had little to do with the original and how Rare had dropped the ball for its first major release since the buyout. Sceptical, I tried it for a few hours and indeed, the game was a total disappointment. I couldn’t understand how they could mess it up so much. But the worst had still to come.
Let’s have a look at Kameo: a new IP in Rare’s arsenal, Kameo was first shown along with Donkey Kong Racing as the games they were working on for GameCube’s launch window. When within that same window fell the company’s trade of hands Kameo was moved to Xbox and Donkey Kong Racing was, of course, cancelled. The former reappeared after a second delay as a launch title for Microsoft’s new console hand-in-hand with Perfect Dark Zero, heralding Rare’s supposed revival. Supposed… A friend of mine got me the game for Christmas shortly after I got the Xbox so I had the chance to play it only shortly after the mess that was Perfect Dark. What can I say about this game?
It wasn’t a TOTAL disaster. For instance, the graphics and sound production were of high quality all around, nicely showing off 360’s initial capabilities. The gameplay was fine too: transforming into different creatures and killing stuff with combos? Sounds great! And it did play decently. But as I progressed, more and more did I feel like something was wrong. Every time Kameo uttered so much as a word my face transformed into a mask of disgust, every time I had to play the SAME boss to gain a new Elemental Warrior I slowly shook my head, every time I flip-kicked a boulder using Kameo I’d wonder why it wouldn’t budge when just running into it would make it roll around as if it was a giant titanium ball filled with helium. Yes, every time I played the game I’d find more and more cringe-worthy characteristics: the story (ouch!), the characters (yuck!), the presentation (ewww!), how Kameo’s horse would be too scared to go anywhere near buildings but it’d run head first into huge crowds of identically modelled and animated trolls (what?? trolls are like orcs now?), how the game tried to be fantastically epic but failed so miserably it hurt. OK, as I said the gameplay was fun and enjoyable but picture this: it took me over 2 months of on and off play to get to the last boss of this weekend-filler game and I still haven’t defeated him. Even the respective (high scoring) achievement wasn’t enough of an incentive… To sum up, Kameo played kinda like a Rare game, that is unrivaled when it comes to fun and fulfilling gameplay, but it fell flat on its face concerning the other aspect that make Rare games great: the personality, the humour, the flair and vibrance that make them unique. Kameo felt like it was just trying to be all of these, trying to mimic something long lost… As if it was another company that made the game. Thankfully (?), there was something that reminded me who made this piece of perfumed crap: there’s a hidden radio somewhere within it that plays the Banjo theme remixed in metal! Oh joy! An island of hope in this sea of mediocrity…
That track proved to be much more than what met my eye at first. I liked it so much I looked all over the net to download (still haven’t found it). Meanwhile, I did some research and discovered that it was none other than Grant Kirkhope himself, composer of Banjo-Kazooie music (among many other Rare classics, not least GoldenEye and Perfect Dark) who was behind this remix, a heavy rocker himself. I found his profile on MySpace and asked him about his projects himself, while commenting on his work (add him guys and gals, he’s an open and down to earth guy!) Then I found out that he had made the music to Viva Piñata. Something clicked. Add to that I’d heard good words about it, and next thing I knew was that it had come to my posession for a mere €30.
It didn’t take me more than an hour to realise just why everybody was so hooked with the game: I was hooked myself! Several tens of hours later, more than a LVL50 of mad gardening skillz, 5 gardens filled with little, colourful and oh so childish piñatas and an intense addiction with the game that has thankfully relaxed recently — how else was I going to touch Lost Odyssey? — I can say with certainty that Rare has neither lost their talent nor their soul (although Microsoft may state otherwise). In fact, all the crappy games may have been an unfortunate break for the rest of the great games to come. Viva Piñata was the first game of theirs that I really enjoyed after almost 8 years and that’s 8 decades when it comes to the entertainment industry. Brilliant music, just as expected from Mr. Kirkhope, beautiful graphics and wacky artstyle, addictive-as-crack gameplay and more of our beloved Rare flair with just enough Microsoft casual undertones and direction to make it bearable and suitable for the kids but not without the innuendos that only we “adults” would understand. Definitely not without its flaws — why do I have to whack the entire garden every freaking time, and I’m-fine-thank-you-Miss-Costalot-yes-yes-bright-eyed-bushy-tailed-GET-ON-WITH-IT! AND STOP PUSHING THAT DAMN SLOT MACHINE LIKE A RETARD ALL THE TIME! Eat my melting chocolate coins. — and annoying moments, thankfully they’re not enought to deeply spoil the otherwise satisfying gameplay.
So details for the new Banjo were announced just a few days ago, with Grant Kirkhope perfecting that early metal remix that had appeared in Kameo. Most fans of the old games don’t like the direction of Nuts & Bolts and have erupted into riots about how Rare sucks now and how they’re ruled my M$, how they’re constantly taking wrong decisions and the like. I know that a good chunk of them are still Nintendo devotees like I would have been had I not got my Xbox 360 by the strange twists and turns of luck and may not have had the chance to play some recent Rare games. Viva Piñata is a good indication that the old Twycross chaps haven’t lost it all, even with all the staff changes that they have endured recently and before they became part of Microsoft. I have trust in the new Banjo game’s ambition and scope, how creativity is such a big part of it. I welcome the fact that they’re changing the feel of the series and are taking it to another, more personalised style of platforming. Some things may seem strange at first, like the removal of Kazooie’s moves, but that will only make her bitch and complain about it and how the game would have been better off with them, in-game! The guys know what they’re doing and the crew that is behind this is mostly the same as it was back in 1998, which wasn’t the case with Perfect Dark Zero. I’m now eagerly awaiting what looks like not another great Banjo game, but also another great, groundbreaking Rare game… The kind of groundbreaking and reinventing we had almost forgot they could manage and systematically deliver.
Rare managed within this generation alone to virtually burn its already dying self to ashes with its X360 launch games. Viva Piñata was the little baby phoenix that was born out of the ashes. It’s my belief that with Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts and to a lesser extent Viva Piñata 2 they will revive themselves into one of gaming’s great, brilliant phoenixes. And the gamers will be happy once again.