All Your History: Rare Part 1 – Unusual
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In 1982, Chris and Tim decided to start their own company. Having worked maintenance for arcade games for years, the Stamper brothers now wanted to strike out on their own. So it was that they founded Ashby Computers and Graphics Ltd. in the town of Ashby-de-la-Zouch in their native England. The idea was to work like mad and produce not only high quality games, but a high quantity of them. Their platform of choice was the Sinclair ZX Spectrum home computer system, a powerful machine popular in the UK at the time. And while this was their starting point, in their time the brothers would go through multiple genres, systems, and companies, always changing directions, but sticking to their signature excellence at the same time. And while the going wasn’t always easy, along the way they and their teams crafted some of the most memorable, inventive, and groundbreaking games of all time. It’s a story not so much unique as it is Rare.
For their first game ever, Chris acted as designer while Tim handled the code. The game was Jetpac, a fairly basic 2D shooter in which an astronaut must fend off aliens while waiting for his rocketship to fuel up so he can escape… into another level of aliens. Still, the game ran smoothly and its simple gameplay was addicting. Plus, the jetpack was pretty cool.
When they released it in 1983, however, they figured that their company name, Ashby Computers and Graphics, wasn’t exactly thrilling. So instead, they invented the brand name Ultimate Play the Game to put on the boxes. They were self-publishing, which meant they had to physically copy all the discs and ship them to stores, which required a massive investment for two young brothers. They went deeply into debt. If their game didn’t sell, the Stamper boys would be in serious trouble.
Fortunately for them, their hard work paid off. Jetpac sold 300,000 units for a total of £1.8 million. Not bad change for two guys to split. They used their earnings to make more games, which in turn pulled in their own profits. Titles like Trans Am, Sabre Wulf, and the Jetpac sequel Lunar Jetman all released in the following years. And as each one became a hit, the Ultimate label quickly solidified itself as a hot property.
However, no matter how popular the studio became, the people working there were practically invisible. Neither the brothers nor anyone from their growing team attended conferences and only rarely gave interviews. For whatever reason, the brothers liked secrecy and made it a company policy. Combined with their success, it added an aura of mystery to the studio, the magic black box from which great games came.
From what little information did sneak out, it seemed like Ashby Computers and Graphics was a pretty rough place to work. Supposedly, the employees were working eighteen hour days, seven days a week, fifty-two weeks a year. They did take Christmas mornings off, though. What a vacation. For what it was worth, the brothers themselves worked every bit as hard as their team, so at least they were leading by example.
Still, time was money and all the hours led to solid gold. Under their Ultimate label, the studio continued to crank out hit after hit in rapid succession. In 1984 they released the groundbreaking Knight Lore, one of the very first isometric 3D games of all time. The animation technique they used, which they called Filmation, helped popularize the look of isometric 3D, which would go on to become a common visual style. While it was the third game in the Sabre Wulf series, Tim Stamper would later claim that Knight Lore and its revolutionary graphics were actually completed before the original Sabre Wulf. They had chosen to hang on to it for a while because audiences weren’t ready for the leap.
So by the mid-80s, only a few short years after they’d started, the Stamper brothers owned the biggest development studio in the UK. So it was a shock to the local gaming industry when they chose to throw it all away. A short time earlier, they’d gotten their hands on a Japanese import, a dedicated video game system called the Famicom from a company called Nintendo. Chris and Tim quickly realized that this was the future of video games. Also, Nintendo had plans to release the console worldwide, whereas the Spectrum computer was mostly limited to the UK. The brothers were already a national powerhouse, but if they wanted to be a global powerhouse, this was their ticket.
Without asking anybody’s permission, the Stampers decided to figure out how to program for the new console. They proceeded without any documentation whatsoever; it was up to them to decode the hardware just by their own engineering prowess. To do so, they set up a subdivision within Ashby, and they called it, “Rare.” Nintendo had proudly declared that their console, unlike the rival Atari platform, could not be reverse-engineered. Oblivious to this, the Stampers and their Rare division did exactly that.
So it was that in 1985 they sold the immensely profitable Ultimate label to rival studio US Gold — which was actually a British developer. The brothers knew that the Spectrum’s time was over, and ditched their Spectrum development house before it took them down with it. Their peers called them crazy for leaving a proven enterprise, but the brothers were convinced they knew where the future was going.
In the meantime, they took their tech demos and flew to Nintendo’s headquarters in Japan to show off what they’d accomplished. The Nintendo executives were stunned. Two guys from England had hacked their unhackable machine? And more then that, had made great tech demos? And they’d already ran their own successful company? And they had come to them on their own initiative? Nintendo had never seen that level of ambition, talent, and bravado seek them out before. It led to an unprecedented deal: the brothers would get a practically unlimited budget from Nintendo itself, provided that all their games were for the new console. It was everything the Stampers could ever have asked for. Now all they needed was a new company.
Along with their friend Joel Hochberg, Chris and Tim Stamper officially founded Rare Ltd. One would think that being Rare automatically made you limited, but, never mind. The newly-minted Rare quickly got to work, and over the next five years, made forty-four games for Nintendo’s console, called the Nintendo Entertainment System in the West, and its handheld cousin, the Game Boy. These included licensed titles like A Nightmare on Elm Street, and ports like Sid Meier’s Pirates! They also found time to make some original titles, such as Battletoads. Some of their old franchises, like Jetman, also saw new entrants, although not by the Stamper brothers. Rather, these were done by the Pickford brothers, over at their studio, Zippo Games. The two sets of brothers worked together often, and eventually, Rare acquired Zippo.
Almost immediately afterwards, the Pickford brothers quit. While Rare was just as secretive as the Stampers’ old company, stories like this helped paint a picture of harsh working conditions. The insane hours hadn’t let up, and the Stampers could be very uncaring when cancelling projects. But unlike in the Ultimate days, the crazy work ethic wasn’t translating into quality anymore. It certainly meant quantity: with all the cash from all their games, they even found time to release a few onto the Sega Genesis. But none of them blew audiences away like Jetpac and Knight Lore had. The Stampers were finally on a global stage, but they were just another player. Nothing special.
It wasn’t a necessarily bad position, and it was still profitable. But the Stampers didn’t want to be also-rans. They wanted to get out ahead of the pack, and make the games that everyone else wished they could make. So, when Nintendo unveiled the NES’ successor, the Super Nintendo Entertainment System, the Stampers decided to scale back the number of projects they worked on at a time, so that they could invest in the new console. And this time, they didn’t want to just do what everyone else did; they wanted to create the next revolution in graphics technology, something so astounding that jaws would drop worldwide.
They did it with a couple of monkeys and their bananas.
Tune in next time to see Rare swing back into action