Microsoft swooping in to buy Nintendo's prized secret weapon, developer Rare, for an awful lot of money seems like it happened a lifetime ago now. Part of that has to do with the passage of time, sure, but I bet that for most of us who remember the company's fantastic Super NES and Nintendo 64 catalog, that feeling comes from the lack of stellar Rare releases since the company joined the world of the Xbox. Just what happened over there in Twycross that stifled the creative environment that the company enjoyed in the 1990s? Who killed Rare? Eurogamer presents and intriguing and interesting answer to that very question. It all begins with a bonsai tree.
Through a locked gate, down a winding path and by a still pond a few miles outside of the leafy village of Twycross, England, a bonsai tree stands. It was a gift given to Rare by Shigeru Miyamoto, the most famous game designer in the world, as a thank-you for the game developer's critical and commercial success in creating games for Nintendo, the most famous game maker in the world.
For Rare's staff arriving to work at 8:30 sharp each morning, it has served as a reminder of the company's heritage, of who they are, of how lucky they are to be a part of something so admired, so rare. An unassuming trophy of past glories, it's also an inspiration for future goals, a symbol carefully cultivated to weather trends, transcend fashions; rooted, a gnarly resolution.
On 20th of September 2002, Microsoft paid $375 million for this bonsai tree and all that it symbolised: creative excellence, technical mastery, innovation, originality, soul and the precious fingerprints of Nintendo. The fledgling Microsoft Game Studios, desperate to acquire world-class talent that could help establish its game console, saw in that tree everything it desired to become.
10 years later and Bill Gates is yet to plant a bonsai tree in Rare's once-fertile grounds.
In that time Rare's critical and commercial success has tumbled, the studio's games struggling to live up to their creator's name. Two years after the acquisition, Chris and Tim Stamper, the brothers who founded the company in 1982, departed into "exploring new opportunities" obscurity. Faithful fans became disillusioned while, apart form a couple of notable exceptions, the developer's new, scattershot directions have failed to inspire loyalty or passion in the next generation of players and the next again.
What went wrong? And who - or perhaps what - is to blame?
When I read about the sale a decade ago, I immediately had a sinking feeling that a clash of corporate cultures and the lack of Nintendo's guiding hand would leave Microsoft holding the bag, as it were. The developer that once brought us imaginative characters like Diddy Kong, Joanna Dark, and Banjo as well as innovative uses of technology has instead been reduced to cranking out lackluster Kinect titles and other material that the core Xbox 360 audience hasn't really seemed to have requested. Ten years ago I had assumed that Microsoft would gut Rare, take the aspects of the company that it wanted for its other enterprises, and then sell or outright close what was the left. Considering that the video game industry is one that loves to swallow up studios and dismantle them, I am genuinely impressed that Microsoft has kept Rare around even if it is a shell of its former self.