Raring to go Home

Raring to go Home

Posted by Kris Randazzo on Jun 13th 2019

Those crazy bastards finally did it. Banjo-Kazooie is in Smash. They look wonderful, too. I’ve never been much of a fan of that particular series, but I’m very happy for the people who were. Seriously, watching those reactions to the announcement was really special. I thought the folks who lost their minds at King K. Rool were going to be as good as it got, but Banjo, well, those games mean a lot to a lot of people, and this was clearly something they wanted.

But it’s more than just that character in Smash. Yes, it’s great to see Banjo and Kazooie in the roster, but the reveal really showed how much Rare’s properties feel at home on Nintendo hardware. It’s a weird thing, because a platform is just that. A platform. It shouldn’t feel weird to play something like Banjo on an Xbox, but for years now, every time Microsoft put out something that’s outside of their wheelhouse, the general consensus, at least from what I understand, is that it should have been on Nintendo. And while I can’t necessarily explain it, I also can’t disagree.

I remember feeling pretty torn when Microsoft bought Rare. Rare offered Nintendo the chance to buy them outright, and Nintendo decided to pass. Microsoft swooped in and ponied up the cash, leaving a lot of Nintendo fans, myself included, very concerned. On paper it didn’t make sense. Rare and Nintendo were best buds, and Rare had made some of Nintendo’s most successful games. The company’s recent output, though, was kind of a different story. Rare and Nintendo have had an incredible history together. Even before they were an exclusive second party, they filled the NES library with hits like RC Pro Am, Battletoads, and Wizards & Warriors. When the Super NES was struggling against the Sega Genesis and their massively popular new mascot Sonic the Hedgehog, it was Rare’s reinvention of the Donkey Kong brand that effectively won Nintendo the 16-bit console war. Then came the Nintendo 64, and Rare brought us Killer Instinct gold, Diddy Kong Racing, Blast Corps, GoldenEye 007, Donkey Kong 64, Perfect Dark, Jet Force Gemini, and of course, Banjo-Kazooie and Banjo-Tooie. Some of those games were better than others for certain, but they were all successful to some degree, many massively so. But when it came time for Nintendo’s GameCube, things at Rare had changed considerably.

Star Fox Adventures wasn’t exactly met with universal acclaim, and Donkey Kong Racing and Kameo: Elements of Power looked neat on the back of the GameCube’s box, but they weren’t exactly the most anticipated titles on the platform. And their last Nintendo 64 game, Conker’s Bad Fur Day, underperformed pretty hard too. A lot of the company’s most prominent talent had moved on, so it’s not hard to see from Nintendo’s perspective that purchasing the studio wasn’t necessarily a good idea.

I feel the same way now as I did when it happened. I understand Nintendo’s perspective given the state of the studio at the time, but it’s vastly outweighed by the other side, which is that Nintendo absolutely should have purchased Rare so they could secure their IP. Rare’s properties filled in a lot of gaps that Nintendo’s own 1st party lineup simply couldn’t fill. Perfect Dark, Killer Instinct, and Conker in particular were vast departures from most of Nintendo’s other properties, yet they still felt completely at home on their platforms. The rest of their stuff like Banjo, Battletoads, and even Cobra Triangle, may not have been super different from the games Nintendo made, but they were unique enough to not cause overlap, and instead actually compliment the other games they published. Again, I can’t put my finger on exactly why, but they feel like Nintendo games in a way that defies logic. I remember the first time I played Sonic Advance thinking “this is going to be just wrong” but it wasn’t. Sonic on Nintendo fit like a glove. Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts and bolts though, didn’t catch on for a number of reasons, not the least of which was that it felt weird playing Banjo on a non-Nintendo console.

And Rare’s output hasn’t fared well since the split. Grabbed by the Ghoulies hit the Xbox with a thud. Conker: Live and Reloaded failed to catch on the way Rare hoped the N64 original would. Kameo and Perfect Dark were met with middling reviews when the Xbox 360 launched. Very few look back on anything Kinect-related as a good thing. And Sea of Thieves has been a modest success at best. There are exceptions, of course. Viva Pinata did pretty well for itself, and Killer Instinct succeeded despite a strange character unlock system and some truly unappealing art direction (and Rare’s apparent almost complete lack of involvement in the title’s development). But in the face of the rest of Rare’s output, and their incredible collection of IPs going to waste, those success stories lose a lot of their luster.

I think the one that really slammed it home for me was Battletoads. Yes, that remake looks pretty cool, but that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about the Battletoads in Shovel Knight. This bit was unbelievably awesome, but it was 100% aimed at NES Battletoads fans. The visuals, and especially the music and sound effects weren’t references to anything except their NES adventure, and unabashedly so. This was made for Nintendo fans, and it being completely unavailable to its target audience was, well, crappy. Don’t get me wrong, I’m thrilled at its existence, but there’s no convincing me that this content wouldn’t have gone over WAY better on Nintendo platforms.

Along the same lines, we have Rare Replay. This compilation of some of the biggest and coolest Nintendo games of yesteryear was, thanks to Rare being owned by Microsoft, now completely unavailable on Nintendo platforms. They had to change the letters you collect in RC Pro-Am because they used to spell Nintendo. I’m still not sure of they took the words “GAME BOY” out of Snake Rattle n’ Roll, but I’m betting they did. And that’s not cool, man. Yes, these are Rare games, but they’re so closely associated with Nintendo it just felt wrong not having them on Switch, and their alterations border on revisionist history. And I know I’m not alone on this because the internet was pretty loud about it when this game came out.

From what I can tell, Rare hasn’t been a very lucrative purchase for Microsoft. And while that’s largely on Rare, Microsoft is to blame for mismanaging the brand. They could have sought out developers to turn Rare’s IP into something new, and do what they could to make those brands belong to Xbox, but they didn’t. Look at Sony. Final Fantasy was a Nintendo thing. Until Final Fantasy VII. Now, Final Fantasy is associated with Sony far more than Nintendo. Metal Gear was a very Nintendo thing until Metal Gear Solid. After that, Metal Gear was all Sony, no matter what platform it came out on. Microsoft failed to do that with Rare, and it’s been pretty hard to watch all these years.

But things are changing. Microsoft and Nintendo have developed this weird relationship now where they’re more than happy to work together. Well, that’s not exactly right. It’s more like Microsoft is more than happy to work with Nintendo. Microsoft put Minecraft on Nintendo platforms, and allowed exclusive Nintendo content in the games. They’re all in for cross play in games like Rocket League. Things got further crazy when they released Cuphead on Switch to astronomical success. I’d love to see the sales numbers on that one because I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised to hear it outsold the Xbox One version since after the game was first announced, people were saying it belonged on Nintendo. And they were right. Cuphead is a perfect fit for Switch, and it’s been on the Switch’s best sellers charts since launch to prove it. This is flying under the radar a bit, but at E3 they announced Super Lucky’s Tale on Switch. I know this isn’t a Rare property, but it does kinda jive with the overall point. What’s extra interesting here is that it’s not just a quick and dirty port of the underperforming Xbox One original. It’s a complete reimagining with new levels, art, camera system, etc. I’m not going to lie, I’m not 100% sure Microsoft owns this IP. They published Super Lucky’s Tale, but I don’t see their name anywhere on this new version, nor do I see it announced for the Xbox One. But if Microsoft does indeed own a stake in this character, there’s a whole new version coming exclusively to a non-Microsoft platform. If thats’ the case, that’s kind of a big deal.

There’s also rumors of other Microsoft properties like Ori and the Blind Forest coming down the line, and even their excellent Game Pass service. Microsoft, against all odds, seems to recognize this Nintendo factor with certain titles, and is willing to put console exclusivity aside when it’s clear there’s a profit to be made. And Rare should absolutely be the poster child for that mentality going forward. There’s no doubt in my mind that if they announced Battletoads was coming to Switch as well as Xbox One, that the Switch version would outsell the XBO version 10 to 1. If they announced there was a new Banjo game in the works for Switch, that would make some serious money, especially if it was a higher quality product than Yooka-Laylee. (Nothing against Yooka-Laylee, but that game had some problems). If they put Rare Replay on Switch with all the Nintendo references intact, they wouldn’t even need to include Donkey Kong Country games to make it sell.

What’s weird is that this relationship doesn’t work in the other direction. If Mario was on Xbox, I don’t think it would perform very well. At least not by Mario standards. Even Metroid and Zelda, while they would look really nice on the Xbox One, probably wouldn’t perform the way they do on Nintendo platforms, and considering Metroid isn’t exactly the world’s biggest blockbuster, that’s saying something. Much like I can’t put my finger on why Rare games just feel right on Nintendo, I can’t say why Mario on Xbox wouldn’t work the way Sonic on Nintendo did. But it’s true. Would Halo sell on Switch? Well, that’s a different question entirely. But I tell you, I’d love to find out.

Right now, Rare is like Spider-Man. Way back when, Marvel sold the movie rights to Spider-Man to Sony. Then Sony made two super successful Spider-Man followed by a franchise-ending dud (that still made a freaking mint, but was pretty much universally panned). Meanwhile, Marvel created the massively successful Marvel Cinematic Universe on their own. Everyone wanted Spider-Man to join that universe because that was clearly where he belonged, but he couldn’t rejoin his old Marvel family because Sony owned the movie rights. But after they attempted to reboot the Spider-Man franchise with the Amazing Spider-Man films,and they failed to perform the way Sony wanted, they came to an agreement with Marvel to let Spider-Man come back home. Now Spidey’s where he belongs, and his movies have been massively successful. This is Rare and Nintendo. Rare’s properties have been The Amazing Spider-Man at best, and the Nicholas Cage Ghost Rider movies at worst. Microsoft and Nintendo have got to reach some sort of deal or Rare’s IP will never reach their potential again. Yeah, that’s crazy talk, but I never thought the Sony Spider-Man thing would happen, and there was an honest to goodness TV commercial promoting Switch and Xbox together. Stranger things have happened.

There’s really something magical about Banjo in Smash. It’s like a major part of Nintendo’s history has been reclaimed. The Banjo games were defining titles on the Nintendo 64, just as much as Ocarina of Time or Super Mario 64. In a series that’s all about celebrating Nintendo’s history, it was never going to be complete without a chapter on Rare’s bear and bird. Now let’s see what else these companies can do together. There’s an audience for Rare’s games. But it’s not on Xbox, it’s on Switch. It’s time to bring them home.