When you think back to the British gaming scene of the mid-80s, the systems that immediately spring to mind are the ZX Spectrum and C64 – which isn’t surprising, because they were the clear market leaders. In the shadow of these two 8-bit titans were a few other micros: the Amstrad range of computers, and the Amiga and Atari ST – the new 16-bit kids on the block that would become increasingly important as the end of the decade approached. But really, it was the C64 and Spectrum that ruled the roost. They very heavily influenced the way games were developed, marketed and published in the UK – and ultimately created the foundation of what was a bright, healthy and uniquely British gaming market ecosystem.
However, elsewhere around the world, things were different. In Japan, Nintendo ruled the day with its Nintendo Entertainment System. Despite other consoles being available, the NES’s high quality, arcade-style games had captured gamers’ attentions, and it was rapidly becoming by far the most dominant system in Japan. The NES was also making inroads into the US market. The infamous video game crash of 1983 had created a huge vacuum where few US hardware manufacturers dared tread. And while Atari and Commodore dithered – along with many other software manufacturers who’d convinced themselves that perhaps gaming was a fad like the Hula-Hoop and Pogs – Nintendo waltzed in to fill the void with a system that American gamers hungrily snapped up. Very quickly, the US games market bounced back with a vengeance, and the NES was literally the only game in town.
Back in the UK, most people were still thinking locally – which was understandable in this pre-internet period. With the UK games market still booming, why get involved in the complex and very different US and Japanese games markets? One of the very few companies that did, however, was Rare Ltd. While its Ultimate Play the Game products for C64 and Spectrum were still wowing UK gamers, the Rare visionaries put a lot of time and effort into persuading Nintendo to let them start producing games for its systems. Slalom was their first – which was actually produced for the Nintendo Vs Arcade System. By 1990, Rare had produced over 40 games for the NES and Game Boy, becoming Europe’s leading console game developer.
But even at this point, most gamers had no idea that Rare, the company known as the makers of Speccy games like Knight Lore and Jetpac, was such a big deal. Indeed, most gamers of the period thought that the company had gone bust or folded, since it wasn’t making any games for the Spectrum or C64 anymore. But that soon changed when Nintendo finally launched the NES in the UK and gamers began to figure out that some of their favourite games on that system were created by a company with a strangely familiar name. And at last one of the UK gaming market’s best-kept secrets became common knowledge: Rare was still around – and they were even more successful than they’d ever been during their Ultimate Play the Game days.
In 1990, bored with ageing 8-bit home micros, and faced with unaffordable 16-bit computers, the vast majority of UK gamers embraced the new incoming Japanese consoles, just as Japanese and American gamers had a few years earlier. This brought about huge changes in the way games were made and distributed in the UK: software companies scrambled for development deals via US and Japanese software companies, and many went out of business, unable to adapt to the changed market conditions. But Rare was uniquely positioned to continue its success – eventually becoming a second-party Nintendo developer and creating a string of hugely popular Nintendo games throughout the 90s and early 2000s. In 2002, they became a wholly-owned subsidiary of Microsoft, leaving a legacy of being Britain’s most successful – and, in its NES days, least celebrated – console game manufacturers of all time.
A self-confessed “Neanderthal from the dawn of gaming magazine history”, Julian “Jaz” Rignall grew up during a time when the best video games had 10p slots, and free-to-play games were the ones you pirated from your friends. Find him on Twitter @jazrignall.
First published as part of the Games Britannia festival in 2012.