There are few developers that exemplify great Nintendo exclusives like Rareware in their heyday. The British studio began as a scrappy upstart, another NES developer in a crowded space of peers. Yet, they possessed a terrific work ethic and a knack for crafting a range of colorful, appealing games that catered to a wide demographic. These traits helped them rise to prominence, peaking during what many point to as Rare's "Golden Age" of the 90s.
Eventually, Rare cranked out so many hits on the N64 that they dominated the lineup alongside the Big N themselves. If you owned an N64, chances are you had at least one title from this second-party studio. The 90s were a high watermark for Rare, to be sure. Even their more inexperienced years of the 80s — and post-Microsoft buyout in 2002 — produced some good results.
Updated December 31, 2022 by Stephen LaGioia: While Rare is still often referred to in the past tense, the Microsoft studio is making themselves known again with their improved Sea of Thieves adventure, the enticing compilation Rare Replay, and the upcoming Everwild. Thus, we wanted to revisit and flesh out this list, swapping out the duds we pointed out before and instead focusing on a more positive note, with even more of Rare's best games. After all, there are plenty to choose from.
10/10 Sea Of Thieves
Many didn't know what to expect following the announcement of Rare's first major release in years, especially given its unique pirate premise. And at least initially, the game was met with lukewarm reception, as some pointed to many bugs and empty settings.
But since its 2018 launch, the studio has continued shoring up its seafaring journey with patches, added details, and new goodies to collect — along with events and DLC to ignite interest. The result is a more refined plundering co-op romp that's actually turned out enjoyable.
While Rare has breathed new life into this series with a recent stylized revamp, it's tough to beat this old-school brawling hit from '91. With its onslaught of tough enemies and obstacles (the infamous, super-fast Turbo Tunnel comes to mind), Battletoads separates the frogs from the tadpoles.
The game brings that hardcore 8-bit vibe with air-tight mechanics and sidescrolling chaos that rarely rests. But while the gameplay is tough to the point of being frustrating at times, Battletoads shines with satisfying punching and kicking combat, cool outdoor locales, and a solid co-op mode to boot.
8/10 Jet Force Gemini
One of the most overlooked Rare games on N64 also happens to be one of its best. This awesome third-person shooter blends colorful fantasy and sci-fi with the action-shooting vibe players might recognize from Goldeneye. It even comes with similar multiplayer deathmatches, which are quite exciting when facing off against three other players.
But the highlight is the extensive campaign, which has you blasting, jetting, and swimming through 15 distinct worlds. With lush locales and a three-character system (with unique abilities that allow them to reach different places), Jet Force Gemini feels akin to a 3D platformer with guns, and a creative one at that.
7/10 Diddy Kong Racing
This charming, unique racer tends to get overshadowed by the likes of Mario Kart 64. This is a shame because, in a sense, it excelled beyond it. The game immerses you in a majestically colorful world full of tracks that are varied and memorable — from winter wonderlands to cool sci-fi landscapes.
Diddy Kong Racingbrings a slew of amusing characters you may recognize in other major Rare games and a trio of distinct vehicles to pilot. You've got your more traditional cars, but there's also a hovercraft and the particularly thrilling airplanes. You've even got a story mode that's impressively fleshed out for an arcade-style racer, with varied tasks and even boss showdowns.
6/10 Banjo Kazooie
Banjo Kazooie is one of those unique experiences that leaves an impression on most who play it. Just hearing that lovely banjo music hits you with a soothing dose of 90s nostalgia. Though the gameplay and colorful graphics have held up well, too, cementing Banjo and his bird pal Kazooie as iconic characters. There's a reason they were hyped up as new Smash Bros Ultimate fighters.
The depth, the diversity of activities, and the rich nature of Banjo's environments make for a truly memorable journey. At the same time, there's a charming simplicity to the experience. Much like Mario 64, Banjo Kazooiedraws you into a whimsical fantasy world without going overboard with huge stages or an absurd amount of collectibles (Starfox Adventures, anyone?).
5/10 Conker's Bad Fur Day
Nintendo fans were taken aback when word came out that Rare — the devs behind cute games like Diddy Kong Racing — would feature their cute squirrel in an M-rated game rife with toilet humor and foul-mouthed dialogue. This marvelous N64 swan song is like Banjo-meets-South Park, with its darker themes and off-color gags. It's full-blown ridiculous British humor in the best way possible.
But the game isn't just a gimmick to throw raunchy themes over a kiddie exterior. Yes, giant talking poo bosses and drunken shenanigans are amusing. But Conker's Bad Fur Day is, in fact, a well-crafted 3D platformer, too, with fun homage-paying environments and clever writing.
4/10 Goldeneye 007
You knew it was coming: This FPS changed the game as we know it, establishing a new gold standard of competitive multiplayer shooters that shook up the gaming scene like a Bond-style Martini. It also helps that Goldeneye offers a perfect balance of simplicity and depth, making completion fairly simple but offering loads of unlockable cheats and harder missions for those who seek it.
At the same time, it draws on the cool environments and engaging narrative of the film, giving you an immersive 007 experience (despite the blocky visuals). Thanks to some appealing gameplay, amusing unlockables (big heads, anyone?), and robust multiplayer, it's still loadsof fun to play, especially crowded around the TV with friends.
3/10 Donkey Kong Country
With its fully-rendered 3D models, gorgeous music, and vibrant, multi-layered locales — Rare shocked the gaming world with one of the best-looking 2D games of the 90s (SNES or otherwise). Contrasted with this is some fluid, relaxingly-simple platforming reinforced by solid mechanics.
In Donkey Kong Country, you control the lumbering star ape or the lighter, quicker Diddy, as you coast through lush biomes wrought with Kremling crocs and other creatures. Among the standout features are the thrilling animal buddies, which bring quicker movement and often more offense — like a juiced-up Yoshi. While on the easy side, it's hard not to be enthralled by this joyful, atmospheric romp.
2/10 Perfect Dark
There has been much fan debate over the years regarding the superiority of Goldeneye or this original sci-fi shooter from Rare. And sure, Goldeneye holds a nostalgic charm that isn't quite topped — along with multiplayer that's easier to get into. Still, it's hard to deny the more dynamic, well-crafted nature of 2000's Perfect Dark.
Not only does the game bring a totally original story and fleshed-out campaign staring agent Joanna Dark, but the multiplayer goes above and beyond. A co-op campaign, AI bots, and a slew of new (and Goldeneye throwback) maps are included this time, rounding out this multiplayer gem on N64. There's a reason gamers are begging for this to hit Nintendo Switch Online.
1/10 Donkey Kong Country 2: Diddy's Kong Quest
There's no such thing as a perfect game, but Donkey Kong Country 2 comes about as close to a flawless 2D platformer as you can get. This sequel to the '94 smash hit has just about everything. The gameplay draws from the charming aspects of the first DKC while fleshing it out to perfection, with more creatively designed stages, new animal buddies, and ample collectibles.
The graphics are even prettier, and the environments — which range from eerie graveyards to thrilling amusement parks — are rich, imaginative, and memorable. Its gameplay is an endlessly enjoyable trip, strengthened by a foundation of solid mechanics.
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