Those udders haven’t been milked in a while
2018 was the first year I could say I was honestly excited about the Xbox brand. Not excited enough to actually buy a system, heavens no, but last year was certainly a turning point in how I look at Xbox and its place within Microsoft. This change of view had nothing to do with any of the games it put out – Forza and Sea of Thieves do nothing for me – and everything to do with the fact that Microsoft put its foot down and declared it was here to stay.
The Xbox One era hasn’t been wine and roses for the company. After a disastrous pre-launch press, it quickly faded into second place behind Sony and the PlayStation 4. The blusterous Microsoft of the Xbox 360 era was replaced by a more demure company that stopped regularly touting its sales as it once did. It also became less experimental. The last console generation saw a wonderful and colorful slate of titles across multiple genres, but its output diminished on the Xbox One to just a few key franchises and the occasional one-off. Microsoft Game Studios published just three titles in 2018, only one of which, Forza Horizon 4, received any sort of critical acclaim.
While things for Microsoft don’t exactly look sterling in the immediate future – is anyone excited about Crackdown 3? – it did take massive steps last year to improve the Xbox brand going forward. Most notably, at E3, it announced it had purchased Undead Labs, Playground Games, Ninja Theory, and Compulsion Games. In November, it added inXile Entertainment to its roster. These are massive “gets” for the console manufacturer, and while its Japanese presence is still all but non-existent, Microsoft clearly has plans for the Xbox brand’s future. With so much new talent available, 2019 is the perfect time for Microsoft to tap into one the most underutilized weapons in its arsenal: the Rare game catalog.
When Microsoft bought Rare almost 16 years ago, it didn’t quite know what it was doing as a game publisher. Halo was a hit, yeah, but Rare, one of the most dependable developers of the ‘90s, faceplanted out of the gate on the original Xbox with Grabbed by the Ghoulies. It got a bit better on the Xbox 360 with Kameo: Elements of Power and the Viva Pinata series, though it was clear from titles like Perfect Dark Zero and Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts that this Rare wasn’t the Rare it used to be.
We got a good look at the Rare it used to be when Rare Replay was released on the Xbox One. Cataloging some of the best games it produced over the course of 30 years – games it still owned the rights to that is – Rare Replay made me realize just how many wonderful franchises Microsoft has let sit dormant since buying the developer. When you look at Nintendo, its success is not built on establishing hot new franchises but rather curating those existing IPs we’ve played for the past three decades. Quite honestly, its a strategy Microsoft should consider copying.
Just think of what modern developers, developers like the ones Microsoft purchased this year, could do with IPs like Sabre Wulf, Blast Corps, or Jet Force Gemini. Rare may not be the Rare we grew up with but I’m sure the folks at inXile could do something interesting with Kameo. Hell, it doesn’t even have to be Microsoft owned studios doing the work. The Killer Instinct revival worked wonderfully no matter who was at the helm. The only problem is too few people played it.
The Xbox One has sustained itself for the past few years on the dude-bro market, and that’s fine. That market has plenty of money to spend. If it didn’t, Call of Duty wouldn’t top the sales chart every single year. But a healthy system, a system that appeals to all consumers needs games that do as well, and that’s one place where the Xbox One just hasn’t been able to compete. Luckily, things are already off to a good start. Microsoft announced at E3 a new Battletoads is on the way from Rare. That’s a step in the right direction, but many more steps are needed before Microsoft finally sees just how valuable Rare’s legacy can be. At the very least, it can start producing Banjo-Kazooie titles with the same regularity Nintendo gives us Mario platformers.