In the late 90s, for a period of around three years, you could have made the argument that Rare was the best video game studio in the entire world. Blast Corp followed by Goldeneye, followed by Diddy Kong Racing followed by Banjo Kazooie, followed by Jet Force Gemini…
Classic after classic after classic after classic.
But here’s the terrifying thing: that wasn’t even Rare’s best ever run.
Rare’s best ever run occurred almost 15 years earlier, in the early 80s. A spectacular two year period punctuated by video games that single-handedly raised the bar. Video games that genuinely reshaped what was possible in video game development
Back then they weren’t even called Rare. They were ‘Ultimate Play The Game’; true masters of their craft. From 1983 until 1985 they were – almost indisputably – the best video game developers on the entire planet.
As a 34 year old man who grew up in the UK, it’s difficult to explain precisely how important Ultimate Play The Game was. It’s difficult to explain why they mattered.
Perhaps the most important point: during the 1980s the ZX Spectrum was king. In other regions – like Australia — the Commodore 64 reigned supreme. The US was in the process of transitioning from the Atari 2600 — and a video game crash — to a resurgence with Nintendo and the NES. In the UK it was a different scene. A different time. A parallel universe: It was Codemasters and an endless parade of ‘Simulators’. It was eggs that could talk (and walk). It was rubber keyboards; cassette tapes caked in biro.
The Spectrum was dominant. Everyone had a Spectrum, some had Commodore 64s, most didn't. Graphical fidelity was low. It didn’t matter. Playgrounds swarmed with the buzz of something new, strange and weird. Video games weren’t ubiquitous but in the process of stretching their legs. You had a friend. Maybe you had two friends. You liked video games and not many others did. You switched tapes. Some were bought in a store for under $10 with cover art that looked nothing like the game inside. Others had no cover art at all. Blatantly pirated. Just a name:
Atic Atac, Sabre Wulf, Knight Lore.
Ultimate Play The Game was literally two brothers, a friend and girlfriend. Tim and Chris Stamper formed the nucleus; John Lathbury and Carole Ward worked in the periphery. Together they started a studio that would redefine what was possible on a computer that dominated an entire island of burgeoning nerds. Nerds like myself in the process of having our brains imprinted. We were about to fall in love with video games back when falling in love with video games was a strange thing to do.
Ultimate Play The Game's first release was Jetpac.
Some perspective when Jetpac was first released on the 16K Spectrum, roughly 1 million people owned the computer. Jetpac sold over 300,000 copies. Literally one in three people with a Spectrum bought the game. With rampant piracy an issue, God knows how many people actually played it. It was the consensus game of the year in the UK.
That year was 1983.
That year they also released Atic Atac and Lunar Jetman. Both were instant classics.
But the best was yet to come. In 1984 Ultimate Play The Game finished work on a game called Knight Lore.
How to describe the importance of Knight Lore?
Perhaps this will work: Knight Lore was so good, so ahead of its time. both technically and in terms of design, that Tim Stamper decided to delay the release. This was almost unprecedented: Ultimate Play The Game released other game they had been working on – incredible games like Sabre Wulf – because they were worried every other video game would look terrible in comparison to Knight Lore.
Could you imagine?
What is that mindset?
“We just had to sit on it,” explained Tim Stamper, years later, “everyone else was so far behind.”
Knight Lore was one of the first video games made in the isometric perspective. Games like Head Over Heels would imitate the style, but Knight Lore built the template. It may be the greatest game ever released on the Spectrum. Without hyperbole: it was the Mario 64 of its time. It changed everything.
And it probably represented the high watermark for Ultimate Play The Game.
In 1985 Tim and Chris Stamper sold the Ultimate Play The Game catalogue – and the name – to U.S. Gold, a major video game publisher at the time. They would never release another game with quite the same impact again. It would take the better part of a decade for them to release games with a similar impact, under a different name: Rare.
But for a glorious 24-month period, Ultimate Play The Game were probably the greatest video game studio in the world.