How Rare unlocked the secrets of the NES
Everyone knows that Rare rose from the ashes of Ultimate Play The Game. In late 1985, Ultimate founders Chris and Tim Stamper sold the company name and its gaming catalogue to US Gold. The reason for the sale was simple: producing games for Ultimate’s core platform – the Sinclair Spectrum – was no longer making enough money to fund expansion. The brothers had pretty much pushed the Spectrum to its limits with groundbreaking games like Underwurlde and Knightlore, and the titles they released for other 8-bit computers failed to emulate the sales success of the Speccy originals. So they sold Ultimate and formed Rare to develop games for the Nintendo Famicom/NES, a platform with global reach and amazing potential. Rare went on to release dozens of games for the Nintendo console and the two firms forged a close alliance that flourished during the 1990s. But you knew that already. What you probably don’t know are the lengths Rare took to court Nintendo and consummate that relationship.
Nintendo was famously fussy when it came to selecting third-party developers and the UK counted for nothing over in Japan. As an induction process, Nintendo required potential developers to produce an example of a working game for the NES without any assistance or technical documentation. Rare accepted the challenge, but the problem was that Chris Stamper was a talented Z80 programmer and the NES was powered by the 6502 processor. Luckily, they had a 6502 developer in their midst.
Dave Thomas honed his programming skills on a succession of 6502-powered computers. He learnt to code on an Acorn Atom, then upgraded to an Atari 400 and used it to write his first published game (the space shooter Warlok). It was then a quick jump to the Commodore 64, where he teamed up with his brother Bob to create an arcade adventure set in a creepy castle (Dave did the coding, while Bob drew the graphics). The game was called Staff Of Karnath and the pair aimed high by offering the finished game to the Stampers before contacting any other publisher. To their immense surprise, Tim Stamper rolled up at their door in his Porsche 911 Turbo and offered them a four-game deal on the spot.
Staff Of Karnath was released in December 1984 to immediate acclaim. Personal Computer Games magazine awarded it 9/10 and it sold more than 40,000 copies. The game’s star, Sir Arthur Pendragon, went on to appear in a further three C64 adventures – Entombed, Blackwyche and Dragonskulle. Each successive game sold fewer and fewer, resulting in dwindling royalty payments for the Thomas brothers, so it was a relief when the Stampers invited them to join Rare. “When we finished the Arthur Pendragon titles we were asked if we wanted to look into developing for the Nintendo Entertainment System,” Dave tells us. “The NES was yet another 6502-based system and so seemed ideal to move onto, with the promise of a substantial income from any titles we produced for it. The brief from Nintendo in Japan was to effectively ‘prove’ you were able to develop for the system by showing you had the technical and programming expertise and produce a game demo.”
Rare had to reverse-engineer the NES to have any hope of understanding how Nintendo’s box of tricks worked. “Chris Stamper supplied a PC and he was able to put together a device which enabled code to be downloaded via the parallel interface onto a cartridge inserted into the console,” reveals Dave. “This gave us the ability to poke around the various memory locations and try to find how the graphics and sounds were activated. It was literally a case of sending values to the ROM addresses one by one until something happened.”