The rise of 3D games in the 1990s represented a sea change among the industry’s leading developers. Rare, with its offbeat brand of humour, iconic characters, and excellent mechanics, emerged as one of the era’s shining lights of the British industry.
The ever-changing face of the gaming landscape meant that Rare’s influence would wane in the years to come, but its legacy remains an inspiration. Tamarin, Chameleon Games’ upcoming action-adventure platformer, wants to build on Rare’s heritage and revisit what made the Banjo and Donkey games so great.
“If you look at SNES and N64 games then they’re the most celebrated era of what they did,” Omar Sawi, Tamarin’s creative director, explains. “What’s really fascinating about them is that they had a variety of games that aren’t around anymore. They had shooters and platformers and, later on, they had titles that mixed the two. Blending Tamarin’s cute graphics with the adult themes is something that I was inspired by, and is a celebration of those games.”
Tamarin sees players take control of a baby Tamarin – a small monkey, basically – that sets out to protect its family and home from an invading horde of intelligent ants. Comparisons to humanity’s impact on the natural world are evident from the get-go, with the ants ransacking the Tamarins’ habitat and consuming their resources. It’s a core theme that drives the game’s plot despite not forcefully pointing the finger at players.
“We’re not a preaching kind of game, but I wanted a game that appreciates those parts of the world that can disappear if we’re not careful,” Sawi says. “I think that’s something that humanity can think about a bit more than we do currently as it might come back and bite us. If you have to go to the zoo to see a certain kind of animal, I think it’s a really serious issue.”
Tackling such an important topic from a realistic visual standpoint wouldn’t have accurately represented the adorable and humorous tone that Rare had become renowned for. Tamarin’s aesthetic quickly changed, then, after numerous ex-Rare employees joined Chameleon’s cause.
“If you have a movie or entertainment product, it’s always nice to have a star,” Sawi says. “I looked at all the animals that nobody’s made a game about before, and ended up on Tamarins because they’re really cute. I spoke to some people who worked at Rare before, because they made some really famous characters, and worked with them to create this iconic character that could be recognised.” Eventually, he adds, things turned in a more stylised direction.
In choosing such an agile creature in the Tamarin, Chameleon was able to plough headfirst with its desire to create an adventure-platform-shooter hybrid, that mixed genre itself being reminiscent of famed Rare games.
“We spent a lot of time just getting the basic controls right,” Sawi explains. “The way you move, jump, and just the way they have to catch things. You can run around in quadruped mode, which is the animalistic perspective, to use your acrobatic moves to solve puzzles or get around environments by swimming, leaping, and running.
“And then you have the shooter parts where you’re in bipedal mode. You’re walking like a human and can use weapons and tools that are the key to how you proceed through the environment.”
Collaborating with veteran Rare developers enabled Tamarin to incorporate elements from the company’s back catalogue. The inclusion of helper characters, akin to Bottles from Banjo-Kazooie, is a cool throwback to the studio’s golden era.
Collectables form part of the experience too, such as rescuing innocent birds, which gives players the opportunity to explore Tamarin’s idyllic settings and locations. Even the game’s soundtrack will have a familiarity about it, with former Rare composer David Wise’s soaring score helping to direct your emotions throughout Tamarin’s plot.
“David’s music is very beautiful,” Sawi says. “I think that’s a really good fit for a game about nature because, for example, you have the Donkey Kong Country series that were in natural environments and they had a really nice atmosphere. That was something we wanted to capture, and the music helped so much with that to create that contemplative or darker mood from those older SNES games.”
Tamarin isn’t the first game to try and revitalise those halcyon Rare days. Playtonic Games’ Yooka-Laylee, also developed by ex-Rare personnel, received mixed reviews following its release in April 2017.
While capturing the feel of 3D platformers from that bygone era, it struggled to shake off concerns around such genres being outdated. There could be an inclination to pre-emptively critique Tamarin similarly thanks to its own Rare-esque style.
For Sawi, however, keeping these gaming genres alive in an industry increasingly focused on whatever is profitable and nothing else is more important now than it ever was. “There are so many games nowadays that start by exploring DLC or games-as-a-service or they don’t focus on giving you a good, traditional experience,” he says.
“I think a lot of big companies just want to get the money, and games these days are all about grinding. I hope there will be more games like Tamarin and that genre won’t go away. We need single-player or story-based games where it’s possible to finish them, and there’s a satisfaction from concluding them.”
Format: PC / PS4
Developer: Chameleon Games
Publisher: Chameleon Games
Release: 17 July