Hello and welcome to Crash Course, your source for topics and tangents from the world of video games and more!
This week’s episode is all about a little ol’ game from the legendary studio known as Rare.
Rare, despite having a legion of old-school fans and an incredible back catalog, was no stranger to taking creative risks left and right, and just made whatever it is they wanted to make. There’s no better evidence of that than a game about a hungover foul-mouthed British Woodland creature who stumbles into becoming a god Emperor whilst cracking wise about The Matrix, Clockwork Orange, and saving Private Ryan.
The game is a drunken dream, simultaneously managing all of its quirks while being both a technical showpiece and a downright fun time on top of it. The road through development hell wasn’t an easy one for our friends at RARE. It took almost five years, a near cancellation, and a full reboot to get there.
Conker’s Quest and Banjo-Kazooie
The year was 1996 and the Nintendo 64 had just made a decent splash at retail primarily driven by the breakthrough that was Super Mario 64. RARE had been working with Nintendo, pumping out titles like Blast Corps, GoldenEye 007, and Killer Instinct Gold, but once Mario slammed his way into the marketplace it sent ripples throughout the industry. They were giving everybody a handy guide on how to nail platformers in full 3D.
The team that had just finished Killer Instinct Gold took notice of the blockbuster success of Super Mario 64 and began working on their own 3D platformer. Now, this is funny, because despite Rare eventually shipping tons of said 3D platformers, Conker’s Quest was their first go at it, and ironically their last on the Nintendo 64.
Rare previously worked on the Donkey Kong Country series and began work on Donkey Kong 64 while their other big project was still needing some more time in the oven. However. during the beginning of production where co-founder Tim Stamper made a very interesting suggestion to the Ki team: that their 3D platformer should start a cutesy main character to help the game cast a wider net and also presumably so Rare could have a new mascot to call their own.
Tthe team set about constructing colorful environments and getting a squirrel then named Conker running around in them fairly quickly. The different teams at Rare were at that time kept mostly separate from one another, which in part instilled a certain “healthy rivalry” between each team.
According to Ex-Rare staffer Steve Mayles, they tended to not be fully aware of each other’s projects and according to a Conker’s BFD let’s play hosted by Chris Sivor once the “Project Dream” staff saw an early version of Conker they decided to scrap everything they were doing and to start their own 3D platformer with a bear and bird in the title role. Remember this. It’ll be very important later.
At E3 1997 Nintendo, publicly unveiled both games as Conker’s Quest and Banjo-Kazooie with the press noting some other big similarities between the two.
Chris Sivor started as an artist on Conker. He echoed those statements in issue 174 of Retro Gamer magazine saying “The Donkey Kong lot were the golden boys and I don’t think much was expected of the outcasts in the other barn. I’m being facetious of course, but it serves to illustrate the state of play at that moment. Conker, though ore similar to Mario 64 in terms of tone than the canceled rare RPG “Project Dream”, was the one that had to change after Banjo-Kazooie became a thing. I mean, having two cutesy first-party 3D Platformers coming out at the same time on the same console was questionable but from the same studio wasn’t an option. Banjo was Tim Stamper’s baby.”
Conker’s gameplay continued to take shape with the team giving him a girlfriend character by the name of Berry who could help traverse the game’s levels, collect nuts and a bunch of other bog-standard platformer activities. Despite these additions, each time it was shown to the press the general consensus continued to be that banjo was the heavy favorite.
Outlets like n64.com felt that Banjo’s camera control was more fluid, with game players saying that Conker’s overly cutesy aesthetic was borderline disturbing. The friendly competition between the two would continue later that same year when both mascots popped up in Diddy Kong Racing towards the end of 1997. It was a weird fit, though. In this game, Banjo is his same lovable self and Conker looks like his soul was taken out and replaced with acorns.
In 1998, Rare decided that, among other things, a name change was in order for the project. “Conker’s Quest” wasn’t exactly the most glitzy moniker so was renamed to Twelve Tales: Conker 64. The team also felt that adding multiplayer with both competitive and cooperative modes would help differentiate it from Banjo which only offered a single-player experience.
Speaking of single-player, more elements were being added to Conker including Berry being able to hop on a dinosaur to take out enemies.
All of these changes and additions also resulted in delays so while the Banjo team started to approach the Finish Line, the Conker team conversely started losing confidence in their game, and its continued identity crisis, meanwhile a deluge of colorful mascot platformers began jumping and or bopping onto the N64 headlined by such luminaries as Chameleon Twist, Glover, or any of the bazillion others that came out around that time.
From Family Friendly to Foul Mouthed Squirrel
By this point, Conker was going to be late to the party no matter how they tackled it. This put the team in a bind. Canceling or rebooting it into another genre wasn’t an option, as the Stampers had been so gung-ho about Conker’s potential that they had also greenlit a GBC title Conker’s Pocket Tales which had been going smoothly. The team plugged away, though in somewhat of a funk not really knowing what to do next, which only resulted in more delays.
Rare Artist and Character Designer Don Murphy went on record with Emily Rogers in 2012 saying bluntly “Twelve Tales to put it politely, was not a good game”. Software engineer Chris Marlow also shared that sentiment during an interview in the Rare Replay supplemental materials with “There was an awful lot of content and there were lots of fun ideas but it just really wasn’t gelling as a finished game” with the team floundering and Banjo-Kazooie becoming Rare’s big 1998 smash success the threat of cancellation was looking like a very real possibility. They either needed to find a solution, or throw everything in the bin and move on to something else.
So in early 1999 Chris Seaboard took the initiative and brought an idea to the Stampers in a bid to save Conker’s life which was instead of having him collecting nuts, wearing hats, and smiling.. he would swear, drink, and unbeknownst to them at the time fight literal piles of fecal matter.
In his own words, “The initial idea was a simple one. Conker is an innocent who wanders into difficult situations and inadvertently causes even more mayhem, before wandering off not looking back. Conker genuinely wants to help people but doesn’t quite manage it.
I thought that would be funny. It sort of evolved from there really as Tolkien once said,” ‘the tale grew in the telling,’ or in other words: ‘I made the bleep up as I went along’ You try doing that now in the industry. Bugger me, ‘The Planners’ would have an epileptic aneurysm!”
The response from the Stampers to all of this was along the lines of I LOVE IT. The New Direction was genuinely bold and fresh, emphasizing narrative and humor over collecting scores of bubbly wobblies or whatever it is that the British love to collect. With Stamper’s green light and a promotion for Chris to project leader development on Conker was restarted. Although obviously, they had a decent amount of existing assets and technology at their disposal.
Many new characters were created during this process. While others got some pretty drastic makeovers, Conker in a rather odd but brilliant move not only stayed the same but got even cuter.
In that same issue of Retro Gamer I mentioned earlier, Chris explained this decision, “That was one of the few things that carried over from Twelve Tales where the squirreliness of Conker had more relevance. Indeed his initial movement style was on four legs jumping from point to point very much like his real-world counterpart. Generally, though, it’s as good a cutesy character as any. In fact, if you looked at the character design from ‘Twelve Tales’, it became a lot more cutesy in Bad Fur Day which juxtaposes nicely with the actual tone of the game.”
A Renewed Focus and Nintendo’s response
Restarting development was obviously unseen by the general public, but by late 1999 questions from both the media and fans were becoming more and more insistent asking, “Hey! Whatever happened to Conker 64? Is he canceled?” It got to the point where Rare had to say something and in this case, it was on their official FAQ page.
It stated, “No it hasn’t, it’s still being worked on by a full team and with the same level of dedication as when it was first announced.” and that wasn’t a lie. The change in direction completely reinvigorated the team with everyone wanting to get in on the joke as it were.
So while things creatively were firing on all cylinders, there was just one tiny thing left to take care of… Telling the family-friendly Nintendo that they were now publishing a game that had sunflowers with massive yabbos, huge amounts of fecal matter everywhere, and that swearing that was on par with South Park from that era.
Guess what Nintendo said when they heard the news…
They were all like “Um okay if you’re sure.” when informed that Conker would now be targeting a mature rating instead of the E for everyone that Nintendo was expecting.
Rare’s Games. along with Nintendo’s own. were the Platinum sellers on the N64. There was very little pushback from Nintendo except for two specific references that they asked to be removed. For those of you that are morbidly curious the offending jokes were a reference to Pokemon and on the polar opposite end of the spectrum.. the Ku Klux Klan.
Aside from that, Chris said that 99.9% of all the edgy material they had wanted to include made it into the final game.
With the creative juices cooking development going smoothly, pop culture references were sprinkled liberally throughout the game and formed the backbone of many of Conker’s most iconic sequences The Saving Private Ryan segment was a standout.
Chris admitted later that “the amount of work that went into that whole set piece was a game’s worth in itself.” It was decided that the camera system should also be more cinematic, since the gameplay was revolving more around contextual interactions rather than platforming, so the team took inspiration from an unlikely source. Prince of Persia 3D was cited as an example of the type of camera angles that the Conker team wanted to implement. Thankfully, they did so to a much more successful degree.
In terms of graphics, Rare’s Engineers spent at least six weeks rewriting and optimizing Nintendo’s provided microcode, which only featured comments in Japanese, to support more advanced lighting and audio capabilities. All character interactions in Conker were also fully voiced. It became one of the very few N64 games to ship on a 64-megabyte cart alongside other monster whoppers like Resident Evil 2.
Even with that, the team ultimately couldn’t cram absolutely everything in. There was still around 20% more content that they weren’t able to finish. This included longer sections involving hell and a Greg the Boss fight with the bull being even more extensive, and the windmill setting with additional characters and storyline sequences.
Closing Time for the Squirrel
In Chris’s own words, as he shared with Retro Gamer, “Time was — and is — always the great enemy.”
Then after a tremendously long-winded development, Conker’s Bad Fur Day was set to be unleashed on the gaming World in March 2001 just months away from the Gamecube’s debut later that year.
The launch of their new console was obviously where most of Nintendo’s attention was so when they decided to publish Conker’s BFD… Oh, wait… It says here that they didn’t publish it… This can’t be right…
It appears that RARE self-published this version of the game with the European release being published by the late THQ. I guess Nintendo didn’t want any of that smoke which might explain why they decided against using any of the regular marketing avenues, chiefly Nintendo Power, which just stopped mentioning Conker the second the potty humor started to Bubble Up from the toilet. They just straight-up ghosted it. This meant that Gamers who used NP as their main source of information for upcoming releases might not even know Conker had come out.
Subscriber counts for NP aren’t widely available but based on the little data that’s out there they likely had a readership in the hundreds of thousands around that time frame. It was an important arm of Nintendo’s marketing strategy so a major game getting skipped entirely wasn’t really going to help matters while Nintendo had its name taken off the box.
Marketing was still handled and funded by them accompanied by the name Starcom did the actual “Dirty Work”. They held promotions and events on college campuses, in bars, on late-night TV, and even in adult magazines but nowhere else. No ads appeared on websites, saturday morning cartoon blocks, or even in comic books.
This was obviously because Nintendo wasn’t comfortable with promoting such “mature content” and unfortunately their worries weren’t entirely unfounded. KB Toys refused to stock it, and newspapers like the Los Angeles Times wrote stories about how the once pure Nintendo had suddenly decided to Peddle SMUT to minors. They even got quotes from a mom in Indiana who said after buying the m-rated game saying, “This is disgusting sophomoric humor and I’m disappointed in Nintendo. It’s like Disney releasing pornography.”
The obvious problem with this marketing approach was that it was aimed at a very specific demographic that probably wasn’t that interested in Nintendo games. Given the meteoric rise of the PlayStation brand, why buy the erotic squirrel poo game when Red Faction 2, Twisted Metal: Black, and Final Fantasy 10 were on the horizon?
It shouldn’t surprise anyone that Conker’s Bad Fur Day Jaeger bombed at retail. Information leaked to IGN back in the day points to the game moving less than 55 000 copies in North America during its first month with the leaked figures specifying that the game was doing worse and worse as time went on.
This was a shame. The gaming media heaped praise on Rare’s wild and weird gamble. I landed incredibly high review scores across the board, and without a doubt lived up to Rare’s already very lofty standards. This was the freshest most unique thing they’d released in years. Breaking away from the collect-a-thon conveyor belt, the studio had gradually become and delivering a truly creative vision despite the disastrous sales.
Fast forward a bit, and the game would see a re-release in the form of Conker: Live and Reloaded near the end of the lifecycle of the original Xbox, and would get a modern-ish proper release in the Rare Replay itself as well. They did start work on a sequel but didn’t get much traction on it. The nail in the squirrel’s coffin was when the ownership of Rare was handed over to Microsoft, where they didn’t wanna hear anything about another damned squirrel game.
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