Rare HQ Manor Farmhouse
Image: DJP Drones / Time Extension

These days, Rare is a very important part of Microsoft's game studio network, overseeing the incredibly successful Sea of Thieves as well as working on Everwild, one of Xbox's key exclusives. It was also instrumental in the creation of Microsoft's avatar system on Xbox 360, as well as the Kinect controller-free interface platform.

However, for an entire generation of gamers, the name 'Rare' evokes very different memories; this is the company behind the likes of Donkey Kong Country, Battletoads, Killer Instinct, Blast Corps, Banjo-Kazooie, Jet Force Gemini and GoldenEye 007, as well as seemingly countless other NES, Game Boy, N64 and SNES titles – many of which have sold millions of copies.

All of the games listed above were developed not at Rare's current purpose-built Manor Park HQ – which it has occupied since 1999 – but in a quant farm complex which resides just a few miles up the road and, for almost a decade and a half, was the company's base of operations – making it arguably one of the most important places of video game development in the world.

It's not hyperbole to claim that some of the most iconic and commercially successful titles of the 1990s were made here, but there's precious little information available online or in print about the incredible work that took place on this site – until now, that is.

Rare's History

While Rare began life as Ultimate Play The Game in Ashby-de-la-Zouch – a prolific creator of innovative software for home micros such as the Sinclair ZX Spectrum and Commodore 64 – its founders, Tim and Chris Stamper, quickly identified home consoles as a growth market. They sold the Ultimate name to US Gold and set up Rare Ltd, relocating their base of operations to the nearby village of Twycross soon afterwards.

With a population of around 850 people (according to the 2011 census) and sitting right on the county border between Leicestershire and Warwickshire, Twycross is hardly what you'd call a bustling location; it is perhaps most famous for its internationally-acclaimed Twycross Zoo World Primate Centre. However, this has been the base for Rare for the past few decades – making it a truly notable location in terms of video game history.

The Stampers decided to explore the potential of working on Nintendo's Famicom, a system which was not available in the west at that point. Rare's team famously reverse-engineered the console, impressing Nintendo of America president Minoru Arakawa so much that he awarded the company the first western development licence for what would become the Nintendo Entertainment System. Rare's first game for the NES was Slalom, released in 1986. By this point, Rare had fully relocated to Manor Farm on the southern edge of Twycross, a Grade II listed 18th-century house surrounded by a vast array of associated outbuildings on its grounds.

From Farm To Hit Factory

"The farmhouse changed over time," recalls Paul Machacek, who joined Rare in 1988 and still works there today, serving as the company's Test Manager. He's the perfect person to give us a whistle-stop tour of how the complex evolved over the next decade. "When I joined. only the main house was usable, and the outbuildings – barns and cow sheds – were mostly derelict. In the farmhouse itself, the ground floor held a reception, meeting space and a couple of rooms that had the artists in, one of which was Tim Stamper's office. On the 1st floor, there were two large rooms connected by an archway in a wall where all programmers sat. When I joined and got a game, there were eight programmers, so eight games in production – and all in those two rooms. I recall Paul Proctor sitting near me doing pinball games, Simon Hallam close by working on Time Lord (I think), and Chris Stamper had the desk next to me, where I think he was finishing an American Football game, which might have been John Elway's Quarterback."

Machacek says that desk reshuffles were commonplace, and he soon ended up on the floor above Tim Stamper's office. "Late at night, he'd play loud music below me, and I'd play loud music above him. I think the rivalry got to the point where I briefly placed my speakers face-down on the floor."

Rare Manor Farmhouse HQ
Rare's former HQ as it appears today. The Grade II listed farmhouse served as the hub of the company in the early years before Rare was forced to expand into the surrounding buildings — Image: DJP Drones / Time Extension

The main house became a sprawling hub of development – both for software and hardware, it should be noted, as Rare was experimenting with its own hardware projects at the time, including the unreleased 'Play Boy' handheld. "Off the two dev rooms and above reception – which was in an extension on the side of the main house – was the IT department, or to put it simply Pete Cox," Machacek explains. "He built all of our dev gear, ROM/RAM boards, and so on. Actually, the room I described as 'Reception' was originally a farmhouse kitchen. Every day Beryl – Tim and Chris' mum – would cook us lunch in there, and we'd all sit around the table for 30mins, which is all we got to eat. It was a really small team at that point, so this was not an issue."

This wasn't just a place of work, either; the upper floors of the main house actually served as living quarters for the Rare bosses at one point. "On the top floor, there were two rooms and a toilet and shower room," continues Machacek. "Chris Stamper lived in one, and his brother Stephen lived in the other. They eventually bought houses and moved out, and the larger room (which had been Chris') became our first testing department. The other room was used as a creche for a while when Tim's kids were young, and a couple of nannies were employed. The testing room also had a hatch in the ceiling which, if you climbed on a table lead, through a small access way to the roof where the views were fantastic. I recall looking out towards the site we'd eventually buy in the mid-'90s and build our current studio on."

As the '80s drew to a close, Rare's output became prolific and it produced a host of titles for the NES, including the likes of WWF Wrestlemania (Acclaim), Wheel of Fortune (GameTek), Who Framed Roger Rabbit (LJN), Silent Service (Ultra Games), Ivan "Ironman" Stewart's Super Off Road (Tradewest) and Captain Skyhawk (Milton Bradley). With the arrival of the Nintendo Game Boy in 1989, Rare began supporting that platform, too; The Amazing Spider-Man (LJN), WWF Superstars (LJN), Sneaky Snakes (Tradewest) and Wizards & Warriors X: The Fortress of Fear (Acclaim) were just a handful of the titles it developed for the monochrome handheld.

Rare games
A selection of Rare's titles, the vast majority of which were produced at Manor Farm — Image: Damien McFerran / Time Extension

Despite the products being produced by the studio, there were constant reminders of Rare's rustic setting. "The farmhouse and most of the outbuildings surrounded a square farmyard which was used as a car park," Machacek says. "On the side of the car park, against the perimeter wall with the road, was a chicken house with chickens everywhere. It was a lottery each day to see who might accidentally park on a chicken. I believe it did happen on one occasion."

As more staff were taken on, parking became tricky – given that most people commuted to the studio's remote location, almost everyone had their own car. "You didn't come in first in the morning and expect to get out at lunchtime for a dental appointment because people would have to back their cars out of the way, and the only place to eventually take them was the main road outside," recalls Machacek with a grimace. "Eventually, an outbuilding in the corner of the farmyard and adjacent to the road was converted into a larger kitchen and dining area, and the old one in the farmhouse was a reception after that. About one-quarter of the site was an open field where Tim kept a couple of shire horses. The Stampers also had a bunch of dogs, German Shepherds, which wandered around all the time."

Paul Machacek
Paul Machacek — Image: Paul Machacek

As the '80s drew to a close, it quickly became apparent that the Stampers had backed the right horse. While the NES was being beaten in the UK by Sega's Master System and 16-bit home computers like the Atari ST and Amiga, in North America and Japan, the system ruled supreme – and Rare's reputation for producing quality NES (and Game Boy) software allowed the company to consistently secure the work required to expand dramatically in a relatively short space of time. Rare created over 45 games for the NES alone – as well as a dozen for the Game Boy – and it soon became clear that the main Manor Farmhouse building had become a limiting factor to growth. Thankfully, there was plenty of room to expand.

"As the studio grew in the early 1990s, we had to start refurbing the outbuildings and also reroute the driveway to its current location," says Machacek. "The drive went around the back of a barn and the first row of outbuildings and in front of a couple of old skeletal barns and the rear row of outbuildings and came out onto the A444 opposite the entrance to the church. The old entrance was actually bricked up with a small door put in so that we had easy access to cross the road and buy ice creams at the freezer centre that used to be by the church – this was knocked down years ago, and houses are there now."

Growing Pains

As more people joined the company, the existing farm buildings were converted to a new use. "The cow sheds and stables and the main barn alongside the car park were prime candidates, as they were structurally the most complete, just needing an internal refurb mostly," says Machacek. "But eventually, the outer skeletal barns had to be rebuilt into something more usable."

The converted outbuildings would house the teams behind some of Rare's most famous titles. "The GoldenEye, Killer Instinct and Conker teams were in the outbuildings on either side of the old driveway," explains Machacek. "Donkey Kong Country was in the farmyard barn upstairs. When we all got SGI machines and rendering went nuts, we had two giant SGI systems the size of double-height fridges which were known as 'The Deathstar' and 'Jabba'. They'd be rendering art 24/7 and would often crash at night when no one was around to restart them. The only air conditioning system we had at Rare was put into that room to look after those two machines."

Donkey Kong Country marked the beginning of a much closer relationship between Rare and Nintendo, with the latter eventually buying a 49 percent share in the former. Donkey Kong sequels followed on the SNES, as did a port of the arcade hit Killer Instinct – all of these titles were million-sellers. When Nintendo released its N64 console in 1996, Rare was one of the key developers involved and crafted some of the platform's best games, such as GoldenEye, Blast Corps, Banjo-Kazooie (and Banjo-Tooie) and Jet Force Gemini.

Rare might have had the most up-to-date graphics technology at this point, but it's important to remember that the world of computing and development was very different back then. "The company was totally offline," says Machacek. "We were pre-internet and early on had no network internally, either. In the early days, art and audio files were hand-carried on floppy disks (which we managed to recover during Rare Replay), and eventually, an internal network went in to transfer files 'properly'. in 1998, a single PC was set up in a room and connected to the outside world. For many of us, it was our first experience of the internet."

Given its remote location and the moderate distance from the large towns of Nuneaton, Hinckley and Ashby-de-la-Zouch, the staff at Rare had ample time to hang out when not working. "With all the game teams competitively locked away from each other, the one time everyone regularly got together was lunchtime when we'd all hang out in the car park," recalls Machacek. "It was (briefly) quite social but became more difficult towards the end with the place rammed with cars. Not only the farmyard car park was full, but the whole length of the old driveway was parking, two cars wide, and then we converted part of the field for this purpose. Cars were even parked on one side of the new driveway, and it was not regarded as cool to be seen to be doing it as it meant you'd come in later than everyone else."

Rare HQ
A photo on the day of Chris Stamper's wedding, showing the converted barn in the background where Donkey Kong Country was created — Image: Chris Sutherland

Some staffers spent almost their entire waking day on-site, and this could result in some unexpected surprises. "Just inside the bricked-up old entrance, we built a brick and concrete BBQ area which was used during the summer," Machacek says. "It was home-built, but unfortunately, whoever did it didn't fully have the skills (or knowledge) to do it properly. They build a red-brick base and put some random patio concrete slabs across the top. They should have used ones with no air bubbles in them. One day, there was a massive bang heard from all offices, and then a load of concrete rained down on the building roofs. Apparently, the kitchen staff were heating the BBQ up, and the patio slabs exploded. The person cooking had only just walked away and was very lucky."

In keeping with the culinary theme, Machacek recalls that the company's Christmas parties could often get rather raucous. "In the early days, when we were small, we'd have our Christmas party at a local restaurant in Ashby or Market Bosworth or somewhere. Unfortunately, each year we'd get banned from that establishment straight after and eventually, word got around that we 'weren't a safe booking'. So one year, we hired a marquee tent and put it in the field. Unfortunately, we had a massive food fight and destroyed it, so had to buy a new one. We also had our fireworks there every year. It was quite common for some years for at least one of the emergency services to arrive at these gatherings."

Despite the incredible commercial and critical success Rare would experience during its time at Manor Farm, Machacek admits that it wasn't always plain sailing. "We worked very long hours, but it seemed like a paid hobby, and I was doing those anyway before joining Rare. I loved developing games, but you can't work at that level without sacrificing other things. There are projects I have fond memories of, but there were also difficult times for people and the studio as a whole. There was one year in the very early 1990s when only two games shipped and earned any money, and Kev Bayliss and I wrote both of them – WWF and Battletoads. Also, getting appropriate credit for things was not handled well at all. In the early days, we couldn't put credits in the game (visibly), so I used to hide my name in the binaries without knowing the internet would eventually allow people to find and share such stuff. In hindsight, I should have hidden the names of others I worked with, such as Kev, in those binaries too, but I was young and naive, and it just didn't occur to me. Some people got too much credit and reward for what they did, and others not enough. It was a haphazard system influenced by friendships and relationships within the studio. I'm quite critical about how things were run at the farmhouse. However, it went on to be successful, and you wouldn't be asking me such questions if we hadn't created all those games under those conditions back then. The Rare of today is run much more efficiently, I should add!"

Memories Of Manor Farm

While this feature began life as a friendly chat with Paul Machacek about working at Manor Farm, it quickly grew in scope and began to pull in recollections from other Rare staffers who worked at the location.

We'd like to thank everyone who took the time to offer up their valuable memories!

David Wise

David Wise
Image: David Wise

Wise served as a composer at Rare between 1985 to 2009 and was the company's sole musician up until 1994, when he was joined by Graeme Norgate and Robin Beanland. He left Rare and established his own studio in 2010 and has since contributed to the likes of Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze and Yooka-Laylee. He recently created Salamandos with Kev Bayliss.

I enjoyed working at the Manor Farmhouse. It was very much a family business with a focus on creating something truly great. It had a real buzz about the place.

I was based in a converted cow shed. No windows, except for a skylight. Quite isolating, but then that also helped me focus on work, which was incredibly technical without the luxury of the tools we enjoy today.

Favourite memories: The fireworks and Christmas Parties. They were always extravagant. And, working alongside other passionate creatives. It was quite competitive but ultimately very rewarding on many levels.

My least favourite memory is the parking. The studio was miles away from effective civilization - so we all had to drive. And if we were late, or needed to leave early, finding a suitable parking space was incredibly stressful.

Martin Hollis

Martin Hollis
Image: Martin Hollis

Hollis joined Rare in 1993 and worked with Chris Stamper on the coin-op Killer Instinct before serving as the lead designer on GoldenEye 007. He rose to the position of Head of Software at Rare but left in 1998, having worked on GoldenEye's then-unreleased successor, Perfect Dark. Hollis worked as a consultant on the development of the GameCube at Nintendo of America before establishing his own studio, Zoonami, in 2000.

It was a pleasant rural location with no distractions. Twycross is pretty much in the middle of nowhere, except that it is on the A444. The Rare buildings were centred around the farmhouse, which was a mid-sized house with extensions, and set around the yard were barns of various sizes. These were converted by the firm into nice offices as the firm grew. In my time, there was a building for the Donkey Kong Country team, a barn for the Killer Instinct team, and so on.

Goldeneye Exchange
Doak (left) and Hollis (right) performing the famous 'Russian exchange' of GoldenEye 007 — Image: David Doak / Martin Hollis

After starting in the Killer Instinct barn, I moved to be beside the music people. GoldenEye team started as just myself, Mark Edmonds, and then Karl Hilton, if I remember correctly. We were tucked away on the back edge of the site, and as the rooms were converted in the barn the team could grow.

One of the nicest things was the surroundings which were very pleasant indeed. It was always a bit odd having all the security cameras so that it felt something like a cross between a homely farmhouse and a high-security complex hidden away from the roadside.

The vibe was sort of helpful for making a James Bond game, to be honest. Rare took a lot of care over security because their relationships with their customers, including Nintendo, required absolute secrecy.

Kev Bayliss

Kev Bayliss
Image: Kev Bayliss

One of Rare's earliest employees, Bayliss joined the company when he was still a teenager and worked on many of the firm's early NES titles as an artist and character designer. He also worked on Donkey Kong Country, Killer Instinct (including motion capture for some of the fighters) and Battletoads. Bayliss was also the lead character artist on Perfect Dark Zero. He now works at Playtonic (Yooka-Laylee), a studio formed by ex-Rare staffers, which is based in the nearby town of Burton-On-Trent. He recently created Salamandos with David Wise.

Working at Manor farmhouse initially felt like I was visiting some really cool relatives in the countryside. The building itself was a large Georgian house which, from the exterior, appeared to be just a regular farm. However, the upper floors inside had been converted into bright offices filled with artwork, video game hardware, computers and technical drawing desks.

Immediately after joining the company, I was made to feel very welcome and often ate home-cooked meals along with the other devs that had joined at around that time. I guess you could say that it kind of felt like a 'home from home', because it was a very comfortable place to work. If you wanted to take a break, you were in a very calm location, and so you could take a wander around outside and play with the dogs, watch the horses, or venture over to the tiny post office that used to be there – to stock up on chocolate and treats.

It's because the place was so comfortable to work at that most of the young staff that joined probably spent so much time there. On a Saturday morning (once I could drive my own car), I'd often take a drive into the local town and perhaps Leicester to the local Toys 'R' Us to grab one of the latest games before heading back to Twycross to continue working on whatever I'd been doing during the week – as did most of the other guys there.

This was often repeated on a Sunday, but usually a little later. Tim and Chris's parents would provide breakfast for those who were giving up their time at the weekends to come in and work – it was a lovely atmosphere and very relaxed, but at the same time, we worked hard on our projects during the weekends while listening to our favourite music.

As the company grew, we were often moving around to form different 'departments', which enabled us to work together more easily. The top floor, which was once the sleeping area for Stephen Stamper, was eventually transformed into the testing / Q&A room, and slowly all of the outbuildings were converted into really lovely offices, a gym, a canteen, and a games room. This process went on for quite a while until we'd taken on so many employees that we needed to covert the additional barns which had previously been empty or used for storage.

I started work on the 1st floor in an office with Tim, which was soon all knocked through to form an open plan working area for software engineers. At this point, I moved downstairs, which kind of became the graphics department and reception area. This continued for a few years before the outbuildings were converted, and I then remember moving out into those to begin working seriously on Killer Instinct. This was a really great time, we were able to choose our carpet colour and paint on the walls of our offices which were big enough for two people, and we'd customise each one with whatever wall art we owned.

Rare Manor Farmhouse HQ
Image: DJP Drones / Time Extension
The Dutch Barns on the left and right of this image were converted into offices as Rare expanded. The right-hand barn was used to store cars before its conversion. "The garage block was converted, and Conker development was in there," says Kev Bayliss. "That was the place we found a kitten, which had fallen about 10 ft down into a wall cavity of hollow bricks. We rescued it with a vacuum cleaner hose, sucking it up by its head. We called it hoover!"

Trying to make your way from the car into reception first thing in the morning was often a bit hairy, as sometimes you'd be met by three large geese that used to raise their wings and charge at you. I guess that was the morning exercise for the day and probably the only exercise a lot of us took before we eventually decided to get a corporate membership at the gym / spa at the nearby Bosworth hall. This was a great team-building experience, as at 5pm, we'd all race to our cars three days a week in groups, head to the gym and spa for an hour or so, and then come back to the farmhouse for food that had been prepared for us by the cooks, and then we'd continue working there, often until 9 or 10 at night, before heading home, getting some rest and repeating the process again the next day!

I have so many memories of the place, but I was there for quite a few years and saw the buildings change, the company grow, and the quality of our work improve so much that it made me really proud to work there. I also made a lot of friends with a lot of really talented people who I'm still in touch with today, and even work with at Playtonic or on other projects in my spare time. I guess you could say that Manor Farm kind of brought us all together, and I'm grateful for that, for sure!

David Doak

David Doak
Image: David Doak

After studying biochemistry at Oxford University and a brief stint as a research scientist, Doak joined Rare and provided network support for Donkey Kong Country 3: Dixie Kong's Double Trouble! on the SNES before working on the legendary GoldenEye 007. He left the company in 1998 to start Free Radical Design.

It was certainly memorable. An absolute hive of activity, with some great laughs and camaraderie. A bit of a monastic / boarding school institution, though. Almost all male, and the rules could be a little quirky.

I started on the top floor of the Farmhouse with QA / Testing when I was doing just Sys Admin, briefly moved to the ground floor of the DK barn – then was in the north stables (Bond Block) for the rest of my time at Rare. Also, because of my sys admin / support role, I had access to all of the buildings on site – which was unusual for most employees.

Martin Hollis and I shared an office for a lot of my time at Rare; we had a lot of dark laughs together. One thing that others may not have mentioned was the kitchen and the support / cleaning staff – they really looked after us. At one point, Sean (chef) used to do some wonderful specials once a week – the Bond Team always signed up.

My least favourite memory was probably just the amount of time spent there – while I was at Rare, that was pretty much where I was if I wasn’t in bed.

David Doak
Doak hard at work — Image: David Doak

Robin Beanland

Robin Beanland
Image: Robin Beanland

Arriving at Rare in 1994, Beanland has composed music for many Rare games and is still employed by the company at its new Manor Park HQ, just down the road from Manor Farm. In 2001, he won a British Academy of Film and Television Arts award for his work on Conker's Bad Fur Day (he also co-wrote the game's script with Chris Seavor) and his work on Sea of Thieves earned him an Ivor Novello Award for Best Original Video Game Score.

For me, it was just absolutely magical (it still is at Manor Park, Rare's current HQ). I’d been trying for many years to make a steady living out of music – playing in bands, writing music for TV – then in early 1994, my brother showed me an ad in EDGE magazine for a video game company in Twycross looking for composers. I sent a demo tape in, got an interview and landed the job. I started working at Rare (along with Graeme Norgate) on April the 5th, 1994. Initially, myself and Graeme shared an office together, but then I moved into the office next door.

Because our offices were part of a converted barn, the ceilings were quite high. This proved to be quite challenging when we came to record the character voices for Killer Instinct (our first game) as the rooms were pretty echoey. So Stephen (Stamper) built a makeshift vocal booth at the end of my office out of washing line and heavy army and navy blankets. We actually used this vocal booth for Killer Instinct and Killer Instinct 2. Stephen later built a much more substantial recording booth that we used, right up until we moved to Manor Park down the road.

Rare Manor Farmhouse HQ
This aerial image shows the rough locations of key buildings at the Manor Farmhouse location at the close of the '90s, just before Rare moved to its new purpose-built HQ down the road — Image: DJP Drones / Time Extension

But it really was (and is to this day) a proper 'pinch-me' moment. I couldn’t believe I had an office with all this amazing audio kit and that I was getting paid to write music and make sound effects all day.

I actually moved offices five times in the five years that I was at manor farm. I was in the audio block, but we all moved out of there so that the GoldenEye team could move in. Then we moved to one of the converted 'Dutch Barns', and I had an absolutely massive office. I was downstairs, and the Conker team had the floor upstairs. But as space got tight as the company expanded, I needed to move out of that office to make way for the Game Boy team who could all fit into that space quite comfortably. So my last office at Manor Farm was Kev’s old office from when he worked on Killer Instincts 1 & 2.

I have so many happy memories – and I’m sure there’s even more to be made – so it’s very hard to pick one specific moment in time. For me (aside from the mates I’ve made) I think it’s always those magical moments where you see an idea start to form and crystallise and then in turn see the team become inspired and fired up. I’ve witnessed it so many times over the years, and it’s nothing but magical each time. I think it’s because Rare has such a wealth of creative talent and you can’t help but get inspired by it.