Gaming Mecca Coventry Has the Rarest of Exhibitions Running

By Rich Stanton on at

As any recent reader of Kotaku UK knows, the brusque and no-nonsense city of Coventry is a veritable hotbed of gaming activity. The latest manifestation of this is part of an exhibition at the Herbert Art Gallery & Museum focused on the grand old British developer Rare. Called Rare: From 8-bit to Xbox One, it's running as part of a wider exhibition on the history of play in general (Play: An Exploration of Toys, Games & Fun) and, the museum claims, is the first-ever exhibition dedicated to a video games company. This is not true, but points for chutzpah.

So let's get down to brass tacks here. First of all, is there room for the best-named game ever made, and yes I'm talking about It's Mr. Pants!

I asked the museum, and have yet to receive a response. I like to imagine the Herbert's PR team panicking at the realisation curators have overlooked this moment in history, favouring niche titles like Goldeneye 007 and Banjo-Kazooie.

The exhibition features playable versions of certain Rare games (though rather worryingly the example given was Donkey Kong Country – which let's face it is no Mr. Pants) and apparently insight into "the planning and creation of a new video game."

James Thomas, lead engineer at Rare, got roped-in to help and also has some press release quotes in which, rather confusingly, he says Rare was once bought by Nintendo before the Microsoft acquisition — my understanding is that Nintendo had a 49% stake in the company without ever owning it, but then this guy actually works there so maybe he's right? Let's hope the exhibition is clear because that would be a fascinating correction to the record.

Here James Thomas is, on the left, next to fellow Rare-ite Jim Horth. Look at that happy smiling face on Thomas, he seems nice. The kind of guy who'd never knowingly lead you wrong. But Horth's smile... oooh there's something ambiguous there. A little hint of Alan Rickman, the sense he knows more than he's letting on. Would you buy a second-hand copy of Viva Piñata from this man?

Anyway such minor points aside, you will note that despite having room for a bloody Battletoad there's no evidence anywhere in this picture of Mr. Pants, unless that dude in the blue is about to whip off his t-shirt and start cosplaying. Hold on, he almost looks like he could be Thomas's brother. What is going on in the West Midlands...

The big reason Rare: From 8-Bit to Xbox One will be worth going to is to get a sense of a truly fascinating studio history. The Stamper brothers, who founded the company, have never been the most public-facing individuals and, thanks to their undoubted talent, this played very much in their favour. Before the studio was Rare, of course, it was known as Ultimate Play The Game, and had a real mystique at the time. The way this studio built itself up over the 80s and 90s is a story stuffed with top-class games and technical leaps, and one that still has large parts untold.

Speaking of which, our good friend James Thomas also says that Rare's latest game has done rather well: “Sea of Thieves has attracted more than four million players to date and has more than 200 people working on the game." That figure obviously includes GamePass players but still (previously Microsoft had confirmed SoT sold over two million excluding GamePass).

So if you live in or near Coventry, this certainly looks worth the visit. I have one last observation. Every time I think of Rare, I think of something that so rarely find its way into an exhibition like this. It's a brutal and silly photoshop from a website long-since departed, and obviously it is very unfair yadda yadda, but it still makes me laugh every time.

Now I'm not saying that anyone should go to the Herbert with Packham Rock in mind. God forbid (insert winky emoticon here). But it's interesting how, in my mind, this is as much a part of Rare's history as any piece of internal concept art. It shows how a small subset of players thought of the studio's output in that little window of time, and the whole reason it's devastating is because — within that era — it had a grain of truth to it. I don't think this image diminishes Rare or the games. It shows they were worth taking the piss out of, and what's more British than that?

As my finger hovered over the 'publish' button on this article, the answer I'd been awaiting arrived.

"It’s Mr. Pants features in our games montage and collection of cartridges/tapes/discs — we couldn’t let a classic like that go unloved — but there’s no in depth look at it," writes James Thomas. "The history of Rare tries to cover the studio’s key moments and mentions as many of our games across the generations as possible." Well well well. I appreciate that Thomas tried to make us all feel better by calling it a classic, but...

Ceci n'est pas une Mr. Pants!

My stiff upper lip is trembling, and a tear begins to form in the eye. So long then, Mr. Pants, consigned to history's montage. You were too pure, too crude, and too good for this triple-A world of glass-housed prototypes, blow-dried piñatas and Battletoads art. I implore everyone to attend this exhibition, it will surely be wonderful. Just don't forget, while basking in the glory days, to spare a thought for the hero who fell along the way.

Rare: From 8-Bit to Xbox One runs at the Herbert Art Gallery & Museum until 23 Sepetmber 2018, and admission is free.