A collection of 30 games from British developer Rare that span consoles from the ZX Spectrum to the Xbox 360, Rare Replay is an interesting package. Some of these titles haven't aged well compared to their more modern brethren, but it is neat to see Microsoft lovingly preserve this storied company's work.
However, it doesn't take long to deduce the real reason Rare Replay exists: to plant the seeds for a return to sidescrolling beat-em-up Battletoads. Rash, Zitz, and Pimple have been making cameos in other games recently, notably in Shovel Knight as boss characters and in the next season of Killer Instinct with Rash as a fighter. Banjo-Kazooie, another Rare franchise favorite, isn't getting cameos, is probably just as popular as the 'toads, and has wide crossover appeal, but hasn't been talked about by Microsoft yet (Microsoft owns Rare and their characters).
So why come back to Battletoads, a difficult but memorable NES game that, at best, was popular in a niche audience? 'Toads-inspired merchandise.
Playing games in Rare Replay unlocks behind-the-scenes videos discussing how certain games got made. In the second video revealing why Battletoads was created (on top of being an edgier take on Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles), artist Kev Bayliss tells us:
"Battletoads is a game that we produced featuring three characters which were toads called Rash, Zitz, and Pimple. We wanted a set of characters that we could produce huge merchandise for. I remember the Batman film had just hit the movies and [Rare was] looking at all of the different merchandising that you could buy for film and for the character - and we wanted something like that...T-shirts, the plastic models, the bedspreads...everything!"
The trouble with this revelation about Battletoads specifically is that the nostalgia surrounding this franchise is different than the fond feelings over games like Pac-Man, which also has had a ton of gaming merchandise tied to it. Pac-Man the game came before Pac-Man the T-shirt, Pac-Man Fever the song, and Pac-Man the restaurant; the game inspired other memorabilia, the memorabilia didn't drive production of the game. The desire to revisit the 'toads is coming from a cynical place, especially when the Battletoads creators admit they created the game to shill the characters on a Saturday morning cartoon show and figurines. It is easy to see how the long-running "Do You Have Battletoads" crank calls devolved into a meme (the joke is the first achievement you get for booting up Battletoads on Rare Replay). This button referencing that joke from Gamestop was made to promote Rare Replay, and would almost assuredly be mass-produced for a Battletoads sequel. It's going to be the Portal companion cube/"The cake is a lie" all over again.
I've never been ashamed of video games, but I've always been embarrassed on how much money I've spent on items paying tribute to my favorite games instead of, well, the games themselves. My particular weakness is Super Mario Bros 3 and I've got enough stuff with Mario's face on it to fill a small museum. Were Nintendo to issue a Kickstarter tomorrow for a true SMB3 sequel, I would give my kingdom and then some to make it happen.
This is my current issue with amiibos and collector's editions like Fallout 4's Pip Boy Edition; publishers know video game fans are suckers for merchandise and will pay good money for a phone case with our favorite characters' face on it. In lieu of making better games with these characters in them, we're investing in plastic statues and meme-based video game products that add little-to-nothing to the games. Even if you don't buy these game-related products, focus is being taken away from software in favor of these trinkets; every video game Kickstarter has merchandise attached to backer goals to incentivize more donations (for example, see the fervor over Shenmue's Ryo jacket for Shenmue III's Kickstarter). There are currently way more amiibo than there are games that support the plastic figurines, and our buying frenzy over them is why Nintendo keeps making more.
Our games are being sacrificed for our closet shrines. That's why I'm onboard for a Final Fantasy VII Remake, but not necessarily a statue celebrating Cloud's iconic Buster Sword (a crappy starter weapon you replace in the first few hours of the game anyways). I remember feeling similarly when Blizzard announced in 2007 they would partner with another company to make figurines for players' World of Warcraft characters; you are constantly getting better gear in the game and your avatar/figurine's appearance is always subject to change. Why spend money celebrating an in-game thing when that in-game item is constantly changing?
Maybe this isn't a big deal in the current climate of collector editions. Maybe a new Battletoads will come and go without a single coffee mug with Pimple's face on it. Maybe we'll get more new 'toads games to celebrate instead of fawning over yet another dust-collecting tchotchke.
Given the industry's track record on this issue though, I'm not optimistic. Capcom promotes Mega Man-related items over making new Mega Man games. Heroes of the Storm has been out of beta just 2 months and already has collectible dolls. Gamestop's $140 million acquisition of ThinkGeek had to be because ThinkGeek sells so much Minecraft creeper merchandise. Nintendo's new Animal Crossing party game, Animal Crossing: Amiibo Festival, is sure to be another amiibo delivery mechanism.
Maybe publishers and developers found out these trinkets are more profitable than sequels, and every time we give them a chance to, we prove them right. Maybe I'll just stick to my museum-quality video games and stay away from the gift shop. Maybe you should too.