When looking at a company that has been as prolific in their industry as Rare, it truly seems that they can do no wrong. That was certainly the case when I and many others went into the store and dropped some cash on their first game for the Xbox, Grabbed by the Ghoulies. At the time, I loved Ghoulies. I was about 10 years old and the simple gameplay mixed with the cartoonish spooky environments really gelled with me. When I went back to the game in 2016, a lot of the charm had washed off and I can see that it is not what I remembered it to be. In fact, many people still call it the most disappointing game of all time.
Grabbed by the Ghoulies is a so-so game that just so happens to stand as the worst game Rare has ever made. But how did we get here? Well, to answer that, let’s flashback to the year 2002. Microsoft is breaking into the home console market and they are looking to lock up some quality first party developers. After a slight bidding war with Activision, Microsoft ends up the owner of the Nintendo 2nd party developer Rare, as well as all of their character trademarks. This includes characters such as Conker and Banjo as well as yet to be released titles/characters.
This is where Grabbed by the Ghoulies comes into play. Ghoulies was originally a Gamecube title that was in development for roughly two years before the purchase of Rare by Microsoft. In the beginning, when Grabbed by the Ghoulies was simply named after a dick joke, the game was intended to be an open world free roamer inside of a spooky haunted house. It was something akin to Banjo-Kazooie in a Halloween world. All around, it was played up like the game that Rare fans wanted from the developer.
However, the sweeping change in ownership called for the project to be temporarily put on hold. Shortly after, the title was fast tracked for an October release that was under a year away. This heavy time constraint caused many rewrites to what the game would ultimately become. The gameplay loop was simplified to the point of being compared to a 16-bit beat ‘em up. You would walk into room after room and fight with differing constraints. This caused many reviewers to cite repetitiveness as a major con to the title.
The developers of Ghoulies have stated that the switch to Xbox put a huge strain on their process. In an interview with the Tepid Seat, lead designer Greg Mayles stated that the conversion “wasn’t as simple as pressing the ‘convert to Xbox’ key on the development kit” and is a big reason for the over-simplified approach. Mayles goes on to state that Grabbed by the Ghoulies took much longer to develop than Banjo-Tooie, which was much broader in scope. This is because Rare had to start from scratch with a new framework to build their game. They had no familiarity with the build or with the testing and approval process of Microsoft Game Studios. So in order to meet deadlines set by Microsoft, Rare had to make Grabbed by the Ghoulies a simple and straight forward experience.
This is where the rift in the Rare faithful begun and the start of the Rare decline to making Xbox avatar clothes and Kinect Sports. After Ghoulies launched to a lukewarm critical reception and a severe distaste from many gamers on the Xbox, sales were less than stellar. Rare then tried again with a remake of Conkers Bad Fur Day with XBL support, but the sales were still way under predicted numbers. After that setback Rare tried again with two more games that were converted from a GameCube origin, Perfect Dark Zero and Kameo: Elements of Power. Both of which are lengthy tales in their own right, but still not quite the products the fans wanted from Rare.
In the business of making games, you only get so many swings at the plate. Your second chance is never guaranteed and by the time Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts and Bolts released to the dismay of Banjo fans far and wide, it seemed like Rare had finally struck out. However, 5 years after Nuts and Bolts sent tremors through the fans, Rare would release Killer Instinct for the Xbox One to massive praise and as of now it looks like they are continuing to right their ship with the upcoming game Sea of Thieves (puns). It’s been a long and crazy roller coaster ride for Rare so far and it’s crazy to think that a producer change and a game about beating up farting zombies almost caused a full on derailment.
For more of my thoughts on Grabbed by the Ghoulies, check out my latest YouTube video where my brother and I talk a bit more casually about our childhood with the game.