There was a time, once upon one, where Rayman was king, and it was good. The de facto mascot of Ubisoft and star of his own extremely well-regarded series of platformers was climbing the ladder toward legend-dom, seeking a spot in the pantheon of Legendary Mascots right next to good ol' Sonic and Mario. At its 1999 release, Rayman 2 was heralded by some as the best three-dimensional platformer ever made. But then it was ported to every system under the sun, and lo, it wore out its welcome. And then Rayman 3 tried to be "hip" (the downfall of so many before) and had less involvement from series creator Michel Ancel, and reviews were mixed. And then the Rabbids came, and we shall not speak of what happened next. For a while, it seemed as though Rayman would be consigned to the dustbin of forgotten video game mascots--until Ubisoft announced that a tiny team of artists and game designers at Ubisoft were working on a small downloadable Rayman title that would explore the titular character's origin story. A tiny team that blossomed into an immense effort worthy of a 15-minute credits sequence, and a game that went from being a bite-sized downloadable to an epic-length platforming adventure worthy of a full release. It was one of the best things to happen to the limbless hero in a long time.
More importantly, it's one of the best things to happen to traditional 2D platforming, of all time.
Rayman Origins was initially so-called because it focused on the main character's origin story, but it was changed in development to happen sometime between the second and third games in the series. The Origins title remained to reflect on the fact that it represented Rayman going back to his roots as a 2D platforming hero. Much like the first game, Origins features lengthy levels with a heavy emphasis on hunting out and unlocking secrets. Gameplay in Origins revolves around completing a series of levels, while collecting yellow fairy-like creatures called Lums (this game's equivalent of coins or bananas), and rescuing happy pink creatures called Electoons, who have been imprisoned in secret areas and are being held at the end of stages in exchange for Lums. Much like the first game, Origins revels in visually creative stage design with distinct and unusual settings. There are ten worlds total in Origins, with about as many themes scattered among them, and those themes rather unique--with musical deserts and fruit-filled icebox icebergs among mainstays like the ocean and jungle levels. And much like the first game, Origins is brutally difficult. Even moreso than the original in some ways (since Rayman has no health bar here--one hit and he's done for). But despite the "original" title, Origins has a very different feel from its predecessors. The original 2D Rayman games (both the original and the Game Boy and GBA spinoffs) were slow-paced, almost thoughtful affairs, with an ambling Rayman moving through levels at a steady pace, and with more puzzle-like obstacles put in the player's way. Origins, on the other hand, is absolutely breakneck, and all the more thrilling for it. The game openly encourages you to run everywhere, with fast-moving platforms, speedy wall-jumps, the ability to run up walls--there are even whole bonus levels where the point is to keep up with a swiftly-moving treasure chest while the stage crumbles around you. The game has a fantastic sense of momentum, with many stages being designed such that a skilled player can run through them full-tilt without having to stop to catch their breath (and encourages this by way of time trials). Any fast-paced game will live and die by its controls--are they responsive enough to keep up with the player's reflexes? Are they slick enough for the player to feel in control?--but Origins is incredibly tight in that department as well. Rayman stops and starts with little trouble and can turn as swiftly as the player presses the D-pad, his running attack keeps his momentum in check, and the ever-necessary wall-jump is as simple as pressing the A button while in contact with the wall. No back-and-forthing on the D-pad necessary. The game also supports a large number of different control schemes, with NES-style, Nunchuck, and Classic Controller all supported so you can find the control scheme that's most comfortable for you. Origins is slick and quick in a way few 2D platformers are. It's almost Sonic-esque in a way, but with a bit more control over your velocity and momentum.
The other big departure into modernity that Origins takes is in its multiplayer. It supports drop-in-drop-out multiplayer for up to four people. Like in other modern platformers, multiplayer offers a few benefits: You can form human chains when hanging from the ceiling to reach things in pits, you can jump off each other's heads to reach high objects, and dying won't send you straight back to the last checkpoint--you'll instead "Bubblelize" (not unlike New Super Mario Bros. Wii) and can be revived by your friends. There's also plenty of around-screwing to be had, as you can smack your friends into next Tuesday and the game grades each player by Lum collection (and speed, during time trials) at the end of every level. But one benefit Origins has over other 2D co-op platformers is that you only mess with your friends when you want to. In other platformers, your friends are always "solid;" you'll brush up against them when you're trying to run forward or bounce off their heads when trying to land on a small platform. But in Origins, in order to facilitate the game's sense of speed (and precision jumps), you can run right alongside your friends and land on small platforms next to them with no problems whatsoever. It's only when you break out the punches that they'll start flying away from your fists; you have to be an instigator if you want to screw your buddies over. This alleviates a lot of the frustration that can come in other games where poor timing on the part of a buddy can keep you from getting up on a ledge or sprinting towards a goal. But you can still purposefully interact with one another, such as making platforms out of your hands to stand on (by holding Up on the D-pad or control stick), to offer one another a helping hand. And while the game ranks each player at the end of every level on how many Lums they collected, the total Lum score for each level is cumulative between players--so if you're having trouble collecting enough Lums in a stage to get all the Electoons being held at the end, bringing friends can help--especially since some Lums only appear for a limited amount of time, and more players means more chances to get through that small window of opportunity. Overall, it's a very tidy and very slick take on the co-op platforming so many recent games have offered, with all the benefits of working together available without all the accidental drawbacks. (Intentional drawbacks from your friends being jerks not accounted for.) The general mayhem and good spirits that come from all playing a game together are a good time as well; the inevitable misery brought on by the later levels' difficulty loves the company.
In fact, let's take a moment to discuss that difficulty all by itself. Like certain notorious old NES classics, Rayman Origin's challenge level is practically an entity unto itself in the game. As alluded to before, there is no health bar in this game. One hit, and you're either "bubblelized" (in multiplayer) or outright sent back to the previous checkpoint (in single, or in multiplayer if everyone dies at once). You can find Hearts which act sort of like Super Mushrooms, and offer an extra hit, but in certain situations, the damaging attacks fly fast and furious enough that you'll be losing hearts as quickly as you can pick them up, and the game isn't especially generous with them (though not stingy, either). There are no lives either, though--you can bash your head against a level until you grow sick of it. The levels in the first half of the game are sequential and must be done in order, but the second half lets you choose the order to do levels in, and the game will ask you if you want to leave and go to a different level if you die repeatedly in one area. For the most part, the difficulty is simply because the game doesn't pull any punches. Enemies can be fairly aggressive, and the game enjoys its projectile spam. There are tons of levels with hazardous walls that must be carefully avoided, and many levels (especially the secrets hidden within them) love to layer death-traps one right after another. But the game's camera is large and zoomed-out, so you have plenty of time to anticipate oncoming hazards, and rarely do they move faster than you can. They just require twitchy reflexes, excellent timing, and a little bit of memorization here and there. For some people, the difficulty will be a deal-breaker. Even with the infinite lives, they'll get stuck on certain spots, grow frustrated with certain levels, and they'll quit. For some people, difficulty isn't fun. There are ways to get around it (like with the multiplayer), but it's not easy to enjoy a game you're no good at. And platformers aren't like RPGs, where you can just look up tactics online and follow them command by command--the only way to win is to act faster and tighter. That simply isn't for everyone. But the glorious thing about Origins is that it's almost always fair. It is possible to study it, and learn its patterns, and hone the muscle memory needed to beat certain levels. And if you are the kind of person who enjoys difficult or challenging games, then Origins is so immensely satisfying that it's hard to see the difficulty as anything but a huge plus. Knowing that your reaction time was quick enough to avoid that sawblade, or that you were clever enough to find that slyly-hidden secret, is a reward unto itself. And for those players who don't have as much confidence in their abilities, Origins does do something a bit clever to help them get into the groove. Especially in the early levels, it tends to hide goodies in situations that initially look extremely dangerous--medallions worth several dozen Lums hovering over spike pits, for example, or out-of-the-way secret areas--but makes them easy to get with the game's default abilities, or puts switches nearby to negate the hazards, almost as if to say, "See, that wasn't so bad!" It helps ease the player into the game's obsessive spike motif and instill some confidence in them before the game starts throwing out the laser-guided forks and meditation beds of nails. For some players, it will help. Others will get about as far as "Spiked orange slices?! Really?" before throwing the controller in frustration. If you are that kind of player, consider yourself warned, and stay away unless you happen to have a God(ess) of Platformers nearby to be your play buddy. But even if you are, you might still consider looking up a playthrough of this game somewhere on the Internet to experience it by proxy.
Because this game is more than just a fun, well-designed platformer with tight controls and sadistic level design. It is a bona fide audiovisual experience unlike anything else on the market. The Rayman series was always known for its cartoonish, dreamlike visual design, but Origins takes it to the next level. Because everything in Origins--yes, right down to the splashes on the surface of the water--is hand-drawn, lusciously colored, and exploding with personality. You could spend hours in the first level alone just staring at the details in the backgrounds--the soaring temples jabbing at the sky in the jungle areas, the goofy faces and strange pictograms carved into the rock walls, the jumbled waterside villages in the ocean levels... There is a wealth of brilliant design in every backdrop. And that's to say nothing of the actual levels--the twisting structures made out of drums and strings and bent, impossible instruments in the musical deserts, or the ropes made out of dried chili strings and platforms made of souffles and pepper shakers in the "lava kitchen" stages, or even the hopping mushrooms that perform acrobatic tricks (a running visual gag in the Rayman series). The actual characters in these settings, the heroes and villains, are animated with astounding fluidity. Part of their smooth movement comes from the unique animation tools Ubisoft developed specifically for this game, which allowed for the easy importing of drawings and images into the game, and let them be rotated, squashed, and stretched with ease. But far from relying just on these tools, all of the characters explode with personality in their facial expressions, body language, and design. Watch the way Rayman's friend Globox's entire body compresses like an accordion when he kneels, or the floating monks in the mountain monasteries freak out when you grab their beards. Even when they're still, the character designs are a treat to look at. Moving, they're poetry in motion--with that poetry being wacky limericks and Dr. Seuss.
The music that accompanies these visuals is every bit as exceptional. Almost better, if that's possible. For the soundtrack, Michel Ancel reached out to his old friend Christophe Heral, with whom he'd previously worked on Beyond Good and Evil. Like BG&E, Origin's soundtrack tackles a wide variety of musical styles with great aplomb, and fluctuates between moods with nary a thought. Some of the game's tunes are soft, down-key, and lovely. Others are syncopated and uptempo. And fans of BG&E will no doubt remember that game's propensity for gibberish lyrics--those are in full force here, with happy, garbled tunes tweeted by Lums, dragon chefs belting out deep, boisterous tenors, and at least one instance of zombie old ladies taunting you in song. Even the instrumentation goes above and beyond. The iceberg-themed levels utilize the sounds of clinking glasses and pouring drinks for percussion. The jungle level's "secret" theme is probably the only tune in the world to feature a jaw harp and a cello playing in tandem. Oh, and I haven't even mentioned the game's scrolling shooter levels (did I? Because yep, this game has those too), whose music features what can only be described as breathless kazoo solos. Each song is perfectly tailored to its place in the game, and sets the mood for the area perfectly. Even when they don't seem like they would be. The game's ultimate challenge is nothing less than a descent into the Rayman version of the Underworld itself, overflowing with fire, spikes, demonic petunias, and the angry undead. Cue the spooky Gothic music brimming with choir and blaring pipe organs? Actually, cue the atmospheric whistling and acoustic guitar of a spaghetti Western tribute. Not because the underworld is Western themed, but because what better way to hype yourself up for an incredibly difficult challenge by invoking Clint Eastwood? Some tunes are epic, some are pretty, and some are even genuinely funny. But they're all fantastic, and that's what counts.
Rayman Origins is so very nearly perfect that I wish I could give it a fractional score--9.5, at the very least. But, regrettably, I cannot give it a perfect 10, for one reason: Some of the levels are not as well designed for multiplayer as they could be. Part of this is due to the camera. Game developers have struggled with cameras since time immemorial, and this won't change anytime soon. But when multiple people are playing at once, the camera can still get somewhat janky, and accidentally kill poor players whom it rushes past. There's also the fact that a number of levels (including some of the bonus levels) rely on precisely timed setpieces, and if a player rushing ahead accidentally triggers them, the whole level can spiral out of control as everyone tries to catch up, but inevitably can't, because the setpieces have already come and gone. It can be overcome, but it requires a high degree of synchronization and teamwork from the players--probably more than it's fair to demand of them. In certain levels, it almost offsets the benefits provided by having your friends on hand to resurrect you, since simply being too far forward can mess you up. A few levels have been known to glitch in multiplayer as well--the boss levels seem somewhat prone--but thankfully, it seems to be less prevalent on the Wii version than it does on other versions.
But all in all, it's a minor blemish on the surface of what is, all around, a fantastic game. Everything about this game is just done right, from its clever and difficult level design to its hand-drawn graphics to its music. Just the look and sound of it alone are not to be missed, even if you're not a platformer fan. And if you are, and if this game isn't in your personal collection yet: You have no excuse. It may just be the best 2D platformer of the past generation. Here's to hoping Rayman Legends turns out to be the best of the current generation, too.