Then & Now: Rayman & Rayman Origins

bannerrayman

Growing up, video games weren’t really my thing. It might sound strange but even though I have been playing video games as a child, they were never my primary way of upping my Fun meter (The Sims analogy… have you ever pondered about how accurately that title presents ordinary human needs? An idea for an analysis piece? Maybe one day…). I never had a gaming system. I never got to experience the Nintendo vs. Sega or Nintendo vs. Sony console war. This is not how the interactive media market worked where I’m from. These electronic pieces were expensive on their own and you also need to add up having to purchase plastic cartridges or compact discs! That, in addition to Nintendo never really owning its share of the market (I only recall seeing original Gameboys in the wild and only for that short Pokémania phase; other than that; we’ve had many ripoffs), meant that if I wanted to game, I had to do it on the personal computer. It was a magical machine, used for not only interactive entertainment but also work and loads of other things! I know, how strange! I was pretty limited, too. Born in a dress, I wasn’t the target demographic of the violent Doom or Duke Nukem. Instead, my choices were either edutainment programs or everything involving cute animals… and most of those ended up being terrible movie tie-ins… And maybe we will get to those eventually, too.

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I love this game and I don’t care.

A lot of those licensed video games were notably horrible once I came back to them later on. I’m not easily blinded by nostalgia. Instead, I tend to realize my awful choices and return to them as guilty pleasures from time to time. This is how I re-experience a bunch of old video games I used to play as a kid. I analyze them based on their own merits and more often than not realize how shallow and boring they are. Not this particular one, though. Oh no. One of my favorite childhood video games is still one of my favorite video games of all time even after I’ve came back to it later in life. I’ve 100% completed it on multiple occasions and end up at least thinking about it once every couple of months. If you’ve been following me for a while, you also probably know which title I’m talking about already. Yes. That would be Rayman 2: The Great Escape.

Only ever having a PSX in sight for what I recall being one day and never owning a gaming console on my own, it is obvious that I got to know the PC version of this classic 3D platformer. Nowadays, it has been re-released on everything but a toaster and I will be detailing its history another time. Here, I would just like to use it as an entryway into how an idea for this piece came to be. You know, to give you an insight to White’s Mind.

Rayman 2 was simply magical. I was deeply invested in its world from the very beginning. I never got far in the game, in fact, an embarrassing confession is that I used to be scared of enemies in pretty much every video game I owned. What helped me get involved in the world of Rayman however was its introductory level also serving as a tutorial. It featured no enemies and was really only just a small sample of what’s to come. I vividly remember its serene atmosphere though. The bright colors, fairytale aesthetic, jumping mushrooms, the wildlife and, of course, the gibberish whispered by Rayman’s helper Murfy.

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You may judge me, but this guy! This guy gets it.

Since there were no enemies, I was free to run around said level without feeling pressured. Now, we would be analyzing this kind of introduction by praising its freedom of movement, allowing the player to get comfortable with game’s controls and physics. That wasn’t what I was thinking back then though. And it’s not what I’m about to preach to you now. What you have to know for now is that Rayman 2: The Great Escape was my great escape. I spoke about how important escapism was and still is for me in regards to the Hitman series. You should also know me well enough now to realize that as an empathetic person, I’m deeply invested in atmospheric art pieces. From those, I think you can add two and two together. As a child, this game was my go-to and I don’t think anybody is going to be surprised when I tell them, as an adult, I was incredibly curious as to how good my childhood classic is as a proper video game.

There were many others which failed in convincing me of their status as a well developed product. Kids games aren’t exactly known for their greatness. That, again, is because most of them are rushed as a movie tie-in or because the studios didn’t have enough time to figure out the new 3D (!) technology. Unfortunately, I haven’t had the chance to experience other successful 3D platformers of the era in their prime time. Character platformers were abundant on consoles, which of I had none. I do try and play catch-up however. Don’t you worry about that. I love Banjo as well as Kazooie, I dig Crash Bandicoot, I dipped into Spyro, Sonic and many others. I wish I had them when I was a child but at least I had one good game to remember out of my early PC days! But that one was clearly a sequel. It has a “2” in its title and for a long period of time, I wasn’t even interested in the first game of the franchise. Later on, I learned it was a 2D sidescroller which left me disappointed, especially after 3: Hoodlum Havoc wasn’t exactly my cup of tea either. Then came the Rabbids and once Rayman eventually returned, he’s done so again in 2D. Finally though, I have decided to try the original and that is what this piece is going to be about. After oh so many years of being a fan of the franchise, I have launched and played the first Rayman!… But it wouldn’t be so fun if all of this was just a review of an old video game. No, no, we do video game analysis on this blog! Let’s use this old video game as a stepping stone then. Since Rayman returned in 2D and has been 2D ever since, let’s compare at how the vision for him has changed and answer a question of “Was Rayman Origins truly going back to Rayman’s Origins?”.

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Rayman’s face says “Brace yourselves” and oh yeah, you should brace yourselves!

Before we even get to the main menu of the 1995’s Rayman, we get to hear a backstory for the game, told to us by a completely over the top limbless magician-looking-like character. All of it is pretty basic, as is the presentation but its charm and beautiful artwork may just be enough to win you over. And if not then maybe you’ll at least chuckle at the name “Mister Dark (!!!!!!!!)(I cannot unhear the over the top introduction this character receives, I’m sorry) and how our main character himself is brought to the adventure from his comfy hammock. From there on it’s all about the funky music in the main menu. A couple of screens later we are finally introduced to a beautiful set of sprite work and a surprisingly claustrophobic camera angle. This, paired with the slow movement speed and quite sluggish (although responsive!) controls already feels like it’s going to be a challenge. But I’m not easily discouraged! We will press on but not before dipping into Rayman Origins for a quick comparison…

The choice to bring back Rayman into 2D was spawned when the initial small team of developers created a unique tool which later became known as Ubi Art. “We made 3D games, and of course, there will be others, but we thought that we could do a game with the same “spirit” that Rayman 1 had, with animated cartoons techniques.”, Michel Ancel – the father of Rayman – said. Origins was to showcase the software and what a better way of doing so than to breathe new life to a “thingamajig” from an already established classic Ubisoft franchise? After years of being pushed into the shadows by the loud and ravaging Rabbids, it was time for Rayman to be the star of his show once again.

The first trailer for Rayman Origins came up during E3 2010. The game was meant to be episodic and present the titular origin story of our main protagonist. In the first draft, it was a prequel. It was to tell a tale of Rayman’s creation and how he ended up befriending other creatures of the world. The story also was to shed light on the character of The Magician – the main antagonist of the game. His origins were to be told as well, explaining that he was bullied by his fellow Teensies and grew to admire the mysterious Mister Dark (!!!!!!!) which led him to become a villain himself and using the heroes to do the dirty deeds for him as part of his master plan. All of this was cut from the final product, although a few ambiguous references may be found throughout the adventure. If you’ve played Rayman Origins and was wondering why the game seems to be lacking in terms of storytelling – this is why. It was all there. Just that, as with a lot of titles we cover on this blog, it was simply scrapped during production. A shame but that’s not why we’re here today. Let us find out what we are presented with once we launch the finished game!

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This actually isn’t as scary as it may appear…

This time with no words but again, a beautiful artwork and delivery, we are given a backstory establishing the conflict. Rayman and his friends are seen sleeping before a grand adventure – something which hasn’t changed one bit throughout the years. Music is still a prominent part of the presentation. Just as in the original Rayman and its Band Land, the intro to Origins uses sound effects to create a quirky outlook for its universe. It feels as if the tone has shifted slightly from the 1995 classic. This can be seen a lot more clearly if we look at the overall character design over the years. The initial Rayman had almost a child-like influence. He was very round and cheery. We can definitely notice the latter in his facial expressions. The first few times we see him in the series, he wears a red scarf which was later replaced by a hood. That and the attitude he shows in the later games made him relatable to the older demographic. As Rayman 3’s press release states: “Like his core gaming audience, Rayman as a character has matured and now has a wilder edge, only hinted at in the earlier games.”. This is the kind of Rayman we end up also seeing in Origins, although he definitely carries the child-like spirit.

20170609135158_1We are welcomed by the map screen once again. A one very similar in design to the one of 1995’s Rayman although obviously, modernized. The actual levels are hidden inside their respective worlds, very akin to other 2D platformers of that time. It is quite obvious that Rayman Origins took inspiration from New Super Mario Bros. That is probably the best news we’ve heard this far as it managed to improve on the sidescrolling formula and become one of the best 2D platformers of its time. I assure you, this would not be the case if the devs were to stick to the original Rayman’s design choices.

“But White, wasn’t Rayman released to critical acclaim, ended up being rereleased in so many ways and as a Ubisoft classic?”, you ask. Yes. Video games were also very different back then. Gaming culture was a lot different, too. Because players were more often to rent titles rather than buy then, the product had to do something to stop them from finishing it in one sitting. Narratives weren’t as complex as nowadays, usually resorting to “go save the princess… oh, she’s in another castle”. There was also not much available digital space inside of the tiny cartridges. Reusing assets was common. So how about make the game insanely difficult on purpose so the player has to rent it over and over again if they want to eventually see the end? Sounds like a swell idea!

This is what fueled artificial difficulty in games. It ended up being a trope – now called “Nintendo Hard”. Back in 1995, the levels were small, the camera was zoomed in and the controls – even though simplistic – clunky and floaty. It is always problematic to explain why controlling the character in a video game feels wrong so just take my word for it. The animations in Rayman are detailed, the sprites are beautiful but maybe it’s the slowness of it all which ramps up the overall difficulty. The enemies move a lot faster than the player character and it doesn’t help that his attacks have quite a windup and the hitboxes are rather precise. That, in addition to the fact that the game spawns enemies out of nowhere and in really annoying spots as well as the screen being already small to begin with can give you a pretty nice idea as to what are the main issues of this Ubisoft classic.

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This though. This is scary.

“But White-”, you interrupt me once again. “Rayman wasn’t a Nintendo game.”

I’d be a fool if I was to argue with you. It wasn’t a Nintendo game. In fact, it was mainly released on platforms which did not have technical limitations of cartridge-based consoles. A CD-ROM was massive compared to everything else on the market at the time and ports of Rayman often had to compromise on audio quality to fit the title inside of the tiny chip. The game also released much later than many of the “Nintendo Hard” games. Even though still pretty difficult, other 2D platformers released in 1995 – such as the sequels to Super Mario World and Donkey Kong Country – were a lot more forgiving and fair to players. Some of the discussed game design choices made their way onto PlayStation and MS-DOS however. It wasn’t just Rayman. It feels like the 2D platform sidescrolling genre split into two – one being fast-paced like Sonic or Jazz Jackrabbit, the other slow and methodical like Heart of Darkness, Claw or the original Prince of Persia.

And then there was Gex

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Get outta here, you goddamn lizard!

Video games and their design had to take their time to evolve accordingly to the needs of players and the overall marketplace. Jumping back into Origins, we do not see any of these problems anywhere. Thanks to the improved technology and widescreen, we can now be prepared for what’s to come even though the overall speed of the main character is much faster. You can also choose to run (an unlockable power in the original title), which is definitely favorable, and the levels are designed around it. Most of them you can clear without stopping once you get into a good flow. All it requires is some good reflexes instead of actual memorization – something which was a case in the first game.

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The controls are so good, the swimming levels are actually likeable!

Thanks to these changes, Rayman Origins, even though still a difficult platformer, creates its difficulty in another ways. In the early stages of development, we can see it having a health meter similar to the one of 1995’s Rayman. This was changed into a more Mario-like approach. One hit and you’re done! That is, unless you collect a heart which gives you that additional health point. The game will not allow you, however, to damage boost your way to collectibles, requiring you to actually complete the challenge it presents to you. It also got rid of limited lives. A blessing for everybody who remembers 1995’s Rayman’s Continue screen. And if you ever played it, I will assure you – it’s ingrained somewhere in your mind. The decision to remove them was also made sometime during the development of Origins, as there are still traces of extra lives artwork left in the game files.

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This will not go well, will it?…

Unfortunately, memorization is still somewhat a part of Rayman Origins, although not in such scale as in the 1995 classic. Bosses take three hits to kill and they are all beautifully animated, full of personality and very unique. They all make you utilize your newly acquired powers and skills to defeat but they also require you to remember their patterns and can strike in an unpredictable way if it’s your first time playing. Since Origins makes use of a checkpoint system, you will be replaying early portions of battles until you can beat the boss in one try (two if you have a handy extra heart). It’s not that big of a deal since boss battles are quite short but it may lead to frustration and was the case in both the original game and 16 years later in Origins.

Taking notice of more similarities between the titles – both feature a rise of power in form of effectively unlocking more moves for Rayman (and his friends in the latter game) thanks to the kindness of Betilla the Fairy and her sisters. These amazing “powers” are actions like…

swimming!… or…

attacking!… or…

running!…

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You get some cooler powerups like running on walls and turning small to be able to fit in tight spaces, too. 1995’s Rayman also gets an ability to swing between purple lums – a skill which I deeply despised in the 3D sequel. The levels are built to let you explore them both before and after obtaining the additional movesets. This can be seen mostly in the original, as they are filled with cages of electoons you need to rescue to unlock the next stages. This is also the case in Origins but it’s, again, a lot more forgiving. That might be tied to the overall flow of the game, as it’s much faster paced or to the fact that you see more of the screen – therefore secrets are hidden in a typical 2D Mario platformer fashion. They aren’t as obvious as you may think though and the cute “Help me!” sound cue can make you scratch your head trying to locate its source.

I mentioned Betilla the Fairy appearing in both of the titles. She’s not the only recurring character as Origins. Many of them reappear, either in their original or repurposed form. The example for the latter being The Magician himself. Previously a Rayman-like limbless creature, he was changed to be the member of the Teensie species in Origins. This was also the case for The Photographer before he was ultimately removed from the later title.

Many enemies have also returned. These include, most notably, the Livingstones, Antitoons and Hunters (although, thankfully, in a less annoying form than in the 1995 classic), but we can also find Forks and the Stone Men. It’s interesting to see how their meaning evolved with the updated gameplay mechanics even though the enemy function has remained pretty much the same. Hunters are still annoying but because the sprites are much smaller and the view is wider, their projectiles are easier to dodge. They can still get you by surprise but their huge mallet-hitting bullets do not take almost half of the screen like in the first game. Antitoons used to be irritating due to their size, as you had to either fiddle with your flying fist to hit them or your jump length to avoid them. In Origins, they are only threatening if you get too close and do not pose as a “floor is lava” type of enemy.

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Look at this and tell me you do not want to do this more often.

What I do miss about the design of the original Rayman however is how the environment can be used to deal with the baddies. It’s actually quite impressive how innovating the game was in that regard. Plums are not only used to pass through water – they may also be dropped on heads of the Livingstones giving you a high platform to stand on and maybe access new parts of the level. The Walking Drums can carry you through the previously mentioned “floor is lava” type areas featuring short enemies. The magic seed was also an interesting mechanic. It is given to Rayman by Tarayazan (who was to appear in Origins but was cut) as a temporary power-up and used to create platforms in autoscrolling stages. Speaking of autoscrollers; then, of course, there is the Mosquito.

Given the whimsical and anthropomorphic nature of the character designs in the Rayman franchise, the first boss of the very first game is a gigantic insect with its huge eyes and a long proboscis. At this point, you probably wouldn’t be surprised to hear his names ends up being Bzzit and that the protagonist ends up riding him after he defeats him in battle. The flying stages in the 1995 classic are, once again, impaired by the size of the sprites and how much overall space they take of the already small 4:3 screen. Memorization is key to beating those levels as the dangers can appear suddenly out of nowhere with a limited options of avoiding getting hurt. Your ride can shoot projectiles but that’s only the case in the Atari Jaguar version of the original, making the flying autoscrollers this much more aggravating to deal with. Thankfully, all of these issues were fixed in Rayman Origins. Their difficulty is now based on the player reflexes and the mosquito can both suck other objects or shoot projectiles on its own.

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And you can ricochet shots!

So, let’s return to the previously asked question – “Was Rayman Origins truly going back to Rayman’s Origins?” Definitely. Both in the presentation and its gameplay principles. Thankfully, it managed to evolve the original game’s design philosophies and adapt it in a modernized way. That may be cause it realized the issues of the 1995 classic or simply wanted to rival with other 2D platformers on the market. Either or, it has made it a great title to begin with, even with the few issues I have with it. This being controls sometimes feeling a bit floaty – something which was fixed in the direct sequel: Legends.

But the original Rayman isn’t as bad as I’m making it. Even by today’s standards. There is a particular niche of players which love these difficult platformers and will gladly abide by their rules and limitations. This is why Super Meat Boy, They Bleed Pixels and similar titles got their five minutes of fame. This is how the fanbase around I Wanna Be The Guy grew. There are literally hundreds if not thousands of fangames created in vein of I Wanna Be The Guy. The most known, maybe even more popular than the original itself being I Wanna Be The Boshy. The market might have changed. The game design principles might have evolved but there will always be as many playstyles as there are players. The 1995 Ubisoft classic may not be a title for m, although I admire what it brought to the genre and, of course, that it spawned one of my favorite video games of all time a few years later. That’s a topic for another time though… a one we will definitely come back to. But for now, I leave you here. On the outskirts of the Primordial Forest.


A big thank you to all of my Patreons for making these pieces happen!

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