There aren’t enough video games that make me truly respect people behind them. We take entertainment for granted hardly ever realizing how much work was put into creating it. We have idols. Even in the field of gaming. Yet even then it is difficult to fathom how much cooperation there has to be within the team to complete a full product. This is a game which made me appreciate the entire creative process behind it. This is Io-Interactive’s Mini Ninjas.
Referencing this game has become a staple of yours truly. Jokingly asking a memetic “When’s Mini Ninjas 2?” and continuously wishing for its return. Now, after the split with Square Enix and the recently acquired information, we know that the developers no longer possess rights to this joyous intellectual property, thus a proper sequel is more than unlikely. That is definitely a shame. The original is a great piece of work – something I feel many people never got to experience. I wish to change that. Stop shaking your head because it’s less serious than the games you usually play. The box says E for Everyone. Go grab your controller and let’s begin.
Released in 2009, Mini Ninjas marked the studio’s portfolio as the first game not featuring excessive violence. In fact, Hiro and his friends never kill anyone during their adventures. They merely dispel curses cast by the evil samurai warlord. This might come off as a surprise after Io’s previous titles. With a pedigree such as the Hitman series, Freedom Fighters and the ever brutal duo of Kane & Lynch, a video game about ninja kids is probably the last in the line of expectations. All came from a simple idea and developers’ desire to show off their game to their own children. As it would take a while for them to reach a respectable age to follow agent 47’s adventures, this is where Hiro and his crew fill the void.
That’s not the only surprise. One look at the title is enough to notice its beautiful cel shaded art style. Pastel colors, character designs and the overall expressiveness bring animated movies to mind. I simply cannot express how much I love the art design. The environments change during the course of Hiro’s journey and all of them have their distinct color scheme. From bright green forests, through yellow-tinted flooded areas, ending with a massive castle sitting atop snowy hills. The levels themselves are massive, even though the path through them is inherently linear. There are hundreds of collectibles hidden from view and if you manage to get all of them on your first go, definitely pat yourself on the back. A non-obvious guide mechanic is present if you wish to go for 100% completion. One of the default spells allows Hiro to possess any of the animals running around the fields. Those can sense plants bathing the collectibles on-screen with a dark blue glow. I personally truly dig that system. It’s not in your face and the player can freely choose if they want to use it or not. It also gives the creatures much needed purpose within the game world making it feel alive.
So why should you care about harvesting plants and seeking tiny statues? Most of the collectibles are used for crafting as Hiro can purchase recipes for many types of helpful flasks. I’d argue their usefulness however. With how much resources I was getting regardless, I never found myself accessing the crafting menu. I barely consumed healing items at all playing on the normal difficulty albeit some of the areas and enemies were tougher than the others, and I see where young players would need extra help. Besides crafting, there’s also an element of survival sprinkled around. Health is recovered by harvesting fruit either from trees or bushes. Our ninjas can also fish in water to obtain sushi – a portable healing item. It’s not Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater level of survival mechanics but I think it’s a nice touch. It definitely feels more organic than collecting Valentine hearts scattered around the battlefield… even if it still looks like a ripped bag of Skittles as experience, ki and special attack points are all presented as colorful circles.
Speaking of battles, Mini Ninjas does a good job of not making encounters feel stale. Even at the beginning of the game, with less enemy variety, they are used to their full potential. There may be a couple of small samurais guarding a nearby entrance or a patrol with a bigger enemy scouting the immediate area. Archers are often placed atop towers or given companions to battle with, making them more difficult to reach. Enemies are unique and easy to distinguish thanks to their designs, and each of the encounters is genuinely interesting. That’s also because of how many choices the player has in his own arsenal.
Every ninja has its own distinct set of animations, effectively characterizing them without them having to speak even a single word. They even start shivering as their idle animation for snowy areas! Just by pushing the stick forward, I know that Shun loves to camouflage himself. His moveset is akin to a monkey whilst Tora’s clearly resembles a cat. This also serves a different purpose. It gives immediate feedback to the player. Just by looking at Futo, you can tell he’s a slow but powerful character. The game’s mascot – Hiro is a jack of all trades but that does not make him less valuable than others as he’s the only one who can use magic. The levels are vast allowing for multiple approaches, the possibilities are huge with a great array of weapons, items and characters’ special abilities, and the stealth system is, albeit simplistic, quite reliable especially if you decide to pick off enemies from a distance. And that’s something Shun’s simply magnificent at.
In fact, rescuing Shun is timed perfectly. The progression is on point. Just as I felt I’d love to get an option for longer ranged combat, an archer character was added to the roster. The gameplay never gets too stale. Levels are quite lengthy if you decide to at least attempt to cover some additional ground for collectibles. Keep in mind though that if you don’t, and you also don’t care about getting experience off kill– excuse me, vanquishing a curse off enemy samurais, there’s nothing stopping you from simply running forward until you reach the end goal. There aren’t many instances in which the game stops you from exiting the area. The exemptions being having to fulfill a specific objective, most of them being freeing other ninjas from captivity. And whilst this can seem like an oversight that can easily be exploited, I’d say that the variety in which you can complete each encounter makes battling genuinely enjoyable and the meat of the title.
In between combat sections and exploration, there are action scenes dotted around. The huge samurai hat doubles as protection from incoming arrows and… a vehicle for our little ninjas. This creative use of the kasa makes it a boat and a bobsled. The latter leading to probably the only level I have genuine problems with – Snowy Canyon – AKA escaping the avalanche. Sliding off the mountain at high speed and dodging the obstacles wouldn’t be a problem if not for the fact that the environment consists mostly of blinding whiteness. As the name implies – it’s a snowy canyon, thus the reasoning for this is obvious, but it’s still a great pain in the butt. The correct path is drawn with a slightly blue-ish tint but it’s hard to notice at first, if not at all and the avalanche itself is not the most forgiving of enemies. I can see younger gamers definitely struggling – if not straight up giving up – at this point of the game. And what a shame it would be as the ending is quite a set piece.
The creativity shines through the layers and layers of Mini Ninjas but the bosses are, unfortunately, mostly based around quick time events. The popularity of the concept rose to extreme levels after 2005’s Resident Evil 4 and God of War, and it held on for a few years before coming off as intrusive and lazy. Thankfully, the final boss is a duel between the Kuji magic of Hiro’s and the evil samurai warlord’s, and it comes after an amazingly presented climb on top of a burning Living Castle. Sounds intriguing? Well, actually, the whole game carries that sense of inventiveness if you know at least tiny bits and pieces about Japanese culture and mythology, and that is the main reason as to why I’m in such awe of the adventures of our small ninjas.
Whilst Mini Ninjas obviously takes inspiration from feudal Japan and common ninja tropes, it goes a step forward. The further into the game I was, the more and more references were popping into view. The genuine care and research put into Mini Ninjas seems enormous and I’d like to at least share some of what I’ve noticed to give you an example and push you to continue the homework if you wish. Don’t worry. It’s not Ōkami-levels of intense mythology digging albeit if you like this sort of thing, that’s the game I’d highly recommend (it’s also been out on PC since December 12th 2017!).
Remember how I mentioned the samurai hat or the kasa? There are many types of kasa made of various types of materials. Some of which was in fact worn by Japanese samurais back in the days. Interestingly enough, the word “kasa” also means “umbrella”, and we can see the inspiration in both the design and the premise of the item.
We also came into contact with stone statues when discussing collectibles. Those are specified to be “Jizō statues” and are a reference to a Buddhist monk, currently symbolizing not only protection of travelers but also children. Going a step further, the entire environment consists of flora and fauna native to areas of Japan. One of the most annoying enemies are cursed Japanese macaques. They appear mostly on the later levels as the mammals are also called “snow monkeys” due to their natural habitat being cold and snow-filled regions. Bears play a significant role, taking shape of the big bad guys only Futo and his hammer can match. We can also come across foxes – a common subject in Japanese folklore and also one of the yōkai (see: kitsune); frogs, snow rabbits and majestic red-crowned cranes – an endangered species and a symbol of luck, traversing the flooded areas and visiting shrines in game. Speaking of animals, we cannot forget the famous Koi fish which plays a major role in one of the levels.
And then there is the flora. The elusive anemone is used for activating shrines to gather spells. They are also called “windflowers” and are to protect from evil and ill wishes. It’s also tied to fairies and magic, hence their use in Mini Ninjas. Other plants featured are the tiger lily – native to Asian regions; Mitsuba – the Japanese parsley; and burdock, all often used in cooking whilst ginseng and horse tail has its set of healing properties. We can also see the traditional sakura and the Sacred Lotus showing us the fleeting beauty of life and the path of enlightenment accordingly.
Since we’re describing the environments, let’s not forget that the soundtrack to Mini Ninjas is comprised of folklore-inspired tracks, paired with ambiance. Even the action scenes get their tension up by adding taiko to the mix. All of the spells and noises are also spoken in Japanese as it used to be a staple of Io-Interactive to use native languages for their respective countries… even if it ended up sounding a bit stereotypical in some points… The game uses proper kanji where it can going as far as to stylize a “ninja” for its logo. And Kuji magic? It draws inspiration from Kuji-in and Kuji-kiri. Hiro not only exclaims the mantra for the spell but also makes distinctive hand gestures to go with it in spirit of the craft.
Names of our protagonists also originate from the language with Futo meaning “fat” but also “great” and “excellent”, Kunoichi literally being “female ninja” and we have a few animals thrown in the mix as well. Them being “sparrow” – Suzume – and “tiger” – Tora. Not only that, the cast is guided by birdmen who call themselves Tengu. That is a direct reference to a yōkai by the same name, usually depicted as humans with avian features. Yes, these are the same tengu we already know from Yume Nikki; they also appear in – among other media – Ōkami(obviously), Yō-kai Watch, Pokémon (as Shiftry) and the list goes on.
Think I’m done? No! There are also hot springs! And lanterns! And beautiful Japanese castles! And probably other things I’ve missed! There must have been so much research done and so much care put into assembling this magnificent culture-respecting work. What a grand contrast to what we’ve seen in the studio’s recent try at Japan – H6‘s Hokkaido. And let’s not forget – Mini Ninjas is a game aimed at children. With a marketplace flooded with lazy movie tie-ins, simple edutainment products and awfully mediocre titles, seeing such a proper complete and fruitful package is a treat and it requires all of its glory and awe. The effort, the folklore recognition, the tribute to Japan. All of it is not only preserved. It’s presented in a glorious and accessible way for everyone who wishes to spend a few hours in beautifully crafted feudal Japan. The bundle of art, environments, sounds (the footstep noises are just the cutest!) and mechanics make Mini Ninjas a wonderful title worth playing not just with the youngins but by ourselves. It is a big shame that the proper sequel will most likely never be made. The spin off games didn’t make justice to the original and the CoreOnline streaming service was discontinued. Thankfully, the tale of Io’s smallest assassins is still available on digital platforms such as Steam and I, obviously, highly recommend it. As an admirer of Japanese folklore, as a mythology lover, as a worshiper of eye-catching art design, as an Io-Interactive supporter and simply as a video game enthusiast.
Remember Gex? If you’re like me, you probably don’t. I certainly didn’t until I came across a screenshot of it years later.
“Oh yeah,” White mumbled to themselves as they often do. Who else is there to speak to? Their cat? …Well, they talk to their cat… a lot… “That’s that game we used to have installed on our school computers.”
We all have “those” games. There’s an array of old Windows software you probably don’t recognize by name yet you immediately get nostalgic about once you see a screen grab of it. For me, those would be Black Hole Pinball, Slime Volleyball, Captain Claw (which, as I’ve learned lately was developed by Monolith Productions. Go figure!), some DOS version of Wheel of Fortune and a PC port of Super Mario Bros. which, I’m pretty sure, does not have the Nintendo Seal of Approval. Also JezzBall. JezzBall was the… ball…
And then there was Gex. The first Gex. The game everyone played ‘cause for some reason, they were more fond of 2D platformers than other genres. Maybe because of their simplicity? Everyone could launch it, press the right arrow key and watch the character move. Maybe that’s all they ever wanted. Maybe this is why we actively cheered one of the people in our class once they’ve gotten to World 6 in the aforementioned Super Mario Bros. Maybe that was their drive. Maybe. Not mine though. I was the odd one out even in my tastes of gaming. I barely gamed back in those days, usually preferring more arcade titles which could be started and finished in a short amount of time. Without much need to invest myself as a player. Just something to pass the time. Maybe this is why I am so fond of The Binding of Isaac. Maybe.
So why come back to Gex if I wasn’t interested in it in the first place? Well, I never said I didn’t play it. I have played it before. Two player one controller style, as that’s what those “normal” folks (remember, I was the odd one) nagged me to do. I was mostly responsible for jumping and attacking and they were in control of the movement. Suffice to say, it wasn’t the most efficient way of interacting with a video game and we never got far. So that’s one point in favor of returning to Gex. Second being that I love to come back to titles I missed out on as a kid. You know this if you’ve read some of my other pieces (you’d also know I mentioned Gex as early as in my ‘Goon 47 and the Curse of Huge Levels’ piece so it had to be done eventually). Third, because I was curious as to what others have seen in it. Maybe there was something I just didn’t get. Maybe.
The first surprise came once I Google’d the title. There were sequels! Multiple, in fact. And even two GameBoy Color games! Gex 2 and 3 being 3D platformers was also unexpected but seen before in otherfranchises known to yours truly. Especially likely as it was the era of the big and scary 3D. Many failed to land the leap safely. Some, as our little lizard, slithered through the gaps but went mostly unnoticed.
How do you get noticed if your platform of origin is the Panasonic 3DO? Actually, you do it by coming with the system itself. Gex was released in 1995 and became one of the bestselling 3DO titles rivaling such classics as Plumbers Don’t Wear Ties and Putt Putt’s Fun Pack. I digress though as the platform was also a home to games such as The Need For Speed(before it dropped the “The”), Primal Rage, Theme Park and Super Street Fighter II Turbo. If you’re looking for more library picks, Doom and Wolfenstein 3D also came out on the 3DO. So did Policenauts. It doesn’t help however if one of the biggest video game markets defines you as a “host for pornographic releases”… Now maybe it’s not that surprising that it was the origin point of our little lizard… Maybe. Following the 3DO release, the PlayStation US crowd got their taste of Gex 6 months later whilst the Europeans had to wait an entire year.
A Sega Saturn port was released in 1996 as well and the one I personally remember – the PC one, came last with November 1996 for the Americans and 1997 for Europe. It scored middling compared to today’s standards but back in the day, the scale had more than just eights, nines and tens and the average of 75% qualified the title for “Best of” lists. Weirdly enough, I found this review of the PSX version boldly saying “Gex is voiced by genuinely funny comedian Dana Gould, which makes the whole exercise pretty painless. Usually, wise-cracking voice overs suck, but here it really does work.” I guess we’ll have to test that theory. And if you are partial to the strange 90s ad aesthetic – Gex was marketed with a set of offputting photographs featuring a close-up of a human mouth eating a fly.
Nowadays, the GoG reviews praise it for being “one of the best 90s platformers”. It was heavily wishlisted, as is now Enter the Gecko – the sequel. Albeit, one of the users does say that “it’s more about nostalgia” which is, if you remember, the main reason as to why yours truly began growing curious of the title. The very first review warns “You will enjoy the main gameplay, but you will sometimes hate the level design, that sometimes can be cheap”, therefore I am considering myself warned.
Gex is an odd game. It feels to me as if it tries so many unique things it loses itself in the array of gimmicks. It is one of those slower paced 2D sidescrolling platformers with a maze-like level design similar to the original Rayman. As you may remember, that game was definitely not for me. Arguably maybe I’m not the best of people to be talking about it then but it’s not like my opinion matters less because I don’t particularly go out of my way to play titles in said genre. Maybe.
The titular character is a lizard, which brings many perks to the table. First and foremost, IT’S TAIL TIME, as he has the courtesy to inform us almost every single time the player pushes the attack button. Gex’s attack is a short-ranged tail whip. Enough to prevent dangerous situations if used strategically, usually not enough if our little lizard gets taken by surprise. This happens more often than necessary as, similarly to Rayman, the viewpoint is already small to begin with and the sprites take up a major portion of the screen. As seems to be the case back in the day, they are also placed in such areas to inconvenience you as much as they possibly can and send you back to the previous checkpoint… if you even found one. If you haven’t, it’s back to the world map!
The review I quoted wasn’t kidding. The level design can indeed be cheap. Not only because of the enemy placement but because of the devilish traps as well. Since the stages are labyrinths and you are required to acquire keys (or, I guess, TV remotes in this case) to even progress through the game, level designers took their time planting devious ways to stop you. This can be done via various obstacles such as trampolines sending you backwards in the level or even straight up dead ends with nothing but a teleport to an earlier point in the maze. The player quickly learns to not trust anything and hug walls as much as they can. And as Gex is our beloved (?) little lizard, clinging onto walls is a skill he can do particularly well.
Exploration is key to find not only the keys but also video tapes. Those are the only way you can get a password to save your progress. Unarguably an odd and very extreme mechanic. Almost as if the game wants to glue you to your TV screen (ironic?), unable to turn off your console until you manage to get the elusive set of letters. And that’s as fun as being Mike Tyson’s friend on Valentine’s Day!… ugh… Both of those key items are hidden so well you will end up replaying stages multiple times, scratching your head over where they are. Perseverance is a necessary feat for playing. A one which maybe I lack. Something I’ve quickly learned after getting so fed up with one of the New Toonland levels that I closed the game in silence and decided to just try a different stage instead. Not only the levels are long and large to begin with. This one’s gimmick was to add switches which change the available tiles. Hitting the switch doesn’t telegraph what happens and as the level drags on, the puzzles get more and more obscure leading the player to aimlessly wander around the maze entering each door multiple times in the vain hope that something will eventually take them off the stray path.
Almost all stages carry some gimmick to them. Whether it’s riding on rockets or attempting to squeeze between electrical eels and huge spikes, my personal worst offender is the Kung Fuville (…I know…) autoscrolling level as it is not getting offscreen which kills you. You die by touching the left edge of it instead. Remember how I mentioned hidden passwords? The only thought crossing my mind when I was playing some of the levels was “how did they expect anyone to get through this game?” and the only answer I came up with is “memorization”. The player gets straight up assaulted by enemies at times, as the camera moves too slowly to give you enough heads up. And when you add timed platforms to all of that, you can see how fast the frustration can build up.
I do however appreciate interesting design choices when I see them. The power-up mechanic in Gex is quite unique at that. Every time, the player can choose between using them as an extra hit or the actual power-up the sprite represents. Unfortunately, the game does little to inform you of what each of them does, meaning that’s something you’ll have to discover on your own. With how many are thrown at you right at the start, it may get confusing to distinguish the ones you find useful and those which will end up as extra hits fodder. Unless you have the manual! But even that doesn’t get you much further as it only describes the sprites, not actually shows them.
I can definitely see the appeal of the game. It’s not a title I’d particularly get drawn into playing, although admittedly, you might argue that’s exactly what happened. It’s a good example of its genre. A genre which nowadays sees little to no traction as the playerbase maybe isn’t ready to be spending hours on one level just so they can save their progress. Maybe gamers don’t want to be stuck in a huge labyrinth afraid to move knowing that once the camera moves, they may be ambushed by an enemy and thrown back to start. Or encounter a trap which will impede their attempt to solve a confusing maze. Maybe we have way too many choices of entertainment nowadays that we don’t have to play that one single game we rented for the weekend. Maybe there’s something to that… Maybe.
What is definite however is that Gex was meant to be the new mascot. A rival for Mario and Sonic. And for many years it was, appearing in a heavy portion of Crystal Dynamics’ promotional materials. Was it because they were proud of it however? Or was it to remind them of the development hell it took to get the game out? As one of the developers states in his huge blog post on the topic – the concept was flawed from the beginning. The team wanted to set the title in the real world Wild West but that clashed with the overall platformer level design. Thus, The Media Dimension was born. A fantasy land where everything could happen. Unfortunately, this fantasy world does not extend to ours and not everything can be fixed with a simple click of a TV remote. The content wasn’t ready on time or was cut ‘cause it wasn’t on par. Some of the levels were left out as bonuses and there’s even a secret boss stage you can access via cheats. There wasn’t enough people working on the title and it was showing. The design was a mess – “The designers didn’t have any idea what a theme for a level was. Most of the levels they had built were huge and used as many different things they could cram into them. This is not good design and it also meant that the levels took too much memory or didn’t leave enough space for sounds so when sounds were finally added all the levels had to be redone to use a theme.” There was even some office drama and a scary moment featuring Panasonic themselves. The post ends with a bittersweet “Most of the people on the team were not happy with it. (…) But, the public and the press really liked the game and so I guess that made us feel alot better at all our hard work.”
Nowadays it seems like just another tale of a video game development cycle.
Following that was, as mentioned before, a big leap into the third dimension of media! Ironic or purposeful as the TV universe in Gex is literally called The Media Dimension? Here comes Gex: Enter The Gecko. Released again on the PlayStation and apparently PC although I can barely find traces of it, as well as debuting on a Nintendo platform – the N64. The title is largely inspired by Super Mario 64 like many which followed the Nintendo mascot into the world of 3D.
Interestingly enough, when it was launching for the Japanese market, many changes were made including even the title and the character’s name. Gex was renamed to Reno (not this Reno) and the game itself to Spin Tail (SUPIN TAIRU more accurately)… and that was the last game of the franchise which saw the light of The Rising Sun… It’s even more perplexing that Gex 1 also saw a Japan release… as Gex.
“It takes a lot of courage for a widely-loathed game character to attempt a comeback.” – Computer and Video Games magazine, Issue 198
Enter the Gecko was, once again, developed by Crystal Dynamics. It used the same engine as the first Tomb Raiders and Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver later. The back of the box of the US Nintendo 64 release claims it is “THE ULTIMATE FREE-ROAMING 3D EXPERIENCE!” with “Over 125 slick gecko moves!” and “Talkin’ trash!” as one of the selling points. There’s also apparently an “All new N64 exclusive deep sea level with new swim mechanics and scuba gear!” but after playing the dreaded space levels, I think I’m glad I opted for the PlayStation version instead. This and the fact that the Nintendo port is lacking in content. Both level-wise and in regards to dialogue as many of the lines were cut to fit the tiny space of the N64 cartridge compared to the PlayStation disc. That also means, if you’d prefer to hear less of Gex’s quips, that should be your version of choice as that one is awkwardly silent comparatively.
It seems as if the reviewers had mixed feelings about the quips. This time, “It doesn’t help that Gex 64 sports subpar graphics and the most annoying sound effects in the history of video games (yes, I’ve played Cruis’n USA). Dana Gould’s gecko wisecracks, which were hilarious in the original 3DO title, grate on the nerves like fingernails on a chalkboard.“ The article ends up with “Do yourself a favor and stay away from this lizard.” The reviews for the PSX version are a bit more forgiving: “I’m hesitant to call it a good game, but one thing’s for sure – it’s better than Croc.” Which reminds me that maybe I’ll get around to covering Croc at some point as well… Maybe.
The story is simple. Rez escapes the captivity and the government secret agency tracks Gex to make him go back into The Media Dimension and do his duty as the one and only who can slay the bad guy. Gex isn’t thrilled so he… farts… at them… but then they offer him a huge briefcase of cash and it’s all good. Our little lizard outfits himself in a fancy suit and is off. And we’re off with him. To a vast empty hub world… Part of it is because we only get access to two of the levels at the start of the game. Understandably. The other is that the draw distance is absolutely abysmal and if everything wasn’t so saturated I’d ask myself if I was playing Silent Hill. Either that or BioShock Infinite since it seems like everything is suspended in the sky. Or maybe that’s the impression I’m getting because of the horrible draw distance and the bright background?
What else is in the background is some funky music which, either fortunately or unfortunately, I always find stuck in my head after I’m done playing the game. It’s just close enough to evoke a secret spy Bond feeling yet not to the point of being on the nose. Granted, a few of the music tracks in Gex 2 are. Speaking mostly of the bonus levels soundtrack. I can’t believe those passed as an original tune. Actually, I can’t really say anything bad about the music. It may not be the most memorable of backdrops but it does its job. The toon theme is quite obnoxious but I’m sure that was the point. While we’re at it, let’s talk about the environments. We have different aesthetic choices for the levels. There is the already mentioned toon world which only makes me want to play any of the PSX Looney Tunes titles instead (Bugs Bunny: Lost in Time and its sequel Bugs Bunny & Taz: Time Busters were both actually okay video games! And Sheep, Dog ‘n’ Wolf, also known as Sheep Raider in the US is absolutely fantastic and worthy of not only White’s recommendation but also a big contender for a future topic of White’s Mind), the generic Asian-themed world (reminiscent of Deus Ex’s Hong Kong level in that weird intriguing sort of way), the cyber world (“How’d I get inside Bill Gates’ head?”… ugh), the mash of stereotypical horror-related aesthetics, the dreaded deep space levels (we’ll come back to those) and the… Pre-History Channel – a name I actually find quite clever – featuring a bunch of prehistoric creatures such as dinosaurs and… well… only dinosaurs. Plus some one off bonus stages and Emperor Rez’s secret lair – Rezopolis.
Given that Gex 2 is based on the Super Mario 64 concept (“It’s about as close to Mario 64 as you’ll ever get on a PlayStation” apparently), every world has a couple of different objectives, all granting a Sta– TV remote. In addition to the main goals, there also exist a secret hidden remote and a bonus for collecting trinkets. What I don’t understand is the collectible sets design. Instead of having one distinct trinket (coins in Super Mario being the best example), Gex first collects a set of 30, then a set of 40, then a set of 50. Each of them grants an extra life but as the only thing which changes is the sprite, I see little reason as to why the game can’t simply say “Collect 120 shiny things to get the shiny reward”.
Is it overcomplicating things just for the sake of claiming it can be unique? No idea. In fact, is there anything Gex can do which cannot be done in other 3D platformers of that era? I arguedRayman 2 doesn’t do much in regards to mechanically distinguishing it from other products. Instead, it held well over the years thanks to its varied gameplay, solid platforming, basic yet tight controls, charming characters and a fairy tale-like aesthetic. Does Gex: Enter the Gecko accomplish the same thing?
The good news is that it can still be played and enjoyed. The levels themselves start off quite open to exploration with collectibles and extra hits rewarding you for taking a stray path. Objectives are also placed in such ways as to not make you take the same route each time, instead taking you to other parts of the world. A lot of it changes as the game progresses with more and more stages failing to disguise its inherent linearity. This makes it not only dull to replay but also annoying to pinpoint a route leading to a different goal. Many times I found myself getting a separate remote from the one I was attempting to as the intro cinematic does show the location of the chosen objective but not how to get to it. This creates more annoying moments than it should which paired with the biggest issue of the title and the fact that checkpoints are only a handful throughout the adventure means the player could end up feeling discouraged. Fortunately for Gex: Enter the Gecko and, to be fair, the entire franchise, the advancements in technology mean we can now play by our own rules. And if you get what I’m hinting at, honestly, I fully recommend it if you wish to enjoy your time.
Gex: Enter the Gecko isn’t difficult. It’s a fair platforming challenge, requiring you to at least familiarize yourself with the controls and the overall physics. Those can feel wonky at first, especially due to the character’s sluggish movements but can be gotten used to. What can’t however and is, therefore, the main issue, is the godawful camera. More often than not, it gets stuck behind some physical wall leaving you only with an annoying “cuckoo” sound effect instead of showing you the way forward. It can completely interrupt your jump as it swivels around the player character. It can switch to a predetermined position in the middle of your platforming action and it can move about not caring if you’re about to walk off a straight path or not. Not only that, coming back to my question of “does Gex 2 do anything different from other platformers of its era?”, the answer would probably be: “the main character can climb on walls”. “Some” walls, let’s make that clear first and foremost. Those sections are also probably the most disorienting out of all because of the shoddy camera. It kills all proper enjoyment of the title, making you replay huge sections simply because it disrupted your otherwise easy platforming. And when you add time limits and death pits as a gimmick (echoing the “dreaded space levels” I’ve mentioned), you are left with having a bad time. Changing the camera settings makes little to no difference either. I found it randomly switching on me even though I kept it on Semi-automatic most of the time. The optimal way would be probably to play the game with a manual camera mode. Never automatic. As Gex would say – “Forget about it.”
Oh yeah, there are also boss levels. And bonus levels. I haven’t mentioned those as they aren’t memorable. Bonus levels make you race the time limit as you collect a set of shiny trinkets of a particular sprite variety and bosses are all barely challenging with the worst offender probably being MechaRez. You’d think for a battle of such scale, it would be much more difficult than just wagging your tail around for the entirety of the encounter. And the final boss? He’s a bit more advanced and I’d even argue he poses a threat. It doesn’t change the fact however that the main antagonist of Gex: Enter the Gecko isn’t Emperor Rez and his TVs. It’s what’s makes television happen. The camera.
As the title loads, it welcomes us with a familiar tune. Enter The Gecko’s hub soundtrack in MIDI form. As much as I don’t mind the song and I actually find it quite catchy, this version of it makes my skin crawl. Not the best first impression. The game is an adaptation of the console version of Gex 2, meaning you get the hub, the semi-open levels, the Super Mario 64-esque objectives and odd tiered collectibles mechanic. No annoying camera, as the title is, obviously, in 2D. If you were lacking in annoyances, there is something for your sweet tooth.
The controls or, rather, Gex’s movement physics. Our little lizard does not begin running at his top speed and a lot of the jumps require covering as much distance as possible. You can’t really stop once you start clearing narrow platformer sections meaning you will end up falling off. Many times. And it definitely doesn’t help that Gex managed to somehow slip off solid platforms to immediately kill my satisfaction once I finally got to them. He falls right onto his face causing the action to pause for a brief second until he gets up. Odd choices seem to be a running theme in the Gex franchise.
Other than that, the title is a straight-up 2D recreation of Enter the Gecko. Nowadays we’d even call it a demake! It carries all of the same gameplay principles and I’m honestly surprised the developers decided on that instead of creating a spin-off.
“This isn’t just Gex 2.5, this is Gex 3. Part of what happened when we developed Gex 2 is that people along the way came up with so many killer ideas that we couldn’t implement them without screwing up the game schedule. Going into Gex 3 we had a lot of ammo to start with. The big thing that was really important to us was to make sure everything is all new”, the product marketing manager at Crystal Dynamics said to the Official US PlayStation Magazine.
What I find interesting reading through this article is how different the priorities were. It seems like all the crowd wanted to hear was how many enemies the game featured, how many levels there were, how many secret costumes and bonus stages the developers came up with. It seemed so simple to market a video game back then. Thankfully though, the camera issue has been noticed and worked upon. “The idea was to minimize the frustration to the consumer and make the camera simpler. (…) [T]here were instances in Gex 2 that the camera moved to direct the consumer, and in some cases the gamer felt like the camera was getting in the way of gameplay—you’d miss a jump and such. We’re eliminating some of those scripting cameras for left-to-right movements so you’re not knocking Gex off platforms and off ledges when you’re trying to make a jump. (…) We’re gonna keep the camera more inside the world this time.”
The reviews were once again more kind to the PlayStation version and that’s the one yours truly went for as well.
Gex is back. Again. This time accompanied by a Baywatch star placed in a 3D world in her real world glory – as full motion videos. Agent Xtra has been captured by the evil Rez and who else is there to save her other than our favorite (?) little lizard? An awfully spy-ish tune calls to action. Gex is back into The Media Dimension! …Although, to be fair, he isn’t very keen on rescuing her as she has to remind him time and time again that is in fact his mission… If you wish to watch your favorite Baywatch babe, you will need to play the PSX version of Deep Cover Gecko. The N64 port has simple static images and voice overs explaining the… ugh… “story” instead.
You’d never think the first world would be a snow level but it is! Gex seems to have a thing with level themes coming earlier than you’d expect. Same could be said about Gex 1 and its Cemetery being the game’s introduction. But we’re past Gex 1, so what is the first impression of Deep Cover Gecko? We are welcomed by an obnoxious soundtrack which “is just a bunch of different, poor-quality tracks mashed together”, a quote by my dear friend Mad Max whom I linked the song to. I could not put it better. In addition, there are burping mailboxes and penguins making chicken noises once tail whipped…
The game is deeply inspired by Super Mario 64 once again, taking it a step further. Levels can now be accessed via multiple hubs. Each of them also carrying their own sets of collectibles. No weirdness there this time around. There are exactly one hundred fly trinkets to be gotten in every world plus bonus coins and gecko paws. And by “exactly”, I truly mean it. If you wish to go for the collectibles remote this time around, you will be scouring the stages to find each single one as they can be in plain sight but also hidden in secret areas or dropped by enemies. The title also does not save your progress when it comes to those so you’ll have to get them all in one sweep. That goes for hubs fly trinkets as well. So what is the purpose of the Paw Coins? They grant you an extra hit once you collect enough of them. And the bonus tokens can be used to play extra (Xtra? Ugh…) stages placed nearby each of the levels. Simple enough.
If the first few levels make you feel as if there is a lot more player freedom this time around, you quickly learn that that is false. The dip in quality happens early, requiring you to replay portions of stages just to get to its next part. The worst example would probably be Buccaneer Station, needing you to literally retrace your steps and pass the first objective to even get to any of the others. Or Fairytales TV. Even though climbing the beanstalk is only one of the goals, you will end up doing it multiple times to complete the level in full. The linearity can get on the player’s nerves this time. As the worlds get bigger and trickier, this becomes more of an issue. Especially once a stage gimmick requires you to receive a power-up and then backtrack with it to clear a way forward. Yes, I’m looking at you, Mythology Network.
Bonuses and bosses also make a comeback. Time trial collectathons have a bit more to them as there are also three player characters to choose from. There are also timed challenges based on the overly present gimmicks. For some reason, there is one repeated one. Even though it clearly says “Whack 10 evil elves”, you only need to kill 5 of them. Same as the previous mini game. If you ask me, though, it’s better than it’s just five again. The enemy hit boxes are just awful. But of course, I’d prefer if there were no repeats. Or even better – bad mini games. Thankfully, they aren’t required, only giving you extra content. And bosses? Defeating big baddies is how you access new hubs. They are as easy and forgettable as in Enter the Gecko however, mostly requiring running around and having some grand old tail time.
It’s time to speak of the controls. The platforming itself is nothing special, although the game does require Gex to use his GECKO CHOP BABY YEAH(ugh) this time around which can be fiddly at best. It seems as if our little lizard needs to achieve an appropriate amount of speed before executing the move and I haven’t been able to pinpoint the exact time of a run-up. Overall, it feels like the character moves are a bit more sluggish in Deep Cover Gecko but that’s not much of an issue seeing as there are less pure platforming challenges than in the prequel. There are, of course exceptions. Here, I’m talking mostly about Fairytales TV which has you climbing a beanstalk. The “disguise” of choice for said level is a Red Riding Hood outfit – and yes, it does make him look fat, I’m saying that out of spite. The cape lets our gecko glide if you figure out how to do so. The weirdness isn’t over just yet as the gliding both starts and ends immediately once the button is pushed and released. There is no additional momentum, as you’d expect, making you have to climb said beanstalk over and over. And over. And over again. No worries, though. This mechanic is used in multiple other costumes, too! I’ve also managed to hit a few points where Gex would just not jump when I needed him to. That’s a problem, especially ‘cause later worlds feature platforms placed in such a way you can barely even make it.
Swimming controls? Absolutely awful. Controlling our lizard underwater is reliant on the jump button to move forward instead of the analog stick. Terrible controls and time limits maybe are the reason as to why players have so much distaste towards water levels in video games. Maybe. Gex 3 enjoys its gimmicks – there are vehicles he can ride, guns he can shoot. The snowboard and the donkey both have huge turning radiuses making you fall off platforms or make wide circles around the enemies you’re trying to hit. The tank controls… like a tank. It uses tank controls in an overall 3D camera-dependent movement scheme. And the guns are… well… guns. The issue being that someone forgot to put a targeting reticle on the screen making you guess where you shoot instead. I’m of a mind that you do not need a targeting reticle if you have a good weapon model or a zoom-in camera which allows you to see the aiming sight – take Metal Gear Solid 3 for example. This isn’t a good model though…
Finally, the quips. I’ve been quoting others’ opinions on the voice acting but never gave my own. In fact, let me quote another: “The sound effects are pretty good, but the speech simply drags the entire game down. Dana Gould, a genuinely funny stand-up comedian, deserves better. Instead, he’s been reduced to making lame comments, several of them via a truly horrible Austin Powers impression. Once you’ve heard Gex shout: ‘It’s tail time’ in about a hundred different intonations, you’ll want to start shoving safety pins into your ears until you’ve permanently damaged your hearing. I eventually wanted to beat my television with a bat. You can turn the commentary down or off, but considering that the game’s entire selling point is based around these pathetic one-liners, you kind of feel obligated to leave them on.”
Some love ‘em, some hate ‘em. Personally, I’m indifferent. I do cringe every now and again after hearing one of the more interesting voice lines, but as they get repeated over and over again, it ends up being just another sound effect as the player attempts to clear a jump either battling with the controls or the camera. The references can be either forced or completely obscure for gamers nowadays. This is a big problem with popular media references overall and something you simply have to accept if you decide to create a character based on the concept. Keep this in mind once we get around the closing words of this very piece.
As with the previous Gex title, this one had a GameBoy port too. It looks as if Eidos was banking on the popularity of the franchise, offering what appears to be a physical pre-order bonus if by some chance the customer managed to order the game online. An exclusive plush toy version of our favorite little lizard was mailed with the product itself and a quick search on eBay proves the pre-order culture also existed back then.
It was developed by the same company as the last Gex GameBoy title and features levels adapted from the home console Deep Cover Gecko. Are they as annoying as their PSX or N64 counterpart? Yes and maybe more-so, as we’re going back to Gex’s roots by placing enemies and traps in tough spots to see. You definitely know you’re playing a Gex game as the controls feel sluggish and the platforms are set apart so you can just make the jump. Thankfully, as we’ve learned, the more the merrier and thus big numbers were impressive in video game marketing. A review I found mentions “an astonishing 4500 frames of animation, which explain why every creature moves as smoothly as a lizard’s tongue in slow motion.“
As it’s a handheld title, the levels are small. And yet somehow they manage to be frustrating to get around. As many of the objectives require you to find a certain amount of items inside the stage, replaying the same portions becomes tedious. Again, the game does a poor job in hiding its linearity and I’d argue that it’d be a better choice to simply have it be a spin-off title, like Wario Land for example, instead of an adaptation. Some forms are better left unchanged. At least there are no odd movement physics this time around. You know what still does hang around? The pause after a longer fall. Guess the devs didn’t get the memo about that one.
But if there was at least one thing that I’d like you to remember out of this piece, it would be Gex’s story. No, we’re not talking about the franchises history. We ain’t talking about the story featured in the video games either. Did you know Gex has an extensive backstory to him?! Given you didn’t remember him to begin with, it’s very unlikely, so… Let me just get to the point.
Believe it or not, there is more to Gex than just “you are the hero, go and kill the bad guy” plot seen in so many video games. Especially of that era. The manual for the original game comes with six pages (out of twenty five) dedicated to our protagonist’s backstory. And that is quite a treat.
Gex’s hometown is Maui, Hawaii, where he lives with his entire family. He’s a young lad as we start off this story and he’s the oldest out of three tiny lizards his poor mother’s raising. Why Hawaii? The manual states it’s the world’s largest population of geckos and maybe there’s some truth to that. Apparently Gex used to be the sociable kind. Going out with his friends, playing ukulele and even surfing on the waves of the Pacific Ocean. All good things must come to an end and for Gex’s family that was when his mother received a terrifying call from NASA. See, the head of the family was an employee of NASA and that’s how they made their living (apparently geckos also need money. And can work for NASA). Not long ago he and ten other brave… men?… creatures?… the manual doesn’t state… volunteered to be part of an experiment to decide if it’s possible to eat tapioca pudding in zero gravity. A band-aid was found floating inside of one of the fuel tanks which caused the rocket to explode, killing everyone inside.
The family was devastated and Gex tried his best to deal with the loss with the use of escapism. He sat down in front of the television screen and watched it for days, imagining the characters are his friends. But that had to end sooner or later, as our bunch has decided to leave Hawaii and start anew in California. The following morning, the idiot box was also gone as the mother of three gave it away to “some gypsies” to force her oldest son to stop spending his days inside. For Gex it seemed like another tragedy. He couldn’t trust his mother anymore so he left the new family house and set his feet into the unknown.
Quoting the manual, as I cannot do a better job of describing it: “He slept in a friend’s garage and made pocket money ‘doing errands’ for frustrated housewives. His entire existence became one long, aimless haze, with none of his TV friends to help him out.” I also enjoy how it specifically mentioned him listening to music through his Walkman so they can stick a trademark symbol right next to it. The 90s were an interesting place marketing-wise, only just figuring out different ways to sell their products… He even had an imaginary friend, whom he called “The Mayor”. One day they were both approached by a black limo. On its seat sat the gecko mother herself and she quickly told Gex the great news – their rich uncle left this terrifying world leaving his wealth to the family. They suddenly had over 20 billion dollars in their paws and they began spending. Houses, cars, the entire island of Australia and 51 percent of NASA, which led to firing everybody working there and selling the rockets to third world countries and “converting Mission Control into a theme restaurant featuring robotic dancing chimps wearing space suits.”
And Gex? He came back to Maui, Hawaii. Bought himself a house and his favorite toy – the TV. Yet it seems like interrupting his pastime was life’s hobby. A fly flew by him so he got out his tongue to grab it. The bug was bugged. A miniature device has suddenly transported our lizard into the world of the television. And thus is how the original Gex begins.
If you thought that is too over the top, hold on with your assessment as this isn’t the only piece of written media. Even though all of the manuals included some backstory, they were mostly retelling the events already shown to us in the intro cinematic. There is one more piece I’d like to look at though. The Gex novel.
Back in the days, game novelizations were somehow mildly common. There are many titles you would not even think to transform into a text-based media. 1981’s Defender, RuneScape, the 1995 shooter Descent, a whole series of books based on Wing Commander… Believe it or not, there also exists a Doom novelization. But we are here for our favorite little lizard and thus, Troll Communications LLC is there to fill-in a void in our hearts by providing us with a retelling of Gex’s adventures in words of Michael Teitelbaum’s. If Sonic can have his novels, so can Gex. Oh, by the way, it’s short for Gecko Extraordinaire. That is literally how it begins.
The first chapter attempts to provide some more context to a pretty generic 2D platformer. What I mean by that is that it wants to present the first Gex games as something with more story than it originally had. It also tries to give some background to how gecko’s iconic moves got their names. A shot at an origin story, so to speak. The backstory is mentioned albeit not fully retold – something I find quite impressive as it could easily serve as a chapter of its own. All of this with the lizard himself being the narrator. A first person perspective retelling of every Gex adventure is exactly what I needed in my life… Shame it fails to mention the godawful save system and how the edge of the screen is a literal death wall.
Chapter two does a similar thing, this time establishing very briefly what had happened in Enter the Gecko. As the novel itself was a tie-in to the third game in the series, I do understand the choice of skimming through the earlier source material but as far as I remember, Gex’s second adventure through the Media Dimension wasn’t as simple as jumping through a handful of TV screens and whacking Rez in the face. Still, chapter two is where “It’s tail time!” is used three times over the span of four pages…
Then begins the story proper and after quickly establishing the passage of time and the situation which led our protagonist to go back into wearing his secret agent tux, a sudden tank battle is described in almost meticulous amount of detail compared to the previous writing. From now on, a chapter equals one game level, meaning the pacing has slowed down dramatically. Soon enough, Gex becomes a prisoner of war. Not that he cares about his status, of course, as he continuously spews quips and movie references. Maybe because they are written in plain text instead of said in-between all of the other annoying sound effects, this becomes more than cringe-worthy.
When I said, a chapter is a game level, I truly meant it is a separate story taking place in one of the generic stage themes. There is little to no mention of the annoying power-up system from Mythology Network. Instead, Gex is a part of the Greek Colosseum and meets with Julius Caesar himself. Of course, the novel would be way too long if all of the levels were addressed in that way. Therefore, halfway through Rez decides to speed things up. He randomly appears out of thin air saying he’s grown tired of waiting and begins literally telling his nemesis what to do next and then swiftly disappears. Whilst there are probably more than enough questions going through my mind about this series of events, the one I’m going to ask is why did the author decide to use Rez for this role?
There is a perfectly fine character in the series established as Gex’s butler and hint giver. Instead of dragging Agent Xtra through his adventure (even though she supposedly is captured by Rez) and make her be completely useless, why not drag the turtle around instead? It would make at least some amount of sense in this senseless story.
The chapters are barely related as the incidents inside each of the worlds are not connected in the slightest. They all feel like filler. Gex whacks some enemies with his tail and cries one-liners one after another. To be fair, that’s exactly what the games are all about as well, so maybe I’m expecting too much. The novel itself is nothing special. The final two chapters being this huge epic boss battle with Rez show some skillful writing but other than that there is not much to recommend here. I respect it for not being awful as it’s often the case with these video game tie-ins but there isn’t anything interesting here. At least, the Gex 1 backstory was so off the wall, wacky and completely unpredictable, it’s good for a few laughs. This? This you can skip. Unless you really want to tick all boxes of the Gex-related media list. Or you need something short with no further thinking involved as the entire novelization is just short of eighty pages long.
Interestingly enough, Crystal Dynamics went on to developing another 3D character collectathon. A licensed one at that. Another strange turn of events is that it is actually one of my favorite childhood video games. I’m speaking of 102 Dalmatians: Puppies to the Rescue – a tie-in to promote the 2000 Disney movie. Replaying it now sets me down a long memory lane but I enjoyed my time with it even today. I can see how Gex influenced it to become a better title. Cleverly using the theme, there is a sniffing mechanic which leads the player to collectibles they’ve missed. Some are also buried in the ground requiring a chosen puppy to dig it up. There’s not much platforming going on and the title itself isn’t very difficult. The movement is basic, the levels are diverse. Not just theme-wise but also content-wise. Some set you on a fetch quest, some require to solve simple puzzles. The stages aren’t huge as it is the case with certain collectathons and yet there are still handy shortcuts dotted around. Getting a hundred percent completion is not much of a challenge but it takes just the right amount of time as to not get either boring or frustrating. There are also a few unique minigames to up your playtime. The game overall is truly charming, it holds up to this day and I do recommend it wholeheartedly if you can manage to get your hands on it.
Other than that, there are no plans for further Gex titles although the current holder of the IP – Square Enix – would love to see where developers could take the character. Thus, the series is open for grabs and publishing on the Collective – a curated indie platform launched and actively supported by the Japanese company.
How would it work though? Would Gex still be a 3D character collectathon taking inspirations off Super Mario 64? Or would he go back to his roots and transform back into the 2D world. Since like a lot of mascots (and not only) are doing justthat lately. And what about the quips? I’ve seen a bunch of comments mentioning that Gex could just as well be making current pop references or take inspiration from the internet culture. But would it really be the best course of action? Internet fads fade quickly. “The dress” phenomenon lasted barely a day and does anyone still use Rage Faces? New memes come and go and content would become obsolete too many times during the sheer development cycle. This is exactly why social commentary shows such as South Park are created on short notice. Try watching old episodes of that cartoon now and see how many times you think “oh yeah, that happened“.
Gex was unique because he was so into pop culture. His character exists to watch TV. What would he watch now? Would he be this old fashioned gecko who still stares at the idiot box all day? Or would he switch to Netflix or other video on demand platform? Who would become his Bond girl? Maybe he should change his preferred media altogether, instead spoofing popular video games? Duty Calls was quite successful at that, Goat Simulatorended up as a very profitable April Fools joke and Cow Clickerwas the birth of an entire genre. Could our beloved little lizard also accomplish such a thing? As 3D collectathons are coming back and Bond movies are still ongoing, maybe it’s tail time for Rez to pull Gex into The Media Dimension once more. I refuse to believe Gex would miss an opportunity to wear his super secret spy tuxedo.
This piece was heavily inspired by ChipCheezum’s Gextra Life 2016, go check it out and support the cause! (Basically I was wondering if it’s all as horrible as it looked like…)
When it comes to childhood video games, it seems like there’s nothing better than a 3D character platformer. Almost every time I hear people discussing games they’ve played as a kid, they mention some title belonging to the genre. Be it Super Mario 64, Banjo Kazooie, Crash Bandicoot, Spyro The Dragon or even more obscure ones like Bugs Bunny: Lost in Time, Gex: Enter the Gecko(get outta here, you lizard!) or Rocket: Robots on Wheels. If you’ve read last month’s piece, you probably already know where this is going. Today, we will be looking at my favorite childhood game. Also a 3D character platformer. And if you’ve been following me for a while or… well… looked at the title of this piece… you know I just replayed Rayman 2: The Great Escape!
Interestingly enough, my first ever piece of published work was a tiny written review of said product. Years back, I sent it to a magazine (remember these?) focused on non-violent video games. Seeing how I ended up becoming a lore expert on Hitman, I fail to see it influencing me much. Still, White being a young lad, wasn’t allowed to play your Duke Nukems and GTAs. Length-wise, my Rayman 2 ‘review’ was comparable to the first paragraph of this piece but it granted me my own dedicated space on the page and a copy of a Winnie the Pooh video game – Pooh’s Party Game: In Search of the Treasure – which was basically a Mario Party clone. Maybe one day, I’ll dig it up and introduce it to you as well…
For now though, let’s go back to Rayman. As you know me well by this point, it is probably a surprise to nobody that once I managed to access the magical place known as the Internet, I started reading on some of my favorite games. And whilst Croc 2 ended up being a disappointment when I came back to it years later, Rayman 2 wasn’t. It also seems like I’m not the only one holding said opinion. Since its original release, it was ported to pretty much everything but a toaster and people do speak highly of it. No wonder, I was curious myself.
The title was released in October 1999 on Nintendo 64 and PC shortly after. Interestingly enough, it uses the same engine which later fueled games like Grand Theft Auto III through Vice City and San Andreas, Manhunt 1 and 2, Max Payne 2, Spongebob SquarePants: Battle for Bikini Bottom, killer7 and Hello Kitty: Roller Rescue!…
The game was critically acclaimed. (Rayman 2, that is, not Hello Kitty: Roller Rescue – that ended up scoring ~60.) Review scores went up to 90+ points out of 100 if you’re for some reason interested in merely meaningless numbers. If not, it also ended up featured in multiple “Game of the Year” articles if you prefer insignificant lists instead. Apparently, numerous reimaginings did Rayman 2 well. It was originally going to be a straight-up sequel to the original, even retaining the 2D aesthetic (although not so brutally hard, mind you), and be released in August 1996. There does exist a playable version of it hidden as a reward for getting enough collectibles in the PSX edition of Rayman 2: The Great Escape but maybe it’s for the better than the leap to the scary 3D world was made after the team got inspired by Crash Bandicoot during E3 1996. With a background like that, how not to get excited?
Obviously, it wasn’t simple to get it to run on a modern system which is why I’m so in favor of active video game preservation projects. We attempt to preserve every other artform, so why not interactive ones as well? The problem here was that my physical copy was mined with a DRM inject which ended up being incompatible with a 64-bit operating system. Once I got around that – by basically getting frustrated and purchasing the game digitally… spoiling we will be looking at the PC version – it was back to The Glade of Dreams!
I was welcomed back by a weird yellow butterfly. A one with eyes, no less. To add to that, we are somewhere in a forest, greeted by a peculiar long-faced creature and fairy tale-like soundscape. It’s eerie and mysterious. What is the aforementioned creature and why is it bowing? Why is the insect so interested in getting into the shot of the camera? Questions don’t stop once we begin a new game either. Instead, new ones appear. Especially, as after a dreamy atmosphere of the main menu, we are brought to a flying ship and the narration appears on the screen.
“Rayman, look what the pirates have done to our world… A planet of anguish and pain, haunted by evil. A dark place, teeming with fierce monsters. Nothing can stop them now that they’ve captured you. They’ve taken everything and reduced our people to slaves. The robots search for innocent prey. In the chaos, they exploded the Heart of the World. The 1000 Lums of energy which form it have been scattered. We are getting weak. Soon, it will be too late…You must escape, Rayman. You are our only hope!”
Pretty dark for a children video game, I’ve got to admit. We watch the opening cinematic and are immediately thrown into action. A limbless “thingamajig”, to quote the Rayman Origins trailer, is locked in a cell with a blue frog-like animal who speaks of fairies and magic powers. After transferring some of those powers to Rayman, he can apparently now shoot energy from his fists… somehow. This can be used to open up a way out of the prison ship. Something which the player easily figures out once they get used to basic controls and physics in a closed off environment. Once they are ready, they can then run through the opening and leave. No dangers, no obstacles, no time limits. Just the player character, some space to run around and a very clear exit. Neat!
Rayman’s life meter starts out missing a few hit points. This can be circumvented by touching red pickups dotted around the slide out of the ship. They revealed to be one of many types of Lums – shards of energy fueling this universe. It appears that every ability and item is somehow explained as part of the lore. A feat I find quite impressive. In fact, quoting the Knowledge of the World: “Everything that moves around you, everything that lives and thinks is given life by the tiny magical lights which we call… Lums.” I especially enjoy how the title acknowledges the connection. During one of the cutscenes, Admiral Razorbeard even eats one of them which makes the counter go down by one. And then you can find a hidden extra one if you’re really perceptive!
Gameplay-wise, the title is a basic 3D platformer. There’s nothing out of ordinary. The levels are short and simple. There is usually only one way to get through them with not much out of the beaten path. That said, collecting Lums and freeing long-faced creatures known as Teensies are secondary objectives, and finding every single one can be tricky if you aren’t paying enough attention. Later on, you can also find optional areas so it’s probably wise to explore even if you think there’s nothing to explore! You can even enter previous stages that way so if you were ever wondering why you’re missing collectibles in The Fairy Glade, try looking a bit further…
Rayman’s abilities also are nothing we haven’t seen in other titles. He can jump, float and has a long-ranged attack which is later enhanced over the course of the story. He juggles parts of his own limbless body as his idle animation which, as all of them, in fact, are truly entertaining to watch. I still love how 2D sprites were used in late 90s/early 2000s. It’s part of the charm of video games such as The Sims, early Harry Potter games, Tomb Raider, Deus Ex or Hitman: Codename 47. I am absolutely positive that it looks off in an otherwise 3D environment and it was even replaced by actual 3D models in later ports of the title. 2D does speak to my particularly odd sense of aesthetics, however. Here, it’s even more captivating as all of the forest critters are animated sprites. We’re talking flying butterflies, big-eyed mosquitoes, jumping mushrooms, etc. It’s a big reason as to why the levels, even though basic in design feel dynamic.
To add to that, Rayman 2: The Great Escape does not dawdle when it comes to introducing new mechanics. Some would call them gimmicks but they are used to far more extent than that. Almost every level brings out something new to the table and the player never feels bored of the existing content – also used in more complex ways as time goes on. A simple slide – literally one of the first obstacles of the game is reused multiple times throughout the adventure. An entire level is also built on a re-imagined version of that mechanic. The hero ends up skating on the water of the Marshes of Awakening as he’s being dragged by a purple snake called Ssssam.
Ssssam isn’t the only useful friend in the game. Green fairy by the name of Murfy appears every now and again to explain new features in a better way than his blue counterpart in another video game franchise.
Previously mentioned blue frog-like creature also known as Rayman’s best friend Globox helps him in his quest by using his rain dance ability to destroy pirate technology and grow flowers and bushes. A purple whale – Carmen – is a part of an underwater level and a giant Clark tunnels a way for the protagonist to pass once brings him necessary medicine. It feels like every character in the game wants you to succeed. Even though all of them talk in gibberish and the dialogue is fairly elementary to begin with, the animations and character interactions are enough to establish deep connections between them. This is cemented by quotes from Ly the Fairy showing up during each respawn animation as well as the ending itself. The reason for it might be because Rayman’s adventure is quite of an important one. As mentioned before, the intro cinematic is surprisingly dark and even though the game keeps its lighthearted feeling, the undergoing tone is alarming. Topics of slavery and imprisonment run through the entire story as it goes as far as to specifically say that the antagonist wants to kill Carmen and use her blubber to grease the engines of his ship. One of the first characters we see during our adventure are Globox’s children who end up without their parents as they were both captured by the evil Robo-Pirates.
If you never noticed those disturbing bits of the story as a kid, I can assure you, there was another aspect of Rayman 2: The Great Escape which gave you nightmare fuel. Carrying a fairy tale-like feeling doesn’t mean places like The Cave of Bad Dreams cannot exist. And now that you know the name of it, you too can enter it! The level itself is nothing special. It starts out with basic platforming and playing with different colored orbs. Its aesthetic is a lot more eerie than the rest of the universe however and the danger keeps rising until it reaches peak at a high speed slide escape sequence with a huge overlay of The Cave’s Guardian – Jano’s – sharp teeth. At the end, it appears that Jano protects a cave full of golden coins and offers them to Rayman as he’s rightfully beaten him. This brings up a quite amusing non-choice as the player can either take the gold or leave it, therefore continuing the adventure.
New game mechanics never slow down. Rayman can soon ride on a Walking Shell, explosive barrels or the dreaded plum. The latter can again be used in multiple ways, even as a solution to enemy encounters. Speaking of enemies, the combat is also very simplistic. We have a generic lock-on button and Rayman’s shots target relevant items automatically. Confrontations are relatively quick yet feel dragged on by invincibility frames which last longer than I’d like. This paired with the fact that there’s not much to be done except for mashing the Fire button or holding it for a brief moment before releasing the shot makes the combat feel like something I’d prefer to skip. Especially as dodging isn’t required. Rayman’s life meter is long enough to survive multiple shots and his hit points get added as he releases more Teensies.
Overall, the game’s difficulty isn’t something to write essays about. The platforming is fairly simple, the combat is basic and the only tricky moments come from higher paced sections such as the ones involving the Walking Shell. Game Overs never pose a threat. The only consequence being returning you back to the previous checkpoint… which happens anyways if you fall into the abyss. The bosses aren’t dangerous, although they appear as intimidating. Only the end boss may give you any real trouble but that again, is because of the new and improved (!) Flying Shell. If you don’t mind missing the collectibles, the entire game can be beaten in just a few hours. If you’d prefer to see a nice round 100% however… it still can be beaten in a few hours although with a bit more trickiness involved. As mentioned before, some hiding spots are tougher to see than you’d think meaning you probably will have to replay levels to get every single Lum and Teensie cage.
Is it worth it though? Collecting Lums unlocks pages of the Knowledge of the World and breaking cages upgrades Rayman’s life meter. Lums are also required to progress but honestly, you should never be worried about having enough of them. Ending a stage with all of the collectibles grants you access to the Bonus Level but that ends up being pretty irrelevant too as all it does is refill your life meter or gives you extra powerups.
Given that the title is so basic, appears to offer little difficulty and can be finished in just a few hours, I think the question everyone asks is why is it so praised? Why has it been released on so many systems and is being called one of the best platformers of its era? Part of it is definitely because of its simplicity. Even though it is packed with different game mechanics, all of them present the same level of care put into them. Even the swimming stages, often disregarded as worst parts of otherwise great video games, aren’t much of an issue here. They are used more as a breather between high action sections and it helps that they carry the same tight controls. Rayman 2: The Great Escape never truly slows down. That’s part of its charm. New mechanics keep on being introduced making every level you jump into feel dynamic and fresh even though the design itself never gets any more complicated. There are too many memorable set pieces to count, especially as all of them are equally great. The music is absolutely fantastic, too. It’s cheery and upbeat to keep up with the vibrant, picturesque world but also can be toned down to pay respect to more oppressive parts of the story. And while I think this entire cocktail of features is why the game is still being talked about, it’s not what made it my favorite childhood title and my great escape. It was the in-game universe, its fairy-tale-like aesthetic and its lore which I happened to explore years later.
Young-in White was definitely drawn to the colorful environments and quirky characters. I replayed The Woods of Light more times than I can count, not even playing the level properly but exploring it and simply getting embroiled into the world. “Immersed”, I’d say if I was into industry buzzwords. The charming animations were a big part of me getting drawn into The Glade of Dreams. I loved letting Rayman perform his idle actions whilst listening to the calming music and indulge in this serene atmosphere. The story, being what it is, also made White appreciate specific values in life. Rayman is heroic but loyal to his friends and very sympathetic. He also fears nothing. He’s brave enough to embark on an adventure bringing him to dangerous places such as the aforementioned Cave of Bad Dreams, various enemy bases, ancient Sanctuaries and even an abstract dream world where he is having conversations with the divine creature and the creator himself – Polokus.
The lore is even deeper than that and has been gradually expanding over the course of the franchise. It tells tales of Lums merging together to forge a creature so powerful, his every thought became reality. Thus, he imagined a valley and its inhabitants. He was granted with a sense of humor, giving explanation to oddities surrounding this universe. He pictured fairies of various magical powers to help him. He gave life to amphibious organism known later as Globox, as well as his wife Uglette and 650 of their children. But as dreams can be both peaceful and restless, nightmares took over Polokus’ mind and thus, he created Jano – previously mentioned guardian of the Cave of Bad Dreams, thus introducing evil to the world.
Rayman 2’s story speaks of a sudden arrival of Robo-Pirates. Their leader – Admiral Razorbeard – wishes to reign over The Glade of Dreams, enslaving its inhabitants and getting access to the energy fueling the world. Again, for a product with such colorful environments and cheery characters, it’s honestly quite remarkable how dark the story ends up. Even though cartoony, it still carries the feeling of an intense battle, especially as you see powerful characters fall and fail. Ly the Fairy whom remains of magical powers are brought to our hero by his friend, has to be freed from a contrived cage. A literal giant has to be helped onto his feet after he has slayed multiple pirates by himself. And the creator of the universe himself has to be reconnected with four ancient masks first before he can offer his services to the inhabitants of The Glade of Dreams. The player gets invested in the adventure and the world itself and for me, this is why it’s not only a quest for a great escape for the creatures of this unique universe. It is also a quest for my own.
Rayman 2: The Great Escape will always carry a special place in my heart. Not only because it my favorite childhood video game but also because it’s still an amazing title. I can absolutely understand the reasons as to why it was ported to so many other systems. It deserves to be presented to a wider audience as it has held up magnificently over the years. Yes, the camera has aged, the title is quite short and basic but that’s exactly where the charm of it lies. It’s simple yet surprisingly varied in gameplay. Vivid and colorful yet dark and mature. Personally, I don’t recall another video game managing to grab me into its world and bring me such joy as Rayman 2. Its fairy-tale aesthetic is still relevant up to this day and can be enjoyed by players of all ages. Just as young-in White always found their great escape, and so will older White. See, young-in White kept coming back to it, never finding another game to grab their attention for so long. Not even the next title in the series… Not even Rayman 3: Hoodlum Havoc. But that is the story for another day…
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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.
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.
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 manyothers 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?”.
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!
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.
We 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.
“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…
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.
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.
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…
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.
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.
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!
We’ve talked a lot about themes and aesthetics in our previous pieces. Analyzing the Hitman series has shown us how the premise shifted from delivering a vision and a thought-provoking narrative to pure gamification of the series. Silent Hill 2 proved that even if you sacrifice fluid combat mechanics and create a piece of media which isn’t specifically ‘fun’, you can still end up with a huge followup. Visiting Final Fantasy X’s Spira presented us with an alternate view on the personal story of its protagonist and Alice Madness Returns was all about moving away from the uniqueness of what made its prequel great to begin with.
I’ve also discussed many products dealing with mental well being. That is probably because of my personal interest in the subject. I find comfort and enjoyment from comparing my own experiences with those shown in various media. Digging up those which present topics close to my heart with accuracy and ability to make it visually appealing at the same time is simply exciting for yours truly. Today, we’ll be continuing this odd narrative by looking at ways to tell a story with a minimal number of words (an art I have never truly mastered, if you can believe…), instead focusing on themes, aesthetics and gameplay choices. As always, I encourage you to play these games on your own and do some more analysis in your spare time. We are individuals. Aspects invisible to me might be quite obvious for you and vice versa. All the matter of perspectives…
This piece has been partially influenced by Mark Brown’s “What Made Psychonauts Special”, so I obviously suggest you go watch his video before delving deeper into this piece. To be fair though, the idea for replaying Psychonauts for myself has sprouted during my replay of Alice Madness Returns. Both titles draw heavy inspiration from and attempt to picture, mental illnesses. Alice Otherlands is pretty much the concept of Psychonauts, just grounded in real life history. Unfortunately for Alice, it doesn’t do it well. Maybe it’s because its environments aren’t much different from what we are used to in the real world. Maybe it’s because it doesn’t do a great job in portraying mental issues using the magic of symbolism. Maybe it’s because it is somewhat game-y in its nature, with a linear upgrade system done via a boring menu. Maybe it’s all of those combined…
Weirdly though, Psychonauts also has a handful of menus and it throws the player back into the overworld after every single level. However, it does present great care when it comes to keeping everything in-universe. The item menu, for example is shown as Raz’s thought bubble. The objectives, collectibles and the map are all disguised as his notebook. The game never breaks its established illusion. Maybe except for the always on-screen HUD. Every item and mechanic is grounded in the Psychonauts fantasy and that’s the beauty of it. American McGee’s Alice has also succeeded in creating this feeling whilst its sequel failed. But there are other video games which have managed to convey their stories exclusively by using their themes and playing around with symbolism and we are going to look at a few of them in this piece.
It is no surprise to anybody that I absolutely adore The Binding of Isaac. If you ever took at least a peak at my Steam account, you would know that I have way too many hours of playtime clocked in both the original Flash version and the updated Rebirth. And whilst most of it is because of their gameplay mechanics and replay value, I do not think I would have ever took interest in the series if not for its unique theme.
The Binding of Isaac takes place inside our little protagonist’s troubled head. Tales of religion and violence have been present around the traumatized boy by the name of Isaac – akin to the Biblical tale which has also influenced the title of the game. The intro, narrated by the wonderful voice of Mattias Bossi, is one of the only times when the story is given to the player in a typical fashion. In this 300-word cutscene, we learn the framework – Isaac is being forcefully kept in his room by his deeply religious mother. She has presumably heard a voice of God speaking to her and asking to take away everything from her son up to even his life. To escape his fate, Isaac finds a trapdoor in his room and sneaks away into the bottom of their small house on a hill.
If you want to uncover the rest of the story, you will have to dig deep into it. In my “Theme of Hitman vs. Theme of HITMAN” analysis piece, The Binding of Isaac was one of the examples I gave when presenting a title keeping every aspect of itself in-universe. Starting from the very main menu and the intro cinematic shown to us as Isaac’s drawings. This should be the first tip off point. Is everything we see real or are these events exaggerated by the boy’s troubled mind? The few first chapters of his underworld adventure are fairly normal – he goes through The Basement to enter The Caves and then The Depths where his initial trial ends. But killing the boss featured at the end of The Depths is only the game’s prologue. From there, it is down to The Womb and then either The Cathedral and then The Chest or Sheol and its Dark Room. I am giving you a very linear path through Isaac’s world as there are multiple equivalents of those chapters as well as the optional Blue Womb area and the true final chapter – The Void. Those were gradually added to the game in multiple expansion packs starting from the Flash version’s Wrath of The Lamb and ending at Rebirth’s Afterbirth+.
This is all getting pretty confusing even with this basic rundown… The basis of what you need to know is that that the final boss of the prologue is Isaac’s own mother… or rather her giant leg and body trying to reach her son all the way down in The Depths. Killing her logically (accordingly to Isaac) unlocks The Womb and the next story-related boss. This trend continues until the very final area and the encounter with Delirium. This is one of the ways this story tells itself – via the natural gameplay progression. Killing the bosses not only gives you one of many ending cutscenes, it also rewards you with an item related in some way to either the boss itself or the choice of playable character. A Lump of Coal is given by defeating Krampus, a familiar by the name of Abel is unlocked by clearing The Cathedral as Cain, all of Maggie’s unlockables are based around her faith and are often presented in form of angels or crucifixes.
The items themselves are joyous to analyze and pick apart. We have an impressive arrange of religious themes, demonology, pop culture-related content as well as some unique sets inspired by the characters. Just thinking about a child getting their hands on their mother’s razorblade or various syringes can make your skin crawl but then add this thought to the mix: why would Isaac be in possession of things like Mom’s Wig, Mom’s Bra, Mom’s Perfume or Mom’s Pad. Why would he have his Dad’s Key or hold on to various parts of his Dead Cat’s body? Guppy was the only big transformation in the original Flash version of the game. Gathering three cat items made Isaac appear as Guppy himself and if you put a bit of thought into it, you will start asking yourself if he’s actually putting Guppy’s Head, Paw and Tail on his own body? With the release of Rebirth as well as the Afterbirth expansion, we got even more unique transformations. Isaac can now, among others, become Beelzebub – The Lord of The Flies, Seraphim – the highest rank of angelic beings, Leviathan – a Lovecraftian creature, as well as his own Mother. This, in addition to the fact that originally all of the enemies were supposed to be based around Isaac and all of the characters are Isaac, just in different hats, makes you wonder…
There have been manyhypothesis on the topic of the main storyline of The Binding of Isaac. A lot of them came around after the first endgame boss was released. Entering The Cathedral’s exit whilst holding The Polaroid transported Isaac into The Chest. Defeating its big foe then presented the player with a set of photographs documenting boy’s extended family. Here we could get a glimpse of Isaac’s father as well as his sister Magdalene (one of the playable characters, nonetheless). It appears that times were not well for the family as Isaac ends up miserable sitting by his toy chest.
This chest is probably the most important aspect of the story, as it is not only a physical being but a big symbolical piece as well. It represents Isaac being stuck in his own head not able to deal with the outside world. The later endings show him transfiguring into a demon-like form, squealing as he’s lying in the fetal position inside of the toy chest. We can also see him reading The Bible, grasping to his dead cat’s remains and later on, his mother looking for her son. All of this paints a greater picture and I definitely advise you to try and connect all of the pieces. For me though, the meat of it all are the little details.
The attention to theme-relevant technicalities is praiseworthy. There has been an entire separate mode developed around the theme of greed. It used the basic idea of how players were interacting with the main game to deliver on the core principles of the side mode. In the creator’s own words: “The inspiration for greed mode was greed. I tried my best to fold that theme back in on itself as much as possible throughout. I’ve been testing it out extensively now, and I can tell you that every single death was because I got greedy, I tried to save up my money for an item I really wanted, and disregarded my health.“ And then there are so many more tidbits! A ghost character – The Lost starts out with 1 coin – a possible reference to the Charon’s obol. One of the practices adopted by Christianity used to be placing a single coin in the dead person’s mouth sometimes accompanied by a small key. It is however most known for its place in Greek mythology as it served as a payment to Charon for transporting the soul of newly deceased through the river Styx.
An important mechanic in The Binding of Isaac is earning a Devil or Angel Room – a special type of room featuring powerful items – which is available after defeating the respective level boss. The Devil will offer his deal first. Taking it will result in closing your path to Angel Rooms during that run. From then, the chances are much smaller but can be upped by accomplishing specific tasks. Killing a beggar or a shopkeeper earns you a tiny percentage to your Devil Room chance. Same can be said about holding specific items. Avoiding taking red heart damage is probably the most important of it all. Waging the Devil/Angel Room chances is usually the key to victory in any run and I truly enjoy how even though it is a pure gameplay mechanic, it all still makes sense in-universe.
Even the song titles are relevant to the plot and the symbolism behind the game, a lot of it being in Latin. Sepulcrum plays during the Final Ending. Sepulcrum means literally a place of burials. Matricide is the act of killing one’s mother and that’s the track playing during the Mom fight in The Depths. Acceptance plays on the death screen and Ascension is The Chest’s boss fight theme. Everything in The Binding of Isaac is relevant to its theme. Why? Because that is what the creator himself thinks is what makes a memorable video game. In an interview with VICE, Edmund McMillen has stated: “a great indie game is something that not only brings something new to the table, but everything about the game embodies what it is.”The Binding of Isaac embodies Edmund McMillen’s childhood. It’s honest in nature and very intimate at times. It’s a tale of religious upbringings, traumatic experiences, D&D and a whole lot of poop. Art was always McMillen’s emotional output. “I try to make it as cute as possible when I want to get a really dark message across.”, he said.
The symbolism and themes helpedothersfindsolace in their lives. For me, it is fascinating how a tiny video game based heavily on the first The Legend of Zelda has managed to evolve overtime and create its own unique identity. It is often that creators get boxed in instead of branching out and trying something new. Maybe it was because of how different it was, or maybe because of its honesty that The Binding of Isaac has managed to captivate so many hearts. Not just red hearts but soul and black hearts as well…
Our second victim of analysis might also bring us closer to its creator’s mind… or maybe it doesn’t. The internet isn’t quite sure on that one… What I do know for sure though it’s that it is definitely a unique product worth at least looking at, if not – explore for yourself.
The best way to describe Yume Nikki would be that it isn’t strictly a video game. It’s an experience. The topic of “what is a game” has been plentiful throughout the years, often discussed whenever a new “walking simulator” hits our virtual store shelves. Yume Nikki is both a “walking simulator” and a “video game” if you want to go by a definition that a video game has to have a failure state. As there are many different and very loud voices on the topic however, let’s disregard the whole “what makes a video game” discussion. Maybe we will come back to it at some other time. The truth is that Yume Nikki doesn’t care about the rights and wrongs of game design. It makes wrong choices with premeditation as the player involvement isn’t craved. The product is free and given the creator(s?)’ anonymity and presumably literally living under a rock, the cult followup of Yume Nikki was never intended or wanted.
This tiny video ga–… interactive experience was developed by KIKIYAMA. All we know about them that they are Japanese and… that’s pretty much it. The internet hasn’t managed to dig up much more about the creator(s?) and boy, it tried. It still does, in fact.
It was developed in RPG Maker, specifically the 2003 edition of the software and trust me, I am a huge fan of seeking hidden gems in between the waves of “babby’s first video games” running on the engine. As much as the internet seems to hate RPG Maker games just because the software is so easy to use, I find it even more appealing. It’s accessibility allows a wide variety of people to create interactive experiences without the knowledge of advanced programming. This means everybody can simply pick up the software and play around with it. It’s what KIKIYAMA and many others did and how Yume Nikki came to be. Art is a way of self expression. Giving people easy access to it is also giving its receivers easy access to the creator’s mind. Picture it as sticking a Psycho-Portal on the back of someone’s head as it is what Yume Nikki probably should be described as.
The game is basic. It explains itself by showing players its Game Flow at the beginning of the adventure. From there, we are thrown into a tiny square room. A chubby little girl is facing the camera. Again, there are not many options. The girl does not want to step outside. We can only leave via the south double door and even then we are stuck on a small balcony. We can sit down and play NASU – a simple mini game involving a bird and fish raining down the sky, write in the girl’s journal which is equivalent to saving our progress or… go to sleep as sleeping is where the magic begins.
The majority of Yume Nikki takes place inside the protagonist’s dream world. The scope of this interactive experience quickly expands as we actually get outside Madotsuki’s room and into the Nexus. Here, we have multiple doors to choose from and they all lead to different locations. Those are vast. The walking speed isn’t favorable until you find one of the 24 effects or – in more generic terms – items. Some of them grand additional abilities, some are used to solve the most basic of puzzles, some trigger special events and some are simply cosmetic. Getting all of them is the player’s goal in this adventure but trust me, it’s not as easy as it might sound.
Not only the locations are huge, they are also extremely hard to navigate. They lack proper landmarks (something which fangames [yes, there are many, and I mean manyfangames] tend to fix), often loop around which means the environment seems never ending and are almost, if not full-blown, labyrinthine. The tiny resolution the game runs in, as well as the initial slow walking speed makes traversing the world feel like a chore. There aren’t many ways or opportunities to interact with creatures inhabiting Madotsuki’s dreams and some are even straight up hostile – touching them sends the player into a dead end with their only option being to pinch their cheeks and wake up. See what I mean by Yume Nikki throwing the “proper” game design out of the window? It’s almost as if it doesn’t want you to further your adventures and many players give up at this point, never knowing why this interactive experience is so praised.
Obviously, it is best to go into Yume Nikki not knowing anything about it but the initial wall might be hard to overcome. Take my word though that this is worth it and if you are struggling to keep your attention, come to it in small bursts or, if you really need help – Google where the Bicycle effect can be found. Yes, even the most basic of upgrades the game gives you is hidden behind many beginner options and inside a vast environment. From there – explore. This title is literally Exploration: The Ga– Interactive Experience! Enjoy the atmosphere created by dreamlike music and abstract imagery. The soundtrack is also as basic as it can get. It consists of shorttrackslooped indefinitely and yet somehow, it never feels boring or annoying.
Yume Nikki hides its true face. As exploration is key, the player will often find themselves in completely new environments as everything is connected™… well… a lot of things are connected… The secrets it carries range from simple hidden rooms to random events which you might not even known existed until someone else comes across it. It’s almost as if the title itself is a huge puzzle needing multiple people to solve and yet the solution is not clearly given. It carries its theme on a competent level, presenting us with an array of more or less reality-based locations. As dreams can be down to earth or truly abstract in nature, serene or nightmarish, it does an amazing job in showing all of those possibilities as well as so many in-between. Analyzing Madotsuki’s dream world gives us a window into her own personality and interests as the character never speaks or interacts in any meaningful fashion. At least The Legend of Zelda’s Link has diverse facial expressions… We may only deduct that she is partial to Aztec aesthetic as it is commonly present in her dreams. She might be afraid of people – the fact that she doesn’t want to leave her room as well as the existence of a humanoid enemy by the name of Toriningen might speak in favor of this hypothesis. One of my personal favorite details is that the Fat effect used to be acquired by interacting with a mirror.
Discussing and analyzing game design in Yume Nikki is an art in it of itself as it has so many flaws yet I am pretty certain it does not consider them as such. Its secrets are obscure for some reason or another just as KIKIYAMA secluded themselves out of the Big Brother’s view. Maybe there does exist a hidden meaning in all of this or maybe it’s as simple as a college project devised out of randomly created assets. The topic is still in the air and we may never get to know the answer. Yume Nikki, albeit we’ve known to love it as a complete title, was never finished. The version number still says 0.10 and after 13 years, the chances of it changing are dying down. The tenth anniversary of this interactive experience has brought us some celebration allegedly given blessing from the creator(s) themselves. And whilst you may think this has made the community joyous – the opposite has been the case.
The name of it was as vague as the subject matter itself. Project Yume Nikki has been teased and the internet was adorned by it… until the eventual reveal of its contents. Those included a Vocaloidalbum, a light novel and a manga, all retelling the events of Yume Nikki. How can you retell something which has no story, you ask? That is the same question the community has had on their mind at the time. The pieces worked around that by claiming to be “interpretations” of the original subject matter. They ended up being quite controversial as, at least the Western part of the Yume Nikki community tends to be pretty defensive over their own ideas and theories. At the same time, even they cannot decide if what they love so much has a defined story or not. Some people speculate based on the previously mentioned imagery and manyreferences to Japanesemythology. Others claim that “Everything is “kind of just there” in Yume Nikki, that’s the whole point of the game.”
As terrible as it sounds, this is what I think made this interactive experience what it is. It has popped out of KIKIYAMA’s hands right into the wide world of the internet and from there, it has been adopted by like-minded individuals who gave names to characters and wrote stories about them. Sometimes it is hard to even say if titles still belong to their creators, or the people who keep them afloat.
Yume Nikki would not be a topic of conversations over ten years after its release if it wasn’t a memorable experience at least to some devoted individuals. It wouldn’t be relevant if not for a multitude of fangames created in its image – sometimes ending up being as popular as the original. The same can be the said about The Binding of Isaac. It’s the let’s play culture that will keep the game alive. That, and the recently introduced modding tools and Steam Workshop support. Once the creator is done with its piece, it is time to give it to others. This is what I’m doing right now, leaving you with gateways to experience these titles for yourselves.