Game Name:  Rayman
Developer:  Ubisoft
Publisher:  Ubisoft
PC Release Year:  1995
Review Date:  September 15, 2013

Gamers my age were raised on the 2D platformer.  During the heyday of the 8 and 16-bit consoles, Mario and Sonic became household names because groups of kids gathered around boxy TV sets to have fun running and jumping their heroes to victory.  It is important to remember though, that this style of game grew out of the technological constraints of the time.  As soon as Nintendo could make the jump to a 3D world in Super Mario 64, the rest of the industry quickly followed suit and the classic side-scroller went into exile until it was revived by a handful of brilliant indie developers and savvy salesmen.  It is funny to see this resurgence in the industry today, with games like Donkey Kong Country Returns marketed directly at my generation because we either now have kids of our own, or the incomes to support a gaming hobby.  One such title that lured me in is the absolutely amazing Rayman Legends.  Whether I find myself fighting a giant luchadore in front of Day of the Dead skeletons or racing away from a dragon to a stylized rendition of Black Betty, I just sit back and smile like a maniac.  Considering how much fun I am having there, I was curious about the origins of the franchise and decided to use the initial Rayman as the focus of this retrospective.  While I ultimately found a competent platformer that can stare into the eyes of Nintendo without flinching, it is far too punishing to ever consider playing again.

For those who are unfamiliar with Rayman, he is ultimately just as strange as other notable platformer heroes.  You have to admit that from a purely objective standpoint, a hedgehog running around in sneakers and a gorilla wearing a necktie are not exactly normal, but this is all part of the side-scroller charm.  Rayman takes this a step further, in that while he appears to be some breed of humanoid with an unreasonably large nose and set of eyes, he is actually a collection of dismembered body parts.  You will see a head, two hands, and a pair of feet that all work in unison, but they float around the torso like electrons orbiting the nucleus of an atom.  His image is stranger still because of his easily identifiable European roots.  Unlike newer franchise releases where his portrayal has been toned down to broaden his appeal with the masses, the pair of big yellow sneakers, Flock of Seagulls haircut, and red scarf flapping in the wind make it absolutely clear that he hails from across the pond.  I am not trying to bash foreign game design or anything like that, but this title makes me wonder how popular everyone’s favorite plumber would be if it was clear that he came from the land of the rising sun.

All oddities aside, gameplay in Rayman is standard, yet extremely well-crafted, platformer fair.  The narrative is simple and ultimately drives the experience.  An evil wizard named Mr. Dark has shown up and captured the Great Protoon, an artifact that helps to control the balance of nature.  Betilla the Fairy, who is charged with protecting the world, loses her powers when this occurs and evil creatures enter the realm to capture and imprison the magical electoons, which function much as stars do in the Mario series.   In order to save the day, Rayman must run and jump his way through progressively harder levels to rescue these kidnapped creatures.  Along the way, he can earn additional lives by collecting 100 tings, which are blue orbs of power that are similar to coins from the Mario franchise.  As Rayman slowly restores the natural order of the land, Betilla will regain her powers and use them to grant our hero new abilities like punching, running, grabbing onto ledges, and drifting to the ground by using his hair as a helicopter.  This allows a nice progression to the game which introduces players to new mechanics slowly, for use in increasingly complex maneuvers like racing down an icy ram, jumping at the last second to get maximum elevation, starting the helicopter ability at the peak of the launch, and drifting to a distant ledge that can then be climbed.  Tackling these scenarios is very rewarding and allows the game to stand up well when compared against classic genre titans that people still regularly play to this day.

My beef with Rayman is ultimately a result of its unnecessarily punitive design.  I want to make it absolutely clear that I am not referring to the difficulty level here.   This is an extremely challenging game that is not for those who are easily frustrated as some of the required acrobatics and aerial feats demand absolute perfection to pull off.  Considering how easy some modern titles are, I am OK with this and it is actually a refreshing change of pace.  No, the problem arises from the fact that you are not given free rein to make continual attempts at these very hard points in the game.  Game lives are not easily obtained in Rayman, as the ting counter resets when a player dies and free lives do not respawn once they are obtained.  As a result, you get a set number of attempts and if you are unsuccessful, you are forced to reload an earlier save game or return to the beginning levels to farm tings.  Aside from being funneled into this kind of mundane time sink to continue progressing, you are further penalized in that every level you enter from the overworld map is actually a handful of sublevels which must be completed sequentially before you are allowed to save the game again.  If you got stuck on a third or fourth sublevel, when you make a return to try again, you will be required to redo the cleared content from the first and second.  These frustrations would be manageable if the end of the game was readily in site, but Rayman puts the gamer in a bad place at the meta level too.  Before you are even allowed to enter the final boss stage, every single electoon in the game must be found and rescued.  For reference, there are 102 scattered across the various levels.  I am all for lengthy game content, but it should never come at the expense of a player’s sanity.  Since some of these are extremely well-hidden or difficult to reach, it would have been fair to require 75-80% completion, but apparently the developers thought differently.

Rayman is not a bad game; it ultimately just fails in its execution.  Assuming I had a stockpile of lives to blast through a couple of levels without stopping, I found a great experience that felt directly comparable to the wonderful Donkey Kong Country.  This may disappoint newer fans of the series since Rayman Origins and Legends play at a much faster pace and are more akin to something out of Sonic the Hedgehog 2.  From a visual and sound perspective, recent converts to the franchise will also be disappointed in that the whimsical and fun design elements are missing from this introductory series entry.  Instead of snappy hand-drawn art and catchy instrumental versions of popular songs, you will get a window into the middle of the 1990s with all of its garish colors and ridiculous tunes.  Underlying these limitations though, is a solid platforming experience.  Unfortunately, it is one that should be left only to the biggest fans of the genre as they will have the patience, dexterity, and reflexes to bypass most of the frustrations.  I personally felt like this game hit me with a load of bricks and do not ever plan on returning to Rayman’s first outing.

Verdict:  Not Recommended