In contrast to the “we’ll take whatever you can throw at us!” mentality that has been a requirement of Wii owners this year (with the exception of Skyward Sword, obviously), last year was in many ways a boon for Wii owners. Nintendo and several affiliated developers were tossing out their greatest masterworks. Last year alone, Super Mario Galaxy 2, Donkey Kong Country Returns and Kirby’s Epic Yarn pretty much locked up and sealed away the 3D, 2.5D and 2D platformer, respectively. After that kind of banner year, it would be hard for any platformer to make a mark, much less a multiplatform, French platformer (OK, calm down, the French joke was in jest. I live in Canada, for pete’s sake!)
But here we are with Rayman Origins, the first game in the Rayman series since Rayman 3, a platforming star of yore whose fame has faded. Unlike Donkey Kong, there were far fewer people calling out for a return of this limbless hero. Sucks to be them, because Rayman Origins is absolutely one of the best platformers of the last several years.
Don’t even try to get me to recall the plot of this game - it’s so asinine and inconsequential that the game literally never brings it up again after the first two minutes of the game. Instead, Rayman Origins is about two things, one of which is apparent, and the other which is hidden and thoroughly amazing.
Let’s get the obvious out of the way: this is a phenomenally gorgeous game, easily one of the standouts of 2011. It’s animated in a 1990s Nickelodeon-meets-Earthworm Jim-meets-Asterix and Obelix style that has gorgeous details to boot. The game is, quite simply, a living, breathing cartoon, and for that it’s already one of the most amazing experiences of the year. The UbiArt framework that the game runs on apparently allowed its artists to do some amazing things, and while the game doesn’t quite have the elegance of Vanillaware’s output (especially 2009’s Muramasa), nor the whimsy of Wayforward’s A Boy and His Blob, Rayman Origins is packed to the gills with animation details that make the game feel like the imaginations of master cartoonists run amok.
The visual style is easily the most hyperbolic element of the game, and truth be told, at the start of the game I was afraid that that would be all there was to separate Rayman Origins from other 2D platformers of yesteryear. The platforming genre is hardly one that has changed drastically over the past twenty or so years, so it takes something truly special in the gameplay department to make one stand out. And Rayman absolutely nails it.
Not only is this game a mechanical tour-de-force like no other Rayman game before it, but the level design backs up this mechanical excellence with inventive designs that are made to test your mastery of its simple concepts. The Wii controller (which I oriented in the classic NES configuration) simply melts into your hands, and all the years of platforming acumen that you’ve probably acquired becomes the canvas onto which Michel Ancel and his team at Ubisoft create platforming pieces of art.
From a world made up of ice and food to a mystic mountain top filled with pugilist monks, the game constantly surprises with its level design, which asks you to master not only running and jumping, but gliding, punching, diving and wallrunning. With the exception of the last skill (which in the NES configuration requires you to press the B button, which is hardly convenient), they all work perfectly, which is really quite surprising considering the art style. I’ve always assumed that Mario’s platforming excellence came from being pixel-precise, but somehow, Rayman Origins achieves it within its fantastic art style.
I think it’s safe to say that some of Nintendo’s platforming mascots have a new challenger approaching. Michel Ancel’s creations have always, in some way, been in debt to Nintendo designs (the other obvious analogue is between his masterful Beyond Good and Evil - the only game of his that I think is better than this one - and Zelda), but here, the platforming is so tight and so stylized that Rayman deserves to stand shoulder to shoulder with Nintendo’s greats.
With all of that being said, there are a few elements which threaten to tarnish the game, if only ever so slightly. The first, actually, comes back to that visual style. Let me preface this following paragraph with the disclaimer that your mileage may vary. But I personally found the silliness of the game to be a little too nauseating at times. It’s a very particular (and dare I say, a very French) type of wackiness that threatens to make the game just a little too quirky for its own good. Now, I’m an older gamer, and those Nickelodeon cartoons I mentioned earlier were something I never really responded to, so this particular element may not bother you, and that’s fine.
However, one element where the quirkiness does get overbearing is in the game’s music. It’s full of jaw harps and Chipmunk-ized vocals and digideridoos and acid jazz and I found the whole thing wanting for a melody and a single instrument that wasn’t so precious. Once again, it all fits into a cohesive “quirkiness” mandate, but I personally feel the game would be better served with at least a musical score that was simply catchy rather than grating. The fact that the music often stops dead or changes on a dime in somewhat jarring ways (a problem seemingly held over all the way from Rayman 2) doesn’t help too much.
But in the scope of things, these are extremely minor complaints, especially for a game that looks and feels and plays this good. Rayman Origins might not push a ton of boundaries, but it achieves something just as valuable: pure platforming perfection.
Let’s put it this way: you can knock an extra half-Reggie off if you hate excessive collecting of things to unlock levels or you wish there were more variety than just platforming and 2D shmup sections (things that didn’t particularly bother me) or you can add a half-Reggie if you’re OK with an excess of quirkiness. But if you love platformers, you need this game. Period.