As a gamer with a strong sense of nostalgia for my misspent youth in basements clinging to various console controllers, I’ll always have a soft spot for side-scrolling platformers. There’s something about the graphical simplicity and hair-pulling difficulty of the genre that is endlessly appealing to me. This is what most videogames were for years, and while I’m just as excited to dive into technical marvels like Uncharted 3 as the next modern gamer, 2D side-scrollers still capture my attention like few genres. I was thrilled when New Super Mario Bros. Wii was a massive commercial success a few years back, because as I hoped it meant the genre would have a long-awaited comeback. Amongst all the old school platforming revivals to hit shelves over the last few years, none of them are quite as addictive to flat out beautiful as Rayman Origins. I’ve never been a diehard fan of Ubisoft’s long-running series, but this new title is something special. This is the Rayman games that all the processors have tried to be, and it's quite honestly one of the must-play titles of 2011 whether you still adore old school gaming or not. This is a slice of sheer video game joy that only the most cynical of players would dismiss as boring kids stuff.
Any discussion of Rayman Origins has to begin with the absolutely beautiful presentation. The game ditches HD realism in favor of an aesthetic that looks like hand-drawn cell animation. It’s like being in control of a Ren And Stimpy cartoon with all of the vibrant primary colors and surrealism that suggests. The characters are the limbless Rayman, and a couple of friends who look like they wondered into the game from a 90s Saturday morning cartoon artists’ nightmare (in the best possible sense). The worlds are in theory the usual suspects (green forests, sandy beaches, red hot industrial areas overflowing with lava, etc.), but the loopy and unpredictable design that includes the likes of bickering forks feels unlike anything else. Simply put, this is one of the most gorgeous games on the marketplace at the moment. Even the menus feature moving limbs, and the wacky design never ceases to yield smiles and surprises. I played through the Wii edition, so I’m sure the colors and creative designs would pop even more in HD, but I certainly never felt like I was missing out on anything in good ol’ SD
In terms of story…well, there’s isn’t much of one, but that’s not really the point of platformers. The opening cinematic shows a sleeping Rayman and his buddies wake up an evil old woman with their snoring, and as punishment she unleashes an army of weird monsters across the land. That’s really it, and that’s all you need. Control-wise, it couldn’t be more simple. The Wiimote is held on its side with one button for attack, one for jumping, and the trigger for sprinting. Aside from a few secondary commands like a gliding function, there’s nothing else to learn. The controls are pure simplicity, and that’s ideal because you’ll be flying through levels a breakneck speed most of the time. With no extra lives to earn, hidden areas and secret items are used to unlock levels, so you’ll want to be grabbing everything you can. That will lead to many an unnecessary death, but the designers filled the levels with checkpoints so it never gets too frustrating. Though it starts off simple, later levels can become maddeningly difficult with split-second timing required (particularly in the frantic secret chest chases). It’s nothing that a little patience and pattern memorization can’t conquer, but make no mistake this can be a tough game. It may look like kids stuff, but I’m sure many controllers will be shattered over late night Rayman Origins sessions as players struggle to get through some tough bastard levels.
In keeping with the old school nature of the game, there’s no online play. That might frustrate some, but the good news is that much like New Super Mario Bros. Wii you can have up to four players bouncing their way through levels simultaneously. Much like that Nintendo blockbuster, the levels are definitely easier with fewer players, yet playing out this surreal odyssey with a group of gaming buddies is an undeniable joy. Now, with no online play or secondary gaming options, you might think this sucker is short…but oh no. There are so many unlockables kicking around in such tricky levels that a few dozen hours could easily be poured into this thing trying to earn that coveted 100% completion.
If you own any gaming console, Rayman Origins should have a space on your shelf. It’s definitely a major highlight in a slow year for the Wii, and even on the little white guy’s HD brethren, this thing is a must own. Sure there are some little flaws here and there like the absence of online play, the occasionally unfairly difficult level, and loading screens that can take friggin forever (presumably that’s not as much of an issue on the Xbox 360 and PS3 editions), but nothing that can’t be dismissed as a quibble. The good folks at France’s edition of Ubisoft created something of a minor masterpiece with Rayman Origins and the game probably tops anything on Nintendo’s 2D platforming resume in this generation. I never thought I’d be so giddy and ecstatic over a Rayman game, but this thing truly deserves the hype and universal praise that it’s received.
If Pee-Wee ever bought a gaming console for his Playhouse, Rayman Origins would be on constant repeat and the King Of Cartoons would shit himself.