One Giant Leap, 2011: Rayman Origins

In One Giant Leap, Dramus18 charts the evolution of the platformer genre, one year at a time. This month: we save the Glade of Dreams in Rayman Origins

Rayman Origins isn’t supposed to exist. The Rayman series is a cartoony platformer series, produced by a Western studio, that had its heyday on the PlayStations 1 and 2. At a glance, this describes many other series; Banjo-Kazooie, Crash Bandicoot, Spyro the Dragon. All once-popular series, abandoned by 2011 thanks to changing markets and changed priorities. Rayman was more-or-less among them, give-or-take the Raving Rabbids spin-off series of party games1. And even if studios were making these sorts of games, they usually weren’t doing it well2. Games were handed off to C-teams, churned out with little care. Maybe the IP was harvested for a wildly divergent spin-off that deserved to be evaluated on its own merits rather than weighed down by the baggage of its own legacy3.

And it’s a damn shame, because Rayman Origins is a stone-cold classic. First of all, just look at it:

I know dunking on the grey/brown sludge look of 360-era AAA games is old hat, but the contrast is very relevant here. In an era of ugly-ass games that were poorly-aged the day they hit shelves it’s somewhat remarkable to see a major-studio release that, were it made today, wouldn’t look the slightest bit different. Rayman Origins is compelling in the same way that 2D PS1 games are; when everyone else is chasing the big shiny thing (in this case HD graphics) and not doing it particularly well just yet, there’s a real value in doing the old, abandoned thing well, benefiting from years of institutional memory and collective refinement. Rayman Origins pulls from all over the genre’s storied history: it’s fully 2D, but with some collect-a-thon DNA in how it treats Lums4 and the sort of crisp, no-landing-momentum controls that wouldn’t be out of place in an indie masocore.

This synthesis of old-school and new-school platforming styles creates a singular experience. The game is at its peak during treasure chase levels. These are auto-scroller levels where you chase down a fleeing treasure chest, often while the level itself collapses around you. These move fast, so there often isn’t really time to rest between jumps or take things slow. You’re forced to go full speed, jumping at the only possible moments, and you enter some of the most pure flow state I’ve ever experienced, where it feels like the game is playing you just as much as you’re playing it. It feels like when a Rhythm Heaven remix uses the cue of one game to set you up to act in another. It feels like how 2D Sonic superfans describe those games.

Actually, let’s dig into the Sonic comparison a little more. The first half of Rayman Origins features the player unlocking various abilities. The final one of these gives them the power to run up curves, running up fully vertical walls and even running upside-down on the ceiling. This calls to mind the various loop-de-loops and fancy reversals of the Genesis Sonic games. But, even at its fastest Origins doesn’t even begin to match the speed of those games. It’s not exactly slow, but it gives you time to think, whereas Sonic requires a full mind-meld such that the player moves instinctively. It feels like training-wheels for this sort of advanced flow state; if you aren’t good enough to grok the Blue Blur going 100mph, you’re probably at least able to groove with Rayman.

Rayman Origins wasn’t supposed to exist. And sadly, its miraculous existence wasn’t the spark of a Western platformer renaissance, even though it absolutely deserved to be. Hell, it only managed to spark one direct sequel. Which is a damn shame. The “proper” games industry seems increasingly uninterested in mid-budget games like this one, leaving everything that isn’t a bleeding edge quadruple-A5 to scrappy indies. Much like their idol, Hollywood, come to think of it. Turns out the real villain was capitalism.

Stray Observations:

  • This game has a mobile spin-off, 2012’s Rayman Jungle Run, that automates the running and exclusively6 has the player tap to jump. It works shockingly well; Rayman Origins is simply a flow-inducing machine.
  • This game can be surprisingly horny for an E-rated affair, especially when it comes to the nymph character designs. Though, this is an Ubisoft game, so maybe inappropriate horniness isn’t exactly surprising.

Other 2011 platformers of note:

Sonic Generations is a celebration of the series’ 20th anniversary, releasing at or at least near the series’ absolute nadir. It continues the style of Sonic Colors, which mixes 2D and very on-rails 3D to create such a limited possibility space that baffling, memeable failure is no longer possible. It’s an unremarkable game, but simply having something competent with fun nostalgia hooks (the remixes of past songs are often excellent) counted as a major victory in this era.

Elsewhere, Glitch was a Flash-based MMO platformer, which sure is a combination of words. This funky game generated a cult following, but not much more than that, and permanently closed down just one year later. Developer Tiny Speck would have far more success with their follow-up project, which was *checks notes* the communication platform Slack?! Like, the one you use at work? Damn, this is like learning Facebook started as a “hot or not” site except charming.

Next Time: We return to the indie scene with a fresh perspective and play Fez