It’s funny to think that perhaps three or four years ago, the 2D platforming genre was all but dead in the water, written off by the mainstream as, at best, throwaway fodder for Xbox Live Arcade or PSN. Over the last few years, though, running from left to right has found its way back into the modern gaming lexicon, with no less than five major platformers released for home consoles since 2009. Joining this new 2D renaissance comes Rayman Origins, a quirky throwback to the limbless wonder’s first release on the original PlayStation. While not my favorite platforming game since the genre came back into vogue, Rayman Origins has more than enough item-collecting, wall-jumping appeal for gamers craving more from the second dimension.
Like many of the best platforming games, Rayman Origins features barely any story at all. A brief cutscene at the beginning weaves a tale of undead grannies, brustish creatures, and missing fairies, but the plot never becomes heavy-handed; in fact, it barely even registers, unless you’re really paying attention (like the talented wordsmiths who managed to eke five paragraphs out of the game’s story on its Wikipedia page). Rayman Origins forgoes plot in lieu of gameplay, and the results feel light, breezy, and carefree as can be.
Rayman’s journeys take him across sixty different levels and five different worlds, each boasting numerous gameplay hooks to tinker with, like Gourmand Land’s ice patches, or the Desert of Didgeridoos’ gusts of wind. In each level, players strive to collect small golden Lums, which free kidnapped Electoons that unlock new stages and help advance Rayman’s progress. Rayman also meets and frees several Nymphs along the way, granting him additional powers, such as running on walls or floating through the air.
I’ve you’ve spent more than ten minutes with a 2D platforming game since the SNES, there’s a good chance you can pick up Rayman Origins with little difficulty. Running, jumping, and using Rayman’s special abilities are smooth and responsive, and Origins plays similar to other strong platforming games recently released. In fact, I thought it played a bit too similarly—though Origins is mechanically solid, and quite fun in its own right, its gameplay never quite clicked for me, and left me feeling I had done it before in other games, and had a better time doing it then.
Perhaps it’s Origins‘ over-emphasis on Lum-collecting, which I found unexciting and overly-simplistic in design. I also grew frustrated by the game grading my level performance and progression based on how many Lums I had collected, which makes about as much sense to me as grading how many coins I collected in a Mario game, or how many bananas I scarfed down in Donkey Kong Country. I’m sure many platforming fans will enjoy perfecting their timing to snag that last Lum before it disappears, but to me, Rayman Origins’ single-minded focus on collecting them felt tedious. With little to offer besides combing every level for every last Lum, I kept wondering, like Peggy Lee, “Is that all there is?”
Where Origins really comes into its own, though, is during its treasure chest levels. Hidden in every zone and unlocked only by collecting enough Electoons, the treasure chest levels are ten stages of the most sadistically-difficult, retry-heavy gameplay this side of Dark Souls. During each stage, Rayman must chase a sentient treasure chest through a series of obstacle course-like areas, staying close to the fleeing chest as platforms collapse, doorways close, and the entire zone becomes hellbent on stopping Rayman from getting his disembodied mitts on the escaping trunk. Treasure chest levels require rote memorization to simply progress, as well as a heaping helping of patience in order to finally succeed. These sections stand much taller than any other area of the game, and are easily Rayman Origins‘ high point; tricky though they are to complete, mastering the timing of each one becomes addicting, and the gratification brought by success is incredible.
Despite its stratospheric level of difficulty, Rayman Origins expertly treads the fine line between “manageable challenge” and “totally unfair.” Origins’ levels are rife with mid-level checkpoints, often saving after each new room or major bout of platforming. Rayman is also given infinite lives to progress through the game, helping tip its hand in the way of experimentation while still remaining a steadfast challenge.
Rayman Origins positively drips with personality, best expressed through its vibrant, eccentric art style. Every asset in the game (or darn near close to it) is hand-drawn, as well as stylized to an extreme bent, giving each area and stage a unique, unteathered vibe. The art direction is particularly gonzo, leaning heavily on grotesque, though often charming, caricatures; broadly speaking, Origins’ look is about as French as French can be, and it’s hard not to appreciate the specificity and love put into how the game looks. The game’s music is pleasing, with jaunty tunes and various bouncy melodies, though none of the tunes stuck with me for longer than the time I spent playing it.
Similar to other platforming games released since the genre’s new wave, Rayman Origins supports up to four-player drop-in/drop-out co-op. Gameplay as precise as Rayman Origins isn’t necessarily conducive to having multiple people, and Origins gets, if anything, even harder when played with a group. Still, co-op is a blast to play, mostly because Rayman Origins offers one of the most comprehensive player-griefing system in all of gaming, practically encouraging gamers to take advantage of Origins’ infinite lives by slapping each other around or throwing other characters headlong into obstacles. It’s not the best option for making progress in the game, but co-op in Rayman Origins is still a ton of fun.
Really, apart from a few small gameplay design decisions, I have almost nothing negative to say about Rayman Origins, except that I found it fun, but ultimately unexciting. I feel almost perturbed; many in the industry have been crowing from the rooftops about Origins since as early as last September, with several listing it as one of their favorites of 2011. I wonder if I’m missing something, if game mechanics possess an appeal I can’t understand, or if I’m simply expecting too much. As it stands, Rayman Origins is a great time, one I would encourage folks to experience, but also one I simply can’t get into it as much as others.