Tripping the Lum Fantastic
Becoming a critic of something you care for so deeply can make enjoying it a challenge, and the loss of that enjoyment is no small thing.
Rayman Origins is my “pen dropping” moment. It manages to honor a humble and long existing genre by executing it so perfectly that I was reminded of how and why I fell in love with it nearly two decades ago. Not only did it put an irrepressible, teeth-to-the-world smile on my face, it made me feel like I was 7 years old again, playing Super Mario Brothers for the first time on a snowy Christmas morning in 1985. Impressively, it never trades on nostalgia value to achieve any of this. Rayman Origins earns all of its praise the old fashioned way, with spot on level design, infallible controls, and the most pleasing visual presentation seen in the genre in quite some time.
Right from the title screen, the game starts to charm you with its whimsical, indescribably upbeat style. Translating its look into words is a daunting challenge, as it defies typical descriptors such as “lush”, “colorful” and “vibrant” (though all certainly apply). Anthropomorphous mushrooms stand about to impede your progress while suspended blue smiley faces literally reach out to help you swing along from leaf to glistening leaf. And that's the first world. It only gets zanier from there, and while nature seems to be a constant, little else is. Rayman Origins features a kaleidoscopic array of different setting and creatures, yet manages to make all of them feel as if they belong in the same world.
And what a world it is! Stages range from wind swept deserts to verdant jungles, and tribal treetop villages. Each brings new challenges and abilities for our limbless hero to grapple with. The difficulty progression strikes a keen balance between fun and challenge, but errs more on the easy side. You're furnished with unlimited lives and a generous checkpoint system that keeps you from repeating any more than a minute or so of gameplay. If it sounds like Rayman is a bit of a pushover, that's because it is. It's the closest thing the game has to a flaw, but those seeking a challenge can find one here. Locating every hidden idol, rescuing every electoon, beating every time trial and earning a perfect score in each level will certainly give seasoned platform fans a sizable challenge to chew on. In any case, the levels are so flawlessly constructed and enjoyable to play through, you'll hardly care that the difficulty is a tad lacking.
Rayman Origins has the kind of level designs that inspire trust from the player. It's something we don't talk about a lot in video game design, but it's something vital to crafting enjoyable stages. Trust comes from predictability. The good kind of predictability, such as how you come to know exactly how far your character will jump when you tell him to, or how close to an edge you can get before falling. Rayman establishes this predictability early on. The other half of this trust is in how levels are laid out. Every jump that looks makable, is, and everyone that doesn't is not. Even at the slightest glance, where you are headed and how you must get there are abundantly clear. After only a few levels of this, you start to feel daring, and rather than stop to measure jumps or look for secrets, you just go knowing full well that your next step will become clear to you precisely at the moment you need to act. In this way, Rayman Origins often achieves moments of speed that approach the old 2D Sonic games, and a level of fluidity that surpasses them.
The game's technical competence only helps this fluidity. Zipping along at 60fps and at a razor sharp resolution, the Vita version of Rayman Origins makes no compromises of any kind when stacked up against its console brethren. Even the brief load times between levels are the same. This is the kind of parity between home and mobile experiences we have been promised by the pundits for a long time, but has never been a reality. Let anyone who doubts the Vita's power have a quick go 'round with this game and see if they still have questions.
Still harder to quantify, and even more vital to the experience is the game's overall level of creativity. Hopping on the back of a mosquito to tackle the side scrolling shooter sections is memorable fun and the entire underwater world was also a blast surprisingly. Floating about in the dark, having your path lit by schools of little bio-luminescent fish while soothing gibberish voices sing a do-whop style ditty in the background is a rare treat. The game simply never tries to be “adjective X”. I couldn't tell you the demographic it was focus tested for. It all feels like something straight out of someone's imagination, delivered pure and unfiltered without being siphoned through the capitalist distillery of bottom lines and shareholders.
Perhaps it's that trait, above all others that allowed me to enjoy Rayman Origins in the sort of unfettered manner that I used to in my earlier years as a gamer. Most of today's games, even the good ones, are made for someone, and increasingly, that someone isn't me. I love them just the same, but it's impossible to ignore the fact that they are designed with the express intent of appealing to a target consumer base. More than ever, we are settling for playing products. Rayman Origins is not a product. It's a game, honest and pure. Even if it wasn't as impeccably crafted as it is, that alone would make it worth your time and money.