Long ago, we opined that one of the simplest and purest pleasures to be had in gaming was the act of running, jumping and dodging from left to right. Outside of Nintendo's thoroughbred stables, the platforming genre has become something of a rarity in the modern gaming landscape, left to languish in the relative obscurity of direct download services and the handheld arena. Sure, the genre has seen something of a resurgence of late, with titles such as Donkey Kong Country Returns, Super Meat Boy and Super Mario 3D Land rekindling the embers of genre-aficionados' fires, but it is difficult to argue that the platforming game has disappeared from the full-priced, disc-based category of titles which dominates store shelves and the gaming collective unconscious... all of which makes it somewhat incredible that Ubisoft and developer Michel Ancel (famed for his work on cult-classic Beyond Good and Evil) saw fit to deliver Rayman Origins onto store shelves and into the hands of gamers during a crowded Christmas release schedule. Can an anachronistic 2D platforming game starring a quirky cast of Gallic oddballs really carve its own niche in the hard-fought arena of modern military combat and exhaustive, open-ended fantasy role-playing games?
To most, the answer to the above question should become abundantly clear within seconds of starting Rayman Origins. As a lush, nonsensical cinematic plays out with effortless cartoon style and oodles of French charm, you'll find yourself wondering where the wide-eyed innocent joy of gaming yore has got to. The plot, such as it is, is basic yet nearly indecipherable in its weirdness: Rayman, the limbless being who ran, jumped and glided through 1995's Rayman and celebrated N64 classic Rayman 2: The Great Escape, finds himself snoring loudly with his pals, Globox and the Teensies, in the Glade of Dreams. Unfortunately, their nocturnal habits disturb an old woman of the Underworld, who strikes back by sending an army of evil creatures to corrupt the Glade of Dreams and kidnap the 'electoons' and nymphs which call it home. It's pure hokum, of course, but nevertheless utterly charming, and as an excuse to send Rayman and pals running and jumping through a handful of beautiful themed levels, the narrative is more than adequate.
As with most platforming games, the star of the show in Rayman Origins is its adherence to the genre's pivotal focus on controls, animation and design. Rayman and pals are controlled with either the directional pad or analogue stick, and in either configuration the characters control with the precision necessary to navigate the game's exacting challenges. Rayman's repertoire is small but balanced, with him being able to jump, glide by virtue of his using his hair as 'chopper' blades, and slap his way to victory with relative ease. Even advanced techniques such as wall-jumping are accessible enough that the challenge lies not in pulling them off, but deploying them in the right place and the right time. In its momentum-based gameplay, replete with reflex-based challenges and endlessly inventive one-off challenges, Rayman Origins is perhaps most evocative of the Donkey Kong Country franchise, which is no small feat in our book. Progressing through the game's worlds is driven largely by the player's eagerness to discover what creative scenario Ancel and company have devised next: bouncing on enormous bongo drums and partaking in side-scrolling shoot-'em-up missions on the back of an angry mosquito are but a small sample of the game's ingenuity, and its testament to its designers that ideas seldom repeat, and that when they do, are tweaked in such a way as to remain exciting and offset any sense of ennui.
Like all the best classic platforming games, Rayman Origins is replete with hidden areas and optional challenges which add a wrinkle of replay-value to proceedings. While progress through the game is limited by the number of electoons collected, the structure never forces itself on the player. Casual runs through most of the levels will provide for steady progress at the player's own pace, while subsequent plays offer up the option to eke out every little secret, which results in the accumulation of additional electoons which, in turn, allow access to secret levels in each world. Succeed well enough in the secret levels, and Rayman Origins offers up a bonus world in the tradition of the Super Mario Bros and Donkey Kong Country franchises. This is a game which is built to last despite its moderate brevity, and its entertainment value is directly proportionate to the amount of time players are willing to invest its zany universe.
For those with friends, it certainly bears mentioning that Rayman Origins offers up local multiplayer for up to four players huddled around the television. While level designs remain unchanged, moment-to-moment play alters drastically depending on the number of additional players, with the camera zooming out to accommodate the mad-cap insanity of four players, each with their own agendas. In our experience, the game is at its absolute best with two-players, striking the optimal balance between playability and frenetic lunacy. We do stress, however, that Rayman Origins has a gentle but noticeable learning curve, with simple early challenges giving way to exacting precision platforming about half-way through the story, necessitating that players be of equal playing ability lest any frustration be caused. Frequent, reasonable checkpoints (and the absence of any archaic 'lives' system) alleviate the game's difficulty somewhat, but Rayman Origins is not a title for the inexperienced or less-able gamer, despite what its cartoon-trappings might suggest.
Although speaking of trappings, there can be no doubt that those on offer in Rayman Origins are among the most lush and striking in the history of the genre. While it is easy to rationalise the game's fluid frame-rate (which never dips below sixty-frames per second) and its crisp 1080p output by virtue of the genre's underlying simplicity, it is no small achievement that Ubisoft has managed to craft a game which moves as well as it presents. The game's Gallic style is heartily supported by an eclectic soundtrack unified solely by its joyousness, employing kazoos, child-like vocals and even didgeridoos to cacophonous albeit infectious effect. Rayman Origins may not sport any polygons or bump-mapping, but it just goes to show what a passionate team can accomplish when they prioritise personality and performance over technical whiz-bangery.
As a package, Rayman Origins is hard to fault. There is, perhaps, the potential for its unique artistic design to alienate some audiences, or for its steep difficulty to preclude younger gamers from experiencing an adventure which seems so tailor-made to their imaginations; but these are just nitpicks which stand testament to the universal truth that no one game can be everything for everybody. Rather, Rayman Origins will be best appreciated by those who look back on the hey-day of the platforming genre with foggy nostalgia and twitching thumbs. It is the best 2D platforming game since Donkey Kong Country Returns, the pinnacle of its franchise, and one of the best ways to spend your time and money this year. Jump in.