Before party games with the Rabbids or co-op with Globox, Rayman was all about one dude: Rayman. No real plot, no gimmicks, no radical 'tude? No problem. In a time when older PC gamers were going ballistic over Duke Nukem 3D and Quake, Rayman ( $2.99 on GOG ) reminded us that 2D gameplay and hand-drawn graphics were features to be cherished, not discarded. Without him, I might've never discovered my passion for a genre that had long been confined to consoles, and one that's recently seen a resurrection.
Ray's task in his first game is to rescue cute, spherical thingamajigs called Electoons from the clutches of the dastardly Mr. Dark, who has also made away with something called the Great Protoon. Where might such a subtly-diabolical villain call home? The frosting-filled, cake-covered Candy Chateau, of course.
On the way to Mr. Dark's saccharine cathedral, you'll need to beat up an anthropomorphic saxophone, navigate pitch-black corridors with a firefly on loan from Joe's Diner, and use your helicopter hair to saw through ropes as thick as Hulk Hogan. As Rayman restores the balance, our golden-haired, ascot-wearing protagonist is helped by the magical fairy Betilla, who bestows powers like ledge-grabbing and a glide-enabling gyrocopter moptop.
Ubisoft's imagination ran rampant during this first Rayman, and the payoff is a consistently engaging experience—one where players haven't the slightest inkling as to what awaits them in the next stage. With nary a portly plumber or blue hedgehog in sight, Rayman sat down in the vacant throne that would rule over the majestic lands of DOS sidescrolling. It's a game that encapsulates the essence of platformers: feeling bewildered by the challenges set before you, yet empowered and confident that you have what it takes to win.
The limbless, fist-chucking hero feels akin to a DOS-based ambassador, introducing younger generations to the wonderful world of twitch platforming and sporting sprite work that looks like a cartoon cel come to life.
And the music—oh my god, the music. Rayman's soundtrack pumped jazzy ditties, pulse-quickening tribal drumming, and serene symphonies out of my dinky speakers in a time when CD-quality audio was still novel and a little alien. Back then, I wondered if my Sound Blaster was relaying transmissions from a higher power. Play any track for a Rayman veteran, and they'll lose themselves to a tidal wave of nostalgia syrup. Betilla the Fairy's soothing theme layers glimmering harps, bass, and flutes in a way that feels airy but grounded.
But for a platformer with a presentation and setting that's so enchanting to children, the difficulty is beyond brutal. It's a relic of arcade game restrictions that we've long left in the past, when saving your game was a privilege, not a right. Limited continues? Check. Enemies who are too small to hit but big enough to hurt you? Mmhmm. Blind jumps into instant-death spikes? Yup, plenty of them.
Rayman seems to force a kind of selective memory on those who play it: I have no recollection of the game's finicky controls, minuscule field of view, or maddeningly-well-hidden Electoon cages—only of the beautiful backdrops, charming characters, and mesmerizing tunes. It's a wonder how I didn't doom myself to baldness after tearing my own youthful hair out over the raw frustration of Rayman's pitfalls.
Though Rayman might've moved on to 3D pastures after his debut game (Rayman Origins notwithstanding), we still see shades of his original quest in highly praised run-'n'-jumps like Super Meat Boy and Dustforce. While it's unlikely that Team Meat or Hitbox had the French-made, Muppet-looking hero in mind when designing their games, many of the modern games' greatest strengths were already
present in Rayman. Much like SMB, Rayman's classic boss fights revolve around pattern recognition, with a touch of twitch reactions mixed in. The level variety eclipses even the wildly-diverse SMB stages—who needs a Hospital or Salt Factory or buzzsaw-filled death caves when you've got the bongo-juggling monks of Gong Heights, or the spiked, bug-eyed Taijitu scattered around Picture City's Eraser Plains?
Playing the game now, it's no wonder that I never defeated Mr. Dark as a lad. Reaching the final boss means freeing every Electoon in every level of every stage. Without online FAQs to guide you through often-invisible, annoying backtracking sections, or knowledge of the infinite lives cheat (“RAYLIVES,” by the way), finishing the game is next to impossible. But the journey is far more important than the destination—and Rayman's eye-pleasing, ear-caressing, and charming world will wash away most of the memories of the tough trials it puts you through.
Rayman's found a revitalization via Origins, though he seems to have morphed from an cheery champion into a hyperactive Wisenheimer with a penchant for ogling buxom fairies. His true beginnings can be found at 640x480 resolution, and whether you're discovering his escapades for the first time, or vaguely recall his treks through the Dream Forest and Band Land, Rayman's domain is one that's still worth visiting.