As the gaming industry moves onwards and upwards and each genre evolves, it's interesting to observe how the platformer has come around full circle since its debut. Whereas the rest of the industry strives for more expansive and photorealistic environments or interactive storytelling, the platformer went from having players move from left to right in 2D side-scrollers to wandering around larger 3D worlds, only to find itself right back where it started. This isn’t a negative slight on the genre by any means; some of Nintendo’s very best Wii games have harked back to the 2D platformers have the eighties and early-to-mid 90s. New Super Mario Bros. Wii, Donkey Kong Country Returns, Kirby’s Epic Yarn: these three games — along with numerous other third-party releases — eschewed the fully explorable 3D worlds that platformers had clutched at eagerly for over a decade, instead offering up simple yet addictive side-scrolling fun that taps into the very essence of what makes gaming great.
Now they’ve been joined by another throwback, this time courtesy of Ubisoft, and let us tell you right now: it’s a real gem. Like the stellar titles mentioned above, at first glance Rayman Origins appears to be a backwards leap. After all, Rayman 2: The Great Escape and Rayman 3: Hoodlum Havoc are regarded as some of the best 3D platformers not featuring a portly Italian plumber, the former having been remade and ported to nearly every console in existence. However, once you start playing Origins, it’s highly plausible that you’ll wonder why platformers ever felt the need to go 3D in the first place.
Origins begins in the same way as all great platforming adventures: a barebones plot that is never fully embellished upon but serves as an adequate reason for our heroes to embark on a fantastical adventure nonetheless. In the Glade of Dreams, the snoring of Rayman and his chums — frog-thing Globox and the tiny wizard creatures the Teensies — isn’t going over well with the Underworld, who return the favour by sending up all manner of nasty creatures to ruin Rayman’s day, as well as kidnap the Electoons and Nymphs and generally wreak havoc. It’s up to Rayman and his pals to travel though the Glade of Dreams, free their friends and defeat the Underworld invaders once and for all.
From the moment the introduction plays out, the first thing you’ll notice is just how much of a treat for the eyes Origins truly is. Origins is the first game to make use of Ubisoft’s new graphics engine, UbiArt Framework, which makes for some absolutely stunning environments with a lush hand-painted look. As you progress through the game, it’s likely that you’ll frequently want to stop what you’re doing and just stand there, taking in every subtle animation and nuance present in each of Origins’ 60-plus gorgeously detailed levels, or marvel at just how pristine and vividly colourful everything is. This vibrancy and attention to detail carries through the entire game and also extends to aesthetic variety.
Origins’ levels are split up into five themed worlds, which run the gamut from tranquil yet eerie underwater areas to the downright wacky musically-themed desert stages, and no one world resembles the others in any way. In fact, some worlds even possess an astonishing amount of visual variety within themselves and, just as you begin to grow accustomed to a world’s specific mechanics and pitfalls, Origins will throw a curve ball in your direction and turn everything on its head. For example, in one world you’ll be hopping and sliding through what could very well be a giant cooler with giant slices of watermelon and blocks of ice serving as handy (yet temporary) platforms, only to suddenly find yourself in a sweltering set of levels themed around Mexican food, in which jets of flames and bubbling hot pots of chili all attempt to hinder your journey. Make no mistake, Origins does everything in its power to ensure that each time you enter a new world you’ll be presented with a stack of new things to see and experience and as such remains visually appealing and constantly fresh from the very beginning right through to its conclusion.
Reaching the end won’t be a walk in the beautifully rendered park, by any means, because while Origins starts out as a fairly standard platforming affair — you can walk, sprint and jump — by the halfway point of the game you’ll have amassed a range of additional skills to aid you in your quest, such as short- and long-range attacks, hovering, swimming underwater, sprinting up walls and even changing size. One area in which Origins inarguably shines is in how it takes all these new abilities and structures its levels around them in a perfectly pitched difficulty curve. While earlier stages task the player with little more than walking around and punching the odd enemy in the face, some later levels require split-second timing and cat-like reflexes as you harness your skill set in environments that are constantly morphing ahead of you.
It’s during these sections that Origins is undoubtedly at its very best, helped in no small part by the game’s controls, which maintain a steadfast level of tightness and responsiveness. Because of this, Origins always remains devilishly challenging while being entirely fair; each and every gorgeously animated sprint, leap and hover has the potential to be executed with pixel-perfect accuracy — it’s all down to your abilities and your reflexes — and thus If you wall-jumped at the incorrect moment and missed that rope (or beard) by mere millimetres, then you have no one to blame but yourself. In addition to its splendidly tight controls, Origins forgoes the need for players to concern themselves with how many lives they’re in possession of and also spaces its checkpoints out generously enough so that if you do happen to find yourself in a tricky spot and failing repeatedly, you’ll never have to play through enough of the same section over and over for repetition to set in.
The twitchy platforming is accompanied by various stages during which Origins shakes things up a little by way of shooting segments. However, during these sections, in keeping with Origins’ off-the-wall approach to, well, everything, you won’t be piloting a spaceship, but instead riding on the back of a giant pink mosquito. These homages to games such as Gradius and R-Type are not only tremendous fun but break up the platforming action, brilliantly serving up a slice of extra variety.
That’s not to say that you’ll grow tired of Origins. As mentioned earlier, the game’s relentless charm and aesthetic variety ensure that boredom remains a non-entity throughout its ten-plus hours running time. For completionists, these ten hours are upped considerably by that mainstay in pretty much every platformer that’s worth anything: collecting a shedload of stuff. As you progress, you’ll not only be rescuing the Nymphs — promiscuous looking fairies who, when freed, bestow Rayman with new abilities — but you’ll also be on the hunt for the Electoons. Enough of these relentlessly cheerful, round, pink things need to be freed before you can progress through to new sections of the world map, in much the same way as obtaining specific amounts of stars stars unlocked previously inaccessible areas of Peach’s castle in Super Mario 64.
You’ll be awarded with one Electoon when completing a level, but additional Electoons can be found in hard to reach areas in each stage, or by collecting specified amounts of Lums — the Rayman series’ answer to Mario’s coins — which are scattered almost everywhere throughout the game. The Lums are the basis of the bulk of Origins’ replay value, as not only does collecting them secure you more Electoons, but they’re often laid out in ways that encourage you to take more dangerous routes through the levels, with items such as King Lums that double every other Lum’s numerical value for a limited time presenting a risk/reward mechanic that — should you succeed — will help players secure more Electoons, unlock a myriad of alternate costumes available for Rayman, Globox and the Teensies, shave large amounts of time off their time trial records and should keep those of you who like to collect everything occupied for quite some time.
Rayman Origins perfectly embodies what made many of us fall in love with gaming in the first place. It’s a nigh-on flawlessly executed romp through intricately designed levels that boast the most gorgeously detailed and vibrant visuals you’ll see this generation. Tight controls, a perfectly judged difficulty curve, fantastically surreal boss fights and tons of replayability go that extra mile to make sure that after years of being relegated to countless remakes of Rayman 2 and having those pesky Rabbids stealing his thunder, Rayman is back on form and back in the spotlight where he belongs. Drop-in/drop-out cooperative play for up to four players is the icing on an already sumptuously sweet cake. If you have any love for 2D platformers — and the idea of getting your friends together for an encore of New Super Mario Bros. Wii’s four-player action appeals to you — you’ll pick up Rayman Origins straight away. It represents the very pinnacle of 2D platforming and is undoubtedly one of the Wii’s very best games. Truly unmissable.