One day, Michel Ancel and his team at France’s Ubisoft decided they were going to do it up proper. They locked themselves in some posh Parisian loft with nothing but a stack of Doctor Seuss books, Peter Gabriel’s complete discography, a box set of Pee-wee’s Playhouse episodes, VHS tapes of Terry Gilliam’s less successful movies, a case of strawberry vodka, some whippets, a theremin, and a copy of New Super Mario Bros Wii. As the weekend wound down, they figured they could probably do that Mario thing better. This is likely the only scenario that could have birthed a game about running and jumping that is as lush, surprising, funny, demanding, and menacing as Rayman Origins.
Rayman is an eminently familiar game on the surface. One to four players guide Ancel’s limbless dork hero and his pals across stages filled with malicious beasts, spikes, bottomless pits, platforms, and cliffs. The goal is to survive to the end and free caged Electoons, which are manically grinning, pony-tailed pink puffs. Each stage has two hidden cages, in addition to the one at the end. In place of coins throughout the level are golden singing bugs called Lums.
What appears stagnant on the surface is actually forward-thinking in its subversion of convention. Collecting Lums in the stages doesn’t earn anything as archaic as extra lives: It unlocks more Electoons, which in turn unlock new stages, so collecting them is vital. Rayman’s stages are sprawling and ferocious in their need for attention, but generous in their checkpoints. When you’re surprised by a rock on the floor coming to life and consuming you, you start again nearby. Rayman doesn’t seem to control as tightly as he should at first, but it becomes obvious that the game wants you to never stop moving. It knows you’re going to just hold down the run button, and designs around that. As a result, the game is joyous and exhilarating when you’re moving, but you never feel out of control. Where most games merely try to elicit confidence, Rayman’s challenges demand confidence.
The game’s delightful feel is perfectly matched in the imagination of its world. Early stages initially look like the usual suspects—desert, tundra, jungle, ocean. But the desert is actually a wasteland made of wind instruments like didgeridoos, which react to your steps. The tundra is a beach resort where the beach is made of frozen fruits and cocktail umbrellas. It would be enough if the game got a laugh out of platforms that are anthropomorphic forks propping up lime wedges. It’s something special when those forks appear to be arguing with one another.
It’s appropriate that Rayman and his enemies turn into bubbles and pop when hurt, rather than dying. Playing this game is like blowing bubbles: fun with something delicate and ephemeral that seems strange and strong at first glance. The characters veer between sweet and mad, the music between interactive afrobeat and big-band bluegrass. This game reeks of love. It’s Michel Ancel’s crowning achievement.