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Happy 20th Anniversary Rayman, You Glorious Freak of Gaming

Ubisoft's odd little bundle of floating limbs debuted in September 1995, and despite some awful games along the way he remains relevant today.

by David Whelan
Sep 1 2015, 7:35pm

Imagery from 2013's 'Rayman Legends,' via Xbox

It may not feel like it but today, September 1, 2015, Rayman turns 20. Twenty years ago to the dot, Rayman launched on the Atari Jaguar and set standards for being weird. Rayman—a floating collection of limbs and bandana (or scarf, or the flesh of his enemies?)—is old enough to be at your nearest Freshers Fair, trying to get people to join the glee club. I know. I know. This is actually news to you. Development studio and publishers of the series, Ubisoft, has done very little to commemorate what is essentially their mascot: He's got a new smartphone game coming out. It has nothing to do whatsoever with being five years away from a silver jubilee. From my calculations, I am the only person on the planet who knew today was his birthday.

Maybe the beefy, ingenuity-filled presence of Nintendo's own 30th anniversary of Super Mario Bros. on September 11 has pushed Ubisoft into a bit of a corner; the celebratory make-your-own-stages Super Mario Maker looks so brilliant, any Ubisoft release would seem like a pissing contest, really, with Nintendo spraying a clear, thick stream so far up the urinal it's basically hitting the ceiling. Even Rayman's creator, Frenchman Michel Ancel, has made a level for Super Mario Maker—but he's not involved in the new Rayman game. At the time of writing, the homepage of Ubisoft's website is entirely dedicated to Assassin's Creed Syndicate, which is not out for over a month. In the mustachioed face of Mario and the economic might of Creed, Rayman never really stood a chance.

A playthrough of the first 'Rayman' (1995)

The first time I played Rayman, it was August 1997; I was nine years old and had acquired—pretty much by chance (thanks, mum!)—a demo of the original game through a copy of Official PlayStation Magazine. The disk's presentation was purely no-thrills, just links to the six demos floating above a moving background, but beneath that shitty exterior lay endless new experiences. And as demo collections went, that one was pretty amazing. Jonah Lomu Rugby, Time Crisis, and Soul Blade vied for my attention, but the small, rotund purple blob with the goofy yellow hair captured my heart.

It's hard to know exactly why this was. I was a reserved kid, thanks in part to head-to-toe eczema that required nightly rituals of creaming and wet-bandages to soothe, and I really bonded with the way Rayman seemed like a total dork. He wasn't cool in the way Sonic was cool, or fun-for-everyone like Mario. He seemed nerdish and weird-looking—in the way that I felt nerdish and weird-looking. His world seemed like the crazy place someone who spent a lot of time on their own could conjure up: all psychedelic colors and cartoonish takes on reality. It made Mario and Sonic look like childish doodles; it was a Picasso burst within a genre so regularly rendered with average results.

Back then, a lot of people felt this way. The original Rayman is—somehow amazingly—the best-selling PlayStation 1/PSX game ever in the United Kingdom. Granted, there's some tripe in that list, like Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, but mostly it shows that gamers knew what was good and what was really fucking good. Nowadays, that's essentially not the case. Five million people bought Rayman in the UK alone, while only 1 million or so copies of 2013's tremendous Rayman Legends were bought across the entire planet. People en masse have stopped caring. Rayman, who started out as the outsider's platformer of choice but ended up a box-office smash, appears back on the commercial periphery.

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Let me go on record here and say Rayman Legends and its predecessor, 2011's Rayman Origins, the two latest home-console entries in the series, are spectacular. They are probably better than the original, and maybe even 1999's Rayman 2: The Great Escape. And yet nobody is really buying them, not in the numbers they deserve. One argument is that side-scrolling platformers are done, which is entirely untrue, or that the series never had mass appeal. But between Rayman 2 and Origins, I think the truth is that Ubisoft lost the plot a bit, derailing its popularity and leaving both Origins and Legends with a mountain of unfortunate precedent to conquer.

Rayman started falling away the moment Ancel stopped working on the series, a period that stretched between Rayman 2 and Origins, comprising a 12-year absence. Ancel's direction guaranteed an experimental flair to the Rayman games he worked on; it made sure they felt like a haven for the oddball player. Even Rayman's design, a collection of floating limbs held together by nothing but our imagination, promotes the gamer to fill in the empty spaces with their own personalities. Ancel echoed these exact sentiments when addressing the Game Developers Conference in 2013: "He's a very simple and direct character. He's not talking, it's really about action. All the animation and design is done so you understand the character just by looking at it. It's not about storytelling; it's about a direct connection between you and the character."

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Direct connection was what I always felt toward Rayman, in ways that Mario and Sonic never evoked. Sonic struck me as the kind of kid at school who'd de-pants you in the hallway, while Mario was Mario: ubiquitous, everywhere, boring.

Without Ancel, it was a tough few years for Rayman fans. The games started churning out mediocrity in weird, self-parodying ways. It felt as if the designers didn't know who Rayman was for. Was Rayman for children? Francophiles? Was it for people who like good games or utter shit? Without the steering hand of Ancel, Ubisoft came very close to throwing Rayman out on a Sonic-like meander towards irrelevance, shuffled from development team to development team (passing through studios in China, Italy, Morocco, Bulgaria, and Romania), and hitting all the genres that franchises call upon on their journey to death: party games, kart games, fighting games, remakes, remakes of remakes, remakes of remakes of remakes.

'Rayman Raving Rabbids,' trailer

The moment when I thought it was all over—when I imagined Ubisoft had given up and taken Rayman out back and injected him with something "to help him sleep"– was 2006's Rayman Raving Rabbids, which is, for my money, the most miserable spin-off ever conceived. Rayman went, practically overnight, from being a traditional platformer into a party game aimed at a fan base that did not exist. Let me stress this: By 2005 most of Rayman's fans were either in their 20s or had simply moved on to other things. Rabbids was a sad and clear attempt to infantilize the franchise, to turn its focus toward younger kids, and it made me throw up a tiny bit in my mouth.

Rabbids represented everything I had begun to hate about Rayman; it was derivate and unfocused. A party game featuring characters from New Labour would have been more appealing. I wasn't alone. Everybody Loves Rayman, made by MAD/Cartoon Network, is a brilliant parody of the Ray Romano show Everybody Loves Raymond, where a bunch of Rabbids disrupt the gentle balance of Rayman's home. "First you stole my franchise," he says, "and now you wreck my house." It's a funny, nostalgic crossover that ends on a slightly sad note, when a Rabbid appears over Ray's shoulder to say, "Nobody understands you." Recurring supporting character Globox then repeats it.

If Ubisoft didn't understand Rayman, there was no way we could. That's why it wasn't selling. That's why it was getting lampooned on television. That's why Ubisoft made smartphone games instead of home console sequels. (The mobile Rayman games are pretty amazing, though.)

'Rayman Legends,' trailer

After years of fucking around, the personal, direct design of Rayman began to resemble a creative dissonance reflected in its position in the wider pop culture conversation. He was no longer a freak with helicopter hair, but a mooing, middle-aged man not even welcome in his own franchise. He was on his farewell tour—tired of the new, tired of the old, tired of himself. And yet, Rabbids sold well—14 million copies well—and while it's a turgid slice of deep-fried turd assessed on its individual merits, it may very well be the reason why Rayman, the series, was allowed to live on. Gaming is business, fundamentally, and any series that does big numbers is always going to be sustained.

The Rabbids spin-offs kept Rayman alive, then, but it was only when Ancel returned that the series got back to what it did best: being strange, being crazy, being the sort of game that took you over the shoulder and said, "Hey, you don't fit in? We don't either."

The first Rayman emerged at a time when side-scrolling platformers were in their pomp, some of them successfully going 3D and expanding their play experiences. Mario, Sonic, Crash Bandicoot, and Castlevania were all franchises basking in the glory of fresh breakthroughs. All of them bar Mario are washed up, now. Whereas Rayman, through Origins and Legends, is as vibrant as he was back in 1995, having come through 20 years of amazing highs and barrel scraping lows to feel as relevant on current-generation consoles as any contemporary action-adventure, even if his games aren't topping the charts anytime soon. Sometimes, when I look back on what he went through, I'm surprised that he's made it this far. But I'm absolutely delighted that he has.

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