I remember when I first got my Playstation, a long time ago. A Christmas gift, I was at first a little surprised that it wasn’t an N64. My family had been occasionally renting the local video shop’s N64 for the weekend to play the very early N64 games like Mario Kart 64, Cruis’n USA, Star Fox 64 (!), and Mario 64. As for Playstation, the first time I had seen one set up in real life was as a demo kiosk in a Sears (or some such store), and I was completely puzzled by the existence of it. I was so young at the time that I think it was odd to me that anyone would want to buy a video game machine from Sony. Sony was a boring company that made grown-up stuff like cassette players and radios and TVs, whereas the companies that were great at video games, Nintendo, Sega, Atari, etc., were fun companies that had histories making games for both the home and the arcade. What did Sony have that could compete with Mario and Sonic? Looking back over four consoles and two handhelds, it amuses me how severely wrong my initial impression of Playstation was. The PSX would eventually end up becoming probably my favorite console.
It also strikes me as to how I don’t remember being disappointed at all by the appearance of the Playstation in my house. I mean I loved Star Fox and Mario Kart, so maybe it should have been a little disappointing that I wouldn’t be able to play those at home going forward. But I guess new games were new games. I also distinctly remember being incredibly impressed by the Final Fantasy VII commercial running at the time (you know, the one that was entirely pre-rendered CG with no actual gameplay shown), so I think I was ready to dig into that game.
The other early games I had for that system were Crash Bandicoot, 2Xtreme, and Rayman. Of those four, Rayman was clearly the odd man out. The arrival of the Saturn and Playstation heralded the polygonal era, after all, and the lush hand-drawn visuals of this 2D sidescrolling platformer made it feel like that one guy who always goes in the wrong direction on the way to a party. I know there’s a lot of admiration for the 16-bit generation, and that many people think graphics should have stayed 2D for a while, but personally, I was ready for 3D gaming at the time. I was really getting tired of all the mascot platformers, shallow beat’em ups, and shoddy Mortal Kombat clones that were overwhelming the market, and 3D environments were introducing entirely new gameplay possibilities.
Thus, Rayman was an amazing curiosity. A sidescrolling platformer in an age where platformers were competing to see who could best establish themselves in 3D. But even though it made no use of polygons, Rayman was thoroughly a game that belonged to the Playstation-era. The game sported lush handdrawn sprites and backgrounds that took up roughly 85 MB of the CD (or so I gather from the PSN version). 85 MB doesn’t even come close to filling a CD, but it’s a gargantuan size compared to the available cartridges at the time. Some years ago, screens of an early SNES version of Rayman was dug up, and if you’re interested, you can Google image search it. I don’t want to show it here!
The music is also worthy of likewise praise. I don’t often get into orchestral scores in games. Usually they’re kind of boring and just sort of fade into the background of my attention. They typically aren’t as catchy as the chiptunes of the early era of gaming. In a way, chiptunes had to be lively and attention-grabbing, as they were an important supplement to the crude visuals of that era in setting the atmosphere and tone of a game. But just like the gorgeous artwork, Rayman aims to impress with its CD-quality content, so I imagine an orchestral score was an obvious choice for them. And like I said, it’s an exciting orchestral score, with tons of great compositions that have stuck with me to this day.
At a fundamental level, Rayman is just a good platformer with a very traditional “lone hero sets off to stop badguy” story. This was the age when gaming really started to get story heavy (to a gregarious extent), and as in so many other aspects, Rayman mostly shunned the emerging trend of the time. The story in the game is really mostly just the opening cutscene in which we are told that The Evil Mr. Dark has defeated Betilla the Fairy and stolen the great Protoon and scattered the electoons which orbit around it. As a consequence, the natural order of the world is beginning to go awry. Rayman sets off then to defeat the villain, and travels across a world map divided into worlds such as the Dream Forest, Band Land (themed around musical instruments), and Picture City (themed around art supplies). The final world is set in the (The Evil) Mr. Dark’s lair, the Candy Chateau, a terrifying fortress whose name is only spoken of in hushed whispers.
As for the gameplay, Rayman is in some ways a really great platformer, but also a really tedious one. The truth is Rayman is a tough game that requires very tight and exacting platforming skills. But while it can be a challenge, beating each level isn’t too frustrating. The platforming requires precision is all. It’s not unfair like some of the earlier super-tough platformers. You’ll never have to fight against the collision detection or need to deal with unpredictably respawning enemies, for instance.
But here’s the catch and what can make the game tedious if you’re not prepared. To unlock the Candy Chateau and beat the game, it’s not enough to beat all the levels. You will need to free all six cages of electoons hidden in each level before a path to the Candy Chateau will even open on the world map. Essentially, it’s like needing to find all the KONG coins in DKC to be able to fight the final boss. Some of these electoon cages are easy to find, hidden within plain sight of the main path through a level, but sometimes they are in spots that can be fiendishly difficult to reach (i.e., they are life wasting death traps). Many can be quite difficult to find at all, sometimes requiring you to take leaps of faith to offscreen platforms to reach. Exacerbating this issue to its maximum frustration level is that Rayman has a finite number of lives and continues, and you will need each and every one of them (and probably more) to get all of these electoons. I honestly am baffled by how anyone could finish doing it the proper way (i.e., not using cheats or abusing the save system to bank lives). I certainly can’t, and even using cheats for infinite lives, it’s still a struggle. I think I started this game a boy, but by the time I had gruellingly forged my way through the halls of the Candy Chateau, I was a man.
Ultimately, despite the fact that actually beating the game is a tremendous effort, I still think incredibly highly of this game. It’s one of those things that’s more about the journey than the destination. Most importantly, I treasure this game because it showed me the value of 2D gaming. I realized that 2D games weren’t just an evolutionary stopgap until 3D could become technologically feasible, that they were a valid form of game design in their own right. I’ve heard many express this sentiment about Symphony of the Night, but for me, it was Rayman that hammered that point home. Rayman would see a sequel a short while later, but I’ve never played Rayman 2. It makes the jump to a Mario 64-style platformer with full 3D environments, and honestly, at the time, I was disappointed at this. 2D was what made Rayman unique and special! But I’ve heard in recent years that Rayman 2 is actually a really good game, so I may pick it up at some point. Rayman would eventually make a glorious return to lovely 2D worlds with Rayman Origins and Rayman Legends, the former of which I found myself liking a whole lot (the latter of which I haven’t gotten around to yet). But Rayman is still the highlight of the series for me, mostly because it sparked a lifelong love of 2D gaming.