I’m a little embarrassed to admit that I haven’t played much of the Rayman series over the years. I was 9 when the original game released in 1995, and as the first Rayman was a PS1 title and I was an N64 kid, it just wasn’t on my radar. Even when I got older and I was buying my own games for the GameCube, PS2 and Wii, the series just didn’t attract my attention. Maybe it was because I was a strict Mario and Sonic guy; Rayman game me a distinct Johnny-come-lately vibe for some reason. I was always a little suspect of the guy and I stuck with the classics I grew up with, even as Sonic continued his downward spiral into drugs or whatever ruined his franchise.
It got even worse when the Raving Rabbids invaded the Wii, and while my friends were laughing their butts off at the demented bunnies I couldn’t help but find the things incredibly annoying. As a result, I didn’t end up playing last year’s excellent Rayman Origins until relatively recently. It’s a good thing the sequel, Rayman Legends
, is a launch title for Wii U, because now I know what I’ve been missing and I can’t wait.
Legends retains the same frenetic, almost spastic pace of Origins but with more…coordination, if you can call it that. The world of Rayman, especially in these newer games, is so off the wall and filled with goofy creatures, sound effects and setpiece elements that you’d think it’s all just chaotic, but once you get into the rhythm of jumping, floating and running you come to understand just how solid a platformer Legends is.
But the single player game isn’t even the best part—if you have a friend the asymmetric co-op is even better. For this demo I was using the Wii U Pro Controller for traditional play, while Christina took control of Rayman’s helpful sidekick Murfy on the GamePad. This co-op mode modifies the gameplay so that player 1 can’t progress without player 2’s help. As I progressed through the level, Christina really had to stay on her toes—lifting platforms, cutting ropes, building up momentum on pendulums—just so I could maintain pace. Luckily she was pretty skilled at clearing a path for me, so I only died a couple times and by my own fault at that. The co-op is similar to New Super Mario Bros. U but much faster and more engaging.
Rayman Origins is also much prettier than Mario Bros. U, just by virtue of its vibrant art style and impeccable 2D animations. Don’t get me wrong, Mario’s backgrounds are gorgeous but they almost seem wasted on the foreground elements, which are shiny, HD and pixel shaded to within an inch of their lives but admittedly the same old blocks, powerups and enemies we’ve seen for decades now. Rayman has a world that moves with significantly more fluidity, and is wondrously, endlessly weird and lush. Even the music in Rayman is worked into the platforming; if you know the music well enough, you can actually time your jumps and dodges to the beats and musical cues, and it’s not some random synthesized beat either—Rayman Legends has fully orchestral and dynamic music.
In comparison, Mario Bros. U seems like a plodding dinosaur. That’s not because Mario platformers are generally slower than Rayman, but because they don’t have the same sense of timing and rhythm that they used to. In the classic 2D Mario games, all the way up to the first New Super on the DS, there was an unmistakable platforming groove that experienced players could simply lapse into. In New Super DS it also seemed as if Nintendo was really enjoying the new tricks that a 2.5 D platformer allowed; there were a lot of cool new mechanics they toyed around with that added to the experience and made it fresh.
Fast forward to today and the New Super Mario Bros. series is just lazily getting by on the same old rote mechanics, without any of the rhythm, poise and balance that Mario platformers used to represent. It’s not that Mario has gotten bad, but Rayman is finally upstaging him by trying new things and sticking closer to what made Mario great in the first place.
It’s really a shame too, because even all the way up to Mario Galaxy 2, I could see that Miyamoto spark—that distinctive mixture of whimsy, challenge and eccentricity that has defined Nintendo for so long. Sadly, when I look at New Super Mario Bros. U, I don’t see that at all; instead I see someone pandering to me with what they assume I want, which isn’t nostalgic, but actually a little insulting. Rayman Legends, on the other hand, just seems to love existing and trying crazy new things; if someone buys the game, it feels like that will be a happy side-effect.