Rayman: The many lives of gaming's limbless wonder

Rayman is back: we take a look at the origin and history of Mario and Sonic's longest running rival.

He’s a gaming mascot who’s outsold Sonic. He’s always in the pursuit of small, shiny golden objects. For decades, he’s starred in his own 2D and 3D platformers, and even his own spin-off series of mini-games and mobile versions, not to mention his own TV show.
He’s not a plumber though. In fact, he isn’t even human. Or at least, he doesn’t have any arms or legs to help him leap over pipes and giant walking mushrooms. You see, this isn’t Mario we’re talking about, but Ubisoft’s Rayman, the biggest gaming icon you may never have even heard of.

This month, he’s back in a new adventure on Xbox 360, PS3, and Nintendo Wii U, Rayman Legends. As the name suggests, it’s a throwback to the seminal platformers of yesteryear: it’s a beautifully animated sidescroller that sees you take charge of the limbless Rayman, using his extendable fists to work his way across a beautiful, Dali-esque fantasy landscape.

The Wii U may be struggling, but it’s not for the quality of this game, which currently boasts a rock solid 91 average rating on Metacritic. IGN called it “a staggering work of platforming genius”. Eurogamer said its colourful setting showed just how mature games could really be: “From its gorgeous visuals to its painstaking design to its abundant generosity, it shows once and for all that ‘hardcore gaming’ is about style, flair and good, old-fashioned challenge - not how many pixels of brain matter you can spray across the screen.”

None of which should come as a surprise to fans of the series, which after years of 3D outing has returned to its 2D roots of late, (2011’s Rayman Legends was equally well received): Rayman has always been about vivid imagination crossed with beautiful artwork, the gaming successor to the French animators of the twentieth century

Console mascots have come and gone, as developers have tried and failed and tried again to come up with their own answer to Mario or Sonic the Hedgehog. First it was Crash Bandicoot, the grinning marsupial from Uncharted creator Naughty Dog. Then it was Rare’s dynamic duo, Banjo Kazooie. Then it was Jak and Daxter. All of these series came and went, but Rayman has outlasted them all. The face (and torso and feet) of Ubisoft has been starring in his own games since his first outing on the original PlayStation 18 years ago. Yeah that’s right: Rayman is now old enough to vote.

Since then, he’s starred in 3D versions - including the vast and sorely underrated Rayman 2, a technological marvel to match Super Mario 64 - and handheld versions, even his own racing game, Rayman M, and multiplayer mini-game series to rival Mario Party, Rayman Raving Rabbids.

Along the way, he’s been syndicated on TV, and even picked up his own cast of sidekicks to rival Luigi and Yoshi: lumbering froglike companion Globox, Betilla the fairy and a cohort of teensies, best described as animaniac munchkins.

It’s not hard to see where the appeal lies. Back in 1995, PlayStation gamers were in sore need of a title that could rival Super Nintendo exclusives like Mario and Donkey Kong Country. A demented platformer in which you leapt across pits of spikes and battled giant evil saxophones (No, really) was just what the doctor ordered.

He was wordless, helping him leap across boundaries, and then there was his secret weapon. If Mario can jump, Rayman can fly: he uses his questionable curtains as a propeller to lift him over huge gaps, adding a new element to gameplay Mario lacked in his younger years. All told, his arsenal of flying punches and kicks has helped Ubisoft rack up a staggering 22 million sales of Rayman games over the years - his first game alone stayed in the UK top 40 for five years, and remains the best selling PS One game of all time here.

So how has Rayman stuck around when so many other mascots - even Sonic, arguably - have faded away into obscurity?

It helps when the studio behind a character helps nurture creativity. Like Nintendo’s legendary ideas man, Shigeru Miyamoto, Rayman creator Michel Ancel is a company man through and through. The Frenchman has been with the publisher his entire working life, joining as a teenager and working his way up as a programmer with a creative streak.

Since then, he’s been given the creative license to work on what he wants, including the acclaimed Beyond Good & Evil, about an investigative journalist (and martial artist, naturally) uncovering an alien conspiracy. He returned to helm Rayman Origins, and is now working on a sequel to Beyond Good & Evil.

Interestingly, Ancel says he paid little attention to Nintendo’s plucky plumber when dreaming up Rayman. “I will tell you something terrible,” he once admitted.

“I don't really enjoy playing Mario games. I don't like gliding, I don't like its inertia, and I don't like not being able to give some slaps! It's a fabulous series, and I understand that people love it, but it's not my cup of tea.”

The secret to Rayman’s longevity however isn’t merely that he can punch robot pirates in the face from afar: it’s that he’s managed to expertly jump forward from platform to platform. Like a sidescroller where the screen moves relentlessly forward and the floor crumbles away underneath, Rayman’s expertly moved forward, never missing a beat and making use of new technological advances wherever they’ve presented themselves.

Rayman in its earliest iteration was destined for the CD-ROM add-on to the Super Nintendo, but when that failed before it even took off, UbiSoft prepped it for the Atari Jaguar and then the Sony PlayStation - which few at the time could foresee would turn into the phenomenon it did. Rayman 2 switched to 3D for the next-era of hardware, and when Nintendo’s Wii arrived, Ubisoft picked the right platform for the party game spin-off Raving Rabbids.

Even Origins, a retro revival, boasts a breakthrough of its own. It was developed using the UBIart Framework, a technology developed by Ancel and Ubisoft that let designers simply draw onto the interactive game environment, and received a French government grant for its efforts.

Rayman’s come a long way since his 16-bit days: he’s on everything from next-gen to Nintendo 3DS and smartphones - somewhere you won’t even find Mario. Will he even outlast Nintendo’s golden goose? If the quality of Rayman Legends is anything to go by, he might just.