20 years ago, Ubisoft came out with a game called Rayman featuring a thingamajig punching his way through worlds made of pencils and instruments. The game received critical and commercial success becoming a must-play for Playstation owners. It was bizarre, imaginative, and horrendously difficult. If you owned Rayman as a kid, you probably didn’t beat it unless you were one of those jerks who used cheats, like me. Rayman is a cruel, unforgiving game that puts it in company with games like Battletoads and the Souls games. So what we’ll be discussing is what makes the rage-inducing acid trip that is Rayman such a difficult game. The obvious answer would be challenging level design and platforming, but what i’ll be focusing on is Spawn Triggers, the price of death, and Rayman‘s limitations.
A unique feature of Rayman that I can’t recall happening in other games is the element of Spawn Triggers. When reaching certain points in a level, enemies, Protoon cages (the game’s required collectible), platforms, and other things will spawn on or off screen. There is no indication of where these invisible Spawn Triggers are, only an audible ping plays to cue that something has spawned. For cages, it means players always have to keep their ears open for the ping and then find where it spawned. Many times a Spawn Trigger will be right next to an exit level sign, so if players don’t react quickly enough, they’ll exit the level without breaking the cage and have to do the whole level over for that cage. And you need to collect all 102 cages to access the final level, the Candy Chateau. While that’s merely a nuisance, when it comes to spawning enemies, players can end up walking right into an enemy trap, resulting in their death. And death is extremely punishing in Rayman.
In Rayman, death reduces four elements: Tings (the game’s standard collectable, like coins or rings), lives, temporary power-ups, and progress. Collecting 100 Tings rewards Rayman an extra life. This kind of thing is fairly standard for any game with collectibles, but Tings are nowhere near as abundant as Mario’s coins or Sonic’s rings, and 1-up trophies are sparse in Rayman. Dying reduces your Ting count to zero, so if you die at 95 Tings you’ve basically just lost two lives. Dying also removes any temporary power-up Rayman picks up. These power-ups affect Rayman’s fist, increasing its power, speed and reach and stay with Rayman until he dies. Without these in combat, Rayman must charge his fist longer, get closer to enemies, and attacks slower. Losing progress on top of all that makes death in Rayman something to be avoided at all costs.
The developers of Rayman weren’t completely sadistic, as losing all lives brings Rayman to the Continue screen. Rayman has a stock of five continues represented by a cartoon clock. Continuing allows Rayman to continue from the stage he died at. But once those continues are gone, you’re booted to the main menu to start the game again from your last save.
Starting the game, Rayman’s capabilities are significantly less than most platforming protagonists. Rayman’s capabilities come down to walking, jumping, crouching, crawling, and making a silly face called the Grimace, which works on a grand total of one enemy, sending them running in fear—usually to their deaths. This gives even less offensive options than Mario in Super Mario World, where he can at least jump on most enemies, which makes jumping an excellent defensive and offensive option since any enemy beneath Mario will likely be killed, and the inability to run early on means Rayman can’t add momentum to his jump on his own. Early on you get your telescopic punch, your only offensive capability, then later worlds gift you the ability to hang from ledges, swing from floating hoops, hover by spinning Rayman’s hair like chopper blades and run, which replaces the Grimace. Rayman makes you work for capabilities that are usually standard in most platformers, and by end game Rayman is still a struggle to complete despite these added capabilities.
Flat out, Rayman is kind of a bullshit game. Yes it’s a challenging platformer, but Rayman is splattered with unintuitive hitboxes, bizarre i-frames on bosses and enemies, and the platforming equivalent of jump scares. It’s clear the developers didn’t want people flying through their game and chose to ramp up the difficulty in response, similar to the development strategy of Ecco the Dolphin.
Despite all this, Rayman earned critical acclaim and has been played by gamers all around the world. Aside from the bizarre art direction, you could argue the harsh difficulty is one of Rayman‘s defining traits. And it’s something that many of the newer games have lacked. Even the last levels of Rayman Origins were easier than most of Band Land, Rayman’s second world. While I wouldn’t want the series to return to Rayman‘s level of difficulty, it would be nice to see future installments take cues from what made this game a challenge.