Even twenty years ago, any love felt towards PSone Rayman's luscious art style could quickly turn into hate due to its spikily relentless difficulty barrier, but a cathartic sense of satisfaction could also be found by perseverant gamers who endured to conquer all eighteen of its levels. As a December 1995 EU launch window title, the gaming press were conflicted in how to respond to a 2D platformer that was released during the transition to a fifth generation of consoles, since their most fervent anticipation was focused upon the potential of 3D polygon graphics.
Sadly, another of the PSone's EU launch titles, Rapid Reload, became lost in the mists of time, partly because it was an old-fangled run-and-gun sprite game. Conversely, the two year development time helped to build hype towards Rayman, especially considering that Michel Ancel and his Ubisoft team had shifted creation of the game from its inception on the Atari ST to evolving it on the more powerful Atari Jaguar. The swanky new PlayStation console arrived just in time for Ubisoft to seize the opportunity needed for realising the ambition of Rayman's debut adventure.
A review in the October 1995 issue of the forward-looking UK gaming magazine Ultimate Future Games considered the position of Rayman as a traditional platformer during a period of change, but conceded that the hard work lavished on the sprite artwork was preferable to a less well-realised 2.5D game using polygons – in this case Clockwork Knight on the SEGA Saturn. Regardless of decreasing interest in 2D, the visuals were praiseworthy, with Ultimate Future Games stating that Rayman's graphics were proficient at "proving that the PlayStation has an on-screen palette with more colours than Michelangelo".
With a plot explained by the Magician giving a speech over an animated introduction, the game flaunted the advantages of extra CD-ROM storage from the outset. It was an effective depiction of the balance becoming lost in Rayman's world due to a mysterious orb called the Great Protoon being stolen by Mr Dark – a black hat wearing lookalike of Orko from He-Man and the Masters of the Universe – but ultimately the story was conveyed more compellingly by in-game locations and personalities.
In any case, the lavishly drawn backgrounds were more memorable as an embodiment of the adventure than the cartoon plot synopsis. They illustrated a journey spanning from being lost in the deep woods of The Dream Forest, to bounding past piano keys that arch over the curvature of Band Land's hills, and marvelling at the falling snow on the peaks of the Blue Mountains. With six worlds spanning 18 levels, a bullet point on the back of the box chose to focus on Rayman's visuals rather than its content, with the blurb justifiably praising the "eye-popping animations using 65,000 colors!" (American spelling on a PAL box).
Ubisoft treats 2D graphics in PSone Rayman as an art form, so playing it feels like a precursor to the standards set by the UbiArt Framework today. Yet, artistry in Rayman is not just attributed to the visuals, with a music team including composer Rémi Gazel, the game's soundtrack strengthens the portrayal of each quirky location. The jaunty First Steps from the Pink Plant Woods area is instantly recognisable for anyone who gets nostalgic about playing Rayman's first level, and it's impressive how easy it is to recall the game's personalities from only hearing their theme music. For example, Betilla the Fairy has a suitably fantastical tune, while an extra-terrestrial called Joe has a Party at Joe's reggae track.
The diversity of the audio extends to the boss battles, as well as the allies, so when the Puppeteer-like stage curtains lift to reveal a pantomime dame called Space Mama it's apt to hear the whooshing chimes of her Washing Machine from Space song. There are even cheesy moments amongst all the variety, like the bounciness of the world map music, and how the bopping jazz of The Saxophone's Song works in the context of battling Mr Sax. Just as you think that Rayman's music couldn't get better than a tune called Harmony during the Bongo Hills level, you hear the Picture Perfect track while playing either the Eraser Plains or the Pencil Pentathlon stages, and realise that Ubisoft's audio team created one of the most beautiful tunes of the early PSone era.
If your reference point is Rayman Origins and Rayman Legends, the first noticeable aspect of the single-player only PSone Rayman is that our hero's movement is more slow and plodding. The PSone game also takes its time for Betilla the Fairy to grant Rayman five permanent powers – abilities that are mostly available from the outset in the modern games. Quickly enough she gifts you a punching telescopic fist, the ability to hang onto platforms, a grabbing fist to swing from flying rings, and a hair helicopter – affectionately referred to as the hairlycopter by Michel Ancel – but the basic power to run doesn't arrive until over halfway through the game. Rayman can't swim, or bounce on enemies' heads, and there is no wall jumping in the PSone title.
It's the temporary powers dispersed by Rayman's friends that provide the cleverest and most welcome diversification to the gameplay. A magic seed from Tarayzan grows plant platforms on demand, just as a super helicopter is more manoeuvrable from the Musician, and a firefly lightens up The Caves of Skops, each of which are inventive novelty alterations to the game's mechanics. Similarly, Flying Blue Elves shrink Rayman to pass through narrow passages, and befriending the Bzzit boss enables you to fly on his back, although it's not a shoot-'em-up segment like riding Moskito in Rayman Origins.
Ubisoft's humour found in titles like Rayman Raving Rabbids was still apparent in the 1995 game, with Rayman posing at a seaside cut-out board for the Photographer to capture a snapshot, which initiates a stage's checkpoint. The flow of sliding down Allegro Presto's chrome bars to build rhythm and timing for your jumps also feels like a gameplay forerunner to speedy modern levels like Can't Catch Me! in Rayman Origins or Castle Rock in Rayman Legends.
While the Allegro Presto level may seem like a brief rise in the game's challenge, it becomes apparent that Rayman presents a persistent impeding wall rather than a gradual difficulty curve. The entire game is intentionally designed around deadly falls, distant checkpoints, instant kill spikes, and pixel perfect jumps or swings on to tiny disappearing platforms. With only three health meter reserves, which can be upgraded with extra energy points, the bombardment of deaths when encountering a confusing new memory test level can be frustrating.
Everyone has a breaking point, so consequently a stage like Pencil Pentathlon comes across as cheap with a dreadful bouncing block section, and trampolines placed directly below sharp spikes. You may need to don sunglasses for the blisteringly bright rainbow pinks that follow in the Space Mama's Crater level, but it's a more tightly arranged area, and ends with a stand-out epic boss battle. The clever boss encounters are a consistent highlight of the game, so Rayman is wise to shiver and bite his nails before facing Mr Stone, or the scorpion Mr Skops.
Therefore, there is no shame to be found from repeatedly inputting a cartwheeling cheat on the Game Over screen for an extra ten continues. The main plot objective is to rescue Electoons trapped in 102 cages, with six cages hidden in each of the main 17 levels, which is clearly stated in the game's manual. Despite this – in a moment reminiscent of completing a time consuming Riddler's Revenge side mission to earn Batman: Arkham Knight's true ending – gamers were surprised and disappointed when they couldn't progress to the sixth Candy Chateau world, because they didn't save enough Electoons to complete Rayman.
In any case, Candy Chateau only featured a single 18th level called Mr Dark's Dare, where you race against Dark Rayman, conquer your fear of clowns, and face Mr Dark. You can always choose to ignore the Electoon cages, and focus upon learning the layouts of the seventeen central levels, which in itself could take 11 hours to beat if you're inexperienced and die often. It becomes more enjoyable to return to completed levels with a knowledge of their design arrangements, and there is a sense of achievement from using your newly received permanent powers to reach hidden areas, in a similar feel to rewards in a Metroidvania game.
Mastering control techniques sees your skill level rise, especially in regard to swinging or using Rayman's telescopic fist, and the trajectory of his punch. With practice you'll be throwing the fist to control falling onto a platform by cancelling your helicopter, or launching a punch and then ducking to hit small Antitoons, plus using the projectile to grab a distant extra life. You'll also understand that jumping to throw a quick punch travels twice as far as when standing still. It's from your time devoted to training in the memory test level design, using skills such as temporary invincibility after receiving a hit as a way to damage boost past enemies like in the Mega Man games, and gaining expertise at using the controls that the fun truly begins. Rayman is a game that rewards a player's mastery – the adept speed-runners who hurry through all 18 levels in under ninety minutes are an example of this – so you'll halve your original play time on a second attempt.
The lasting appeal and enduring influence of Rayman was expressed by Michel Ancel in 2011 when he spoke to Retro Gamer magazine in Issue 90, and he reflected that "Rayman is the guy who helped get me to a place I feel lucky to be: making games and having fun doing it!" Considering its divisive difficulty balance, for £3.99 on the PlayStation Store you can tackle Rayman on either your PS3, Vita, or PSP, and form your own opinion regarding its place amongst the PSone's classics. Despite all of its faults, Rayman is still a great PSone game.
When the first Rayman game was released as an EU PSone launch window title during late 1995, some gamers felt at odds playing a traditional side-scrolling platformer on the dawn of a fifth generation that would revolutionise 3D console graphics. Yet, the finesse of Ubisoft's 2D artistry was persuasive, so the expressive animation, vivid backgrounds, and sublime soundtrack eventually resulted in a game that 20 years later has aged more gracefully than many of PSone's polygon titles. With five permanent powers to unlock, 102 hidden Electoon cages to discover for completionists, as well as eighteen challenging memory test levels that rattle your patience, Rayman is a highly rewarding game for determined gamers. However, the journey to success is fraught with peril, and although Rayman is a limbless hero, his debut release's muscular difficulty is not for everyone.