Every game should have challenge, no question about that. But Ubisoft's original side-scrolling platformer Rayman is sadistic in its difficulty curve to the point of unrivalled frustration. Released in September 1995 as part of the original Sony Playstation launch line-up (as well as initially on the Atari Jaguar and then ported to Sega Saturn) you can see why it would have made a few heads turn. The visuals are stunning. Even today the colourful hand drawn art style and Disney-like character animation looks gorgeous and this is an unusual compliment to give a game that was released in the early 3D era. Being a 2D platformer it has - aesthetically, at least - aged gracefully in a way that the majority of the polygonal games haven't. The amount of colour on screen is staggering and the sheer variety of levels with unique design is impressive. The lovable cartoony charm would appeal to kids; it's limbless, floppy-haired title character exudes a family-friendly ‘90s 'tude that fits in with the other popular mascots of the time (ala, Sonic).
And playing the first couple of levels you would think this is designed with children in mind. A few simple platform jumps here, dodge a few enemies there, fairly standard stuff. Even the controls are simple in that the beginning of the game Rayman has no abilities so there is no overwhelming feeling trying to grasp what to do.
But, by the third level things change. It's like a difficulty option was invisibly switched from Beginner to Expert as the level design becomes unrelenting. Jumping between floating platforms becomes more strict timing focussed, enemies seemingly appear randomly at points, there are hidden areas which require leaps of faith as the view is obscured and the length of the levels also increases. The reaction speed required to traverse through all of these is immense and makes you realise that the controls for manoeuvring the character feel slightly sluggish. This is all exacerbated by the horrendous save system as you only have a set number of Continues, each with three lives (it’s also quite difficult to regain lost lives) and so essentially you have to beat the game without dying too much. And that is not going to happen. There is a checkpoint system in that you can retry from specific areas but these can be quite early in the level before the majority of the real tricky stuff. Even by trying to utilise the cheats which allow 99 lives I still could not progress past the Moskito Nest one which is the fourth playable in the first world (of six). The password system allows you to choose any level and that is how I could visit the others but I can't imagine the time it would take anyone to actually progress naturally through this game.
Reading online, I wasn't surprised that the almost malicious design extended to actually completing the game. The final boss level can only be accessed once all of the little electoon characters - the games’ collectibles - have been released from their cages (saving them is the reason Rayman has to travel the lands in the story, which is admittedly told in lovely animated scenes). However, frustratingly it’s not telegraphed earlier in the game that these are essential pickups as they can be hidden away with no clear solution to get to them. Eventually you do learn abilities like the chopper hair glide which can allow you to float and these are useful for when you return to older levels for the missing electoons but to do it as an essential requirement instead of a bonus reward is devilishly cruel. According to some reports and comments from Ubisoft over the years, the game was barely play tested and this makes sense if true as I am sure they would have identified and implemented a more approachable difficulty curve. It's a shame as otherwise it’s a delightful first attempt at a new franchise (which was still hugely successful for Ubisoft). It's so visually impressive that you wish the designers took as much care to the pacing and level design as the artists did with the backgrounds and character presentation. It unfortunately sits in an uncomfortable spot between too difficult for children (most people, to be fair) and too cutesy for the older gamer. If you have all the time in the world to persevere with its unmerciful level design and love that type of challenge you will be able to eke enjoyment but for the rest of us, this is too difficult and punishing to be considered a good time.