Every few years, I come back to Rayman 2: The Great Escape for a play-through, at least a partial one. Why do I keep returning? I try to replay many of my old games every few years to purge myself of nostalgia, to see what stands the test of time and what doesnít. Many games might have one particular element which ages well, as the rest of it corrodes against the promises of new titles. This is expected and understandable, but from this we can generally draw two further distinctions:
1) The game has deteriorated not because it was poorly designed at the time, but because it has been outdone by more recent titles.
2) The game has deteriorated because it was poorly designed at the time of release. Rayman 2: The Great Escape has weathered, like every game, but it remains sharp enough to stand the test of time.
In Rayman 2, the titular hero, Rayman, finds himself captured by the Robo-Pirates, a band of, wellÖrobotic pirates bent on enslaving his planetís population. You must escape and go on a journey to defeat the pirates and their leader, Admiral Razorbeard, to save your world.
What Rayman 2 comes down to, and what makes it survive ten years later, is fundamentally these things: cohesion and polish.
Rayman controls like a heavier Mario from Super Mario 64. Less an acrobat, more an endurance fighter. There is much more heft to his jump and stride. He is less slippery than Mario, more rooted. Verticality is less of an issue here (but itís still a true platformer). Every time you jam the B button to send an energy globe at an enemy (the primary method of attack), you feel the feedback. Have I ever mentioned how much I love control inputs that have you hold down a button and then release it? Lock onto an enemy, hold down B. Rayman charges an orb into a basketball sized ball of light, release, and WHAM, you feel, see, and hear the globe hitting as a pirate gets tossed to the floor. In fact, I only wish there was a louder smash on impact, with more controller rumble for a fully charged globe.
The action in this game feels tightly choreographed. This is not an item collection game. Your purpose is always moving forward, always towards a goal. Levels feature brilliant set pieces and extended action sequences to keep things varied, but these rarely feel gimmicky, perhaps because they seem so fine tuned. The game keeps throwing different play styles at you, reinventing itself as soon as something has been used up. You'll be chased by pirate ships along rickety cliffside platforms while dodging cannon fire, water skiing through a dark marsh - pulled by a speedy aquatic snake, and racing along tortuous forest pathways on runaway missile with legs. Rayman 2 is constantly itinerating, with a new take on some form of play (be it movement or combat) in every level, or at least every other.
The dialog is sparse, mostly a few interactions here and there, but it has that understated Ubisoft humor of yesteryear. Much of it physical humor, such as a characterís reactions. The dialog is accompanied by the nonsense-language verbiage you usually see in 64-era Rare titles, but it seems to have been written with some syntax in mind, meaning it isnít just a series of guffaws, and ends up working well with the game's humor.
Every level feels so organic I'd be hard pressed to find one that doesn't fit. Some have puzzles which I don't care for as much, but they are all impeccably ordered. Rayman 2 presents a world which has existed long before the player ever set foot in it, breathes and moves while you spend your time there, and feels alive enough that it is one of those settings which just seems to exist long after you've shut down the console. Most of the planet is a warm, temperate to muggy climate, so you don't have any requisite "ice levels," "desert levels," etc. They are all interrelated, so you donít have that weird break in linearity where you snap between wildly differing level aesthetics.
The music is good. A couple are so good that I downloaded them. From the haunting thrum of the swamps, to the bubbling drums of the lava temple, every track fits snugly with its level.
So what do we have? A player-character that is a joy to control, tightly scripted action, an expansive and well-realized world, and a fun tale tying it all together. No one of these things makes Rayman 2: The Great Escape a great game. It's all of them combined. This game has an overwhelming sense of vision, of all these parts working together as a whole, cleanly and effectively. A huge amount of care went into this game. Itís just so damned together without being pretentious about it that it ends up being a wonder. Rayman 2 is the sort of video game that a group of people can make once, under specific conditions and will probably never be able to reproduce exactly. It's like sea glass, singular, a little mysterious, utterly polished (pun intended) and never to be reproduced without seeming artificial. As it should be.
Now, if you'll excuse me, I have some robo-pirates to defeat.