Without Rayman, it would be no exaggeration to assert that we wouldn't have Assassin's Creed, Splinter Cell, Ghost recon or Rainbow Six: Michel Ancel's odd-looking character with the disconnected limbs bankrolled Ubisoft in its early days.
Which is some achievement, given that the early Rayman games weren't very good. Somehow, though, they sold phenomenally, and Ubisoft built itself up cannily on the back of that. Then, late last year, Ancel re-emerged from apparent hibernation with Rayman Origins, a very different sort of beast than his early games. It was good - very, very good. But it didn't shift the units like its inferior predecesors.
Low on tech, high on slapstick
Whereas some of the original Rayman games got hung up on technological innovation - such as attempting to do 3D on the SNES - Rayman origins appeared wilfully low-tech: it's hand-drawn and animated, and is essentially, at least in appearance and feel, a 2D side-scrolling platform game. Which sounds hopelessly unpromising in this day and age of stereoscopic 3D and motion-sensing but, counter-intuitively, proves thoroughly compelling.
That's mainly because Rayman Origins, from start to finish, is gloriously weird and surreal - in a similar manner to early Ren & Stimpy cartoons. Indeed, a couple of Rayman's companions - the game supports four-player co-op - do look a bit Stimpy-like.
The levels are all endowed with hilarious, and generally very weird, themes. They might, for example, alternate between sliding around on ice, bashing ice-cubes and nailing huge, low-friction-enhanced jumps and a sort of hell's kitchen, with fire-breathing mini-dragon chefs, who stand on tubes of hot chilli-paste in order to boil pots of water ( in whose steam Rayman can float to reach higher areas). It's laugh-out-loud funny, very frequently.
At first, Rayman Origins' gameplay feels like something, well, from the 16-bit days - you have to nail those jumps, swing on anything you can find (such as blue blobs that extend helping arms as you approach) and jump on the heads of enemies, which then turn into bubbles that can be popped if you jump on them again.
But you soon acquire new abilities for Rayman, most notably his classic punch (with a press-and-hold power-boost) and a kick (which are on the same context-sensitive button). Crucially, he acquires the ability to hover, when you keep the X button pressed down, and swim.
So far, so conventional. But as you progress through the game, you discover a surprising amount of variation. Each world has a sequence in which you jump on the back of a giant mosquito which fires bullets through its nose and can suck in bombs and spit them back at bosses.
And there are other sequences in which you have to keep moving - for example, when you're underwater, you can collect tiny firefly-like fish around which gradually swim off, or follow angler-fish; both ward off the unwelcome advances of grabbing, zombie-like hands. And there are other times when you come across, caged and voluptuous fairies, with whom you must catch up.
The fairies' Jayne Mansfield-like proportions emphasise that while Rayman Origins looks superficially like a kids' game, there's more than enough to keep adults engrossed.
But perhaps the best aspect of Rayman Origins is that it's nice and hard - it really puts your platforming skills through the wringer. You need considerable skill and timing - and often a bit of imagination, spotting, for example, hidden wall-jump areas.