Rayman is one of gaming’s success stories, catapulting creator Michel Ancel into the limelight and creating a massively successful spin-off in the form of the Raving Rabbids games. Here, Michel Ancel recalls how the limbless hero came to be.
First appearing on the PlayStation right at the beginning of the machine’s life, it’s gone on to become a massive success for Ubisoft, with conversions of the original game appearing on everything from the PC to the Game Boy Advance and, more recently, Nintendo’s DSiWare service. It might not deliver many new mechanics, but the uniqueness of its hero, its gorgeous-looking visuals and the cleverly designed stages all combined to make Rayman one of the PlayStation’s most popular games, and it went on to spawn two 3D sequels and numerous other popular spin-offs, including the aforementioned Rabbids franchise.
Rayman’s beginnings are shortly due to come full circle thanks to the incoming release of the episodic Rayman Origins for Xbox Live Arcade and PSN, so we felt it was the perfect time to catch up with developer Michel Ancel and find out how the original tale began.
“I first drew Rayman when I was just a teenager,” recalls Ancel when we questioned him about the quirky character’s early origins. “At the time I was simply trying to teach myself to draw, make music and write code in order to realise my dream of making videogames.”
Ancel later returned to those early sketches in 1992, when he began work on Rayman. He’d fulfilled his dream of working in videogames at the tender age of 17, when he created a demo for French software developer Lankhor. Ancel soon met up with Nicolas Choukroun in Montpellier and began creating the visuals for some of his games, including Pick ‘N Pile and The Intruder. The talented Ancel soon procured himself a bigger project in the form of Brain Blaster, which was eventually published by Ubisoft in 1990, paving the way for his cherished Rayman project.
Rayman’s distinct stylings came from a number of different sources, with Ancel citing Celtic, Chinese and Russian fairytales as a major source of inspiration for the vibrant world and the unique characters that inhabit it. By far the most interesting aspect of Rayman, though, is the fact that when the press and public were fully embracing 3D, the game’s stunning 2D visuals made it stand out from the crowd. The end result was that rather than feeling like last-gen technology – both the Mega Drive and SNES’s popularity was slowly starting to fade – Rayman felt fresh, exciting and new.
“As a child, I spent a lot of time close to the rivers, chasing strange insects, climbing on big trees,” begins Ancel when asked about the distinctive look of Rayman’s world. “When you’re a child, everything seems huge and extraordinary. When I started working on a Rayman game, it all started with trees and strange creatures.”
Ironically, Rayman’s distinctive 2D look when its contemporaries like Croc: Legend Of The Gobbos and Crash Bandicoot were wowing the world in 3D was due to an extremely protracted development time, which saw Rayman shift over a number of different computers and consoles, before finally making its debut on Sony’s PlayStation. Rayman’s origins are reported to have started on the Super Nintendo, and while there’s some truth in that, its actual birth was on a 16-bit computer, not console. “To tell you the truth, I actually started working alone on Rayman using an Atari ST,” begins Ancel. “I was doing the sound, the art, the programming and the animation. Then with Frédéric Houde, a programming friend, we decided to make a Super Nintendo CD version, but the hardware was never released! So we decided to move on to different hardware. By this time there was a big console war brewing between the likes of NEC, Nintendo, Sega, Atari, 3DO and others.”
Ancel saw the interest in the upcoming machines as a prime opportunity to get the best out of his new project. The hardware offerings gave him plenty of options, especially as he realised that interest in the Atari ST was beginning to wane and that a standalone Super Nintendo might struggle with the huge amounts of information that he wanted to put into the game.
After a great deal of thought, Ancel eventually decided that the Atari Jaguar would become the final home for his new creation (although this later changed to the PlayStation). In hindsight it seems like utter madness to launch a new IP on such an unproven system, but there was reasoning behind Ancel’s decision. Atari’s machine had amazing raw power that the other systems he had been tinkering with just didn’t possess. “When the Atari Jaguar was released, I felt it was the first console that was capable of displaying our graphics,” he says.
It proved to be a wise decision, at least from a technical point of view, with Rayman receiving high praise at the time for its stunning visuals. “The graphics and sounds have been beautifully engineered with some great themed levels, full of soothing colour and animation. All the graphics have been done using 65,000 colours and look excellent, the scrolling is of the smoothest quality, and the control system feels exactly right and needs very little to get used to.” That was the praise from popular Atari website The Atari Times, which awarded Rayman an impressive 92%, with reviewer Andy Robertson even cheekily saying that: “He’s the star of what is that rarest of things, a GOOD Jag game. Yes, you heard me right: Rayman on the Jaguar is GOOD – not average or weak or pathetic or even second rate but really, really GOOD.”
While Rayman received great acclaim on Atari’s console, it’s the PlayStation version that most people will have played, which is hardly surprising, as it was a phenomenal success on Sony’s first console and something that Ancel still can’t properly fathom. “Honestly, I just can’t explain,” he began when we asked him why the PlayStation version proved so immensely popular. “It was the time of the first 3D games, like Toshinden and Ridge Racer, and Rayman was still 2D. Maybe the rule is that players don’t really care about technical details; they just follow the fun and that’s all.”
If it was fun that gamers were after then they certainly found it in Rayman, and it just kept selling and selling. Sales for the game eventually hit over 4 million units, making it the 16th bestselling game of all time on Sony’s console. Amazingly impressive, especially when you consider that above it were heavy hitters such as Resident Evil 2, Tomb Raider, Final Fantasy VII and Gran Turismo. Even more impressive is that it’s the only 2D game in the top 20.
Although the Jaguar had originally impressed Ancel with its high storage capacity cartridges, it wasn’t long before his focus finally switched over to Sony’s machine, as he recalls: “Sony’s PlayStation was not only far more powerful than the Atari Jaguar, and easier to program, but it also had CD capability, which was perfect for storing our giant textures.” Rayman would still appear on Atari’s ill-fated console, but for many gamers, Rayman will always be associated with Sony’s machine.