During a time when most of the best platformers and adventure games had their sights deeply set on taking advantage of grand environments, The Great Escape stands out from them for using the full extent of its energy towards being straightforward and fun
The most notable adventure and platforming games of the Nintendo 64 days shared one core characteristic: their expansive worlds, which often put players in the middle of wide explorable areas and tasked them with figuring out what to do, sometimes even going as far as giving gamers the freedom to choose the order in which they would deal with the available challenges. In the case of Nintendo’s console, it was a movement that started with Super Mario 64 and that would go on to be seen in different formats, levels of quality, and magnitudes of ambition in the likes of Banjo-Kazooie, Banjo-Tooie, Donkey Kong 64, Jet Force Gemini, and even the two The Legend of Zelda games that would be produced for the system.
The fad was, by all means, understandable; after all, following many years spent solely dedicated to the creation of quests that took place in a flat environment, developers finally had in their hands hardware powerful enough to let them give life to tridimensional worlds. And so, they promptly took advantage of that technological gift to abandon the linear progression from left to right of the days of 2-D gaming in order to see what shiny gameplay possibilities could be found in the newly added axis.
Rayman 2: The Great Escape is among the gems of that time period. Its 1999 release, coming slightly over three years after the arrival of the Nintendo 64, makes the title stand as one of its development studio’s – in its case, Ubisoft – first forays into the recently discovered 3-D realm. And like Super Mario 64 and Banjo-Kazooie, it devotes much of its efforts in the translation of traditional platforming gameplay to a new type of environment.
Unlike them, however, the second adventure starring the likable limbless hero does not execute a very deep transformation on the genre, because while the tasks and – especially – worlds faced by the plumber and the bear would – in a lot of cases – simply not be able to exist inside the confines of a 2-D plane, the levels encountered in The Great Escape would be most of the times perfectly executable in the Super Nintendo provided that some changes be made. On one hand, the fact the game plays a lot like a platformer from the 16-bit days could cause one to see it as being less bold than its generational counterparts; truthfully, though, given its general simplicity makes it be far removed from its peers, The Great Escape actually ends up coming off as not only unique for its time, but also quite daring in its classic approach to the gameplay style.
In The Great Escape, trouble starts with the coming of a group of mechanical pirates who have, as their leader, the evil Admiral Razorbeard. Having already conquered and enslaved many civilizations throughout the universe, their attack in The Glade of Dreams – Rayman’s world – faces resistance from the titular hero and other characters, including Globox, the good-hearted and somewhat clumsy best friend of the protagonist. Eventually, though, the good guys are defeated and imprisoned inside the pirate’s flying flagship.
With much of the opposition out of the way, the villains unleash destruction: they lock up many of the inhabitants of The Glade of Dreams; capture Ly the Fairy, a powerful ally that is capable of enhancing Rayman’s abilities; and blow up the Primordial Core, the world’s main source of energy and harmony, making it explode into 1,000 fragments of light called Lums. Defeated and lying in his cell, Rayman receives a telepathic message from Ly, who alerts him he is the only one who can stop the pirates and restore the land to its former shape. With that in mind, Rayman and Globox find a way to escape the ship through a vent, and the hero proceeds to start his journey towards ridding the world of Razorbeard and his crew.
It is a simple plot, but it works wonderfully for a few reasons. First of all, the quest is punctuated by short and sweet cutscenes that simply look excellent, as they have – quite stunningly – stood the test of time, being so technically proficient in the scope of what the Nintendo 64 could do that they even go as far as featuring gibberish voice acting; a feature that may be annoying to some, but that does give the game a whimsical and sometimes darkly dramatic tone that highlights interesting aspects of its fabric. More importantly, though, there is how plot development walks hand in hand with players’ progress through the game.
Obviously, given the simplicity of the script, The Great Escape is not an effort where one will find twists, depth, or complex characters; it is, nevertheless, interesting to see how what goes on in its stages is many times linked to plot-related matters. Early in the adventure, for example, Rayman is told by one of Globox’s children that they saw Ly the Fairy being taken deep into the forest by the pirates, and – surely enough – the next stage sees the character storm a base that the villains have set up in an area dubbed The Fairy Glade, where Ly is found unconscious inside a force field. Moments like that happen throughout the game, and even though they are indeed minor details, they charmingly create a connection between gameplay and plot that is rarely seen in titles of the kind, giving purpose to what is being done in the courses.
Although ranking as an important reason for The Great Escape’s status as a classic, that synergy between gameplay and plot is certainly not the main motive behind the game’s success. Platformers have always been defined by the smart design and thrills found in their levels, and Rayman 2 is not different. The starring hero is a pretty skilled fellow: he can jump; swim; use his ears like helicopter blades in order to increase the time he can stay in the air; climb all sorts of vines and webs; carry objects such as explosive barrels, orbs, and plums; lock onto foes; and shoot energy balls out of his hands to trigger switches, break barriers, create energy vines that allow him to swing back and forth, or take pirates down.
Compared to the arsenal of moves held by the Kong family members in Donkey Kong 64 or by the leading bird and bear of Banjo-Kazooie, it is not much. However, not only do those abilities work just fine for the more old-school setup of The Great Escape, but they also click where it matters the most: in supporting the creation of clever, entertaining, and remarkable stages.
True to its more straightforward approach to platforming, The Great Escape completely shuns one of the biggest staples of the era: an explorable overworld. Instead, the entrances to the eighteen levels that make up its adventure are found in a gorgeously designed area called The Hall of Doors, which – effectively working as a traditional stage-selection map – has Rayman standing on the shores of a starry river, with the character being able to move forward to the next course whenever the previous one is cleared. It is a very charming configuration that goes along nicely with the title’s spirit. More important than that, however, is that The Hall of Doors makes replaying old stages a breeze.
And that feature is quite vital for a work like The Great Escape, whose length is not very considerable, given one can reach the ending of the game within ten hours, but that possesses a lot of extra value and challenge to those who want to go for full completion. In the case of Rayman 2, that additional content comes in the form of cages with locked up magical creatures, of which each stage has between three and seven; and Lums, with every level usually containing fifty of those. Even if not completely optional, as breaking a certain number of cages increases Rayman’s health and gathering a reasonable quantity of Lums is required to enter the game’s most important stages, the trickiest to locate of those assets will, nonetheless, serve as the ultimate challenge to players who love to be tested.
Within every stage of The Great Escape, players will meet the purest and most well-designed take on traditional platforming that can be found in the Nintendo 64, and perhaps also across the entire cast of consoles of that generation. Its old-school vein does not necessarily mean the game is blind to the wonders of large 3-D environments; in fact, it has plenty of those.
Quite frequently, gamers will have to look around to discover what they need to do or locate the ledge they have to access. Furthermore, exploration and very light backtracking do come into play in the sense that a few branching paths appear and that occasionally it is necessary to hit a switch or defeat an enemy in order to open previously seen doors. Finally, completely optional locations and rooms, usually the hiding place of Lums and cages, exist and take some dedication to be uncovered. However, despite exhibiting those characteristics, the courses of The Great Escape are mostly very linear. The path forward is usually blatant, with players just being required to overcome the obstacles that stand in their way, a facet that turns levels into long chains of rooms where engaging platforming and delightful action take place.
What is most impressive about the content of The Great Escape is its variety. Rayman does a little bit of everything here, and – with one or two exceptions – it all comes off remarkably well. There are standard, yet sometimes original, platforming tasks such as using floating blocks to get across a poisonous lake, employing the character’s helicopter ability to hover over large gaps or ride wind currents, and making a temporary bridge out of the projectiles shot by a boss. At the same time, the title knows how to get outside of that box.
Throughout the adventure, Rayman will go down an absurd amount of fun but dangerous slides; hop on vehicles such as a flying missile or a walking rocket that moves forward as relentlessly as a wild horse; do some water skiing through a marsh; face timed races; traverse a couple of temples that combine tricky platforming with a light dosage of puzzle solving and backtracking; tackle a pair of stages that, like the more athletic courses of the Super Mario Bros. series, force the character to move forward at all times; ride a bouncing plum down lava rivers; and much more. It is a fun and wide blend that is very well used across all eighteen stages, as the title rarely repeats itself and presents a good difficulty curve, which reaches a tough but fair height by the time The Great Escape is coming to a close.
There are, of course, a few issues along the way. Combats, for instance, although an integral and frequent presence during the game, are a bit lackluster; the interstellar buccaneers do not come in an impressive variety, and most battles – save for the usually great conflicts against bosses – end up turning into a mindless process of locking onto foes and letting energy balls fly, which is a shame considering the encounters with pirates are often very well set up. Additionally, in spite of how The Great Escape tends to be generous and precise in its placement of checkpoints, there is an abundance of segments that kill the character off with one hit, a nature that can be especially annoying in mistake-prone portions where Rayman is going down slides or riding vehicles, with the latter situation painfully coming into play during the final boss.
Yet, it goes without saying that none of those shortcomings truly dent the game, because Rayman 2 is a tight and carefully developed package of stellar gameplay moments, one that is always accompanied by fantastic visual work that still holds up via both technical greatness and a unique artistic touch, as well as an impeccable soundtrack that – comparable in tone to the musical masterpiece found in Donkey Kong Country 2 – goes a long way towards underlining an adventure that is, superficially, cartoonish, but that exhales an epic sense of darkness and urgency.
As such, Rayman 2: The Great Escape is a flooring oddity of the Nintendo 64 days. During a time when most platformers and adventure games had their sights so deeply set on taking advantage of the grand environments supported by cutting-edge hardware that they ended up, positively, straying away from the genres’ origins, Ubisoft went the other way. With The Great Escape, the company opted to build, in the recently discovered 3-D realm, a quest that was open to the new opportunities unearthed by the latest technological developments, but whose main concern lay in being simple and old-school.
In that regard, Rayman’s second adventure was certainly not alone, for many were the games and studios that tried to explore that interesting middle ground; however, arguably, none of them did so as well as the limbless hero, because the variety, quality, level of polish, and production values contained here are nothing but extremely rare. And propelled by those attributes, The Great Escape feels gigantic, blasting into the pantheon of the best games of its era and standing out among them for using the full extent of its energy towards being straightforward and fun rather than employing its ambitions in matters of size and scope.