Over a year ago, I published an article regarding the issue of “Mario Fatigue” (you can read an updated version of it here) and ended it with a glimmer of hope for the franchise in the form of New Super Mario Bros. U. The releases of both the Wii U version and its Luigi-themed DLC have come and gone, along with any dreams I had of the franchise escaping from its creative rut. It has become so stylistically repetitive that it has dug itself into a hole from which it may never emerge.
There’s no arguing that in terms of gameplay the New Super series is just as good as its predecessors. It features precise controls, challenging level design and plenty of secrets to discover. The problem is that after five iterations that all look and play almost exactly the same, it becomes a bit tiresome. I want to explore lands beyond the desert, ice, grass, mountain and swamp worlds that appear in every New Super game. I want to be blown away by striking levels of imagination that parallel those in Super Mario Galaxy and 3D World. New Super Mario Bros. is creatively dead. The franchise has become bland, lifeless, and needs to be shelved for good.
Enter Rayman Legends, my personal 2013 Game of the Year and the antithesis of everything Nintendo has done with Mario side-scrollers over the past eight years. While the New Super Mario Bros. games are stale and uninspired, Legends is full of personality and ingenuity. In one level you might be wandering through giant, rotting fruits and in the next , running for your life from a gigantic, hungry luchador . Many of the worlds are unique and feature ideas never before seen in video games. After so many years of playing nothing but Mario platformers, it feels incredibly refreshing to see what can be done with platformers when they aren’t held back by tropes and creative deadlock.
In both Mario and Rayman games, a strong story is unnecessary – the games’ main driving forces are clever and challenging level design. What Legends does remarkably well, though, is implement a storybook-esque level of progression. Take a look at the third world; the player starts on a giant, inflatable island in the middle of the ocean. From level to level, an adventure slowly unfolds: Rayman and his friends follow the island’s air supply through schools of colorful fish, down into the dark abysses of the ocean. For some reason, there are motion-sensing lights and guards everywhere, but everything makes sense when the player sneaks into a top-secret underwater research laboratory harboring a humungous, mechanical monster in need of a good ass-kicking. Even without cutscenes and dialogue, Rayman Legends is still able to take its players on a fantastical journey, whereas Mario continues to the same eight worlds in every 2D game.
The New Super Mario Bros. franchise has adopted a sterile art style: animations are fluid, but the characters are lifeless and robotic. When enemies are defeated, they fall of the screen just as they did in 1985 and background environments are static, even boring. It gets the job done, but there’s no sense of wonder and whimsy. The appeal of a kingdom full of mushrooms and turtles is not nearly as strong as it was 20 years ago when the ideas were fresh and new. The UbiART engine that was developed for Rayman Origins and Legends, on the other hand, offers an incredible amount of potential for creativity and gives its games the appearance of a painting come to life. Though the game’s stages are presented in layers like Mario, Rayman takes advantage of its backgrounds and foregrounds to give each level the sensation of a living, breathing environment. In one stage, the frog enemies you battle can also be seen near their huts in the distance. Dragons will fly in front of the player, blocking their vision, and slowly make their way off into the distance. The player can even jump between these layers at certain points, enhancing the sensation of depth. Through the game’s artistic genius, Ubisoft manages to create an enchanting world that sets your imagination free.
Admittedly, New Super Mario Bros. U has more interesting background art than its predecessors, but it still can’t hold a candle to Rayman Legends
For years, a video game’s music and visuals existed as separate entities. In New Super Mario Bros., the themes may be catchy at first, but they slowly become derivative and plain as time goes on. In Rayman Legends, the sound enhances what is happening on-screen. Frog-like enemies will come parachuting down from the sky, chanting “Ride of the Valkyries” croakily as they descend. Schools of rainbow-colored fish will sing to you as you swim in the bright blue ocean. Fantastic musical numbers complement each scene perfectly, and some levels will even have the player running through a stage in sync with the music – escaping from a collapsing castle while goblins shriek the lyrics to “Black Betty” in gibberish, for example. When you beat each level, your character will dance around goofily to the victory theme. By seamlessly integrating sight and sound as one, Rayman Legends creates a new level of immersion that makes it a truly unforgettable experience.
In gameplay alone, Rayman still proves to be more inventive than the Mario games. While some people complained about the floaty controls in Rayman Origins, many of the levels in Legends are tailored to the game’s physics and compliment it really well. Perhaps on average people prefer the controls of New Super Mario Bros., but the sheer variety of gameplay modes in Legends keeps things feeling fresh and exciting, while also adding new depth to the game’s challenges. In addition to the game’s main story which is chock-full of collectibles and secrets, you can also play through unlockable re-made levels from Rayman Origins, time attack stages, GamePad levels where the player manipulates the environment while a friend or computer navigates the world, boss battles, music platforming stages and an online mode where players can compete for the best completion times on stages that are updated daily. In amount of content alone, Rayman Legends offers a level of variety that is unmatched by even the most expansive Mario games.
The New Super Mario Bros. series is fun, there’s no denying that, but when you play the same game, devoid of imagination or inventiveness so many times over the course of eight years it starts to wear thin. Rayman Legends is a breath of fresh air for players who are getting sick and tired of 2D Mario games. Through its artistic excellence and mind-blowing creativity, it shows that a 2D platformer can offer more than just strong gameplay. New Super Mario Bros. is artistically dead. Nintendo is full of talented individuals, and I think it’s time for them to show us what they can really do.