Ad Infinitum, Ad Infinitum, Ad Infinitum...

Image owned/copyright Ubisoft
Over the Holiday period I had the chance to indulge myself in Ubisoft's newest Rayman title (called, unsurprisingly, Rayman: Origins), a co-operative two-to-four player affair that returns Rayman to his platforming roots for some beautifully hand-drawn (and hilarious) gameplay. Now, while the glut of holiday games means I won't be doing a full and proper review for the title, I will give you this very succinct summary: Rayman: Origins is a hilarious blast of a co-operative platformer, and quit honestly my brother and I had much more fun playing Origins then I ever did playing New Super Mario Brothers Wii (a very similar title). If you've played Rayman games before, are a fan of the platformer, or just want to show off to your friends and family your new HDTV purchase, Rayman: Origins should find its way to your shopping list.

But there was a facet of Origins gameplay that bothered me at first, something that had been done before by another Ubisoft title, but to my knowledge not in a solid platformer of this style before.

You have infinite lives.

Scratch that, you actually have no lives. And no life system. None at all. If everyone is "ballooned" (what happens when you get hit) before a player is able to deflate anyone (done with a helpful smack) the game simply hops back to the last checkpoint. No lives or mechanics lost, no negative marks on your record, just the simple act of replaying whatever lay between your "death" and the last checkpoint.

As I said, this originally bothered me. I've been a gamer for so long that for me, part of a platformer is that hidden search for one-ups, that daring balancing act between making a leap of faith and starting over. With such a mentality, playing Origins was a fundamental shift, there were no lives to collect or worry about when facing those colossal leaps of precision skill. The more I played however, and the more I thought about it, the more I realized that I didn't want this game to have lives. It was perfectly fun without them.

This got me thinking. To the average gamer today, a game over (the end product of losing all of your lives) means absolutely nothing. Most games allow a player to purchase lives with some easily acquired in game monetary device, and even if a player does die once to often, all that results is a quick stop at the title screen before the player loads their last save and presto, the lives are all there again. The whole "lives" system is almost an antique thanks to the ease of the save system almost every game in existence uses, and some games even make it easier then that, offering the player infinite 'continues' at no additional cost.

Image owned/copyright Ubisoft
With these traits in existence, why should games continue to offer lives if they've become somewhat meaningless overall? It would seem that aside from giving the player a statistic to track their success and failures, by-and-by lives have become almost worthless. In fact, the only case in which lives seem to have any effect on the game is on the mood of the game and the players. Games which still employ a life system seem to do so in order to create a feeling of tension with the player. If they are successful, the player recognizes that the decrease of lives is a visible mark of failure on the players part to succeed, which can in turn raise tension. This feeling of tension in turn puts greater emphasis on risk-vs-reward gameplay, which can heighten the experience, or detract from it.

Perhaps in it's lifeless way (don't take that wrong) this is why I feel Rayman: Origins succeeds where New Super Mario Brothers Wii didn't. When I look back at the time I spent playing NSMBW (Chi-yah that is a mouthful of an acronym) much of it was marked by tension between the supposedly allied players. Certain players would get angry as they died (especially if another player was the one responsible), certain routes through the levels were argued about as some players didn't want to try the harder levels for fear of running out of lives, and although fun was had, there was a certain underlying tension to the experience, especially when someone died and cost the team a life.

Image owned/copyright Ubisoft
Rayman: Origins on the other hand, despite being a title with some tougher-than-nails hard levels (and I do mean hard, I think DKC2 was easier) my brother and I spent the entirety of our time playing laughing, high-fiving, cheering and just generally enjoying the experience. There was a tense moment here and there, but even then we were laughing about it a moment later (hint: you slap your buddy to deflate them, so why not keep slapping them...so they fly right back into the thing that inflated them in the first place) and what would have started an angry rivalry in NSMBW and perhaps lead to someone quitting in rage in Origins lead to people laughing so hard they could almost cry. While the lack of lives was initially awkward, I grew to love it in it's simplicity. The tension of loss and failure just wasn't there (with the exception of a few boss stages with long between checkpoints, and that's when you want tension anyway). I even noticed a shift in my brothers skill while playing. While at first he was very conservative (letting me grab all of the tricky secrets while he hung back on a stable platform), before long we were trading off the tricky secrets as he made more and more daring jumps and movements. It wasn't long before we were bouncing off of the games crazy levels with a fluid insanity that you simply don't see in other platformers.

Not every game should consider getting rid of the tried-and-true life system, but Rayman: Origins is one of the first that I've played that correctly demonstrates why such a system can be good. The lack o lifes, the lack of tension, it leaves the players free to focus on the experience of platforming, the fluid leaping of platform to platform in a crazy almost insane fashion. In truth, I think it makes Rayman: Origins possibly one of the truest co-operative platformers out there.

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