Dance to the rhythm, even without any limbs
Even after more than 25 years in the game industry, Rayman Legends creative director Michel Ancel just wants to create something that makes his job fun on a daily basis. Crafting a by-the-numbers follow-up to the acclaimed 2011 cartoon-come-to-life platformer Rayman Origins would’ve been child’s play—but it simply wouldn’t have sat right with Ancel.
“He really likes trying new things,” says lead game designer Émile Morel, who’s worked with Ancel for the past two years. “Doing a sequel to Rayman Origins could’ve been quite easy, but we’re changing everything. We’re adjusting the structure of the game, and we’ve brought a lot of diversity with new gameplay elements. What Michel really wants is to always create new things and to surprise himself first. He doesn’t want to get bored, actually—I think that’s the key.”
This refreshing philosophy is evident right from the start of Rayman Legends, and returning players will instantly sense how different the experience feels from Rayman Origins. For one, Rayman and his wack pack of bizarro pals (which includes a new female playable character, Barbara—an intrepid, ginger-haired barbarian princess with some hockey-player dental work) will hop and bop through worlds inspired by various legends and traditions, such as Mexico’s Día de los Muertos and the legendary Greek stronghold of the gods, Mt. Olympus.
These imaginative backdrops are just part of what’s different, though; this platforming adventure feels particularly novel when it comes to the new musical levels that require precise jumps and dodges in time to the tempo. Getting out of rhythm, in this case, means an unfortunate demise for our plucky, limbless hero. But designing these toe-tapping platforming sequences wasn’t as simple as plugging in a few beats and letting the player go from there; the concept required impeccable timing from a development perspective.
“It was very difficult,” Ancel says. “It took time to put all the pieces of the puzzle together to make it work—especially the synchronization with the character. With a platformer, it’s very precise, and the player could be out of tempo, so we needed to have some extra processes that make everything work together. So, it was really, really not easy.”
Amazingly, these musical segments actually came about partially by accident. Wanting to show off a speed-run level to Ubisoft executives, the Rayman Legends development team put together a video of a level designer traversing the sequence to a rockin’ heavy-metal beat. Ancel loved the result so much that he suggested re-creating the effect in the game itself.
Even if the implementation proved difficult, it was definitely worth it in the end. Ancel estimates that the entire process of crafting a musical level equaled around two months of work. “It’s almost like [developing] a boss fight, actually,” Morel adds. “It’s that costly—all the details we put in.”
Rayman Legends will include at least five musical levels, one at the end of each world that unlocks after defeating a boss—though Ancel hints that several more aural surprises lie in store for players who take the time to discover everything the game has to offer.
It’s impossible to “play” a classic Looney Tunes cartoon, but I imagine that it might feel something like the musical interludes found in Rayman Legends. The experience reminded me of Wile E. Coyote racing after the Road Runner in time to the music (and subsequently plummeting to his temporary doom from atop a sheer cliff somewhere in the Sonoran Desert) and actually heightened my concentration to both the onscreen action and the accompanying tune. Of the musical levels I was able to play through, “Castle Rock,” which featured Rayman infiltrating a feudal fortress—leaping across enemy shields and trying to avoid cannonballs to a headbanging beat—was particularly impressive.
Music is at the heart of the Rayman Legends experience even outside of these rhythm-based levels, however. Veteran composer Christophe Héral, known for his excellent work on previous Ancel projects such as Beyond Good & Evil and Rayman Origins, returns here in fine form. The opening level features a snappy medieval melody you can’t help but tap your feet to, and the James Bond–style spy motif imbues the stealth-infused underwater levels with an air of palpable tension.
So, with music being such a core part of the Rayman Legends experience, were there any musical genres that proved difficult to implement? “The electronic music wasn’t easy,” Ancel says. “We wanted more of that, but it wasn’t easy to make.”
Morel emphasizes that variety is the key. “I remember there was this one song that I thought could be cool for the game,” he recalls. “I said to Michel, ‘Why don’t we use this one?’ And he said to me, ‘Oh, that one’s not going to work, because there isn’t enough variation in the music.’ The levels in Rayman Legends have a lot of variation. We have the player going down, going fast, going a bit slower sometimes. And the music—”
“Has to be perfect,” Ancel interjects.
“‘Eye of the Tiger’ is a perfect example,” Morel reveals, referring to the game’s goofy, mariachi-styled take on Survivor’s iconic theme from Rocky III. “I think this song really worked well for the variation.”
So, would Ancel, a self-described “risk-taker” and a clear obsessive (in the best possible sense, of course) when it comes to development, be open to creating an entire game out of these rhythm-based worlds?
“We’d need to make something more dynamic,” he explains. “For example, we’d need a ‘virtual DJ’ who could modify the music dynamically so that it could be a longer experience.”
In the case of Rayman Legends, Ancel sees the musical levels as a reward for doing well, and after spending several hours of hands-on time with the game, I agree with him—unlike arbitrary Achievements or Trophies, these segments felt like true bonuses from the developers for a job well done in defeating a difficult boss or traversing a treacherous mountain path.
Morel, meanwhile, thinks they add to the variety players can expect. “It’s good that we have them and the regular worlds, because they really bring diversity to the game,” he says. “If we only had the musical levels, maybe they wouldn’t feel so different, so fresh. I think it’s good to have both.”