Somewhere out there, in a leafy private estate, there's a place called The Bubsy the Bobcat Memorial Retirement Home. This is where all the mascots went at the end of the '90s. Step inside, and you'll find a crowd of familiar faces: Aero the Acro-Bat sits in the corner, muttering to himself. Croc and Bug labour over a jigsaw, though it's missing 13 pieces. Gex the gecko just stands at the window, day after day. The one-liners dried up a long time ago.
Crash Bandicoot is let out on day release, sometimes. He still looks the same, but when you look in his eyes you can tell he's not really there.
Somehow, Rayman escaped the dusty fate of his contemporaries. Over the past few years he's been reduced from leading man to a supporting role, playing second fiddle to the Rabbids and their endless mini-games. Now, however, Ubisoft has rewarded Rayman for his patience, returning him to the limelight in a 2D platform outing that immediately recalls the golden days of the genre. It's the most earnest jump-and-gather exercise since last year's Donkey Kong Country Returns, and with the emphasis on strict timing, hidden rooms, and the gathering of endless collectibles, it feels as if Nintendo's unruly ape - and his Rare outings, in particular - has been a major source of inspiration.
But before these old school values kick in - the going gets tough surprisingly quickly - it's the game's presentation that will clamour for your attention. Michel Ancel's characters are beautifully drawn and animated, with playful quirks rewarding even the simplest of player actions: duck while playing as clumpy old Globox, for example, and your body will scrunch up like a concertina, eyes hanging in the air for a fraction of a second and then racing down into place.
The game's audio design is equally stellar, with each world receiving its own musical theme. Your leaps and bounces (and miserable deaths) are accompanied by playful tunes that flirt with funk, swing, and even do-wop numbers, with layers of sound arriving and departing in response to the challenge you're currently facing. Jump through a string of collectables and each individual pick-up will trigger a separate note, adding a further melodic snippet to the mix. It's jaunty, charming stuff - although the persistent use of ukulele does begin to grate after a while.
It's clear from the look and sound of Rayman Origins that this has been a real labour of love for Ubisoft Montpelier, and thankfully a similar level of care has been afforded to the game's level design. The five primary worlds (more follow later) gradually introduce fresh mechanics and powers to toy with; initially you'll be limited to basic dashes, slides, and melee attacks, but with progress you'll gain access to wall-runs, shrinking abilities, and Rayman's almost-iconic hover, among other skills. These are all tricks that we've seen a hundred times before, but it's to the game's credit that the action feels consistently fresh. You'll regularly run into chase sequences and interludes that mimic scrolling shooters, but even within the standard platform levels there's a clear commitment to diversity.
Classical references abound at every turn. Midway through an ice-level you'll suddenly encounter a recreation of the original Donkey Kong, with robotic monkeys lobbing bouncing projectiles down a series of slanted ramps. Later there's a sequence where you have to forge a path by bashing your way through destructible blocks, digging beneath giant tins that threaten to crush you at any moment; older gamers will immediately identify this as a nod to Boulder Dash.
Even when the game is adopting core staples of the genre, the level design does its best to give things a fresh slant. So, while there are both slippy-slidey ice stages and piping hot lava levels, at one point you'll find one style segue into the other. Origins' underwater segments, often the most hated routine in a platformer's repertoire, are arguably the visual highlight: rather than forcing us to search for life-preserving air bubbles, one stage shrouds you in darkness and then tasks you with swimming towards sources of light - pockets of luminous plankton, or the headlamp of a toothy Anglerfish.