In Depth Review: Rayman DS [NDS]
Switch gears from hardware to software. The Nintendo DS launch was one of the absolute worst launches of any hyped up and eventually successful system. Its best game was a port of a 10-year-old game - mind you, a very well done port of a revolutionary game - but a port nonetheless, and without the luxury of the control mechanism that made it so revolutionary (an analog stick). From November to March, before Wario Ware and Yoshi's Touch and Go! came stateside, the DS was dying for a hit.
So what did Ubisoft do to help amend this? Make a port of one of its best N64 games, a 3D platformer, and without the luxury of an analog stick. Oh, and mind you, it wasn't very well done at all.
Ray the Great
Rayman 2: The Great Escape consists entirely of 3D platforming which means lots of jumping, lots of switch hitting and area exploration, and lots of collecting. Your task is to collect as many Lums - or globes of energy - as possible, or just enough to open portals and advance to the next stage. Throughout, you'll gather special Lums that give Rayman additional powers - such as the ability to swing Bionic-Commando style from special rings.
The core gameplay mechanics and goals are intact here, but the way in which it's executed is... sad, really. If you remember gaming mags from 1999, you may remember ads for Rayman 2 featuring "Ray the Great". It was a cutout of a slovenly, overweight dude in his boxers and a wifebeater, in a stilted running pose, and I think the idea was - if I remember correctly - that this guy, "Ray", was a shoddy cheap and incompetent attempt to be Rayman 2: The Great Escape. Perhaps I'm wrong, but if I'm correct, Rayman DS is basically like Ray the Great - a shoddy, cheap and incompetent attempt to recreate the beauty that Rayman 2 had to offer.
Rayman DS: D-pad Sucks
It's very possible that, while Mario 64 DS was done very well, some of you were still offended by the lack of true analog control. I would claim that the atrocity that was the thumb-shoe analog control in Mario 64 DS was mitigated by the fact that the d-pad control wasn't that bad. In fact, Nintendo did a commendable job in making the movement more adaptable to d-pad conventions.
No such commendable jobs were done for Rayman DS, however. When you press on the d-pad, there's an ever-so-slight delay between your push and Rayman's actual response. Given that this is a 3D game with many a precarious edge to avoid falling off of, you'll find trying to navigate narrow beams and ledges a chore of unfathomable proportions. To be fair, I loaded up Rayman DS on my PC and tried using the d-pad on my gamepad and found that this precise problem existed on that version too. I would press on the d-pad and watch as Rayman took his time in responding to my commands. However, the PC version - as well as all the other console versions - controlled fine with an analog stick, which as we know, the DS doesn't have.
But it does have analog thumb-shoe control, just like Mario 64 DS. And in fact, it's done a bit better than Mario 64. The area used for analog movement on the touch screen is fixed in one spot that you can choose in the configuration screen, which means that it doesn't move along with your thumb if you reach too far. In Mario, the moving bullseye resulted in the damned thing following you every time your thumb slipped even the slightest bit out of range, and thus when you tried to change direction, Mario swiveled around in a way you'd never expect because the bullseye was in a different place than you thought it was. The fixed "stick" in Rayman works better; as long as you're cognizant of the general position of your thumb on the touch screen you'll be fine.
The problem is, it's still no way to control a fully 3D platforming game. Tactile feedback for movement input is simply necessary to have a coherent gaming experience. Surprisingly in many cases, the thumb shoe control worked much better than the d-pad if you were running down a mostly straight path, even a narrow one. It just takes a bit of getting used to to know how to adjust your thumb. But anything windy or curvy, or platform jumps requiring direction changes while in midair? Forget it. Neither the thumb shoe nor the d-pad works well. It's a shame because Rayman 2 was one of those platformers that controlled so elegantly such that running and jumping between platforms and ledges required little to no thought.
Rayman DS: Dithered Scenery
Next on the laundry list of things that Rayman DS royally futzed up during the port process is the visual presentation. Rayman 2 looked great on every system it came out on, even the PSone. It had a steady framerate and bright colors that brought out a great whimsical Burton-esque art style. The DS version has... well... the art style. Taken on a screenshot and absolute level, yes, the game looks decent for a rushed DS game. You can clearly make out Rayman and the original backgrounds from the source material.
But taken on a relative level, relative to what Rayman 2 should look like and relative to what the DS is capable of, Rayman 2 looks downright awful. First off, the entire game looks like someone closed the blinds everywhere. The bright visibility from the console and PC versions is totally gone. It's not entirely hard to see, per se, but on a comfort level basis it just doesn't feel right to look at.
Secondly, the whole damned thing is so framey. It looks like it tops out at just under 30, and it often goes down enough to jar your eyes when you're trying to focus. Given that it's a platformer and inherently a slower-paced game than a full-out FPS, it's not a question of playability but again of comfort. It's simply distracting.
Thirdly, everything is so goddamned dithered and grainy. It could be anything from the attempt to match the resolution of the source material to the DS screen's lower pixel count, or that the color pallette wasn't fully used, but whatever the case may be, the entire thing looks rushed from a detail standpoint.
Given, Rayman 2 was a better looking game than Mario 64, but considering how much the DS version of Mario 64 was cleaned up significantly, it's puzzling why Rayman DS doesn't at least attempt to clean up some of the mess. I'm convinced that the DS can do better than this, especially given what I've seen in recent months.
Rayman DS: Decent Sound
I guess the sound fares the best in the conversion over. Some of the samples are a bit dumbed down, both from the music and the voice perspectives, but in general most of it is far more intact than everything else in the game, from the little fake Rayman-speak to the haunting Elfman-like melodies that permeate through the game's environments.
In fact, the sound is actually very satisfactory - at least in relation to the rest of the game. The tunes ring through the DS' stereo speakers and stay very close to the source material in terms of quality. Maybe it echoes a little less, perhaps it's a bit more tinny, and just overall not as rich, but all told it still does the original music justice. It's the only thing that truly makes me remember what a joy the game was to play on the bigger screens.
The sound effects suffer the same negatives - the compression for the sound files is subtle but noticeable. Again, though, they do the original justice. I didn't notice a drop in the amount of sound samples that made it through - Rayman himself sounds as active as ever, yelping and grunting as he jumps from platform to platform and rescuing those encaged. All the Rayman-speak during cutscenes is here in full force as well and sounds the same as the original, without missing any of the variety in the dialogue. (Believe it or not it's possible to remember what that gibberish sounds like even though it's all fake.)
Rayman DS: Dopey Screens
At the end of the day, you've got a product that makes poor use of both screens. The gameplay screen, as you know, displays some atrociously dumbed down visuals from the original game, and it's just sad to look at. As for the bottom screen, I've given up on trying to convince myself that touch-screen analog "emulation" is good enough to play a 3D platformer with.
Furthermore, Ubisoft didn't even so much as include a map - the easiest thing that can enhance the playability of a 3D platformer on the DS. Especially given the fact that the camera control is handled poorly in this game (you hold down a button while pressing left or right icons on the touch screen, effectively making it too difficult to run and rotate the camera simultaneously), a map really would have helped navigation efforts. But we're not even given that - just analog emulation and a purplish background and some menial stats, like lives left. Where's the effort here?
Rayman DS: Disappointment Supreme
If all we were going to get was a straight up port of Rayman 2, Ubisoft and developer DC Studios really should have expended more effort in bringing this game to life. The game deserves more justice than what we have, and gamers deserve a better version of the game than what is presented. I'm fully confident that Ubisoft has the headroom to create good ports, and I'm also fully confident that the DS' hardware is so much more capable than what was shown off by Rayman DS.
The bottom line with Rayman DS is this: if you really, really want to have Rayman 2 on the go, or have never ever played Rayman 2 in your life before, the DS version isn't going to fully satisfy. For those in the former category, either understand that this version is totally NOT representative of what glory the original game has to offer, or just admit that for right now no decent 3D portable version of Rayman 2 exists yet. For those in the latter category, you'd be better served by finding a dusty old copy for any of the home consoles or the PC.
As brilliant as Rayman 2: The Great Escape was, its port - Rayman DS - is the polar opposite: every bit as dull. This is absolutely not the version to get, I did a disservice to my wallet and self-esteem by purchasing it, and I'd be doing you a great disservice by recommending this to you. Stay away from it. Stay far away from it.