If I sincerely asked you if you knew who Super Mario was, you’d probably look at me like I was an idiot. Of course, you know who Super Mario is. He’s only the most prolific plumber turned mushroom-consuming superhero ever to exist.
Mario Mario was the first of his kind and has remained the face of gaming since his first appearance in 1983. But he isn’t the only videogame mascot recognizable even to those who have never held a controller. Sonic the Hedgehog, Donkey Kong, and Pikachu are right up there with the mustachioed man in red in terms of notoriety.
In fact, most notable gaming icons were conceived between the mid-80s and late 90s. The cultural impact these characters had is unquantifiable, so it’s no wonder other powerhouse developers would attempt to secure their piece of the pie by creating cool yet loveable characters during the early 2000s.
Rayman: No Arms, No Legs, All heart
1995 was an impactful year in gaming. Sony entered the console wards with the original PlayStation, the Tekken franchise was born, and Chrono Trigger spawned one of the earliest cult followings for the medium. Preexisting monoliths began to expand their cast of iconic characters with Knuckles getting a standalone title, Yoshi being a titular character in Super Mario World 2, and Diddy Kong having his own quest in Donkey Kong Country 2.
Enter Rayman: Ubisoft’s first “mascot,” starring in five mainline titles and roughly 26 spinoff titles ranging from traditional sidescrollers to on-foot racing games to educational experiences for kids.
When you look at Rayman’s catalog of games, it’s clear that Ubisoft intended for Rayman to be a mascot character—bowling, Golf, Kart Racing, 3D platformers, 2D platformers, Mario Party-esque minigame collections. For 18 years, Rayman was prolific – but about halfway through this limbless hero’s lifespan, an evil he could not surmount would veer its ugly ears.
But more on that later. Let’s talk about Rayman’s rise to prominence.
Was Rayman Ever An Icon?
As objective as I’d want this piece to be, my mourning for Rayman is deeply rooted in having been exposed to the character at a young age. My father owned a Sega Saturn when I was but a child, and my first exposure to video games was through Street Fighter Collection, Earthworm Jim 2, Sonic Jam, and Rayman.
To be honest, I didn’t play Rayman much in the late 90s, mainly because I was a small-brained child who sucked at video games, and 2D platforming over music notes was something I couldn’t seem to grasp. Regardless, I admired the character design and really liked the idea of his disembodied hands and feet that stayed close to his body via some power unbeknownst to me.
It wouldn’t be until 2003, when I was gifted a PS2 and a copy of Rayman 3: Hoodlum Havoc for Christmas, that I would get to know Rayman as more than just a character from one of my dad’s dusty cartridges.
The opener hooked me, the condescending humor (and how it made my parents laugh) amused me, and the introduction of powerups made me want to keep playing to discover what else Rayman could do. Sure, he could always throw his fists to punch faraway creatures, but now his fists could turn into bear traps and rockets and even generate tornados.
Rayman was awesome! Mind you, I also received the first Jak & Daxter game for Christmas, but they didn’t have missle fists. Rayman did! Rayman was THE man, and he instantly became one of my favorite characters. I’d go on to play some other games that produced icons like Sly Cooper, Ratchet & Clank, and Crash Bandicoot, but Rayman stood on his own as a non-anthropomorphic yet fantastical being.
It was at this moment I had mentally put Rayman on the same playing field as Mario, Sonic, Jak, Sly, and the rest. I mean, if you Google “most iconic video game mascots,” he’s right there! Rayman was Ubisoft, and there was no way they could let their golden boy down – to fade into obscurity.
The Numbers Don’t Lie
I was shocked earlier this year to find out two of my co-workers – avid gamers, mind you – had no idea who Rayman was. They might as well have said they didn’t know who Pac-Man was. As someone who avidly advocated for Rayman to be the next Super Smash Bros. fighter, I couldn’t believe gamers existed who didn’t know about him. Of course, I had to dig deeper.
Recently, I gathered a pool of peers and asked them if they recognized ten fairly iconic video game characters. The results are below:
Rayman sitting at 89% isn’t bad, especially seeing Sly Cooper sitting at 75%. But what stings is the absolute cretin sitting right below Rayman. The Rabbids. They were easily recognized by 100% of the participants, yet I credit them for the murder of the much more interesting and heroic icon, Rayman.
The Rabbids & Ubisoft’s Greatest Lie Killed Rayman
Ubisoft has seen quite a few controversies in its day, and while we won’t go into all of the seedy details or recent debacles, none of them have impacted me quite as much as a televised ad for Rayman Raving Rabbids that ran in 2006.
While this trailer was seemingly scrubbed from the internet, IGN thankfully uploaded the trailer for the Wii version some five years after the game’s release. Its quality makes it seem like found footage rescued from a thumb drive hidden in an ancient crypt, but it does the job.
So, what’s the issue with the trailer (apart from being 360p)? For starters, about 2% of the footage shown made it into the final game. In Rayman Raving Rabbids, you can change costumes and listen to ‘Pump It’ by the Black Eyed Peas. Everything else was scrapped.
The Rabbids were redesigned. There were no mounts, no combat, no open world to explore. None of it was real.
What makes matters worse is that this was advertised as a new entry in the mainline Rayman series, but it wouldn’t be revealed until later that the adventure-style gameplay would be canned in favor of a more party-style minigame collection.
Regardless, Rayman 4 was supposedly still in development and was planned to release on next-gen consoles. But when E3 2006 rolled around, Ubisoft delivered the news that Rayman 4 was canceled. I won’t go into all the details, but Ubisoft Montpellier generated some really cool ideas for the fourth installment in the franchise: bringing back characters from previous games and innovating with the Wii motion controls. Still, they were thrown away in favor of Raving Rabbids spinoffs.
The Great Rabbids Confusion
As a child, this was more confusing than anything. I saw the original trailer and was sold on the game, and then received a copy for my birthday only to play something completely different. But then the cope set in, and I was desperate to find a way to access the content Ubisoft advertised to my child brain.
So I beat the game, earning enough plungers to escape the prison, where I expected the real adventure awaited me. But then the credits rolled, and I was left disappointed.
But then Christmas rolled around, and my Aunt bought me a copy for the PlayStation 2. This had to be it. For some reason, I wholeheartedly believed that the PlayStation 2 version was drastically different than what I played on the Wii.
I got home, ran to my room, and, with furious speed, popped the disc into the black box. But it was the same. With the cellophane wrap in hand, I balled my fist and cursed Ubisoft.
As an adult, this is more frustrating than confusing. I understand now why they pivoted to a party game, but it came at the sacrifice of what could have been another stepping stone for Rayman. Instead, it allowed the Rabbids to move into the spotlight, eventually overtaking Rayman as Ubisoft’s mascot and forcing him out of the gaming industry almost entirely.
Where is Rayman Now?
Rayman is akin to Steve from Blue’s Clues. He is a very prominent memory from your childhood, and every now and then, you have to look up what they are doing now. Are they dead? Are they in prison? Who are they married to?
Rayman isn’t dead, but he isn’t being properly utilized, either. In 2011, he received the first mainline entry in his series in eight years, followed by a sequel in 2013. Rayman Legends and Rayman Origins return the hero to his 1995 roots as a 2D platformer, and they are up there with Ori in terms of overall quality.
But Rayman wouldn’t show his head again until 2023, when he would team up with the Rabbids in paid DLC for Mario + Rabbids Sparks of Hope. Yet, even this felt like a snub. Rayman wasn’t allowed to become partners with Mario. Instead, he had to work with his ex-captors.
That’d be like Tom Holland’s Spider-Man being pulled into Toby Maguire’s Spider-Man world, only to team up with Green Goblin, never seeing another Peter Parker.
To rub salt in the wound, the Rabbids have appeared as main characters in 20+ games since the release of Rayman Raving Rabbids. In 2008, Rayman was dropped from the franchise despite being the main protagonist for three years, further solidifying his furry replacements as the new face of Ubi.
Rayman Could Have Been “Mario”
I firmly believe that Rayman 4 being canceled was a nail in the coffin for Rayman. Rayman 3 had sold over 1 million copies in a month, proving the character was on an upward trajectory. Rayman 4 could have piggybacked off this, especially when using nostalgic characters as consumer bait.
Ubisoft could have continued the trend of pumping out Rayman content, similar to how Nintendo slaps Mario’s face on everything. Rayman sports. Rayman racing games. Rayman 3D and 2D platformers. The infrastructure and the fanbase were already there, so what happened?
I can imagine it’s much easier to develop Rabbids games. They yell instead of talk, the plots of most of their games are mindless, the characters are simple, and the mechanics don’t have to be interesting as long as they’re fun. All things opposite of Rayman.
That said, I can’t help but feel like Ubisoft squandered an opportunity to have a character on a level like Mario. Rayman had power-ups, platforming, world-building, intriguing secondary characters, versatility in gameplay, and SALES! So why Ubisoft put him on the back burner is a mystery to me. Especially since he could have dominated on multiple platforms, whereas Mario is stuck to one at a time.
Maybe we’ll see Rayman return in a fully-fledged 3D adventure one of these days. Even still, I think Ubisoft bailed out too early instead of riding the wave of success. Rabbids can only go so far before they feel played out (if they don’t already), but Rayman could have been a worthy competitor in the realm of prolific gaming mascots.