In 2004, Disney Studio Head Michael Eisner made a business call that had devastating creative implications. He announced that the labour-intensive 2D animated cartoon style that had defined the studio’s output throughout the 20th Century was no longer financially prudent or culturally relevant. Rather, the company’s creative future lay in 3D CGI, the Pixar aesthetic that was both cheaper to create and animate as well as being more current for young audiences.
There seemed, to Eisner, to be nothing to lose: he would incur fewer costs, audiences would experience increased happiness. So, in one fell swoop he fired all of the studio’s 2D animators and sold off the equipment used to create so many animated classics, from Snow White and the Seven Dwarves to Aladdin.
It’s a trend that’s been echoed by the video game industry since the advent of 3D, with hand-drawn 2D art rarely seen outside of indie games and mobile titles today. The cost of creating and animating 2D assets is exponentially higher than doing the same with 3D models that can be given a virtual skeleton and then posed and manipulated with ease. Higher resolution screens have exacerbated the decline of the 2D form, as the amount of work needed to create pin-sharp 2D graphics has multiplied with each technological leap. Blockbuster gaming’s embrace of 3D makes sense on paper, then. But it also comes with the implication that 3D art is the natural evolution of 2D art.
This is as much of a lie as claiming photographs are watercolours evolved. And it’s a lie that Rayman Origins viciously skewers while maintaining a kooky Gallic grin. Just as Disney’s Enchanted had Eisner’s successor re-hiring those same animators he laid off a few years earlier, having sheepishly recognised that their craft had not been superseded but merely complemented, so Ubisoft Montpellier has returned to the series’ 1995 origins in 2D, hiring ex-Disney animators to work with a revolutionary 2D engine that has been part-funded by the French government.
And what a revelation the artistic re-visitation brings with it: a cartoon come to vivid life. Each frame could be paused, printed off and hung on the wall. Each sprite is packed with light-touch charm that’s endlessly engaging: the character that clings to the edge of a ledge using his upper jaw, arms slack by his sides; the giant eyeballs that must be poked to gain access to the next area; the rope-swing characters that extend an arm to help you over a chasm between two pillars; the giant, armoured canary that has more character packed into one squinting eye than the entire cast of Angry Birds.
It’s also beautiful. The forest glades, like something out of My Neighbour Totoro, through which Rayman and his friends bound in the early stages of the game – a parade of generous stacked parallax layers – dazzle, while the more generic fire, ice and underwater worlds exhibit such artistic imagination as to transcend their predictability. Bespoke animations pile high, testifying to the developer’s commitment, enthusiasm and talent for extracting the DNA not only of Rayman himself but also of the classic 16-bit platformer. In doing so, they offer a window back into what was once the most popular genre in the medium while evolving it into something fresh.
This article was first published on Eurogamer here.