Each day when I come home from work, I’m greeted by a question: “Dad, can we spend some time together?” So once my work things are put away and dinner is cooked, I usually spend the last 30 minutes to an hour before Inkling (my child) goes to bed playing a video game with them. We have a pretty solid selection of kid-friendly multiplayer options available and depending on what games Inkling is most excited about at the moment, we’ll bounce around between things like ARMS, Mario Kart, Mario Party, or games with a co-op feature for their single player campaign like Luigi’s Mansion 3. Recently Inkling’s big thing has been platformers, for which we have two different games to rotate between: Rayman Legends and Super Mario 3D World.
When you’re playing two different games with similar structures at the same time, comparison is almost inevitable. It’s easy to identify the features of each game that make them unique from one another and to develop preferences for one style over the other. My own preferences are influenced to a degree by how the mechanics affect my kid. Not just “how easy are these moves to execute?” but “how does this game reward progress?” or “how does this game handle defeat?” So today I’m pitting Mario and Rayman head-to-head to determine which of the two has the game that’s the best fit for my afternoon game time with Inkling.
Let’s start with the premise of each game. Perhaps unsurprisingly they are rather similar. Some magical creatures get kidnapped and a group of heroes set out to rescue them. In Rayman, your adventures are spread across a selection of five different worlds, each of which have a number of paintings within them to explore. Mario 3D World features eight worlds that each have roughly eight levels within. While it may seem like Mario has more content on its face, Rayman Legends expands over time as you unlock new features. There’s a sixth “Back to Origins” world with additional paintings that you unlock as you earn Lucky Tickets from the main levels in the game. There are also “Invasion” paintings which are essentially speed versions of the standard levels that you unlock over time as you get a large number of the game’s collectibles, teensies. Thanks to this extra stuff, Rayman easily reaches the size of 3D World in terms of content offered.
Both games feature in-level collectibles that serve as progress gates. In Mario these collectibles are green stars – every standard level has three green stars, some hidden or locked behind little challenges within the broader level. In Rayman the collectibles are teensies, little magical beings you rescue throughout the stage. Eight teensies are in the level proper while an additional two are hidden in secret doors that connect to distinct puzzle rooms. In both games, you can skip these collectibles and still finish a given level, but you’ll eventually hit doors that require you to have a specific number of stars/teensies in order to move forward. Show up with a smaller number and you’ll have to double back to try and find some things you’ve missed.
This is another area where I appreciate the Rayman approach more. Within each portrait world there are sections with two paintings to choose from. As long as you do one of them and have enough teensies, you’ll unlock the next pair of paintings and can choose one of those to complete as well. And because there is such a huge number of teensies broadly, it’s easy enough to miss some and still progress the game. There’s an openness to Rayman Legends – you can even defeat bosses in essentially any order by passing over them until you are ready, because unlocking a new world is not contingent on being able to defeat a boss battle. Super Mario 3D World, on the other hand, is quite linear. You have to beat a level to open the subsequent level, and while occasionally the path forward branches to give you two options, you really need to be doing every level to continue forward. The smaller overall number of stars means that it is more important you don’t miss a star, and it’s not possible to move on to a new world without defeating the boss of the one before it. The practical impact of this is that in Super Mario 3D World, a level Inkling doesn’t like can become a frustrating choke point where we get stuck. In Rayman Legends, there’s another path forward and a way to continue playing without having to engage with the frustrating stages.
Basic Structure Winner: Rayman Legends
Now that we understand the basic structure of each game, let’s dig into how you play. The way your characters move around is an essential piece of any platformer. Both of these games have some pretty similar movement abilities on their face. You can dash, jump, do a ground slam, wall-jump – the classics. One thing Rayman has that Mario doesn’t is a basic attack button; you can punch enemies to defeat them in Rayman whereas in Mario you have to jump on their heads. Jumping on top of an enemy is a trickier form of offense to navigate than just hitting them, so Inkling generally has an easier time fighting bad guys in Rayman.
Powerups or unique mechanics for particular worlds is where these two games really start to differ. Super Mario 3D World is heavily dependent on powerups as a tool for giving you new movement abilities or attack options. The most prevalent of these is the cat bell, which allows your character to attack with their claws as well as scurry up walls. Green stars are often tied to having a specific powerup at a specific time, and if you take damage, you lose the powerup you are holding and the abilities attached to it. Rayman doesn’t have powerups but instead has certain levels that have unique mechanics to engage with. Sometimes for example you’ll have a magical spell cast on you that allows you to fling a fist whenever you punch, sending a projectile attack through the environment to hit enemies. Other times your fairy companion Murphy will be able to move objects in the environment, so you have to maneuver platforms into place in order to avoid hazards and create a path forward for yourself.
While I think there’s something to be said for the powerup system in Mario 3D World – powerups have been a staple of Mario for years for a reason, after all – I prefer the Rayman Legends approach for a couple of reasons. In Rayman, you always have the abilities you need to progress. If being able to punch enemies from a distance is required, you can do it. If maneuvering platforms with Murphy is required, you can do it. In 3D World if you need a specific powerup to accomplish an objective and you’ve already taken damage and lost it, you have to go without that green star until you can redo the level. Being able to lose your tools and have that lock you out of progress is one way in which Mario adds mechanical complexity to the game, but I enjoy more that Rayman instead asks the question: “how far can you push the core tools that this game provides?”
Movement Techniques Winner: Rayman Legends
Rewards and Punishment
A big part of what makes video games work is the way that they interact with the pleasure centers in the brain. Getting a tricky collectible or watching your score rack up at the end of a level gives you a dopamine hit as you feel like you’ve accomplished something. But games can be punishing, too, as most of them feature a fail state and they have to have a contingency plan for when you don’t hit the jump right and you tumble into the bottomless pit. This is perhaps one of the most important aspects of a game when it comes to playing with my kid – how the game treats Inkling for making a mistake and how it motivates them for doing well significantly impacts their mood during play.
Super Mario 3D World’s primary reward mechanism takes place at the end of the level. After you touch the flag at the end of the level, your final score is added up and you can see how many points you earned from coins collected, enemies defeated, etc. The player who earned the most points gets a crown, and if you successfully get that crown to the end of the next level, you earn even more points than normal. The crown has no meaningful mechanical impacted, but boy when I tell you that Inkling cares a lot about that damn crown. More often than not, I’m the one who ends up getting it – I’m not only older and more experienced but my brain and hands are fully developed. But the result of making one of the players get “first place” in a game that is meant to be cooperative is that my kid becomes competitive. Instead of joy when we beat a level there’s disappointment that the the didn’t win the crown. And during the level, instead of working alongside me to beat it together, Inkling is behaving antagonistically towards me in hopes of being able to get the crown at the end.
Now let’s talk punishment. In Mario you can take a maximum of two hits before dying – one hit takes your powerup, and the second hit brings you from being big to being small. The final hit defeats you and sends you back either to the beginning of the level or to a single checkpoint flag that always falls at the level’s halfway point. The screen pops up a big “Too Bad!” as your character wails in defeat. You also have a life count. If you die while on your last life, you’re booted completely out of the level to a game over screen and have to restart from the beginning regardless of whether you reached the checkpoint flag or not. It’s subtle, perhaps, but the messaging around making a mistake – the huge text on screen saying “too bad” or “game over” – can be demotivating, especially when paired with a loss of progress. Getting past a hard section doesn’t mean anything if you can’t clear the entire level, because only the checkpoint flag and the end of stage flags serve as meaningful markers of progress.
So let’s compare all that to Rayman. At the end of a Rayman Legends level you’re shown all the teensies you rescued and then the players combine their lums (small collectibles that are scattered liberally throughout the level). While you each have a separate lum count and one player can clearly have more, at the end what actually matters is how many you each have together. There are bronze, silver, and gold trophies for your lum count as well as what’s called a “lucky ticket.” If you hit the lum count for the lucky ticket (450 in most levels), you get a scratch-off card that then gives you a subsequent reward like an additional sum of lums, an extra teensie, or even something as significant as a Back to Origins level to play. Your rewards are given to the group rather than to an individual, and individual performance is downplayed in favor of emphasizing your cooperative accomplishments. I’ve never heard my kid complain if I had more lums, but I’ve already told you about what happens if I earn the crown in Mario.
In terms of punishment, in Rayman Legends you don’t have an extra layer of defense in the form of the powerup. You can get hearts in various ways throughout a level: finding a heart in a bottle, uprooting a heart plant, or saving the queensie or kingsie in a secret door. When you take damage from essentially any source and you have a heart, the heart will burst first, giving you another chance. Once you yourself are hit though, you blow up like a balloon and pop. Rayman Legends does not have a life system or a game over state, and right after you bust you’re dropped at the most recent checkpoint you passed. The checkpoints aren’t as readily visible as the ones in Mario but they are significantly more frequent – pushing past a significant section within a Rayman level is meaningful because you won’t have to do it again unless you decide to replay the level. There’s no antagonistic “you messed up” messaging around dying – you make a mistake, you start over relatively close to where you died, and you move on. The fact that the game doesn’t make a big deal out of mistakes makes it a lot easier for Inkling to move on from them.
Rewards and Punishment Winner: Rayman Legends
Rayman Legends has so much about it that works to make it a more kid-friendly cooperative experience than Super Mario 3D World. It’s a more open game that uses its level structure and the massive number of collectibles to let you choose your own path forward rather than shoving you along a linear progression of stages that have to be beaten in order to keep moving. The game always makes sure that you have the tools you need to overcome a given situation and doesn’t require you to carefully coddle precious powerups in order to be able to achieve its collectibles. When you beat a level, emphasis is placed on your cooperative accomplishments rather than emphasizing individual performance, and mistakes are punished lightly to prioritize getting back into the game.
What’s really fascinating to me as someone who thinks critically about games as a hobby is that if you asked me which of these two games is harder, my answer would be Rayman Legends. Because the focus is on mastering your essential skills and because the game checkpoints you so frequently, that gives it the opportunity to craft challenges that really feel like big accomplishments when you manage to overcome them. Rayman Legends pushes my child harder mechanically but Inkling also has an easier time engaging with the game cooperatively and not getting frustrated about losing because of the ways in which Rayman treats the player with respect. Mario may have a reputation as the go-to guy for playing games with kids, but when it comes to this pair of platformers, I think that what Rayman Legends is doing is infinitely more interesting. I hope to see more titles moving forward taking pages from Rayman’s book.
Lesser known fact: Rayman Legends & Origins are absolutely fantastic platforming games. You wouldn’t know it because Ubisoft made them, and didn’t market the hell out of either of them. They were mostly a lower budget passion project from one of their long time game directors, and it really shows in how well designed and fun they are.
I’m not at all surprised to find that you found Legends – a game designed with a co-op focus in mind – to be the better experience overall. As you noted, it’s also the more challenging of the two games, but it has several modernized aspects that help to mitigate the kind of frustrations that arise when you get stuck on that 1 thing you can’t quite get. The goals also being oriented around teamwork, instead of competition, is also a huge boon (as you noted).
Glad you’re enjoying a game that probably doesn’t get as much credit as it deserves.
Unrelated sidebar: any time I’ve played Mario with friends we spend the whole time trying to kill one another. Makes the games far more difficult than intended, but also more fun than they’d otherwise be. That fucking crown is evil.
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Yeah part of my surprise was definitely in finding a Ubisoft game that actually knocks it out of the park, haha.
The “everyone tries to kill each other thing” was my experience when my brother and I would try to play Mario back in the day, and it was a big part of why I never particularly cared to play Mario platformers multiplayer. I can see how it would be fun with friends at an even skill level but when you’re playing with someone much smaller who gets mad if you win, it is not conducive to a positive experience!
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Rayman Legends is absolutely fantastic, so I can’t disagree!