It’s now well over 20 years since US programmer Jordan Mechner took some video images of his brother leaping, running, and climbing up walls in a local park, and turned them into the seminal Prince Of Persia. Mechner had explored the possibilities of rotoscoping in videogames before – his fighting game Karateka was released in 1984, while he was still studying psychology at university – but the extraordinarily lifelike characters in 1989’s Prince Of Persia were unparalleled at the time.
It’s remarkable, in fact, just how effective Mechner’s deployment of such a simple technique was. Back when motion capture was unheard of in the games industry, Mechner spent months scanning and manipulating the live action footage of his brother, and turning it into the agile character who would become known simply as the Prince.
The game itself was a comparatively straightforward platform adventure. Against the diminishing sands of time, players had to guide the Prince out of his captivity, across 13 levels of chasms, traps and enemies, to the palace tower where the evil Jaffar has the princess held captive. But unlike the many, many other platform games available at the time, Prince Of Persia was the first that could accurately be described as cinematic; far from a gimmick, the smooth, realistic character animation absorbed players into this digital Persian world.
It didn’t matter that the levels themselves were a comparatively sparse amalgam of grey walls, blue tiles and white spikes – when the Prince hung by his fingertips above a precipice, or leapt through a closing gate with barely a second to spare, the experience was akin to stepping into the shoes of Indiana Jones or Luke Skywalker.
And like all great blockbusters, Prince Of Persia was full of unforgettable set-pieces – who could forget their fist encounter with a skeleton warrior, as it formed, Harryhausen-like, from a pile of dusty old bones? Or the surreal moment where the Prince leaps through a mirror, only for another, identical (and decidedly mischievous) version of himself to emerge from the other side?
This sense of drama may explain why Prince Of Persia has continued to endure, despite its astonishingly cruel difficulty level. Total concentration and pixel-perfect accuracy were required if the player was to survive the numerous leaps and sword-fights – a single mistake would send the Prince back to the beginning of the stage. And just to add to the tension, the game would end automatically after an hour, meaning that a few simple mistakes would make the end of the game impossible to reach.
It’s arguable, however, that it was the game’s challenge that made it so addictive. No other game could match its sense of danger, nor the horrendous sense of loss when the Prince was inevitably sliced in two, run through with a sword, impaled by spikes, crushed by falling masonry, or had his bones shattered by a precipitous drop. Even now, it’s difficult to think of a game whose animation, control system (which, looking back, was extremely fiddly) and level design merge so seamlessly.
Prince Of Persia’s horrifying difficulty did nothing to alienate it from players, and its success was almost immediate. Initially programmed for the Apple II, it rapidly became one of the most ported games of the decade – second only, perhaps, to Tetris. Broadly identical versions appeared for the Amiga, Atari ST and PC.
Console and handheld versions followed a couple of years later. The PC Engine and Sega CD versions added anime-style cut scenes and made minor adjustments to Mechner’s graphics. The finest version, though, was the one released for the Super Nintendo. It made notable improvements to the graphics – some of the backgrounds were remarkably detailed, compared to the Apple original – and added seven extra trap-filled levels, as well as a few extra types of guards to defeat. True completists should seek out the Japanese version, which contains an uncensored introductory cut-scene and some truly gorgeous box art.
Prince Of Persia’s influence can be found all over the place. Traces of it can be seen in the games released shortly afterwards, such as the platformers Another World and Flashback, and programmers everywhere still live in its shadow – the grisly deaths of Limbo immediately recall the ones the poor old Prince endured, for example.
Tomb Raider could be described as a 3D reworking of so many of the ideas Mechner introduced in his seminal game, and there are distant echoes of the Prince in the Assassin’s Creed and Uncharted franchises. Even the cult classic Ico, with its dank castle and minimalist design, owes a certain debt to the Prince.
Sequels and reboots have inevitably followed – The Sands Of Time came closest to recapturing Prince Of Persia’s brilliance – and Disney even made a movie out of it. But what’s most surprising about the series is that, even as 1989 fades into the distant past, players keep returning to the original game.
Only the other day, I noticed someone playing it on their iPhone. A graphically enhanced remake of Prince Of Persia appeared on Xbox Live Arcade and the PlayStation Network a couple of years ago. Only yesterday, Nintendo announced that it will soon make the Game Boy Color and Super Nintendo ports available to download for the 3DS and Wii respectively.
For a game created more than 20 years ago by a single programmer, that enduring popularity might seem rather surprising – that is, until you go back and play it again, on almost any system you care to choose. Regardless of age or hardware, there’s something timeless about Prince Of Persia; a kind of videogaming X factor, an atmosphere and drama that is entirely unique.
If the Prince were a real live hero, he’d probably be feeling a little tired and creaky by now, heaving his widening midriff over ledges and huffing wearily through closing gates, like Harrison Ford in that belated Indiana Jones sequel we won’t dwell on here. Thankfully, he’s not a Hollywood star, but a handful of white, pink and yellow pixels – and that’s a good thing. The years are piling up, but the Prince is still out there, hoping over chasms as youthfully as he always did.