Everything starts somewhere. You may be raiding tombs and hunting Trinity in the latest instalment of Tomb Raider, or cutting a bloody-swath through ancient Greece in Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey, but did you know that they both owe no small part of their existence to Prince of Persia? Now, I’m not talking about the brilliant Prince of Persia: Sands of Time series, or even the 2008 relaunch (simply called Prince of Persia), but the original 2D 1989 Prince of Persia.
Made by Jordan Mechner, Prince of Persia featured super smooth animations (courtesy of rotoscoping – Mechner filmed his younger brother running, jumping and fighting, and drew over the movements frame-by-frame to create the Prince’s move-set), exploration, sword-play, dastardly traps, and a story straight out of 101 Arabian Nights: A begger (the Prince) climbs the garden walls of the palace and falls in love with the Princess. Jaffar, the evil vizier [Is there any other kind? It seems to go with the territory.] throws the beggar in the dungeons. While the Prince is busy finding a weapon and fighting his way up through the palace, Jaffar gives the Princess an ultimatum: marry him within the hour, or die.
That’s right. An hour. Today it’s not uncommon for games to have a minimum of 13 hours game-play in them (in the case of Skyrim, probably 1,300 hours), with New Game+ modes to encourage replaying. Prince of Persia instead gave you one hour (two if you played the Super Nintendo Entertainment System version). As a particularly nasty twist, if you died and got sent back to the beginning of the level, the timer didn’t reset. Not only did you have to start again, but it was now with a time penalty attached. Of course, you’d end up playing more than 1 hour, as you died, again, again, and again.
Prince of Persia was hard; vindictively so. A single blow from a sword was enough to kill if you hadn’t drawn your weapon, or, worse, ended up with your opponent behind you (having foes coming from both sides is enough to make any player panic). Sword fighting consisted of an attack and parry move, which could be combined to form a riposte if you timed it just right, and progressively got harder and harder. There was none of this automatic grabbing of ledges nonsense either. If you didn’t tell the Prince to grab, he wouldn’t, and falling anything more than 2x your height was fatal. Then there were the traps. True, these only came in the variety of loose tiles hiding a lethal fall into a pit, spring loaded spikes which would turn you into a shish-kebab, and big chomping blades which required accurate timing to get through – but each were one hit kills. Also, much like the re-vamped Tomb Raider series, the animations of what happened when you fell foul of the traps were gruesomely unpleasant (albeit in low res and reliant on the idea rather than the detail) and were a punishment in themselves – to this day they still make me flinch.
Furthermore, there was also no side-scrolling. You got to the edge of the screen, then it would load the next screen. This would encourage a certain amount of caution as you transitioned from one screen to the next (so you didn’t accidently run off a ledge), and also served to give your memory a workout when you had to backtrack several screens to activate pressure-plate A, run through several screens avoiding falls and spikes, in order to get through gate B before it shut. It did, however, reward courage. A leap-of-faith off a ledge near the edge of the screen could lead you to a hidden, valuable health potion (or death – it wouldn’t class as an act of faith if it always worked, right?).
Prince of Persia is also believed to have been the first cinematic platformer. That is, a game blending platforming game-play with a more ‘cinematic’ logic (more realistic animations, falls from a height will hurt or kill, the character moves and acts differently with a weapon drawn, etc...) It greatly influenced games like Flashback and Tomb Raider, and the Assassin’s Creed series is its direct descendent. Not simply because of the style of game-play, but because, before it got reworked and refocused as Assassin’s Creed, the game was originally Prince of Persia: Assassin.
Though now thirty-years old, the original Prince of Persia has lost none of its charm. It became a classic for a reason, and is well worth revisiting today. While the original game has been republished with updated graphics for PS4, Xbox and iOS, the original is sadly unavailable for PC, unless you can find it in an old collection of games. ■