Lest We Forget… Prince of Persia
I was never really a fan of platform games when I was growing up. All that repetitive jumping and dodging of enemies, usually put to some kind of horrible bleeping soundtrack, no save points… urgh, they could be infuriating. It was only the ones that were clearly touched by genius that I ever played, stuff like the Super Mario Brothers, a game that deserves as much recognition for its plot as it does for its execution. I mean, Italian Plumber, transported to a world where he has to fight an army of tortoises and becomes super strong when he eats mushrooms. Oh yes, computer programmers like to party it seems.
There is one platform game though, that for me at least, stands head and shoulders above all others. It is a real instant classic, a game so rewarding you could load it up just simply to kill the main character off a few times, so entertaining and hilariously brutal were the manner of his deaths. It was a game I completed numerous times despite their being no real reason to replay the game – it was the same every time – except the sheer brilliance of what was on the screen before you. With its revolutionary graphics, classic Sunday afternoon plot and challenging gameplay it was one disk that was never far away from my Amiga and can rightly be thought of as true gaming royalty. I of course refer to Prince of Persia.
While it was the Amiga version that captured my heart it was originally programmed by Jordan Mechner for the Apple II in 1989. Jordan was twenty five when he made it, a huge fan of the book One Thousand and One Nights from his childhood as well as all the classic adventure films he watched when he was growing up. He wanted to make a game that had all these elements combined as well as an aesthetic quality like no other. While the plot itself was a mishmash of cliches that ticks all the boxes we would expect (Orphaned child – check. Beautiful princess – check. Impossible love – check. Evil kidnapper – check…) the gaming mechanics were something that had not been seen before. The quest to get the main character out of the dungeon he has been imprisoned in was a journey like no other in gaming history.
Jordan used a technique called rotoscoping to capture the incredibly lifelike movements of the protagonist, studying hours of film of his younger brother running around in his white pyjamas to make sure the running, jumping and climbing looked lifelike. The results were breathtaking and all of a sudden what could have been another cartoon-like platform game had a real human element to it. This is something that, depending on your nature of course, made the perils of the game either something to seek out or avoid, the deaths of your character either making you laugh out loud or cringe. Miss a running jump by an inch and plummet to your death, a long drawn out scream growing louder and louder until a sickening thud onto hard concrete, followed by a shot of the blood slowly spreading out from your corpse. Guillotines cut you in half, your legs staying where you started your jump, your torso arriving at your planned destination. One sword blow from an opponent too many and you just grunt and keel over, lying on the floor slowly dying as the guards sheath their sword and do a weird little shuffle on the spot. All very grim for a game that is filled with a beautiful Arabian palette of pastel colours.
But it never gets boring because of the way that the game is set-up. Death itself if not the end and you can die as many times as you wish. Time is the real enemy as your would be bride paces back and forth her bedroom-come-prison cell with a giant hour glass her only companion. You have one hour to get through the entire dungeon so making those jumps, knowing those shortcuts and being able to kill those guards off quick by turning their own traps against them all becomes crucial. It is a refreshing way to play any game, platformers usually cursing you with the “three lives” rule that makes them become more about endurance than enjoyment. This approach though does not make the game any less challenging.
Released by the legendary American publishers Broderbund the game couldn’t have had a better home, their reputation founded on bringing out games that influenced entire sub-genres and dared to be different. Prince of Persia was converted to nearly every major gaming system, be they home computer or console, and went on to sell millions. The game even continues to spawn sequels that continue to try and push the boundaries and conventions of gaming, yet nothing will ever have the same impact as the original.
And what nostalgia it is too. Anyone who has played the game should feel absolutely no shame in admitting they were pleased with themselves when they figured out how to reunite the main character with his soul after jumping through the magic mirror. Or that they grinned like a ventriloquist’s dummy when the mouse saved them from starving to death. Or that they screamed at their monitor / TV screen when they finally killed the non-stop parrying Jaffar in the climactic sword fight. Gamers all have a mental scrapbook of such moments and you’d be hard pushed to find one who wouldn’t rate at least one of these right up there. It is a rare thing for a game to stir up such emotions, especially in what could have just been another throwaway “jump, duck, crouch, dodge” by the numbers affair. Prince of Persia is a true gaming great as the considerable number who have played it will never forget it. It may only take less than an hour to complete, but it stays with you a hell of a lot longer than that.
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