Prince of Persia Retrospective
With the rise of the platform game in the mid-'80s, gamers became used to a particular formula: A wacky character races headlong through cartoony levels, bumping bricks, picking up shiny objects, and bouncing on bad guys. Simple in concept (and usually in execution), these games relied primarily on quick reflexes and plenty of power-ups.
And then Prince of Persia came along.
Prince of Persia was the brainchild of Yale graduate and aspiring film writer Jordan Mechner. Mechner had made a name for himself in game design by developing the impressive fighting game Karateka while still at Yale. After being picked up by publisher Broderbund, the game was published for the Apple II and went on to achieve moderate success.
With Prince of Persia, Mechner was aiming for something a bit different. Using a graphical style similar to the fluid animation of Karateka, Mechner put a realistic spin on the platform genre, delivering a rich, immersive experience unlike anything gamers had seen before.
Prince of Persia puts the player in the role of a penniless adventurer who's fallen in love with the daughter of a sultan. While the sultan is away, his chief advisor gets it in his head to seize control of the land by marrying the princess. The princess, already head over heels for our barefoot adventurer, has no interest in this proposal. So the vizier gives her an ultimatum--marry him, or die--and an hour to think it over.
The princess, knowing her beloved is resourceful and acrobatic, is confident he'll sweep in shortly to save her. There's just one problem: The vizier has just thrown our hero into a dungeon. And that dungeon is positively brimming with traps. And deadly pits. And angry henchmen with pointy swords.
Now our hero has exactly one hour to escape from this maze, battle the vizier, save the sultan's daughter, and become the Prince of Persia by taking her hand in marriage. No sweat, right?
Sure, this may not be the most original of plots. But the story takes a back seat to gameplay so innovative that it practically created its own genre. By packing each level with a variety of deadly traps, Prince of Persia set a methodical, deliberate pace, requiring players to look--and think--before they leapt. Spikes could shoot out of the floor; platforms could collapse; pressure plates could open and close gates. The player would work his way back and forth through multiple strata within each level, looking for the exit door and the means of opening it while trying to avoid getting impaled, crushed, or stabbed.
For players used to the platform games of the day, this may not have seemed like such a challenge. But Prince of Persia's main character didn't have the resources common to most platform heroes. He couldn't jump three times his own height, survive five-story falls, or dispatch enemies just by jumping on them. Instead, he boasted a fairly realistic range of acrobatic moves: He could perform a standing jump of a few feet and a longer running jump. He could hang from ledges for a limited time. He could walk carefully or run carelessly. And that's pretty much it.
Early in the first level, he did pick up a sword, but he couldn't just hack his way through any enemy to cross his path; instead, he would have to carefully exchange blows with the vizier's sword-wielding henchmen. This swordplay bore a closer resemblance to true fencing than the vast majority of other sword-swinging games, requiring the player to advance, retreat, parry, and attack with careful timing. Battles with even the weakest enemies could become long, back-and-forth exchanges, with each character repeatedly blocking the other's attacks until finally an opening was found.
All of these activities were handled with a shockingly simple control scheme, involving only a single action button and six buttons for directional movement. The button was used to pick up items, attack with the sword, grab a ledge, and so on--a sort of multitasking that allowed the player to focus on gameplay rather than controls. Though common today, the all-purpose action button was fairly innovative for the time, and allowed for a simple, elegant interface that would influence some of the best games of our time.
GAMETAP RECOMMENDS: Prince of Persia, Prince of Persia 2: The Shadow and the Flame
But even with all this, Prince of Persia most likely would not have enjoyed the legacy it did if it weren't for its unique graphical style. While the game looks fine enough in screenshots, all it takes is a few moments of watching it in motion to realize that it was doing something truly different.
The technique used to animate the characters in Prince of Persia is called "rotoscoping." This refers to a device called a rotoscope, which was patented by legendary animator Max Fleischer (responsible for the Betty Boop and Popeye cartoons) in 1917. The device projects live-action film onto a pane of frosted glass, allowing animators to essentially trace reference materials in order to give their animated characters lifelike movements.
Wanting to give his game a realistic look, Jordan Mechner shot hours of video of his brother walking, running, jumping, and slashing with a pretend sword. With the aid of a rotoscope, he essentially digitized his brother's motions, giving the hero of Prince of Persia a fluid movement style unlike anything seen before in games. Not only did the character run and jump realistically, but he appeared to have real mass and momentum. He couldn't just switch directions on a dime, but would skid to a stop before turning around--or skid off a ledge if he wasn't stopped in time.
This shockingly realistic look made it all the more effective to see our hero fall to his death or impale himself on a spike trap...even though the realistic use of momentum meant the player would end up watching these sequences frequently. Combined with sparse, atmospheric sound and the one-hour time limit, it created a sense of tension that few platform games of the time could match.
As a result, Prince of Persia ended up visiting practically every gaming platform available at the time...or since. Since its debut on the Apple II in 1989, the game has been ported to more than 15 other systems--including a 2007 remake on Xbox Live Arcade. It spawned a direct sequel in 1993, a poorly received 3D sequel in 1999, and an entirely new side story in 2003, which in its own right has gone on to influence platform-adventure games of the current generation.
Spend just a few moments with the game and it becomes clear why it cast such a long shadow in the gaming community. With its realistic look, elegant gameplay, and innovative style, Prince of Persia holds up to this day as a memorable platform adventure. While it can be beat in under an hour, this is one game that truly stands the test of time.
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