Prince of Persia – PC
Developer: Jordan Mechner
Release Date: October 3rd, 1989
Nerd Rating: Unveiled at the very end…
Having been born in the early 90s, I wasn’t around during the early days of PC gaming. Critically-acclaimed titles such as Rogue, King’s Quest, Wolfenstein 3-D, and Doom were simply lost on me, fading into obscurity as my young mind was occupied with titles fresh off the chopping block for the Nintendo 64 and PlayStation. As time went on, my brother and I delved a bit into emulating older titles during middle school and high school. So we downloaded DOSBox to our PC and began raking in troves of old PC games. One game stood out to me by name, and to this day it is my favorite title from those days. That game is Prince of Persia. In honor of Nerd Bacon’s Retrorary, it’s my pleasure to take you along an exploration of this vintage title’s forward-thinking successes.
Prince of Persia is an action-platformer title released for the Apple II in 1989. The brainchild of Jordan Mechner, Prince of Persia tells the story of a young prince whose woman gets kidnapped by the evil Vizier known as Jaffar (getting some serious Aladdin vibes here). Locked in the dungeon, it is up to the lone prince to navigate the perilous floors of the vizier’s castle, fighting Jaffar’s henchmen and conquering the deadly obstacles along the way in order to save the princess. But, the prince only has an hour to succeed or fail, as Jaffar will kill her if she does not marry him in that time. The clock is ticking, and the odds are stacked against the young prince.
The game begins proper as the prince drops down into the lowest levels of the dungeon. Left to die, the player begins running around, frantically looking for a way out before they’re killed by the secrets lurking within the depths. Immediately it becomes apparent that everything is potentially dangerous, as floor panels threaten to give way, secret buttons activate spike traps, and grown-ass men lay in wait to cut the young prince to pieces with their sharp swords.
Pretty scary, huh? Let’s talk about the gameplay. Controlling the prince, the player can execute an array of… less-than-exciting acrobatics. This includes hops, running leaps, and tip-toeing. While the movement mechanics may seem pretty basic, the gameplay is really hard. Almost frustratingly so. The average player will die a lot on their way towards completing the game. At the same time, there is a certain precision to the game mechanics that allows some extremely skill-based gameplay for the well-practiced player.
Upon closer inspection, it becomes apparent that the levels and movements of Prince of Persia exist on an invisible grid; performing certain actions will land your character in a very specific spot on that grid, no questions about it. Over time, this can be learned, resulting in an almost clinical understanding of the spaces around you. And it’s really cool. The feeling of expertly beating an area with well-timed leaps and carefully-executed jumps really makes you feel like a spelunking adventurer. Later cinematic platformers, such as Oddworld: Abe’s Oddysee, actually drew quite a bit of inspiration from the way this game plays and feels, a testament to such precise gameplay’s lasting ability.
Alongside the platforming, Prince of Persia features some pretty interesting combat mechanics. In an era where platformers and fighting games were focusing pretty heavily on shooting projectiles, Prince of Persia decided to try something a bit different: swordplay, with an emphasis on slowed-down combat. Just about every enemy encounter in this game takes the form of a saber duel. You and your enemies have pretty low levels of health, so every action in a combat scenario matters.
This results in very pensive, strategic sword battles that can last between a handful of seconds to a full-on minute. Thrust at your opponent, parry their attacks, or barrage their defenses in an effort to push them off a ledge. Every action leaves you vulnerable, and remaining overly defensive can get you pushed off a cliff or into metal blades (see image above). All these factors result in a very intense experience, despite the slower pacing. On top of that, the rest of the game keeps going on around you, so there are plenty of circumstances where you have to pick your battles in order to avoid getting killed by a trap, or even use those traps to your advantage. I absolutely love the combat in this game.
So how about the level design? Well, simply put, the level design in Prince of Persia is nothing short of punishing. Everything, and I mean everything, is out to kill you. Falling floor panels, spikes in the floor, metallic jaws of doom, and plummeting ledges all provide the young prince with a plethora of possible deaths along the way. It takes a very careful, very practiced player to safely navigate the terrain of this game, and the layout of each level is no help. What I mean by this is that each level is designed to kill the player at least a handful of times–if not more–before the player is finally able to beat it. In large part, the developer did this through little tricks hidden in each level that will trip you up along the way, no matter how careful you are sometimes (special mention to the esoteric health bottles that will sometimes kill you). Jumping from the wrong ledge can lead you into the abyss, or activating the wrong door can get you stuck in a room forever, etc., etc.
This means that in order to beat Prince of Persia, you’re gonna have to take quite a few cracks at it to get things right. It almost seems like the entire game was built around this; with a one-hour time limit for completing the entire game, the average player will have to start the game over and over and over to learn each level in increments, messing up here or there along the way until their run becomes practiced and perfect. Sounds like bullshit, right?
But, I would argue that it’s important to keep in mind the era that this game came out. Games were a lot more primitive then, and most games had extremely small development teams, so developers often had to figure out how to stretch a limited amount of content as far as possible in order to deliver maximum play time. Oftentimes, this was done through unforgiving difficulties, restrictive time limits, or both. Prince of Persia does both. While I’m often not a fan of esoteric game design such as the kind featured in this game, it really does feel awesome when you can complete a level–or even a handful of levels–perfectly with your learned skill set, so I’m willing to forgive it for the most part, since the controls are just so fucking tight.
So what about the music and graphics? On the surface level, the graphics are about as basic as any other game from that time period; sprites are really blocky with simplistic color schemes, and the environments are pretty basic, as well. What is cool though, is that Prince of Persia is one of the first games ever to rotoscope its animations. What does that mean, you ask? Well sit down and let Papa Nips tell you all about it!
Rotoscoping is where live video footage is used to inform animated content. The recorded footage is taken and traced over, resulting in a very fluid, natural quality to animations that was not often present at the time. Jordan Mechner, in the case of Prince of Persia, took footage of his brother jumping around and climbing on things to use as source material for the young prince. The fighting scenes reportedly used material from the 1938 Adventures of Robin Hood film. Cool and awesome!
The music, for its era, is pretty interesting. Technology at the time, of course, results in that sort of monotone, tinny sound, but the composer did quite a bit with few resources, resulting in some tunes that evoke that Arabian Nights kind of vibe. In actuality, the music plays pretty infrequently over the course of the game, often leaving the player wandering the depths of the castle in total silence, punctuated by the harsh noises of the deadly traps that wait around each corner. This was a very interesting choice, in my opinion, and considering the more atmospheric trend of video games these days, it was an incredibly forward-thinking choice on Mechner’s part.
The unforgiving gameplay, visuals, and sound design create a very bleak and hopeless atmosphere. The world just kind of weighs on your shoulders while you play Prince of Persia; the odds are stacked against you and your enemies are often more deadly than you are, and this effect is multiplied by the silence and dark colors present throughout the majority of this game, really making you feel like you’re destined to fail. But when you win, it’s that much more awesome because of it.
At this point I have to give a special mention to the Macintosh port that’s actually hidden as bonus content in Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time. This was my first introduction to the game, and the developers did a really awesome job of updating the graphics and gameplay (see image above) without marring the original vision. It even includes a handy save feature, which the original PC version didn’t have. I think this is a very worthy inclusion, since the typical gamer these days just doesn’t have the time to spend to keep playing the same game over and over.
As a relatively seasoned gamer, Prince of Persia was my entry point into the world of early PC games. And I’m so glad that it was. While insanely difficult at times, Prince of Persia is a game that takes the player along an action-packed journey fraught with perils that recreates the feeling of an Arabian Nights, Indiana Jones, or Aladdin style spelunking caper. This is accomplished through precise movement mechanics, an interesting and refreshing take on combat, as well as a forward-thinking rotoscoped animation style, all of which lend the game an incredible amount of lasting power. This game is simply a joy to play, and I would recommend it to anyone who is interested in retro gaming. The more I play Prince of Persia, the more I understand why such a lasting franchise was capable of being built from its humble roots.
Nerd Rating: 8.5 out of 10
Share This Post