The sands of time

More than a successful game, more than a phenomenon, Jordan Mechner‘s action-platformer Prince of Persia was so ubiquitous it simply was – and to question if any semi-popular console, computer, or handheld around in the early Nineties had its own version of the game was about as ridiculous as wondering if these machines needed some sort of screen to display their graphics on. It was absolutely everywhere and nobody minded at all, because any format that had Prince of Persia on it could say with honesty that it had at least one game everyone could agree was definitely worth playing.

Games like that don’t usually live up to their elevated status for long; their welcome soon worn out by changing tastes, weary overfamiliarity, or the uncomfortable realisation that we were all briefly in love with something that just wasn’t all that good in the first place – but not Prince of Persia. Age and enthusiastic porting have only proved time and time again that the game is incorruptible: any format, any graphical style, any control method is going to work just fine so long as all of the core components are present and working as intended. Whether viewed on a high resolution computer display, a Game Boy’s monochrome screen, or anything in-between, Prince of Persia is always different and the same and perfect.

It’s also astonishingly cinematic for a game from 1989, and while the first things that spring to mind on hearing Prince of Persia’s name may be its many gruesome deaths and exacting jumps (in reality these follow a very straightforward set of rules – a standing jump clears two tiles and lands on the third, a running jump clears three and lands on the fourth, and grabs extend this safety zone by one further tile) in play it’s more of a kinetic swashbuckling adventure than a frequently fatal butting up against an endless supply of collapsing floors and pointy traps. “The kid” spends a lot of time (as the protagonist is described in the original technical documentation) crossing swords with prison guards, tiptoeing through blood covered spikes, chasing after his mirror-made shadow-self, dashing through closing gates, and clambering up to goodness knows where through holes in the roof he’s knocked out with his own bare hands – this is all exciting stuff!

But what makes it a true classic is that it’s even more than just exciting: You are the game, and the things you do tell the story – the whole story – of the hero’s real-time escape from his unjust confinement. This is why the sixty minute time limit is more than a countdown to failure: Time really is running out, for real, and you will have to slash, leap, and think your way to the end of the game in under an hour – an actual on-the-clock hour (well, close enough) – if you want to save the princess. This limit’s deliberately more generous than it may first appear – I used about half of it this time around and I’m not a great Prince of Persia player by any means (speedrunners can complete the game in under fifteen minutes!) – but this unstoppable force does add a palpable sense of pressure; something that can’t be extended, saved up, or defeated, only outrun. There’s also an unexpected silver lining to this merciless feature: Whether you find the game a breeze or an absolute nightmare, either way in an hour’s time it’ll definitely be over.

So it’s tough. And thrilling.

But it’s also dripping with atmosphere too.

The level layouts often leave you surrounded by solid stone walls stretching out in every direction (bar the one you came in from) or standing at the edge of a yawning chasm with no obvious way across to the tantalising pressure plate or mysterious potion waiting on the other side. It really does feel like one continuous place, a thought constantly reinforced by all those trips underneath a passage you ran over a few minutes ago and the screens dedicated to functional pits that only exist for you to fall in to. There’s storytelling in a sword picked up next to a pile of bones, in guards bracing for battle as you draw near, in those desperate scrabbles across stone and over deadly falls that only happen because of Prince of Persia’s meticulous arrangement of triggers and gates, in level seven beginning with an unplanned plunge into the depths from the heights of level six, all caused by your own mirror self blocking your path at the previous stage’s climax and sending you back down into the prisons you had just fought so hard to claw your way up from. And let’s not forget all of those brutal semi-hidden spikes and clanging shutters only activate when you’re nearby, as if the dungeon’s aware of your presence and actively working against you.

Brilliantly the dungeon is working against you – but the game isn’t, and there’s a lot of teaching-by-doing woven into Prince of Persia’s design. You can’t even leave the first screen without learning about loose floor tiles and (unless you’re very quick – played it before quick) fall damage, and immediately after that if you go one way you soon learn guards will kill you instantly without a sword while the other not only leads to the rest of the level but also your first demonstrative pressure plate/gate/jump puzzle. From that point on the game layers and combines all of these apparently simple rules in ever more imaginative ways until they create naturalistic slices of adventure – leap over not one gap but two this time, now do it before the gate closes, now leap over the gap and fight the guard ahead knowing there’s a fatal drop just a few steps away – that are always understandable and always enjoyable.

Specific to the Mega CD release shown here is… not a lot, actually. There’s a very beautiful intro featuring the usual mandatory voice over track (and later one shockingly bloody outro accompanied by yet more speech), but every other additional detail and graphical upgrade comes from the Arsys developed, Riverhillsoft published, PC-98 port used as the template for many other Japan-based versions of the game. Being able to save your game at any point in one of twelve slots (you restart from the beginning of the stage, however) and also view your fastest cleared times for every level whenever you like are both welcome and unintrusive extra features, but most interesting of all is the additional scene slotted in between what is normally the final battle with Jaffar and the triumphant run towards the waiting princess. The original final battle is retained with what was once the evil vizier now replaced by a unique underling, and from there what would normally be a straight dash to victory is punctuated by a dramatic rooftop clash under a starry sky with the blue-skinned antagonist himself. I’m normally not a fan of messing with a proven classic, especially when it involves shoehorning in things that officially speaking don’t exist, but this new scene does – and it feels a little heretical to admit this – give the game a better climax than the one it’s supposed to have.

Prince of Persia is the Tetris of cinematic platformers; something that can be pushed and pulled and taken apart but so long as it stays true to its core then it’ll always come out the other side of the development process looking and playing like its own unmistakeable self. So strong is Prince of Persia’s design that all of its key components can still be found in modern examples of the genre relatively unchanged – and still, thirty-two years on, rarely bettered…

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