At the cusp of the 1990s, every home PC had to have one killer app installed. When you’d go round to a friend’s place and they’d show off their new Amstrad or IBM beige behemoth, the first question out of your mouth would be, “How did you convince your parents?” The second would be, “Do you have Prince of Persia?”
Jordan Mechner’s seminal 1989 game (published by Brøderbund) was the high watermark for computer games at the time, a title that combined fluid graphics, exquisite music and challenging gameplay into an astonishing final product. I remember the first time I saw it in 1990, on the PC of one of my parents’ friends. He fired it up for us, to keep us kids busy, I suppose, but I don’t think even he would understand quite the impact the next hour or so of play had on me.
Here was a computer game, until then just a kid’s thing with colourful graphics and tinny bips and bleeps for sound, only it was strangely adult-oriented. The character was humanoid and moved in a lifelike way (thanks to the rotoscoping animation process), the environments were grey and moody — unsettling, even — and there were no guns, no quick-trigger projectiles with which to fell waves of enemies. Come to think of it, there weren’t many enemies either, and the your character started with no weapons. Deadly spike traps, floor switches and a labyrinthine maze of a dungeon was all that lay between you and destiny. If only you could complete it in one single hour.
It’s amazing how well the original Prince of Persia holds up nearly two decades after its initial release. Sure, later versions cleaned up the graphics and gave our hero a makeover (out went the white pyjamas, and in came the turban and vest combo), but the essence of the game has remained intact in every version. The prince is still a tireless acrobat, leaping over pits and scampering up and down ledges. His swordplay is not the quickest — can’t expect much else from a street urchin — but there is an inherent pace and rhythm to the combat that was (and still is) uncommon among games, favouring position and timing over mindless button mashing. Many a heartbeat was skipped in the split-second that both his and the enemy guard’s swords arced through the air and I hoped that I was just that minuscule bit quicker.
I must admit that I never did finish the original Prince. My nascent curiosity about all things design was just forming (even though I wouldn’t realise it for another decade) and I spent most of the one hour of alloted time pootling around the first few levels, exploring every nook and cranny, seeing how it all fit together (I think I ran around the room telling all and sundry that I’d found the alternate way back to the intial starting point of the first level — you could never do that in Mario). I was fascinated by the spike pits that were perfectly harmless when you walked carefully past them — there’s more than one way to skin a cat — and by the mirror prince, by health replenishing and enhancing potions and the copy protection roadblock before level 2 (you had to drink a certain potion of a certain alphabet, a fact only knowable to people to had the game’s manual and had therefore purhcased the game properly).
Mostly I was enthralled by the cinematic nature of it; the sweeping opening music, the stark, simple gestures in the opening sequence. It was the first game I’d encountered that was trying to tell a story rather than a high score. It was the first time I’d seen blood in a game, and I recall with morbid fascination the first time I saw the prince chopped to bits by a steel-jawed door trap, his blood still oozing from its teeth. Looking back now, there was also that fantastic device of having the game played on non-scrolling individual screens; you never knew what was going to meet you on the next one!
Prince of Persia spawned a whole genre of single-screen adventure games where the emphasis was on puzzle-solving and mood, and I was a huge fan of two of the most prominent Prince-inspired games, Delphine software’s 2D vector classics Another World (by Eric Chahi) and Flashback. As time passed and technology grew, the 2D side-scroller was rapidly losing its place in the world. It’s amazing to think that just five years after Prince of Persia was released, the original Sony Playstation debuted in 1994, ushering in the age of the 3D polygon videogame that is still with us. There was a 2D sequel to the game in 1994 (the lovely Shadow and the Flame), and in 1999 the flawed Prince of Persia 3D was released, but it wouldn’t be until late 2003 that the world would see a game worthy of the Prince of Persia name.
The orginial is still a classic well deserving of that status, and if you’ve never played it, you’re missing out.