Not enough is written about the original Prince of Persia. Over the past decade, Ubisoftís revival of the franchise has garnered plenty of attention in the form of universal praise for 2003ís Sands of Time and universal disagreement about the quality of each entry in the series thereafter. But long before Jerry Bruckheimer turned Prince of Persia into a showpiece for a long-haired, buffed-up Jake Gyllenhaal, Jordan Mechner was changing the face of videogames.
Itís a famous story by now; in 1989, Mechner recorded his younger brother performing acrobatic acts of derring-do, then rotoscoped his movements to create the most fluidly animated character in gaming. The Princeís moves match his athleticism: He can hang from ledges or grab them after a running leap, creep slowly forward on hands and knees, or take a single step forward in a comic pantomime of caution.
The animation alone radically changed how exploring and platforming worked in Prince of Persia, setting it apart from everything else in gaming at the time. But thereís much more to the Princeís adventure than long jumps and dropping off ledges. Mechner artfully constructed the game to revolve around a one-hour time limit, presenting a series of levels that gradually introduce new tricks, floors boasting intricate layouts and guards more savvy to the art of the blade. Death merely places you at the beginning of a level, making the hourglass your only true obstacle.
Every element of the game naturally flows out of the challenge of time. Gates often slowly grind their way to the ground, forcing you to leap through a series of platforming challenges with precision. The silver-bladed chompers and floor spikes require a calm use of the step button or hastier, riskier jump. Every step of the way, the game challenges you to be careful and exacting... yet the minutes tick by at the bottom of the screen, tacitly urging you to hurry, hurry, hurry along to confront Jaffar and rescue the princess of Persia.
Itís the little pieces that fit together so well which make Prince of Persia the accomplishment of design that it is, but next to the fluid animation their presence is rather understated. However, the NES version of Prince of Persia, released in 1992, makes those little pieces far more obvious... because theyíre all missing.
At first, everything seems right: The familiar blue-gray hue of the foreboding dungeon, the white-clad prince, the sword, the gates and floor panels. But as the game goes on, more and more seems utterly wrong.
None of the gates slide closed a step at a time, eliminating that last-second Indiana Jones escape. Many of the potions are simply gone. And the once-imposing skeleton warriors, meant to be invincible, have health bars -- no longer do they have to be slowly driven off a ledge through measured attacks and parries.
Perhaps most damning of all, the princeís shadow -- a mysterious clone created when he jumps through a magical mirrorónever reunites with the player, removing the gameís most interesting encounter. Whatever caused these omissions, their absence highlighted the surprising depth of Jordan Mechnerís original creation. Even the gameís title sequence was cut, making for a cold open with no narrative justification for the time limit. Hell, NES gamers didnít even know they were out to rescue a princess. Without the anticipation of that rewarding kiss, whatís there to keep an explorer going through 13 floors of death traps?
Do yourself a favor -- donít play Prince of Persia on the NES. But do play Prince of Persia, because even 20 years later it remains fun, compelling, and challenging in all the right ways. Outrace the sands of time... but do it somewhere else.
Prince of Persia
Based on: Jordan Mechner's visually inventive, cinematic masterpiece, twisted slightly into a much less compelling form.