Jon Gracey's

Games That Rocked…Jay Foreman’s World – #31: Prince Of Persia

In Amiga, DS, Game Boy, iOS, Mac, Master System, NES, PC, SNES, Wii on April 14, 2013 at 8:24 pm

Today’s post is by Jay Foreman.

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Title: Prince Of Persia

Format: PC, Master System, Game Boy, Amiga, SNES, NES, Mac, iOS, DS, Wii

Released: October 3rd, 1989

Pop_box_artMy parents never got us a console. They reasoned quite sensibly that if we had one we’d probably play computer games. The only thing in the house to play games on was the family PC my dad intended us to do homework on that he bought from Dixons about one week before Windows 95 came out. This unfortunate timing meant that right from day seven it was only good enough for playing obsolete games.It also meant that ours was probably the only computer in the world actually affected by the Millennium Bug. At midnight on December 31st 1999, it unexpectedly celebrated the 4th of January 1982, so we decided to put it in the cupboard and buy a new one.

As I write this now, getting the dates straight in my head, it doesn’t seem right that we only had that Compaq for five years. As far as I remember it, that friendly beige member of the family was with me throughout my entire upbringing. It just goes to show how formative and memorable those short teenage years were that I spent with the computer that watched me pubert.

One game I used to play for hours on this machine and remember better than any other during these years was Prince of Persia.

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Prince of Persia is a 1989 DOS game people my age love to get nostalgic about, in which you, a little man in an orange turban, have to escape from a dungeon. 

Even though Prince of Persia is technically a platform game (it literally has platforms that you run onto and jump off of) it doesn’t seem fair to put it in that category. The words “Platform Game” to me suggest jumping to superhuman heights, changing direction mid-air, flashing things and a cacophony of ba-dings, fanfares and nineties techno music.

But Prince of Persia has none of these queasy-Japanesey features. Instead, the little man you control jogs at a leisurely pace from one screen to another, the camera remaining static throughout. There’s no music (apart two bars of “oh dear” every time you die) and very little sound, just the hypnotic “paf paf paf” of your footsteps and an occasional gentle “clang”, “ow” or “splat”. There are floor panels that open and close different doors, unstable tiles that crumble when you step on them, and different coloured potions that do various things to your health/gravity, so it’s probably closer to a puzzle than a platform game. But the various guards and skeletons you have to stab your way past and the fact that you’re only given an hour to complete it give it an urgency that puts Prince of Persia in a unique genre of its own.

What really stands out is the stunning realism. If you’re prepared to overlook the fact that the dungeon you’re supposed to be incarcerated in is a series of 2D puzzles just waiting to be solved (surely our hero realises he’s in a computer game!) then it’s all really believable. There are no coins that magically disappear when you walk into them, every object has to be picked up off the floor, you skid slightly when you stop running, and when you die you don’t flash and disappear, or stare at the camera with a sad face and fall off the screen – you collapse in a nasty heap on the floor.

It’s easy to imagine you’re watching a real human, and that’s because you are! All the animation in Prince of Persia is rotoscoped from footage of creator Jordan Mechner’s younger brother running and jumping around a car park, which was revolutionary in 1989. The low resolution graphics actually serve to make it all the more realistic. He’s so pixellated, you can barely make out his face (for years I thought his turban was blond hair), but it forces your imagination to fill in the gaps and feel empathy for him in a way that modern good graphics can’t. It’s the same phenomenon that makes the Muppets more expressive than the cast of Polar Express.

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Another great example of turning limited resources into an asset is the sword fights. For 1989-ly reasons, every guard looks the same (apart from the colour of their uniform) but each one tries to kill you in a different, unique style. Some have better aim, some have faster reactions, and some are more defensive. Simply by altering these, each guard has been given his own personality. One guard on Level 8 has his own sneaky trick where he won’t take a swoosh at you unless you take a swoosh at him first, which makes him really annoying. The sword-fights alone are detailed enough to merit their own game even without the labyrinth you have to solve between them.

And there are loads more little details that make Prince so special. The “oh dear” music when you die is slightly sadder if you’ve been killed by a guard rather than simply dropped off a high ledge. The game has a fair amount of humour too. Being chomped cleanly in half by a machine that goes “clang” is particularly gruesome in an otherwise realistic environment – it makes a horrible bone-crunching sound then resumes clanging smeared in blood until you press the restart button.

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One sad thing about Prince of Persia is that much of the simple charm that made it so memorable was due to mere technical limitations rather than artistic decisions. Jordan Mechner would go on to make Prince of Persia 2: The Shadow and the Flame, which had incessant music, individual backgrounds for each screen, and lengthy vomit-inducing cinematics. Failing to understand why that was less popular, he then made Prince of Persia 3D which was even worse. It’s always a little heartbreaking to discover that something you once thought of as genius was a mere accident.

I recently went back to my parents’ house to clear out my old cupboards. There have been many computers since the beige Compaq, all of which were thrown into the box marked “dump” without ceremony, but when I stumbled on my first PC and switched it on for what I thought would be one last time, and plugged a keyboard in, and discovered that all the old games (including Prince of Persia) were still working properly, I couldn’t bring myself to kill it. I wrapped up the beige box and took it home where it now lives with me in my flat. I still occasionally stay up late with the computer playing games like Prince of Persia, and we both think it’s 1995.

Compaq

Jay Foreman is a musical comedian. He’s brilliant. Here’s his website, here’s his YouTube channel. He also made this. And this! A third is on its way.

 

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  1. […] Games That Rocked…Jay Foreman’s World – #31: Prince Of Persia (gamesthatrocked.com) […]

  2. […] three of us. And even though you can usually work together, advising jumps and pointing out spikes, Prince of Persia is not the greatest spectator’s […]

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