A review of Atelier Rorona Plus

Since the following year at school is going to be rough going, I decided to cram one more game into my summer schedule, one that was recommended to me specially. Atelier Rorona Plus is the latest in the long-running Atelier JRPG series by developer Gust. This title is a Vita download-only game, meaning you won’t find it on the shelves. As the “Plus” suggests, it’s also an extended remake (and judging from a video I’ve seen of the original, a vastly improved remake) of the original on the PS3. A better title for this game, though, might have been Cute Girls Doing Science, or maybe Deadline Simulator, because those together describe everything about Rorona.

When you own a game with a cover like this, you know you've entered the true depths

When you own a game with a cover like this, you know you’ve entered the true depths

The plot of Atelier Rorona is tied into a much larger web of stories and characters that I don’t understand because I haven’t played any of the other 15+ Atelier games out. The basic gist, though, is that you are Rorona, a girl who is forced to study alchemy under her master to pay off debt or something. Luckily, Rorona seems to enjoy alchemy, although her master, who owns the local alchemy workshop, is a real pain to work for. She’s such a pain to everyone she meets, in fact, that her laziness and bitchiness has caused the government to declare that they will shut down her workshop unless she can fulfill twelve government orders over a period of three years in three-month increments. Naturally, the very same day your boss hands over ownership of the workshop to you and palms the whole task off on you. Despite all this, she’s still your boss somehow and still hangs around the workshop.

Atelier Rorona Plus is a fantasy game, but even in this world your boss is an asshole.

Atelier Rorona Plus is a fantasy game, but even in this world your boss is an asshole.

So despite the flowers and cuteness and everything, this game is not exactly for little girls (I imagine a kid would get bored of this game within one minute, in fact.) It is all about gathering ingredients and cooking them up into new things that you can learn how to make by reading alchemy books, and a lot of those things can be combined to make even more things. To keep the workshop from closing, you’ll have to fulfill government orders before each deadline by gathering and crafting certain required items and bringing them to the government office for evaluation and collection. Are you excited yet?

You'll be looking at screens like this one a lot.

You’ll be looking at screens like this one a lot.

No, actually, this is a pretty fun game. It incorporates a lot of typical RPG elements – you have friends in town that you’ll be able to bring with you to look for elements and ingredients in the various field areas. There’s also a pretty basic turn-based RPG combat system that activates when you meet enemies while on your ingredient hunts. The nice thing about combat in this game is that you can use items you create in your workshop to kill enemies in the field.

Rorona, dressed properly for the battlefield

Rorona, dressed properly for the battlefield

Atelier Rorona Plus has enough optional content to hold your interest, and there are plenty of jobs to take alongside your required tasks. There are apparently also lots of different endings that depend upon how well you do in filling your orders and increasing the popularity of your shop around town.

So my verdict is this: it’s a good game. You have to have a high tolerance for cute ditzy anime girls and stuff like that, and it helps if you’re an obsessive-compulsive of the sort who has to collect everything and unlock every secret in every game you ever play, but Atelier Rorona Plus stands well on its own merits.

Retrospective: SimTower

When I was young and not having to worry about my diet or bills or loans or getting a job or taking horrifically terrible exams, I played a lot of computer games, and at the time the Sim series of games was massively popular. Sort of like how it is now, only The Sims blessedly did not exist (even after 15 years I don’t understand the appeal of The Sims. A smaller, duller version of my own already boring life? Amazing! The only fun thing about The Sims is building a death trap house and watching its eight luckless inhabitants slowly go insane and/or die.)

(Don’t look at me like that. Everyone who’s ever owned The Sims has done that at least once.)

No, back in the 90s, the Sim series was known for SimCity, and namely for the far improved sequel SimCity 2000 that confusingly came out in 1993. But the Sim series didn’t stop at cities: you could also build your own farm, ant colony or really terrible-looking helicopter. One of the more successful of these spinoff titles was SimTower, a game that Maxis published in the West on behalf of weirdo Japanese game designer Yoot Saito in 1994.

Finally, the chance to recreate the shitty office building you work in

Finally, the chance to recreate the shitty office building you work in!

SimTower, on its face, is simple. It’s a 2D building management game. The general formula you’ll follow goes like so: build a lobby, build offices/hotel rooms/condos and rent/sell them to your tenants, build restaurants and shops for your tenants and outside visitors both to enjoy.

You’ll quickly learn, however, that building management is a frustrating job. Office workers and condo tenants placed too close to restaurants will complain about the noise. All your tenants will complain about travel time, especially if they have to navigate a circuitous route down stairs and elevators to get where they’re going (and it will be impossible not to build these kinds of paths if your building is greater than 15 stories tall.) Your businesses will be happy and pay you rent as long as they’re in the black, but if they’re doing poorly, they’ll lose money for you and become a drain on your funds. Condos are a great way to make a one-time profit for a quick cash influx, but they’re also difficult to maintain and take up a lot of space. Offices and hotel rooms are at least guaranteed income as long as they are occupied, but if the general happiness of the tenants falls enough, you’ll have to push the rents and rates down to keep them in your building. Forget the tower: at its core, SimTower is a happiness management simulator.

If someone is red, it means they're pissed off, possibly because they're having to wait three hours to ride an elevator.  You will see a lot of red people as you play SimTower.

If someone is red, it means they’re pissed off, possibly because they’re having to wait three hours to ride an elevator. You will see a lot of red people as you play SimTower.

All of the above might make SimTower seem like a chore to play, but it’s not. It’s strangely satisfying to watch new tenants snap up the offices and other properties you place in your tower as it rises to the skies. The game features a tiered rewards system that unlocks new properties and services for you to use as your tower’s population increases. And, like every good Sim game, SimTower features random scenarios: the arrival of a VIP who will cast judgment upon your tower at the end of his visit, outbreaks of fire, and even terrorist bomb threats.

It also has day/night cycles!  Well, it's not that impressive considering the relative primitiveness of the graphics, but still.

It also has day/night cycles! Well, it’s not that impressive considering the relative primitiveness of the graphics, but still.

Although I doubt very much that it even came close to the success of SimCity, SimTower sold well enough to inspire a sequel, Yoot Tower. Yoot Tower came out in 1998 and added some new features while keeping the same old visual style and general concept of its predecessor. While it might have done well in its home country, though, Yoot Tower seems to have been a flop in the US. Maybe it looked and played too similar to SimTower to be accepted as a truly new title. Or maybe it was the fact that the economy of Yoot Tower is completely fucked, with certain building options being guaranteed money-losers no matter what. I still like the game, probably just out of nostalgia for the original, but Yoot Tower feels like a broken remake of SimTower. Thankfully, Yoot Saito would move on to make Seaman and Odama and other bizarre titles that had nothing to do with buildings.

Don't even bother with the ramen shop.  It sucks.  Must have gotten bad reviews online.

Don’t even bother with the ramen shop. It sucks. Must have gotten bad reviews online.

Despite the fact that SimTower is now 20 years old, the game is still fun and holds up pretty well. Best of all, both SimTower and its sequel seem to qualify as abandonware now, so it shouldn’t be too hard to find them online and play them through a virtual machine (though I believe both can actually run on Windows 7/8, which is amazing.) At any rate, SimTower isn’t on Steam, which is really a shame: it would make for a great download for five dollars or so. Especially considering the fact that, unlike SimCity and The Sims, the SimTower concept hasn’t truly been improved upon from the 1994 original. Unless I’ve missed something, which is entirely possible.

Notes on Spain: San Fermin

One of the greatest spectacles in Europe occurs every July in Pamplona, a city in the Basque Country in northern Spain. You’ve almost definitely heard of it – in fact, it’s going on right now as I write this. It’s the San Fermin festival, aka the Running of the Bulls.

Pure insanity, every July in Pamplona.  (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Pure insanity, every July in Pamplona. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

I haven’t been to Pamplona, much less to Pamplona during San Fermin. However, I know people who have been, and I know even more people who think the people in the first part of this sentence are idiots. Thousands of people go to Pamplona every summer, drink several million gallons of alcohol and run down narrow streets after six bulls are loosed on them. The bulls are led along the streets by way of gates and barriers put up for that purpose into an arena, where they later fight matadors and then get stabbed with swords and slaughtered (this is the part a lot of people in the US don’t seem to know about.) The bull run, or encierro, is an event that occurs throughout Spain and in other parts of the world, but Pamplona’s is by far the largest and most famous.

So almost all my countrymen know about this festival, but why? Apparently because of Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, which prominently features the festival. It’s just the kind of thing that Hemingway would have enjoyed, too, given his love for doing crazy shit to show his masculinity (judging by some of his work, at least. I am a fan, though.)

A statue in Pamplona.  You'd think this would put at least a few people off of the bull run idea.  (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

A statue in Pamplona. You’d think this would put at least a few people off of the bull run idea. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

The whole bull cruelty thing aside (this isn’t an animal rights blog after all) is it really stupid to run with the bulls in Pamplona? I think I can really understand the mindset of the people who go there. Regular life can be dull and grating, and running away from a bull while drunk and/or hung over is the exact opposite of that. One of my mother’s bosses, a chief at the accounting office of a real estate management company, went to San Fermin every year. I imagine a lot of accountants, clerks, real estate agents (and lawyers? hmm) on those streets alongside all the young idiot drunk college students.

The beginning of the festival (not pictured: gross drunkenness and flashing.) (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

The beginning of the festival (not pictured: gross drunkenness and flashing.) (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

What do you think of the people who participate in the San Fermin bull run? Is it idiotic? Understandable? Both?

Amazon thinks I’m a pervert

Why else would it have sent me an email suggesting I pre-order Xseed’s Akiba’s Trip, a game about going to Tokyo’s Akihabara nerdtopia district and fighting vampires by stripping their clothes off and exposing them to sunlight?

Note the way the title is printed.  Clever.

Note the way the title is printed. Clever.

Akiba’s Trip: Undead and Undressed is being released in the first week of August for the PS3 and the Vita. According to the preorder site, it features:

- A “faithful recreation of Japan’s Electronics Mecca”, with over 130 actual shops depicted
- “Unique and customizable brawler-style combat” that lets you use signposts and other pieces of the environment as weapons
- Irreverent takes on “common anime and video game tropes for social satire” (is it still really “social satire” when it’s aimed at a subculture of fans?)
- The ability to strip opponents and wear their clothes

Pictured: The protagonist (probably.)  Is the girl to his right going to be attacked and stripped to her skivvies for the sake of protecting the human race from vampires?  It seems likely.

Pictured: The protagonist (probably.) Is the girl to his right going to be attacked and stripped to her skivvies for the sake of protecting the human race from vampires? It seems likely.

Aside from the fact that the gameplay does sound fun (assuming Xseed pulls off good “brawler-style” gameplay) there are a few strange points here. Well, just one: the stripping. The game remains unrated, but I’d bet cash money on its being stamped with an M rating.

The strangest part of this whole deal is the quote from an Xseed executive talking about the dub: ‘This is the biggest voiceover project ever at Xseed. Part of the reason we’re doing it is we feel this game can appeal to more of a mainstream audience and just not otakus,” said Executive Vice President Ken Berry.’

What better game to win over the fence-sitters than one where you assault and strip women on a public street?

What better game to win over the fence-sitters than one where you assault and strip women on a public street?

To be fair, Akiba isn’t out yet. But for some reason, I don’t feel like this particular game is going to attract a lot of “non-otakus”. Maybe Ken Berry knows something I don’t. I might buy it if I hear the gameplay is good, but I am one of those nerds Berry is referring to (also kind of perverted, but that’s true for almost everyone, right?) If I do, though, I’ll definitely have to buy it online – there’s no way I can approach another human intending to purchase a game like this.

Retrospective: Montezuma’s Revenge

Some games are constant favorite, titles that you wish you could replay over and over. Others are favorites, but only because you played them when you were a kid and associate them with your early childhood. Montezuma’s Revenge is in the latter category.

Montezuma’s Revenge is a puzzle-based platformer from the 80s with an Aztec pyramid treasure hunting theme. Your character must collect coins, keys and swords (which will kill an enemy on the screen) while avoiding enemies such as rolling skulls and snakes. The game concept of “go to this temple/dungeon/pyramid and find gold and kill undead enemies” is a timeless one and Montezuma’s Revenge does it well, albeit with the kind of old-school cheap shots that made games in the 80s and early 90s so frustrating to play.

This screen is everything that you'll ever have to know about Montezuma's Revenge.  Your lives are represented by hats.  If you touch the skull here, you will lose one hat.

This screen is everything that you’ll ever have to know about Montezuma’s Revenge. Your lives are represented by hats. If you touch the skull here, you will lose one hat.

Why Montezuma’s Revenge is remembered while other, similar games have been forgotten probably turns on the fact that it was pretty damn advanced for a game released in 1984. The controls are janky as expected for an Atari/C64 game, but there’s usually a lot going on at any one time and the game is rarely boring. It’s not a timeless classic like Super Mario Bros., but it was great for its time and is still playable and fun. It was also at least partly responsible for later, far deeper 2d platformers like Cave Story and Spelunky. Well, actually, I don’t know that for sure, but I would bet that some of the makers of those games played Montezuma’s Revenge as kids.

Really, though, the most telling thing about the staying power of Montezuma’s Revenge is that, even ten years after its release, it was still installed on the Apple IIes at my school. Why my school let seven year-olds play games about jumping over skulls and collecting coins is a mystery. Maybe they thought computer game = educational? By that logic, they should have let us play Doom too, but they didn’t.

m3

The Master System Montezuma’s Revenge box is kind of amusing if only for how it proudly announces that it is “featuring PANAMA JOE”. Even though nobody knew who the hell PANAMA JOE was before Montezuma’s Revenge came out, and even then nobody cared. We just referred to him as “guy.” Ex: don’t let the guy fall into the fire pit.

If you want to play Montezuma’s Revenge today, you can probably get a rom and run it on DOSBox or something. You might enjoy it, though it helps if you also played it as a kid.

Anime for people who hate anime: Akagi

a.k.a. Mahjong Legend Akagi: The Genius Who Descended into the Darkness

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I’m going to approach this series a little differently. Instead of writing a normal review of the show, I’m going to take you through the first episode. Why? Why not? I do have a reason for doing this, but it might not be apparent until the end of this post.

The first episode opens with a minute of background. The setting is late 1950s Tokyo. Japan is finally over its post-war slump and is starting to grow again.

This is all explained by the narrator.  He talks constantly throughout the series, but he's not obtrusive at all and in fact is often extremely necessary, so you'll get used to him.

This is all explained by the narrator. He talks constantly throughout the series, but he’s not obtrusive at all and in fact is often extremely necessary, so you’ll get used to him.

The story begins in a smoky hole-in-the-wall mahjong parlor. Four players sit around a table. Big deal, so they’re playing some mahjong. Nothing strange about that.

But this game is different. One of the players, Nangou, is deep in debt to the mob. Three of the other players are Yakuza guys. One of them, a local mob boss, has had his mistress take out a life insurance policy on Nangou. You can see where this is going.

[Triad]_Akagi_-_01.avi_snapshot_02.39_[2014.05.18_11.30.25]

Since the Yakuza are nice guys, they let Nangou try to cut a path out of his debts by beating them in a mahjong match. Sadly for Nangou, it’s not going too well for him. He’s nearly out of points and is about to lose the game and his life. Nangou reaches into the wall of tiles to pull one, praying to anyone, even the Devil, to help him out of his predicament. At that very moment, the door to the parlor opens.

[Triad]_Akagi_-_01.avi_snapshot_04.33_[2014.05.18_11.23.27]

A kid (yeah, he is a kid, even if he doesn’t look like it) is at the door, seemingly looking for shelter from the driving rain outside. The Yakuza thugs try to throw him out, but Nangou tells them he called the kid to the parlor just in case he, you know, “went missing.” Of course, Nangou and this kid have never seen each other – Nangou just wants a break from the game to collect his nerves. Luckily for him, the kid plays along with his story.

After a few minutes, the game is back on. Nangou prepares to make a deal that he needs to complete to build his hand. However, he gets nervous, because that same tile is one that his main opponent (Ryuuzaki, the boss) might need to complete his hand. Nangou decides instead to deal a “safe” tile – a defensive rather than offensive move. After all, if he loses this hand, it’s quite literally all over for him.

He’s all set to make this defensive play when the boy sitting behind him speaks.

[Triad]_Akagi_-_01.avi_snapshot_06.20_[2014.05.18_12.28.26]

Nangou turns around and asks the kid what he’s talking about.

[Triad]_Akagi_-_01.avi_snapshot_06.39_[2014.05.18_11.25.53]

This kid admits to Nangou that he’s never played mahjong before, but that he could sense Nangou’s feeling of hopelessness. He tells Nangou that to survive, he’ll have to be aggressive – to take a risk. Nangou turns back to his hand and realizes that the kid is right. He returns to his original deal – and it passes! Nangou ends up completing his hand and winning on the next deal. His life – at least for now – is safe. (Incidentally, as the narrator explains, that “safe” tile deal would have completed a different player’s hand, meaning Nangou would have lost had he dealt it.)

The Yakuza guys, disappointed that they couldn’t finish Nangou off then and there, break again for a few minutes. In the meantime, Nangou questions this mysterious kid about his identity and what he’s doing hanging around a Yakuza mahjong parlor at midnight. The boy is 13 year-old Shigeru Akagi, but beyond that he says nothing. For the first time, Nangou notices something strange about Akagi: his clothes are covered in sand. He guesses (rightly, as we’ll soon learn) that Akagi came close to death that night.

How can Nangou tell? Because, as he explains to Akagi, he’s near death as well. Nangou then makes a request of Akagi.

[Triad]_Akagi_-_01.avi_snapshot_09.30_[2014.05.18_12.40.31]

Nangou can sense something great in Akagi, something that Nangou himself doesn’t possess. Despite never having played mahjong before, Akagi agrees to sit in for Nangou and gets a five-minute primer on the basics of mahjong.

And we get to learn along with him!

And we get to learn along with him!

When the game starts again, the Yakuza players have no idea what the hell is going on but they roll with it anyway, figuring that some kid will probably be even easier to beat in mahjong than Nangou. And they might be right.

[Triad]_Akagi_-_01.avi_snapshot_11.20_[2014.05.18_12.49.33]

Perhaps in a case of extreme beginner’s luck, Akagi’s very first hand is a monster: he has pairs of each dragon tile. A hand with three of each of these tiles (white, green and red, all on the left) is one of the biggest hands in the game – a dai san gen. It’s also one of the most difficult to get, because completing a dai san gen usually involves having to call someone else’s dragon tile when they deal it, and any hint of a dai san gen will cause the other players to act defensively and not deal dragons.

Still, Akagi will have to call those tiles to complete the hand. The first dragon is thrown out.

[Triad]_Akagi_-_01.avi_snapshot_11.38_[2014.05.18_12.55.54]

One by one, each of the other dragons are thrown out, and Akagi lets each one pass, completely wrecking his hand. Nangou starts cursing himself for letting this stupid kid take over his life-or-death mahjong game.

[Triad]_Akagi_-_01.avi_snapshot_12.08_[2014.05.18_11.32.31]

What the hell was Akagi thinking?

At that moment, there’s a knock on the door of the mahjong parlor. It’s a police officer. Turns out the police are looking for the survivor from a game of chicken that involved severe casualties.

[Triad]_Akagi_-_01.avi_snapshot_13.03_[2014.05.18_11.33.16]

Everyone in the room turns to Akagi, who says nothing. The Yakuza boss is duly impressed by Akagi’s guts and tells his henchman to shoo the policeman away. Akagi, however, knows that that’s not going down, because the cops followed him here on a lead and won’t let him go. So he decides to make a deal with Nangou.

[Triad]_Akagi_-_01.avi_snapshot_14.07_[2014.05.18_11.33.59]

Nangou is pretty miffed at this suggestion. This kid just let a monster hand get ruined and he wants me to help him? Nangou points out that Akagi needs something to offer him to make such a bold request. Akagi says he does have something to offer.

[Triad]_Akagi_-_01.avi_snapshot_14.30_[2014.05.18_11.35.13]

Suddenly Akagi’s hand has three of each dragon tile, where before it only had pairs. Akagi has a dai san gen one tile away from completion. At first, Nangou has no idea what the hell is going on, but then he realizes what Akagi has done: he used the Yakuza guys’ distraction in dealing with the policeman to covertly steal each of the dragon tiles he needed from the pond (the center of the table where players put their discarded tiles.) Now Akagi doesn’t have to call anyone’s tiles: he can win right away.

Not wanting to lose his shot at a huge win, Nangou agrees to provide Akagi with a cover story. A few seconds later, a detective barges into the room.

[Triad]_Akagi_-_01.avi_snapshot_15.47_[2014.05.18_11.35.35]

The detective pinpoints Akagi as the chicken survivor he’s looking for. Nangou, however, springs to action and covers for Akagi.

[Triad]_Akagi_-_01.avi_snapshot_16.03_[2014.05.18_13.24.24]

He claims Akagi has been in the parlor all night. Ryuuzaki and the other gangsters go along with Nangou’s story because they want the police to leave.

The detective isn’t buying this story, so he decides to hang around for a while. The Yakuza dudes at this point are distracted and pissed off that they couldn’t get rid of the cops, so Akagi reminds them that they’re in the middle of a round of mahjong and that they should get back to playing.

Still caught in a daze, they turn back to their game, and one of them immediately deals into Akagi’s dai san gen. Only too late do they notice that the pond is missing a few tiles.

[Triad]_Akagi_-_01.avi_snapshot_18.06_[2014.05.18_11.37.05]

Ryuuzaki and his buddies would love to beat the shit out of Akagi right now, but they can’t – because the cops are in the room with them. As it happened, Akagi planned on this as well. So Ryuuzaki gives Akagi the dai san gen and lets him off with a warning.

Could be worse.

Could be worse.

The gangsters, now thoroughly pissed off, take yet another break and go into a back room. One suggests they call in their “rep player” – a guy whose sole job is to win mahjong matches for the mob. Ryuuzaki is offended by this suggestion.

[Triad]_Akagi_-_01.avi_snapshot_19.39_[2014.05.18_13.38.47]

The boss says he can’t call in their rep player just to take care of some amateur punk kid. All Akagi did was pull off a massive cheat – he won’t be able to do it a second time. They’ll defeat Akagi and kill Nangou without the rep player’s help. They all return to the game, with the detective watching. Sadly for the Yakuza guys, they don’t realize just how much Akagi can do.

[Triad]_Akagi_-_01.avi_snapshot_21.10_[2014.05.18_13.43.33]

Will Akagi continue to win? Will Nangou survive the night? How will Akagi deal with the detective on his trail? If you want to find out, watch the second episode! It’s all on Youtube, and I’m sure you can also torrent it if you wish, as Akagi has never been licensed in the US.

If the art style and the subject matter of Mahjong Legend Akagi seem familiar, that’s no coincidence: it’s another Nobuyuki Fukumoto work. Akagi isn’t much like Gambling Apocalypse Kaiji, though, and that’s because of the differences in their respective title characters. Kaiji Itou, the protagonist of Kaiji, experiences fear. He often panics when in a dire situation before realizing exactly how to escape it. Perhaps most importantly, Kaiji makes mistakes. He’s a genius, but a very human one.

All of these things make Kaiji much more relatable than Akagi, who is less a human than a force of nature that destroys everything in its way. Unlike Kaiji, Akagi has no doubts about his abilities and no compunction about using those abilities to completely destroy his opponents. Really, the only thing that makes Akagi not a villain is the fact that his opponents are all gangsters and thugs or other gamblers working for criminal organizations. Except for his final opponent – but I can’t tell you who that is. Just watch the show! I’m not one to claim I have “favorite _____s” usually (I can’t say I have a favorite album, for example, because I love a lot of music) but I can make an exception here: Akagi is my favorite anime series. Not a second of the show is wasted. There’s absolutely no filler, no scenes simply for their own sake – everything moves along the plot or establishes character. And Akagi has plenty of great surprises in store for you if you decide to watch.

Note on the mahjong terminology: If you’re scared off by all the crazy jargon, don’t worry: that’s completely normal. The story does a pretty good job of explaining the whats and whys of everything that’s going on, so don’t worry if you don’t know what a “tan yao pin fu dora dora” is. For this purpose, I recommend getting the Triad subs if you decide to go for a torrent: the notes at the top of the screen explain a lot of the terms that often crop up throughout the series.

Retrospective: Prince of Persia

prince

When I was a kid, I had a big book with selections from the One Thousand and One Nights. It was naturally filtered for a kid’s consumption, though not totally – some of these ancient tales are seriously bloody, and as a six year-old kid I distinctly remember reading about villainous bastards getting boiled alive in pots (Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves; seriously, look it up.) I also read about some great adventures that didn’t involve death by boiling oil, though: the tales of Sindbad the Sailor, Ali Baba (minus the boiling part) and Aladdin. I imagined what it would be like to be carried away by a giant bird to a distant land or to discover a magical cave full of treasure.

I think Jordan Mechner must have read the 1001 Nights as a kid too, because Prince of Persia feels a whole lot like one of them (specifically Aladdin) compressed down into game form. It features a vizier-sorcerer guy who is evil (because the vizier is always evil) and wants to marry the young princess, who is in love with the player character (you.) You are the Prince of Persia and your mission is to rescue the Princess from being forced into marriage to a creepy middle-aged magician. You must escape from the dungeon the vizier has thrown you into and make it into the palace, where the Princess is being held.

There are even cutscenes!

There are even cutscenes!

You might know the Prince of Persia franchise from the reboot series it got in the 2000s. If you were curious about where it started, here you are. Jordan Mechner designed this PC platformer to appeal to the newly computer-addicted kids of the early 90s, a group that I belonged to. And it absolutely worked, because Prince of Persia is a great game.

The first screen of the game.  You'll get used to seeing this screen.

The first screen of the game. You’ll get used to seeing this screen.

It’s also a hard, unforgiving, hit-your-fist-against-the-wall-and-cry kind of game. Prince of Persia is a platformer from the age of hard as fuck platformers. The Mega Man series on the NES is a classic example of this sort of game: lots of easy deaths, pitfalls, and traps to kill you, even when you think you’re playing carefully. Prince of Persia follows a similar pattern, only here the obstacles are spike traps that extend from the ground when the Prince approaches them and floor-to-ceiling snap traps that will cut the Prince in half if he’s caught in them.

Why is the Prince a blonde guy?  Are there many blonde people in Persia?  Maybe there are a few.

Why is the Prince a blonde guy? Are there many blonde people in Persia? Maybe there are a few.

Expect to see this a lot. Prince of Persia is a trial-and-error sort of game; you’ll try jumping from platform to platform and hanging onto ledges, and you’ll fail often and fall off ledges and die, fall into traps and die, etc. You’ll also face sword-wielding guards waiting for you in almost every level. Fortunately, the guards are also susceptible to spikes and huge metal teeth. You can use the level’s treacherous nature to kill off guards more easily by pushing them into said traps.

Every guard dreads the "just in front of the spike pit" posting.

Every guard dreads the “just in front of the spike pit” posting.

Thankfully, the game offers continues that are unlimited in number, though upon each death you’ll have to start at the beginning of the level. There’s a catch, however. Remember that beginning cutscene with the hourglass? The vizier/sorcerer/whatever bad guy has given the Princess one hour to decide whether to marry him or TO DIE. So you have an hour to save the Princess. No, not an hour in fake video game time – an actual hour. Sixty minutes.

As you can imagine, this really puts the heat on the player to blaze through all the obstacles in front of him. However, rushing forward without a plan is probably the worst playing method here – you’re guaranteed to constantly fall into the successively more difficult death traps the dungeons and palaces have in store for the Prince. This time pressure is compounded by the many time-limited gate-opening puzzles throughout the game. The later stages demand that the player think creatively to get around some of these obstacles. There’s even a great twist near the end of the game in one of the final boss fights – let’s just say that it’s not a normal boss fight in any sense. The solution to the fight is simple, but it’s nearly impossible to guess your first time out.

Another interesting thing about Prince of Persia: it used an early form of copy protection to prevent people from playing pirated copies beyond the first level - you needed the game manual to proceed.  This was also before the Internet existed as we know it today, so looking the answer up on Google wasn't an option.

Another interesting thing about Prince of Persia: it used an early form of copy protection to prevent people from playing pirated copies beyond the first level – you needed the game manual to proceed. This was also before the Internet existed as we know it today, so looking the answer up on Google wasn’t an option.

Prince of Persia was deservedly a big hit, and as a result, an SNES port of the game came out a few years later. The SNES version isn’t just a port, though – it adds 8 more stages to the game for a total of 20 and gives the player two hours instead of one to make up for the extended length. It also adds background music to the previously soundtrack-less game and throws a lot more detail into the graphics.

The Prince also looks more like an actual Persian now.

The Prince also looks more like an actual Persian now.

Unfortunately, the SNES version also removes something from the original PC game: the blood. You and the guards you kill can (and will) still fall and die on spikes, snappers and so on, but there’s no blood involved. This is a weird sort of censoring that Nintendo was performing in the early 90s in an effort to be seen as family-friendly. More famously, they did the same thing with the Mortal Kombat SNES port. I never understood this. Your character was still committing violence against other people and getting impaled by spikes – what difference did a little blood make?

No, it's not a violent game.  See?  There's no blood in it!

No, it’s not a violent game. See? There’s no blood in it!

But enough of that. Both Prince of Persia versions are good games and well worth your time. I prefer the PC version, probably because it’s the one I played as a kid. The SNES version might be easier to get running, though, if you can install an SNES emulator and find a rom.

A historical note: The vizier in the original Prince of Persia is clearly based on the sorcerer guy from the original Aladdin (I know what you might be thinking, but no – Disney’s Aladdin came out two years later.) The game refers to this guy as “Jaffar”, however, just like the villain of Disney’s Aladdin. Ever since, Jaffar has been the first character to come to mind when the term “evil vizier” comes up.

There was a Jafar ibn Yahya al-Barmaki who was a vizier to the 9th century Abbasid Caliph Harun al-Rashid, and he’s believed to be the basis of this character. He wasn’t originally portrayed as a villain, however: Jafar shows up in a few of the 1001 Nights tales as the protagonist, and the historical Jafar was known as a proponent of the sciences and of learning during the Islamic Golden Age. Jafar did end up losing his head as a result of allegations that he was boning the Caliph’s sister, but whether this was true or simply a result of a court intrigue is an open question. The closer you are to the throne, the more danger you’re in. See Game of Thrones for more on that theme.

edit: As it turns out, the timing of this post is pretty good, considering that it’s the second day of Ramadan and lots of Persians – along with millions upon millions of others around the world – are celebrating the month with fasting during the day and feasting at night. I didn’t actually intend it to turn out this way, but since it did – happy Ramadan, whether you’re taking part in it or not. May you successfully avoid spike traps and horrific crushing metal teeth.