Retrospective: Prince of Persia

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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.

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Anime for people who hate anime: Legend of the Galactic Heroes

More travel stuff is coming soon, I promise. In the meantime…

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Wow. I don’t know why I’m doing this. Not because the 80s-early 90s anime series Legend of the Galactic Heroes isn’t good – it is extremely good. The reason for my apprehension is that it is a massive series, with 110 episodes and several hour/hour and a half-long films, at least two of which are required watching if you want to follow the main story and understand certain characters’ motivations. All of this is based on an original (and also very long) series of comics. LOGH could really have an entire blog dedicated to it alone. Instead, I’m going to try to cram all of that into one post. The reason this review is short and worthless is that it’s near impossible to describe what this behemoth is about in less than 10000 words.

LOGH is not only big in the sense of length, but also in its sheer scope. Here we have a series that deals with a galaxy-wide war between two great powers (well, not galaxy-wide really; that would be way too big. Stellar cluster-wide, maybe?) The two powers are the Galactic Empire and the Free Planets Alliance, a democratic breakaway state. Right off the bat this might sound like anime Star Wars, but it isn’t. It really, really isn’t. If you’re looking for anime Star Wars, stop reading right now.

For one thing, Star Wars didn't feature long discussions between its characters about the merits of various political systems (unless you count Star Wars II, which I like to call Star Wars: C-SPAN in Space.)

For one thing, Star Wars didn’t feature long discussions between its characters about the merits of various political systems (unless you count Star Wars II, which I like to call Star Wars: C-SPAN in Space.)

How isn’t it anime Star Wars, you might be asking. LOGH turns the typical “Evil Empire working to crush Good (and Plucky and Underdog-ish) Democratic Alliance” model on its head. It does so by telling the stories of two characters, one from the Empire and one from the Alliance, and their rise through the ranks to the tops of their respective navies. This rise involves their meeting several times in battle. The trouble (?) for the audience is that there’s really nobody here you can “root against” characterwise among the main lot. Reinhard von Musel, one of the Empire’s greatest admirals, is a principled young man who believes in justice and in social reform of his stagnant homeland. Yang Wen-li, one of the Alliance’s premier tacticians, is a popular naval officer who hates war as wasteful and evil and just wants to go home to study history. Both of these men are likeable and have mutual respect for each other, and they spend a good amount of the series thinking about how to kill each other in battle.

Another relative surprise is how the respective governments act towards their citizens. The Empire early in the series is basically the old German Empire in space (think 1870s-1918 Germany, not the later Nazi one) and it’s pretty much an old ossified piece of crap that Reinhard wants to completely overturn. However, the democratic Alliance government is equally shitty – full of self-interested politicians who use their admirals’ victories to win reelection and who send their citizens off to the front lines just because they can’t look as though they’ve “failed”. The characters’ motivations make Legend of the Galactic Heroes one of the most realistic series I’ve ever seen, actually – despite the fact that it is an anime series set mostly in space. It’s not the setting that’s realistic, but the story, because you can easily imagine these characters as real people, their motives are so understandable and human.

Speaking of, Reinhard and Yang naturally aren’t the only characters in the series. LOGH boasts a massive cast of hundreds. Reinhard gains his own group of dedicated officers who join his fellow naval officer childhood friend/”sworn brother”-style character Siegfried Kircheis. Yang has his own similar circle. Both of them have to deal with the powers that be in the government, who usually have elements trying to plot their downfall (because, after all, popularity is a dangerous thing.)

Kircheis (L) and Reinhard (R).  No, they're not gay, despite how this scene looks.  At least I don't think they are.

Kircheis (L) and Reinhard (R). No, they’re not gay, despite how this scene looks. At least I don’t think they are.

The cast is so huge, in fact, that the various characters and their positions might get very confusing after a while. Fortunately, the series realizes this and often gives the viewer a subtitle with the character’s name and rank/relation to some other character on the screen when they show up for the first time or after several episodes have passed. And as spider web-like as the series’ intertwining plots and intrigues are, it handles them really well – nothing is left unresolved, and it’s generally easy to follow who’s going where or talking to whom and why. Chalk it up to good direction in the ordering of the scenes, I guess.

Those who are put off by the intensely 80s look of the animation shouldn’t worry too much – once you get absorbed in the story, you won’t notice anymore, even if you were, like me, raised on late 90s-early 2000s stuff like Neon Genesis Evangelion that boasted amazing artwork and animation. Because unlike Evangelion, LOGH is a story that isn’t filled with DEEP religious imagery, creepy fanservice of 14 year-old girls and the weird sexual insecurities of its maker (don’t get me wrong; I love Eva, but it’s undoubtedly fucked up, and not in a good way.)

That’s not to say that LOGH doesn’t also have some good action scenes, however.

LOGH really gives you the whole package, because both of these characters are very interesting and have their own backstories in addition to trying to kill each other in a flashy way.

LOGH really gives you the whole package, because both of these characters are very interesting and have their own backstories in addition to trying to kill each other in a flashy way.

So, yeah. If the above sounds good to you and you have about ten free years to spare, why not watch LOGH? It’s never been licensed in the US, so you don’t even have to buy anything: you can freely torrent the series or simply watch it on Youtube (starting with the film My Conquest is the Sea of Stars [Note: there used to be a link to the film here, but there seems to have been a copyright takedown of it. Shouldn’t be too hard to find online, though.]) If you need any extra enticements to watch, here go you: if you’re a fan of Game of Thrones, you’ll probably enjoy Legend of the Galactic Heroes. It shares a lot in common with Thrones, including the complex plot webs and political intrigues, the realistic character motivations and development, and the epic scale. The only differences are that LOGH is set in the “historical” future instead of an alternate reality past and that LOGH lacks all the sex of both the A Song of Ice and Fire novel series and its HBO Game of Thrones adaptation. Romance is a fairly common plot element in LOGH, but any sex that takes place in the series is fully implied. Which is just fine with me – who needs fanservice when you’ve got a good story?

P.S. This article does a great job at trying to narrow down why some people love LOGH and why other people can’t make it through a single episode. Check it out.

P.P.S. After watching most of the Chinese series Three Kingdoms and remembering reading some of the Romance of the Three Kingdoms years ago that it’s based on, I can see a lot of similarities between LoGH and RotTK.  Both have massive casts of characters, political intrigue, and whole episodes in which characters try to use deception in both diplomacy and battle to achieve victory.  I really recommend Three Kingdoms too, even though it’s also a million episodes long – the whole series is subbed in English and posted on Youtube, maybe because nobody can watch Youtube in China anyway (at least not legally.)  The guy who plays Cao Cao is really a great actor.

Anime for people who hate anime: Kaiji

Time to scare off most of the people who came to this blog looking for travel posts! Yes, I am an extremely depressing nerd. Sorry, everyone. Anyway, this group of posts is going to cover anime series that I’ve enjoyed and that you can also enjoy without feeling embarrassed or hating yourself – I don’t care who you are.

It’s true that watching anime has a kind of stigma attached to it. Most of my friends don’t know I watch any anime at all – they think it’s all either cutesy stuff for little girls, unlimited perversity, or glowy superhuman guys throwing energy balls at each other. And a lot of it is. But some of it isn’t! Animation is just a medium, after all: the creator can fill that medium with whatever he wishes, and some have filled it with interesting characters and compelling stories.

As a side note, I’m not going to stop writing travel posts, so if you come here just for that then, you know, please don’t unbookmark me or anything. This isn’t going to become an anime review site, either – I know people with way more knowledge about this stuff than I have, so if you’re looking for “a series like _____ but with more mechs” I’m not the one to ask about that. Thanks!

Anyway, on to the subject of this post:

Gambling Apocalypse Kaiji

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Kaiji is the story of the title character, a young man without much in the way of motivation or marketable skills who is up to his eyeballs in debt because of bad decisions. As he mulls over his fate, he’s invited to join a mysterious event by a mob-connected loan shark. This just happens to be a gambling event taking place on a totally isolated cruise ship against other debtors. Said loan shark tells Kaiji that if he only joins this game, he’ll have a shot at clearing his debts if he’s among the winners. If he loses… well, let’s not think about what might happen if he loses. Despite his misgivings, Kaiji takes up the offer and shows up at the dock where the ship is about to depart. What Kaiji doesn’t realize is that he’s about to enter a world of insane gambles and deception where he have to will risk his health and even his life.

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A little background on this series: Kaiji was created by Nobuyuki Fukumoto (aka FKMT), a Japanese comic artist and writer famous for his gambling comic series. But Fukumoto’s works aren’t just about gambling: they’re really about power, skill and the meaning of life. Kaiji’s real search throughout the series is for a sense of purpose. A lot of the gambles he’s forced to take part in to clear his debts involve defeating someone else and destroying his chances to succeed for Kaiji to succeed himself. Despite this, Kaiji always manages to maintain his humanity and does his best to help his fellow debtors, even when the people running the gambles (a large, extremely shady corporation called Teiai) impose rules that seem to demand the winners sacrifice the losers.

Kaiji might look depressing, and it is.  It really is.

Kaiji might look depressing, and it is. It really is.

But Kaiji is also uplifting. Under normal circumstances, Kaiji is a loser who can’t achieve much of anything at all. But when he’s pushed to his limits and exposed to great danger, he seems to unlock a hidden genius within himself that allows him to escape, to survive and to succeed where others have failed. Kaiji will have to rely on this ability, one that he doesn’t even seem to realize he possesses, to defeat his creditors. Kaiji is all about building up tension to the point where you can’t believe he’ll be able to get out of his predicament, before he finds a way – an extreme and unpredictable way – to come out on top.

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Throughout the series, Kaiji runs into other characters, some allied to his cause and others standing against his efforts. A lot of these characters have their own interesting backstories. The “bad guys” have their own clear motivations that usually aren’t any worse than Kaiji’s. They’re simply looking out for their own interests, which happen to run directly counter to his. Even the head of Teiai, an old billionaire, is a little sympathetic despite being without a doubt the most black-and-white evil character on the show, because he’s also clearly fucking crazy.

If I ever get old and rich, I'm going to drink extremely expensive wine out of a bowl like a dog.

If I ever get old and rich, I’m going to drink extremely expensive wine out of a bowl like a dog.

So hey! If the above image didn’t convince you to go and watch Kaiji right now, I don’t know what will. The series is currently two seasons in, and the comic is much further along, though Fukumoto hasn’t finished the story. Even so, the end of the second season does have a sense of finality to it, so don’t be afraid to dive in right away. As far as I know, Kaiji hasn’t been licensed in the States so you can easily find scanned/fan-translated version of the comic and torrents and Youtube links with subtitles of the anime series. Kaiji is well worth watching if you enjoy stories about gambling. It’s also worth watching if you just enjoy good, compelling stories with a lot of truly effective suspense to them.

It also features the most detailed beer can in animation history.

It also features the most detailed beer can in animation history.