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.

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2 thoughts on “Retrospective: Prince of Persia

    • The movements were fluid and great. You could clearly see the Prince leaping off a pillar into a spike pit in real time because he didn’t grab the damn ledge.

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