Inspired by the opening scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark, Jordan Mechner designed and created the classic adventure platformer ‘Prince of Persia’. It was released in 1989 and was the first game that really gave players the chance to engage in a swashbuckling adventure—complete with exploration, sword fights, and death-defying leaps of faith over spike-filled pits.
As with the majority of games from that period, there is only the briefest of story set-ups. In this case, we have a young man (our protagonist) trapped in Grand Vizier Jaffar’s dungeons. Jaffar has designs on usurping the absent Sultan’s throne and the only obstacle standing between him and his objective is the Sultan’s daughter. To overcome this, Jaffar presents her with an ultimatum; she has one hour to decide whether to marry him or die. That gives her incarcerated young hero exactly sixty minutes to escape the dungeons, rescue his girl, and save the day.
Despite the basic nature of the plot, the game’s opening scenes establish the Middle Eastern setting well. The title screen shows the Sultan’s palace in all its splendour and the introductory music matches the geographical location perfectly. Considering the limitations of what could be achieved at the time on a technical level, this audio-visual combination does a good job of transporting the player’s imagination to an exotic far-away land.
The title screen is followed by a short introduction which establishes the story described above. During this, Jaffar is shown confronting the Sultan’s daughter with his ultimatum. She appears reluctant to marry him and so he conjures up an hourglass, which he leaves in her room before walking away. This is played out to more dramatic Middle Eastern music, which further helps with the player’s immersion and investment in our hero’s mission. Finally, we are shown our first view of the unfortunate youth trapped in the dungeons and are put in control of his race against time to escape.
Although the graphics are simple, they are clear and easy on the eye. This results in a more enjoyable time making one’s way through the twelve levels of the Grand Vizier’s dungeons. The player experiences the game from an isometric point of view, even though the character’s movements are restricted to two dimensions. Both the levels and our protagonist’s movements are very well designed.
The fluidity of movement seems incredibly natural considering the era in which the game was made, and is due to the method Jordan Mechner employed to create it. He filmed his younger brother running, jumping, and crouching. Then, when progamming the game, he found a way of recreating the movements to convey such realism. The technique, called rotoscoping, was also used in another classic adventure game, ‘Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis’. Despite the fact that ‘Prince of Persia’ was made before the Indiana Jones game, the movements of the playable character in the former appear more lifelike.
The game’s opening level is relatively simple, both in terms of aesthetics and difficulty. It is spartan and features no decoration apart from several wall-mounted torches, the flames of which flicker in the background adding a degree of atmosphere to the subterranean world. At the start of the second level there are four austere pillars flanking the entrance, giving the player a fleeting sense that they have made a minor degree of progression from the darkest depths of Jaffar’s dungeons to somewhere a little more civilised.
This pattern continues for a while, with levels gradually becoming more visually appealing. Once our hero makes his way to level four, the colour of the walls changes from a cold stone-grey to a warmer sandy shade. In addition to the flame-flickering torches there are now windows. The first section of the level even features a decorative Persian rug. Owing to these embellishments, the player is made to feel that they are slowly but surely escaping and making their way towards the surface. They are effective at aiding the player with their immersion and participation in the story.
As one would expect, the difficulty of the levels gets progressively harder, with the physical feats required of the imprisoned youth becoming increasingly complicated and challenging. Jaffar’s dungeons are not forgiving of mistakes and feature a multitude of booby traps, ranging from hidden spikes that emerge when approached to false floors and vicious guillotines, which kill instantly. Furthermore, there are huge drops that our character must jump over at precisely the right moment, as he tries to survive the gauntlet of obstacles placed before him during his dash for freedom.
Throughout the dungeons our hero must do battle with a host of guards that vary in difficulty. The sword fights with these foes can be quite challenging, with a careful and well-timed combination of thrusts and parries needed to advance. These encounters are exciting and tense, as it is very easy to lose a lot of health during them.
It isn’t only human enemies that must be vanquished; at certain points in the game, scattered heaps of bones lying on the ground come to life to form skeletons, which can only be destroyed by forcing them off ledges. This pays homage to the excellent skeleton duels of Ray Harryhausen’s classic Dynamation adventure films, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad and Jason and the Argonauts. The setting and overall atmosphere of ‘Prince of Persia’ are so well fashioned that it could be a story straight out of The Thousand and One Nights, the collection that contains the original Sinbad folk tales.
If Raiders of the Lost Ark and the Ray Harryhausen films provided the inspiration for ‘Prince of Persia’, the legacy that the game left and influence it has had on others can be seen clearly in one of the most famous action-adventure titles of all-time—‘Tomb Raider’.
Despite featuring 3D environments, the original ‘Tomb Raider’ game had very similar movement mechanics to ‘Prince of Persia’, with jumps having to be carefully measured and timed. Pressure pad-activated doors, spike-filled pits, and crumbling floors also featured heavily in the later game. In many ways ‘Tomb Raider’ represents the natural evolution of ‘Prince of Persia’.
All the obstacles present in ‘Prince of Persia’ combine to create some fiendishly difficult situations later in the game, where certain death is almost guaranteed. When our hero does succumb to the dangers of Jaffar’s dungeons, his death is presented graphically—with blood soaked all over his white outfit and smeared on whatever nefarious contraption caused his demise. This raises the stakes, which in turn, heightens the tension before one attempts to make it past a particular obstacle, trap, or duel.
Scattered throughout the corridors and dead ends of the dungeons are various magic potions that our protagonist can drink. The most common of these miraculous libations restores some of his health. There are also potions that take his health away and even one that allows him to float like a feather. The use of these elixirs infuses magic into our adventure and makes the whole experience more fantastical. At one point, the playable character comes face-to-face with a mirror image of himself, which must be dealt with in order to proceed.
Between levels we see the Sultan’s daughter waiting nervously by the hourglass. If time does run out before the playable character escapes the dungeons, we are shown an empty room where the princess once was. From this we can only presume that she has been taken away to be disposed of. However, should our hero make it to the final level of the dungeons within the allotted time, he can regain his freedom and rescue his girl after facing Jaffar in a final showdown.
This is an old game and it can be very difficult; it is frustrating and addictive in equal measure. Compared to most modern games it is short in length, but great fun to spend a few hours on. With some speedy running, nimble jumping, and fierce sword-fighting skill, our adventurer can escape the deadly dungeons and take his rightful place as the Prince of Persia.
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