A brief glance at the pantheon of consoles and computers this game was released on is all that is needed to confirm Prince Of Persia’s enduring appeal. Across generations of people and formats, continents and cultures, from 1989 onwards the game enjoyed a full decade of almost continual ports and re-releases. A feat made all the more remarkable because the original title was the work of essentially just one person.
“It was 1985, I’d just graduated from college and I was torn,” recalls game programmer and designer (and latterly screenwriter and documentary maker) Jordan Mechner. “My first game, Karateka, had been a hit – it had paid off my student loans, the royalties were rolling in and I was in the lucky position of being able to choose what to do next.”
Designed while he was still attending Yale University in Connecticut, Karateka was a martial arts game that laid much of the groundwork for Prince Of Persia, with its mix of scrolling and flip-screen adventuring and rotoscoped animation. But despite his new ideas for advancing the formula, videogames were far from Mechner’s only interest, either then or now. “What I really wanted to do was make movies and be a screenwriter,” he admits. “I was afraid I couldn’t do both, that if I started on another game it would become my life and I’d end up never pursuing my other dream.
After spending his first year out of university cogitating on videogame concepts and trying to write a movie script, Mechner eventually accepted an offer of a job with Brøderbund. Although the publisher was still hoping for a sequel, the success of Karateka allowed him to insist on complete creative freedom. Platform puzzlers such as Lode Runner and The Castles Of Dr Creep offered some inspiration for his next project, but cinema provided more stimulus.
Influenced by Raiders Of The Lost Ark and Harrison Ford’s iconic portrayal of a new breed of less impervious action hero, Mechner wanted his new game’s character to be similarly pioneering. “In most platform puzzle games at the time, characters were weightless. It was an abstract representation of jumping and falling. It never felt real.”
Although the similarities between Raiders’ opening ten minutes and the final game are obvious, it was not just the game’s action elements in which Mechner wanted to innovate – he also demanded emotional involvement. “I felt that human, dramatic quality was what had made Karateka work. It was kind of my speciality and I wanted to take it further.”
The game’s plot and setting were also inspired by cinema, in particular the British 1940 version of The Thief of Baghdad. But apart from a small number of silent-movie-style title cards the game’s entire plot is communicated only through the player’s actions and some brief in-game cutscenes. “What makes it live and breathe, what makes the world specific, are the details,” insists Mechner.
“The characters’ personality is expressed through action, through the way they’re animated, the gameplay and the way the levels are laid out. When you actually play the game, you find out the story has twists and turns and lots of characters – the guards, the shadow prince, the white mouse – but it’s a story you play, not a story that’s told to you. And that was something new in videogames.”
For the game’s swordfighting, Mechner turned to the classic final duel between Errol Flynn and Basil Rathbone in 1938’s The Adventures Of Robin Hood. “For a few seconds, the camera angle has them in exact profile. This was a godsend. I did my VHS/one-hour-photo rotoscope procedure, spread two-dozen snapshots out on the floor of the office and spent days poring over them trying to figure out what exactly was going on in that duel, how to conceptualise it into a repeatable pattern.”
Originally, however, there were no plans for any combat in the game, in part because of concerns about a lack of memory to store the extra animation frames, but also because Mechner wanted the Prince to be entirely nonviolent. “The trouble was, the game wasn’t much fun. My friend Tomi, every time she saw it, said the same thing: ‘Combat, combat, combat!’ After two years of resisting, I gave in to the inevitable and figured out a way to squeeze swordfighting in. And, of course, it made the game.”
Although the animation, storytelling and design of the puzzles and levels were all well ahead of their time, playing the game today the most striking element is how forward-thinking it is in terms of difficultly level. In an era when merciless punishment and rote learning were still rife, Prince Of Persia was hugely progressive in its demands on the player. Even the ostensibly restrictive realtime limit of a single hour proves essential to maintaining pace and forward momentum – while leaving most players with more than enough time to beat the game.
“My rule is that the player needs to have a clear goal – a desire – at every moment. The goal can be as simple as ‘get to the right edge of the screen’ and it can keep changing throughout the level – it can turn out to be a mistaken goal – but you must always have one,” states Mechner.
“This sounds self-evident, but I didn’t realise how fundamental it was until quite late in the game’s development. Once I did, I tore down all the levels I’d built and rebuilt them from scratch. It’s a basic principle of screenwriting – a story doesn’t move until a character wants something. A game doesn’t move until the player wants something. You can have the most spectacular action, but if you’re not able to interpret it in terms of how it’s moving you relative to your goal, then the boredom clock starts ticking away. It’s amazing how many games don’t do this, even today.”
Prince Of Persia took three years to develop, an eternity by the standards of the era. But by 1989 the Apple II market was on the wane, and despite positive reviews sales were limited. Surprisingly, the subsequent MS-DOS version on PC was also a failure. But although neither of Mechner’s versions were hits the game finally found its audience on the Mac and the burgeoning console market.
The console versions were produced by a variety of different companies, with the foreign and console rights going to the likes of Konami, Sega, Nintendo, Bandai, Domark and Hudson Soft. “In 1991 or ’92, these versions started to hit,” remembers Mechner, “and suddenly the Brøderbund accounting people were coming in with strange looks on their faces because we were getting royalty cheques for hundreds of thousands of dollars from companies they’d never heard of. Prince Of Persia sold two million copies and most of that was the console versions.”
Once the game had finally achieved the success it deserved Mechner was understandably feeling burned out: “I’d gone pretty much straight from college into the industrial park and I was desperate to travel. I moved to Paris. I designed Prince Of Persia 2: The Shadow And The Flame in such a way that the artists and programmers could do it without me. This was in 1992. I didn’t write a line of code; I built the levels in Paris using the level editor, and FedExed them to San Francisco on 5.25-inch floppy discs.”
The sequel actually outsold the original on computer formats, but as Mechner himself admits it broke little new ground. Despite their essential contribution to the overall success of the original, there were no console versions of part two, leaving many today to assume that Ubisoft’s 2003 The Sands Of Time was the first real sequel. (The fewer who are aware of the Mechner-less Prince Of Persia 3D, released in 1999, the better.)
Despite the change of publisher, Mechner was deeply involved in The Sands Of Time. “That was a labour of love for me and the Ubisoft Montreal team,” he admits. “From start to finish we had the feeling that we were creating something special and also that we were underdogs, attempting something very ambitious in an industry and climate that wouldn’t necessarily embrace it.”
After completing The Sands Of Time, Mechner went to Hollywood and began work on the movie adaption, a Disney-financed and Jerry-Bruckheimer-produced Prince Of Persia film. He had little hands-on involvement with any of the subsequent Ubisoft sequels, although he followed the development of the 2008 reboot. “They set out to recapture the fantasy and romantic Arabian Nights feeling of The Sands Of Time, which I felt the last two games that were its direct sequels got away from,” says Mechner.
Irrespective of Ubisoft’s new goals, the original game may endure long after the complex 3D graphics of its successors become antiquated. “After all these years,” concludes Mechner, “I’d have to say that in terms of sheer playability – fluid animation and consistency of controls, so that you feel the joystick and your character are one – the Apple II version is still supreme.”