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Page 1:
Introduction
Prince of Persia (1989)

Page 2:
The Shadow & The Flame
Arabian Nights
Harem Adventures

Page 3:
The Sands of Time
Warrior Within

Page 4:
The Two Thrones
Battles of Prince of Persia

Page 5:
Prince of Persia (2008)
The Fallen King

Page 6:
The Forgotten Sands

Page 7:
The Graphic Novel
Before the Sandstorm
Movie

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by Kurt Kalata and Sam Derboo - updated 8/12/2011

Prince of Persia was one of the milestones in how video games were made and perceived as a narrative form, but it almost didn't get made. After it got made, it almost flopped. In summer 1985, not too long after his first game Karateka was released, a young game designer / aspiring screenwriter named Jordan Mechner first came up with the idea of a game in an Arabian Nights setting. By the end of the year, a contract was drafted with Karateka-Publisher Brøderbund, and Mechner had shot footage of his brother David performing various movements intended for the game, only the first of many recording sessions in Prince of Persia's development.

Mechner had first applied rotoscoping - that is, a live actor is filmed by a camera doing a variety of movements, and then an artist traces those images on a computer - for Karateka, and for his new game he would refine the technique. Even in the earliest demos, the hero of the game still frequently referred to as Baghdad (the title Prince of Persia was first thought up by the producer at Broderbund a year later) had remarkably fluid animation. He didn't just jump up - he'd squat, leap into the sky and grab ahold of a ledge, swaying in the air before he pulled himself up and over. Considering most game characters at the time were lucky if they had more than three frames of movement animation, this was an extraordinary achievement. Getting the footage for the Prince's athletic movement wasn't always easy:

August 28, 1988
The videotaping with Robert came to an undignified halt when the battery pack in the rented camera abruptly died. At the time, I was hanging off the edge of a bus shelter at the North San Pedro Road freeway exit, hoping the cops wouldn't show up, and realizing that hauling oneself up onto a ledge from a dead hang is harder than I'd thought. We'll try again next week.

Active work on the code began on October 21, 1986 and Mechner was hopeful to finish the game by August the following year. But after a while Prince of Persia was effectively put on halt for a long time, for a lack of motivation and being torn apart between working as a game designer and trying to get his career as a screenwriter going. His journal on November 20, 1987 reads:

Yesterday I went in to work for the first time since I can't remember when. I booted up the game and looked at it. It was deeply depressing.

Going through the game's code, he found himself hardly remembering any of it. But his long time friend Tomi Pierce (1953-2010) managed to convince him to pick up the pieces and go on:

"Think of the game as an old car you're fixing up in your spare time," Tomi suggested, urging me to resume work on it. This old car has an engine block that's rusted solid. I can't even think about how much work lies ahead.

Other friends supported the project, as well: Robert Cook, designer of D/Generation contributed many ideas like the legendary mirror scene and helped with the recording of the remaining animations, Mechner got his father to compose the musical score, which mixed several styles of oriental influences and was maybe the first effectively done cinematic soundtrack in a video game. (Both Pierce and Cook later worked with Mechner on the incredibly imaginative - and underappreciated - adventure game The Last Express.)

At the end of a long and sometimes troubled development, Prince of Persia finally shipped in October 1989 for the Apple II. However, despite critics revering the game and everyone's confidence that Prince of Persia would become a huge hit, the game initially didn't do very well. The Apple II was all but a commercially dead platform. An IBM-PC port followed soon, but Mechner soon found himself frustrated by more disappointing sales and Brøderbund's total lack of marketing for the game. It even was de-listed at EB in September 1992, four months after the DOS version had come out. Only when the game was exceptionally well received in Japan and Europe (especially France) and converted to dozens of home computers and game consoles, Prince of Persia became the success it is known as today.

July 18, 1990
Florence thinks Prince is going to be a big hit in Europe. And some rather startling news (from Doug): NEC Prince has already shipped 10,000 units in Japan. Could that be?? It's only sold 7,000 units each on Apple and IBM in the U.S. to date.

After the original came out on practically every gaming platform at the time and sold 2 million copies world wide, everyone involved was pumped to make the sequel Prince of Persia 2: The Shadow and the Flame, which offered much more detailed graphics and locales, although the gameplay remained the same. Prince of Persia had made a huge impact, influencing as highly esteemed titles as Flashback and Tomb Raider, but the series itself went under for a long time - The abysmal Prince of Persia 3D: Arabian Nights was widely ignored by most - until UbiSoft revitalized the franchise with their amazing The Sands of Time, which was still in 3D, but managed to capture all of the acrobatic glory of the original games and still managed to control exceptionally well. Since then, Prince of Persia has become one of UbiSoft's mainstay franchises, with lots and lots of sequels and spin-offs.

Although not the primary designer, Mechner worked on both Prince of Persia 3D and The Sands of Time. Since then, he hasn't gotten involved with any more game sequels, but produced two Prince of Persia comic books and wrote the original screenplay for the 2010 movie adaption. In his journal, we can read about the moment when Jordan Mechner first caught fire for his new game, still in the very early concept stages:

August 28, 1985
Then a strange thing happened. I started getting images in my head of the characters: The Sultan. The Princess. The Boy. I saw the scenes in my mind as if it were a Disney movie.

Twenty-five years later, it is a Disney movie; And incidentally one of the most prolific video game series around.

Story concept from January 1988

Swordfight animation concept

Prince of Persia (Apple IIc)

Prince of Persia (Apple IIc)

Jordan Mechner


Prince of Persia - Apple II (1989), IBM PC, Atari ST, Amiga, Amstrad CPC, PC-9801 (1990), Sam Coupe, X68000, Turbografx-16 CD (1991), Game Boy, Macintosh, FM Towns, SNES, Master System, Game Gear, Sega CD, NES (1992), Genesis (1994), ZX Spectrum (1995), Game Boy Color (1999), Xbox, PlayStation 2, GameCube (2003), Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 (2008), Mobile (2009), Wii, iOS (2010), Commodore 64 (2011, unofficial), Wii Virtual Console, 3DS Virtual Console, Android (2012)

Amstrad CPC Cover

Western Game Boy Cover

PC-98 Cover

TurboGrafx-16 CD-ROM Cover

Macintosh Cover

Japanese Game Boy Cover

Super Famicom Cover

Early Boxart Sketch

Mega Drive Cover

Atari ST Cover

Game Boy Color Cover

American SNES Cover

Most of the Prince of Persia games start off the same way - the Sultan is double crossed by his evil vizier named Jaffar (see Disney's Aladdin also for this common Arabic plot), and you, a foreigner who has his eyes on the princess, is tossed into the dungeon to rot. Not intent on dying in captivity, you must escape and defeat the evil vizier's plans to marry the princess and become the ruler of Persia.

Prince of Persia isn't just all about making crazy jumps - there's a good amount of thinking required to get through the levels. Most of these puzzles revolve around hitting switches to open doors, dashing through a veritable gauntlet of razor sharp traps, running over collapsing floors and otherwise performing incredible acrobatic manuevers to get to the end of each level. The fact that these tiny marathons are usually timed doesn't make things any easier.

Partially due to the Prince's movements, the controls are just a little bit awkward. Pressing left or right will make the Prince sprint in that direction, while pressing up will jump. There's an additional button which will let you tiptoe (useful for getting close to edges) and to grab onto ledges. Certain versions of the game include a jump button, allowing you to make running leaps or short hops much easier.

Mechner originally planned to make Prince of Persia a straight puzzle platformer, influenced by Lode Runner and Castles of Dr. Creep. (The game was also supposed to ship with a level editor, which got canned later on.) But eventually it became clear that the pure approach without any combat didn't quite work out for the game. Gene Portwood of Brøderbund called it "an effect in search of a game." Tomi Pierce put it even more directly:

November 11, 1988
"I like games where you can shoot things. Your game has no rewards except getting to the next level. It's all survival and no triumph." -Tomi

So he went back to the drawing board, snitched some frames from Errol Flynn and Basil Rathbone's climatic fight in The Adventures of Robin Hood to rotoscope, and found a way to implement the guards despite the Apple II's memory limitations. So thanks to Tomi and Robin Hood, Prince of Persia became the first to make fencing in a game just as exciting as watching it in a movie. After snagging a sword in the first level, the Prince is now often forced to let weapons speak against the vizier's guards. These encounters are extraordinarily difficult at first, but one gets the hang of them eventually. You can either attack or parry with your sword, but the opponent can do the same. Sword fighting requires splendidly fast reflexes and a keen eye to determine when to defend and to strike. Even at the beginning of the game, the guards are pretty vicious. Initially the Prince can only take three hits, but with a bit of exploration, you can find potions that lengthen the life meter - an inspiration from Super Mario Bros. 2.

Both of these main elements lead to the central problem of Prince of Persia - the game is insanely hard. It's really easy to accidentally careen off a cliff or miss a jump or somehow make some little accident that results in the Prince getting skewered, sliced or otherwise killed in a bloody, gruesome manner. Likewise, you'll find yourself getting stabbed to death by the guards pretty frequently. Prince of Persia knows little of checkpoints - die and you're at the beginning of the level. To be fair, you get unlimited lives, but here's the kick - you only have an hour to beat the game. Yes, an hour, and you waste of lot of time if you keep getting killed over and over. By all accounts, the game really isn't that long - if you never die, you can probably get through all thirteen levels with plenty of time to spare - but getting a perfect run on a game like this is an achievement of monumental proportions. Still, as one plays levels over and over, one gets a feel for the motions, and each playthrough becomes less difficult.

But yes, it's massively frustrating in the beginning. And yeah, the Prince really is realy difficult to control efficiently. When playing the first level of the game for the first time, players constantly find themselves colliding with the floor, and no one will blame those that just give up. But if one got the patience to get used to the unconventional controls and appreciation for the amazingness of the graphics, then Prince of Persia will slowly reveal its rewards. One begins to admire every insane leap, every puzzle completed just in the nick of time as the gate snaps closed behind, every victory against some bastard guard. It's that same old school joy we've come to know and love/hate in our childhood.

Early in the game, the Prince is forced to jump through a mirror, only to find his shadow separated from his body. "Shadow Man" was actually the first adversary ever conceived for the Prince, back when Mechner still thought he wouldn't have enough memory to include distinctive enemy sprites. This evil doppelganger will irritate the player until the final stages of the game, stealing potions and triggering traps, until the inevitable confrontation to reunite him with the Prince's body. It's a clever device, echoed in more recent games like Metroid Fusion and Metroid Prime 2, and even picked up on in Ubisoft's third Prince of Persia game, The Two Thrones.

November 13, 1988
We'll make the shadow man your opponent for the entire game. You're competing for hit points. Each blow you deal him weakens him. Each power dot you eat makes you stronger. But if he gets there first and he eats it, he gets stronger. So when you face each other with crossed swords, the balance of power is not predetermined (as in Karateka), but is the result of your own actions thus far in the game.

The first implementation of the Prince's shadow (Apple II preview)

May 9, 1989
Spent the day hard-wiring the shadow man into the level I built yesterday. It's kind of a letdown. For over a year now, the shadow man has been this awesome idea that everyone gets all excited about when they hear it. Now, it's just what it is. The unlimited potential has been replaced by the concrete reality of what I programmed today.
This time, there'll be no time for me to tear it all down and reprogram it five more times, to try to more fully realize the dream. The hundreds of thousands of kids who I hope will play this game will encounter the shadow man just as I programmed him today. I hope he blows them away. I'm too close to it to be able to tell. If not, well, I blew it.

Prince of Persia's native platform was the Apple IIc home computer, a machine that was mostly known for infesting elementary schools with edutainment rather than having decent games. While the four color scheme may make it seem primitive, all of the incredible animation was still intact, which was truly a remarkable achievement.

Because 1989 was awfully late for an Apple game, both Brøderbund and Mechner were desperate to get a IBM-PC version out as fast as possible, so it was ported in-house with the creator's involvement, but not without its own share of troubles underway. This version introduced 256 color graphics that looked quite a bit nicer, and improved music. Contracted Amiga and Atari ST versions followed soon. The game was also ported to more 8-bit computers, mostly ones that were successful in Europe: Amstrad CPC and the obscure British computer Sam Coupe. The same guys that created the latter also worked on a Spectrum version, but it got cancelled because they couldn't find an agreement with Domark, licensing partner for the game in the UK (the Spectrum was commercially abandoned by then). The game made it onto Britain's most popular home computer after all in 1995, in an unlicensed port programmed in Russia, although this version shrinks all screens by 2 tiles width. There have also been failed attempts to bring the game to indigenous Russian computers.

Compared to the Apple II original, the Japanese computer versions looked stunning. (X68000)

Through Riverhill Soft, Prince of Persia also made it to the three major 16-bit computer platforms in Japan, the NEC PC-98, Fujitsu's FM-Towns and the X68000 by Sharp. The former two look exactly the same, but the FM-Towns version was released on CD and features a redbook audio soundtrack, while Prince of Persia on the NEC platform has a few extra menus that allow to modify the speed the game runs in. These ports make heavy use of dithering effects to conceal the 16-color palette, which makes them look quite awkward on modern monitors. The X68000 uses more colors, but also suffers from this effect to a smaller degree. For some reason it also seems to run in a very high resolution with huge black borders. The PC-Engine port, also by Riverhill, is mostly the same safe for a better color palette, and even includes the speed option. Understandably, it is the only one of this bunch that made it stateside on TurboGrafx-16 CD. All of these Japanese versions also allowed to save the game at each level, and used a completely different set of graphics, first introducing Prince's new outfit with the turban and vest. Mechner was quite impressed when he saw them, so much that they were used as a basis for the Macintosh version.

March 5, 1990
Saw the new NEC 9801 Prince from Japan. It's beautiful. It blew me away. What a great feeling. As Lance said: "It's like seeing the movie version of a book you wrote."

The final american-developed home computer port was even better looking, with redrawn high-res graphics and a new color scheme. It contains three graphic sets, for b&w and both high and lower resolution color monitors. The Mac version is the one included as a bonus with Prince of Persia: Sands of Time, although it has been downscaled to fill about half of the screen for whatever reason.

Then more console ports followed. Given the sensitivity at the time, most of these had the blood toned down to varying degrees. On the other hand, Prince of Persia was probably the only game ever whose cover got sexed-up for the Nintendo ports. (The original cover was supposed to look more like that, but the female marketing manager got worked up about the princess' cleavage.) The NES port looks remarkably like the PC version, although some of the screens have to scroll a little, since they can't fit entirely on the screen. The Gameboy version doesn't have that problem because everything is scaled to size, anyway, but because of the lack of colors all levels look the same. (Nowadays it is worth mentioning that the sound for both versions isn't properly emulated in most Game Boy emulators.) Both Nintendo 8-bit ports were done by Virgin. Much earlier Sunsoft had tried to buy the rights, but the deal didn't work out, supposedly due to Brøderbund's inaction. In 1999 Red Orb Entertainment had dusted of the Game Boy version for a GBC release, which besides the obligatory coloring also adds a short training level.

Domark was also responsible for most of the Sega versions. These have incredibly amusing cover art, with the Prince bearing more than a vague resemblance to Luke Skywalker. The Sega Master System and Game Gear version look much better than their Nintendo 8-bit counterparts, although there's an annoying fade between screens, and the animation feels a little weird. The Genesis version, probably has the most detailed graphics of them all, adding lots of extra touches here and there, despite the low color palette. Unfortunately, the fading from the Sega Master System version remains, making some of the multi-screen running jumps unnecessarily difficult. There's also a terrible music score that's an embarrassment to the Genesis' FM chip. When released for the Mega Drive in Europe, this version was enhanced with a new short intro animation of the prince getting kicked down a set of stairs and the musical score playing throughout the stages. Most of all, the Mega Drive version features four all new levels, and time extending potions to make up for the longer journey. The Sega CD version, however hails from Japan, and belongs to the same family of ports as the Japanese computer versions. It has the speedup option, redone graphics, a few different CD music tracks than the PC-Engine, and cool new anime-style scenes to accompany the intro.

Save for the extra levels on the European Mega Drive, the only significant differences between all these versions are cosmestic. The Super Nintendo version, however, ported by NCS and published by Konami in North America, expands the game by offering significantly more levels and enlarging some of those that were already there. To make up for the drastically lengthened game, the time limit has been expanded to two hours. The music is a bit quieter than the CD versions, but it fits the mood. Overall, if you're going to a pick a version of the original game to play, it's probably going to be this one.

Prince of Persia (Xbox 360)

In 2007, a full remake of Prince of Persia was released on Xbox Live Arcade, soon followed with the PS3 port as Prince of Persia Classic. Although all of the graphics are 3D (and done in the style of the next-gen reimagining that started in 2003), the gameplay is still all 2D. The controls are fairly faithful, but in some cases have actually been tightened up to be more responsive. This might actually throw off people used to the timing of the original versions, but it makes for generally much better control. A couple of the moves from the newer games, like the ability to jump and bounce off walls, have been included. Floor switches are now marked in bright colors, and a magic butterfly often shows the way to the next target location. Otherwise, it's pretty faithful to the PC release, even including the maddening difficult and hour time limit. Based on this version is also the mobile port by Gameloft. The controls have been reworked even more to make up for the typical issues that come when playing a game on a phone keypad, but there's another major issue, depending on the device it is played on: Most cell phones have a higher vertical resolution with a very narrow horizontal, which this game just wasn't made for.

The Prince's appearance on the iOS appstore has been a bit confusing over the years. At first, the classic Mac version appeared in 2010, but it was eventually pulled from the store and replaced with an enhanced version of Prince of Persia Classic in 2012, with dungeon maps and added story cutscenes. The old game subsequently underwent some interface changes and was relocated as Prince of Persia Retro. The Classic version has also been released for Android devices later that year. Nintendo also got some digitally downloadable releases up through the Virtual Console, namely the SNES game on Wii and the Game Boy Color version on 3DS.

Another recent port of the original game is once again an inofficial one: Indie programmer Mr. SID finally brought the game to a vintage platform that was long missing out on the game - the Commodore 64. The port is quite an impressive feat, based on the original Apple II source code documentation and with graphics resembling the IBM-PC version. It only runs on custom made flash cartdridges, circumventing the terrible load times of the C64's floppy drive. It does work with certain emulators, though, and is freely available for download. There is also a playable 1-level demo of the game for various programmable calculators, which appears to be based on the Game Boy version.

Quick Info:

Developer:

Brøderbund

Publisher:

Brøderbund

Designer:

Jordan Mechner

Genre:

Platforming

Themes:

Cinematic Platform Game
Fantasy: Arabian Nights
Free Climbing
Remakes Available


Prince of Persia (DOS)

Prince of Persia (DOS)

Prince of Persia (DOS)

Prince of Persia (DOS)

Prince of Persia (Sega CD)

Macintosh

Prince of Persia (SNES)

Prince of Persia (SNES)

Prince of Persia (SNES)

Prince of Persia (SNES)

Prince of Persia (Genesis)

Prince of Persia (Xbox 360)

Prince of Persia Classic (Mobile)

Prince of Persia Classic (iOS)


Intro Screenshots


Comparison Screenshots


<<< Prior Page

Next Page >>>

Page 1:
Introduction
Prince of Persia (1989)

Page 2:
The Shadow & The Flame
Arabian Nights
Harem Adventures

Page 3:
The Sands of Time
Warrior Within

Page 4:
The Two Thrones
Battles of Prince of Persia

Page 5:
Prince of Persia (2008)
The Fallen King

Page 6:
The Forgotten Sands

Page 7:
The Graphic Novel
Before the Sandstorm
Movie

Back to the Index