Franchise Festival #39: Prince of Persia

Welcome back to Franchise Festival, where we explore and discuss the history of noteworthy video game series from the last four decades. Older entries can be found here.

This week we’ll be using our momentum to explore the history of Prince of Persia. As with the Wizardry article, Sam Derboo’s exhaustive series overview on Hardcore Gaming 101 is a critical part of my source material; this article would simply not have been possible without his work. Cover art, unless otherwise noted, is from MobyGames. Please consider supporting that website, as its staff tirelessly catalogs key information and art assets for an often ephemeral medium.

Background

Jordan Mechner was a student at Yale University when he developed his first game on an Apple II computer. Karateka (1984), despite being the aspiring screenwriter’s first effort in game design, was a groundbreaking title in the fighting genre. Mechanically similar to the following decade’s less successful Mortal Kombat Mythologies: Sub-Zero (1997), Karateka features a human protagonist navigating 2D levels while dueling enemies one-on-one after switching to a ‘fighting stance’.

karatekaopening
Mechner’s flair for the cinematic is apparent from the opening moments of Karateka. This sequence would be echoed in Prince of Persia. Credit: Old Classic Retro Gaming

Combat in Karateka is oriented primarily around karate, as Mechner had recently been enrolled in a martial arts class. His father composed the game’s audio, and Mechner looked to the films of Akira Kurosawa and animated Disney shorts for visual inspiration. As early as his first release, Jordan Mechner was drawing on cinematic influences to guide his approach to video game art design. This required using the technique of rotoscoping – drawing over Super 8 film – to emulate the fluid movement of live actors.

karatekacombat
The articulation of Karateka‘s sprites was pioneering in its era. Credit: Old Classic Retro Gaming

The effect was limited, but was enough to establish a reputation in the 1980s game development landscape. A palpable sense of humor also contributed to Karateka‘s success; after defeating the final boss, the player character would be instantly killed if he approached his captured love interest while still in a fighting stance. Publisher Broderbund picked Karateka up and released it for Apple II hardware in 1984. Sensing an opportunity, Jordan Mechner made his way to the US West Coast and began work on a follow-up.

313704-prince-of-persia-apple-ii-front-cover

Prince of Persia (1989)

Fans are lucky to have access to Jordan Mechner’s diaries from the years leading up to and following the publication of Prince of Persia. These were published in 2011, and offer a fascinating window into the creative process that generated one of the 1980s’ most distinctive platformer games. An interview with Mechner, published on Gamasutra in 2011, fills in the surrounding details.

viziersultimatum
Prince of Persia‘s opening sequence, in which the Vizier presents his ultimatum, directly echoes the opening of Karateka. Credit: FrozenFoxy

In spite of the project beginning in 1985, shortly before its creator’s arrival in San Francisco, Prince of Persia would not be completed and shipped until 1989. Much of this lengthy development period – almost unprecedented in that era – is down to an extraordinarily small staff and evolving game mechanics. Mechner programmed and illustrated the game almost single-handedly. Additional sound design assistance was provided by his father, while the game’s rotoscoping is largely based on VHS recordings of Jordan Mechner’s brother. A proprietary level editor was built from scratch, and intended to ship with the game, but this would be dropped prior to the final release.

leap!
Much of the game involves overcoming traps through careful exploration. Credit: FrozenFoxy

Originally planned to feature strictly environmental hazards and no combat, Prince of Persia would integrate a dueling system by its third year in development. Mechner’s friend Tomi Pierce was primarily responsible for this idea, sparking it by repeatedly suggesting it. Initial concerns about Apple II memory constraints were resolved when Mechner found a way to effectively duplicate the player character’s sprite with a different color palette; through this rather surprisingly prosaic origin, the series’ long-running Shadow Man antagonist was born. More enemies were integrated over time, though hardware restrictions would ensure that these fights are slow-paced and limited in complexity. Combat animations, unlike exploration animations, are based on Errol Flynn’s swordplay in The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938); the film fortuitously features at least one instance of sword-fighting in profile, so it could be reproduced in 2D via rotoscoping.

vdoppleganger
The Prince encounters his doppelganger. Credit: FrozenFoxy

Prince of Persia hit store shelves in October 1989. The original Apple II version sold poorly, though it featured striking visual design in spite of its humble origins. Three years of development and painstaking animation ensured that every character movement was fluid and weighty, unlike the comparatively fantastical movement in contemporary platformers like Super Mario Brothers (1985). This was not an unmitigated success, as realistic movement hinged on momentum and resulted in less responsive controls, but it provided a distinctive experience that players couldn’t find elsewhere.

trap
Few screens are safe from the Vizier’s diabolical traps. I love that the designer of this particular guillotine believed that a straightforward blade was too simple, opting instead for what appear to be teeth. Credit: FrozenFoxy

Players take on the role of the titular Prince, who must navigate a dungeon to rescue a princess. Said princess has been kidnapped by a sinister Vizier (named Jaffar, naturally). She has one hour to choose between death or marriage to the Vizier, informing the player’s own time limit to complete his or her adventure. Twelve levels are comprised of individual rooms featuring traps, jumps, and enemy characters. In a thrilling twist, the Prince eventually encounters and battles his aforementioned shadowy doppelganger. Death frequently occurs with little warning, so the player is constantly engaging in risk/reward calculations about how carefully to advance in light of their diminishing time limit.

arsyscombat
Combat is identical in the Arsys version produced for the NEC PC-98 platform, but the color palette and sprites differ greatly from the Apple II original.  Credit: Marc Campbell

Ports to other hardware rapidly followed the game’s initial release on Apple II. Most contemporary Western PC platforms, including MS-DOS and Amiga, received versions which differed little from the original game. PC ports produced by Arsys for audiences in the Japanese region, on the other hand, were more impressive. These established the Prince’s turban and vest costume, and the Japanese PC versions would act as the basis for most subsequent home console ports. Versions developed for contemporary 16-bit home consoles featured significant visual overhauls and even a handful of mechanical alterations; swordplay, for example, was poorly redesigned for the SEGA Genesis/Mega Drive. Happily, the 16-bit console versions did integrate five additional levels. Almost twenty years later, a 2.5D polygonally rendered version of the original Prince of Persia was released by Ubisoft through digital distribution services on Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. This remake features broadly redesigned mechanics as well, including a visual indicator of the player character’s next destination and more responsive controls; whether these changes improve or diminish the game is largely up to an individual player’s preference.

viziersultimatumhd-horz.jpg
Interestingly, versions of the HD remake differ slightly from one another. The still on the left is from the 2007 release of Prince of Persia Classic HD on the Xbox 360, while the one on the right originates with the 2012 iPad version. Credits: HiJaCKEr (L), TouchGameplay (R)

In spite of initially poor sales – the Apple II was a dying platform in 1989, after all – Prince of Persia would go on to become extremely popular. Sales were particularly strong in Japan and France, ensuring that Broderbund would produce a sequel. Jordan Mechner had other plans, though, and he briefly abandoned the game industry following the success of his second game. The series’ fate would remain uncertain for several years.

173203-prince-of-persia-2-the-shadow-the-flame-dos-front-cover

Prince of Persia 2: The Shadow & The Flame (1993)

There’s no clear connection between Prince of Persia‘s commercial success in France and Mechner’s decision to become a filmmaker in that country. Still, that is where the series creator ended up after the publication of his breakthrough hit. Entirely busy with his new career and studies, Mechner would only offer a narrative outline and suggestions for the Prince of Persia franchise’s second entry.

designsketch
Happily, Mechner’s contributions include some evocative sketches that inform the game’s setting. Credit: DavidXNewton

Broderbund would proceed to develop Prince of Persia 2 with a new team. From the finished game, it’s apparent that these developers took their cues from the preceding title. Prince of Persia 2 is more or less mechanically identical to its predecessor.

town
The introductory area immediately sets the tone: this game will not be a series of dim corridors. Credit: DavidXNewton

The most conspicuous evolution is cosmetic. With a larger team dedicated to the project, Broderbund was able to expand the franchise’s visual palette out of its dim, subterranean origins. The Prince’s look is inspired by the more Arabian appearance conferred by Arsys in its Japanese PC ports of the original game. Symbolically, the opening sequence of Prince of Persia 2 sees the Prince escaping from an interior setting (where the nefarious Jaffar is again attempting to carry out a sinister plot) and dashing across sun-drenched rooftops.

ju,pingguard
Enemies are now willing to chase the Prince across gaps. Credit: DavidXNewton

Sword combat is almost entirely unchanged. One key exception to this sense of continuity, however, is found in the number of foes who challenge the player character as he attempts to find and defeat Jaffar. The first game emphasized one-on-one duels, owing to its creator’s history developing Karateka and the limited processing power of the Apple II platform on which it was programmed. By the early 1990s, both of these impediments to combat with multiple enemies had been overcome. The results are largely unsuccessful, however. Since the combat mechanics themselves originate in a game oriented around duels, switching focus from one enemy to another proves cumbersome. The addition of flying and crawling enemies likewise presents frustration.

gorgonhead
The hovering gorgon head is one of several foes which do not offer a consistent or convenient hitbox. Credit: DavidXNewton

In addition to expanding the visual palette, Broderbund also expanded the game’s scope. It is appreciably longer than its predecessor, focusing on the Prince escaping captivity, getting stranded on a desert island, then returning to his home to retake it from the nefarious Jaffar. To reflect this longer series of levels, a countdown timer does not start until the Prince returns to storm Jaffar’s castle. One might wonder whether a timer was needed at all, if it was not going to be implemented in the same way as it was in Prince of Persia, but perhaps Broderbund believed it to be inextricably linked with the franchise’s identity.

cutscenes
Cutscenes made up of still images occur throughout the game, expanding the potential for a cinematic narrative. Credit: DavidXNewton

The development team’s final added wrinkle to gameplay is also its most inventive. The Prince now has a new ability that allows him to send his shadow into areas he has not yet explored, previewing those areas’ traps without exposing the Prince to danger. This comes at the cost of life bottles – a precious resource – and offers an engaging risk/reward calculation. It also helps to mitigate some of the less meaningful deaths that players had complained about when working their way through the first game.

shadowprince
Shadow Prince can brave traps that would result in Meat Prince’s instant demise. Credit: DavidXNewton

Ports for Prince of Persia 2 were fewer in number than those made for its predecessor. An SNES version was riddled with bugs and performance issues, while Mac and PC ports were more less identical to the IBM original. A SEGA Genesis version was abandoned partway through development.

flameandshadow
The dense setting of Prince of Persia 2 does not lend itself well to polygonal rendering; this battle scene from Prince of Persia: Shadow & Flame reveals a believable 2.5D world that comes at the expense of clarity. Credit: GameTime

In 2013, a remake was finally produced by Ubisoft for mobile devices. Prince of Persia: Shadow & Flame represents a significant overhaul of the source material, replacing the sprite-based visuals with polygonal models and the button-oriented control scheme with one built entirely for touchscreens. Some areas were cut, and pre-rendered cutscenes were added to flesh out the story. The remake was a mixed critical success, as it built upon the original 1993 release in meaningful ways while also losing some of Prince of Persia’s 2’s visual identity and challenge.

1141-prince-of-persia-3d-windows-front-cover

Prince of Persia 3D (1999)

Broderbund went through some hard times in the late 1990s. After attempting to purchase competitor The Learning Company in 1995, it was actually bought out by that publisher in 1998. The combined company was then bought by Mattel in 1999.

prerenderedopening
A pre-rendered cutscene. Yes, friends, we’ve officially hit the late ’90s. Credit: Johnny Natrium

In the midst of this corporate turmoil, Red Orb Entertainment developed a radical reinvention of the Prince of Persia franchise. Red Orb had been a sub-division of Broderbund responsible for publishing the company’s more entertainment-oriented releases as Broderbund focused increasingly on edutainment titles in the 1990s. During the brief period when The Learning Company owned Broderbund and its former subsidiaries, it supported and published the third entry in Jordan Mechner’s franchise.

hiddenpassage
Wall textures are pretty slick, as seen here when the Prince reveals a hidden passage. Credit: Johnny Natrium

Mechner, of course, had little to do with the game. Aside from some (unused) early work on the script and overall level progression, Mechner was replaced by an entirely new set of artists and programmers at Red Orb Entertainment. These developers had been influenced by the rise of 3D games throughout the latter half of the decade and sought to modernize a series with roots entirely in 2D side-scrolling game design. To do so, they focused primarily on how the popular Tomb Raider series had mastered navigation of three-dimensional spaces with a verb set quite similar to 1989’s Prince of Persia.

water
Tomb Raider influences are palpable in the early hours. Credit: Johnny Natrium

One of the most surprising updates to the series, aside from a leap to 3D, was a significantly expanded narrative. Both of its predecessors had centered firmly on mechanics, offering only a thin premise outlining what the player character’s background and goals were. The third game upended this through the implementation of extensive cutscenes. These introduce players to the characters – primarily the Prince, the Princess, the Sultan (father of the Princess), and the ruler of a nearby kingdom – and flesh out the political machinations of two neighboring states. The inciting event is the imprisonment of the Prince and Sultan by Assan, the neighboring kingdom’s ruler, when Assan declares his intent to forcibly marry his son to the Princess. The rest of the plot concerns the Prince’s efforts to escape and thwart Assan’s plan. Cutscenes serve to enhance the plot’s drama, naturally, but also offer more than a few lighthearted moments.

combat
Combat is as middling as it had ever been. Credit: Johnny Natrium

The series’ transition to 3D has a deleterious effect on gameplay, unfortunately. Prince of Persia‘s combat had been problematic since its debut, but expanding the player’s toolset only managed to diminish it further. Navigation, on the other hand, had been one of the franchise’s strengths. The clarity of Mechner’s vision is sadly lost when translated to three dimensions by Red Orb, making even straightforward platforming cumbersome and difficult. At least one level is not even possible to complete in the original PC version of Prince of Persia 3D without the application of a post-release patch.

atmospheric
The atmospheric subterranean area is reminiscent of a stylized interpretation of Istanbul’s own cistern. Credit: Johnny Natrium

Happily, the visual design is relatively impressive. Little in the first generation of polygonal console games has aged well over the following twenty years, but Red Orb’s command of environmental design is downright commendable. Some stages remain largely derivative of Tomb Raider (1996), but many offer distinctive takes on medieval Middle Eastern architecture.

dirigible
Things get rather more inventive in the high-flying dirigible stage. Credit: Viral Vindictive

Prince of Persia 3D would be ported to the SEGA Dreamcast in 2000 as Arabian Nights: Prince of Persia. Many elements were updated in the port, including color palette and mechanical fluidity. Humorously, a handful of the most egregious levels are excised from the port entirely.

spikepit
Thank goodness Prince of Persia 3D‘s development team kept the series’ most important aspect – the Prince getting skewered. Credit: Viral Vindictive

The final Prince of Persia entry in the 1990s would also be the final version released before the IP was bought by software giant Ubisoft in 2000. This would result in the franchise’s third ownership transfer in as many years. In a twist that few fans could have anticipated, Ubisoft would manage to successfully adapt the series to an entirely new generation of console hardware without abandoning its unique identity.

27169-prince-of-persia-the-sands-of-time-gamecube-front-cover

Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (2003)

Having been soured on the games industry by his experience during Prince of Persia 3D’s troubled development, as well as his increased focus on cinema, Jordan Mechner had little interest in pursuing a fourth title in his pioneering series. Fans were similarly unenthusiastic due to the poor quality of the franchise’s latest entry. Still, Ubisoft acquired the rights to the series’ back catalog when Mattel fell on hard times in 2001 and was looking to make use of the IP.

cutscene
Pre-rendered cutscenes are more dramatic than ever in Prince of Persia: Sands of Time. Credit: World of Longplays

Yves Guillemot, founder of Ubisoft, would invite Mechner to lunch in 2001 intending to change his mind about future releases in the series. This fateful meeting at a Parisian cafe would breathe life into the fading property. Mechner, after all, retained the intellectual property rights to the characters and settings in spite of Ubisoft’s catalog acquisition; without its creator’s involvement, the Prince of Persia series would become a historical relic. Guillemot was willing to give Mechner and the relevant studio – Ubisoft Montreal – the resources and time needed to develop a new classic, however, so Mechner signed on.

acrobatics
The Prince maintains some of the moves originally introduced by his Lara Croft-aping predecessor. Credit: Longplay Archive

Ubisoft Montreal had already been tasked with the game’s development prior to Mechner’s approval, so it had been laying the foundation for months. This would prove critical, as development on Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time grew almost as tumultuous as its predecessor. The primary difference this time would be the publisher: Ubisoft was in good financial standing and dedicated a full 150+ employees to the project over the following two years. This support would see the team through its rockiest period in early 2002.

conceptart
Stages of development on the Sand Blacksmith enemy from drawing to modeling. Credit: Gamasutra

Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time’s producer Yannis Mallat detailed these development hurdles extensively in a 2004 postmortem written for Game Developer Magazine (now hosted on Gamasutra). In short, the game’s artistic identity remained ambiguous for the first year of its development as the art director would not become a full member of Ubisoft’s team until mid-2002. The lengthy validation process for mechanics and level architecture was similarly challenging to overcome, resulting in Mallat’s team scrapping any number of more ambitious enemy types; these foes became unusable once complex level geometry was concretely established late in development.

firstpersonpov
The vast majority of the game is played from a third-person semi-fixed perspective, but the player can use a first-person point of view to get a better eye on the Prince’s surroundings. Credit: Longplay Archive

In spite of its bumpy journey, Ubisoft Montreal managed to stick the landing. Morale was high among the team, particularly once Jordan Mechner joined up and Sony opted to highlight the game at its E3 2003 presentation. Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time would be a game crafted by a dedicated staff who had identified the series’ core identity early in development and carefully adapted that identity to a three-dimensional environment. Unlike what had occurred with their predecessors, the Ubisoft Montreal team separated the wheat from the chaff, significantly reducing the game’s scope twice in an effort to focus on what worked well. Development was helped along by the adoption of Ubisoft’s Jade Engine; this had been created for the studio’s Beyond Good and Evil (2003), saving the team from needing to develop an entirely new engine for Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time.

sandsoftime
Those Sands of Time have some serious consequences. Credit: World of Longplays

The final game was released on the PlayStation 2, Xbox, Gamecube, and Windows in November 2003. It features an entirely new protagonist, though the setting is quite similar to the original two games. At the story’s outset, the Prince discovers a mysterious dagger during a Persian invasion of India. The Dagger of Time is an artifact coveted by a sinister Vizier who has been manipulating the invasion for his own gain. A similarly mysterious hourglass containing the titular Sands of Time is shattered in the Indian Maharajah’s palace as the Prince and army loot it, turning all nearby humans into monsters save three: the Vizier, the Prince and an Indian princess named Farah. With the Vizier’s evil intentions revealed, Farah and the Prince cooperate to reverse the effects of the hourglass’ magic.

helpfulcameraangle
The semi-fixed camera perspective typically offers a handful of significant reference points. Here, the player has an eye on the next pole the Prince can leap to. Credit: Longplay Archive

That cooperation takes the form of platforming and combat challenges throughout the Maharajah’s expansive palace. While Jordan Mechner’s script was primarily inspired by Ferdowsi’s 10th Century poem Shahnameh, the visual design and architecture were directly inspired by Fumito Ueda’s video game Ico (2001). Mallat’s team also integrated acrobatics popularized by films of the late 1990s and early 2000s, including The Matrix (1999) and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), as these were part and parcel with the series’ fundamental emphasis on movement. Puzzles are present, but are less prominent than navigation gymnastics and battling the palace’s multitudinous monsters.

wallrunning2
Whatever obstacles stand in his way, the Prince always has the chance to run along a wall to evade traps and foes. Credit: Longplay Archive

The Prince can run along walls, swing on poles and clamber up ledges. To fully explore his environment and defeat foes, the Prince must exploit surrounding terrain. Combat takes the form of straightforward swordplay for the most part, as it had in earlier series entries. The camera is generally kept at a fair distance, permitting a wide view of nearby threats. While enemies can be battled with a variety of tools and acrobatic moves, only the Dagger of Time is capable of finishing them off.

daggeroftime
Enemies explode spectacularly when struck with the Dagger of Time. Credit: Longplay Archive

That mystical artifact plays an even more significant role outside of combat. Malat and the Ubisoft Montreal staff had settled on time manipulation as the core way to set their Prince of Persia game apart from its predecessors and contemporaries. This idea had actually preceded Mechner’s narrative. The Prince would have access to a tool able to reverse or speed up time, fully upending the standard trope of Game Over screens and fail states; with the knowledge that they could reverse their mistakes, players would be given the implicit freedom to experiment and make mistakes when exploring or engaging in combat.

reverse
Here, the Prince reverses a rather poorly timed jump by using the Dagger of Time. Credit: Longplay Archive

This time manipulation was justified narratively by the Dagger of Time and Sands of Time. Like most great games, a central gameplay mechanic had informed its plot. The Dagger of Time would become the fulcrum on which exploration, combat and narrative momentum hinged.

spikesAGAIN
There are so many new techniques in the Prince’s repertoire. Even still, he can’t avoid the omnipresent spike pit. Credit: TheOutlierPlays

Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time was a critical hit. Malat, Mechner and Ubisoft Montreal had saved the series from obsolescence by identifying its underlying structure and meaningfully iterating upon it in a modern context. Visual design was informed by recent classics without being overly beholden to them. Prince of Persia had entered the 21st Century with a new lease on life, and Ubisoft would attempt to capitalize on the newfound popularity of its venerable IP with a follow-up one year later.

86284-prince-of-persia-warrior-within-playstation-2-front-cover

Prince of Persia: Warrior Within (2004)

Jordan Mechner bowed out for the second entry in Ubisoft’s revived Prince of Persia franchise. He was increasingly involved in the film industry and had less time than ever for the often-arduous process of game development. Bertrand Hélias was simultaneously brought on as a new producer. Consequently, Ubisoft Montreal had free reign to make major tonal changes to the series.

hardcoreloading
Even the loading screens are hardcore. Credit: MiKeYROG

Fans who picked up Prince of Persia: Warrior Within on PlayStation 2, Gamecube, Xbox, or Windows PC in late 2004 could be forgiven for thinking that they had bought an entirely unrelated game. Hélias’ team had radically reinvented the visual palette and thematic content of the series in an attempt to conform more closely to modern design trends. Mechner’s vision of the Prince as a light-hearted, swashbuckling protagonist in the mold of Errol Flynn’s Robin Hood had been fully superseded by a gritty new design.

dahaka
Despite all his bluster and cool horns, the Dahaka is more or less just a debt collector. Credit: RevReBorn Shadow

The Prince has been hardened by the seven in-game years separating this story from its predecessor. The events of the preceding series entry had resulted in the Dahaka, a vicious personification of death, stalking the Prince for his role in altering the natural progression of time. Left bitter and exhausted, the Prince now cuts a tragic figure rather than a whimsical one.

violence
Yep, that’s the Prince beheading an enemy. You can’t say this game doesn’t earn its ‘M’ ESRB rating. Credit: MiKeYROG

This grim tone is matched by an increase in violence. Blood spurts from fallen enemies as distorted guitar blares from the heavy metal-oriented soundtrack. The Dahaka’s theme song – played during narrative sequences in which the Prince must avoid the seemingly unstoppable foe – is actually an instrumental version of metal band Godsmack’s “I Stand Alone”.

shiptutorial
As a testament to just how over the top this game will go, the tutorial is set on a boat besieged by skeletons. Credit: MiKeYROG

The narrative primarily concerns the Prince’s attempt to evade and eventually stop the Dahaka. He hunts a woman named Shahdee, pursuing her through a portal to the past, and joins forces with another woman named Kaileena while investigating a temple belonging to the Empress of Time. A number of increasingly complex intersecting timelines and paradoxes pile up by the game’s conclusion, which offers two endings based upon the player character’s success at retrieving an artifact called the Water Sword.

castle2
The massive architecture is impressive, even fourteen years later. Credit: MiKeYROG

In addition to a drastically altered tone and improved combat mechanics, Prince of Persia: Warrior Within offers distinct environments to explore. The preceding game had been set exclusively in the Maharajah’s palace, so the new release’s garden and heavily mechanized fortress were embraced by players. These surroundings offer more complex architecture as well, enhancing opportunities to make use of an expanded moveset. A mid-distance camera perspective intended to highlight points of interest and clearly reveal the Prince’s surroundings was retained. 

wallrunning
Thank goodness Ubisoft Montreal didn’t abandon wall-running. Credit: MiKeYROG

Ubisoft Montreal’s artistic gamble paid off commercially: Warrior Within sold many more copies than Sands of Time in spite of a cooler critical reception. Reviewers praised the game’s more complex combat system, but little else about the series’ reinvention proved popular. Non-linear level design, and the accompanying backtracking, was criticized for its lack of clarity. Critics and Jordan Mechner himself similarly panned the art direction, perceiving Warrior Within‘s darker visuals and narrative as incongruous with the series’ history. This criticism would be thoughtfully considered by Ubisoft, resulting in another tonal swerve for the Prince’s next adventure.

123883-prince-of-persia-the-two-thrones-windows-front-cover

Prince of Persia: The Two Thrones (2005)

Producer responsibilities shifted again in Ubisoft’s third Prince of Persia chapter, as Ben Mattes took over for Bertrand Hélias. Jordan Mechner remained uninvolved with the ongoing evolution of the franchise he had created. Happily, the new staff working on the series’ sixth core adventure was willing to look at what had worked and what had not worked in the preceding two games. The Two Thrones would serve as the conclusion of the Sands of Time Trilogy.

loadingscreen
You can tell from the opening moments that Ubisoft stepped back from the Warrior Within‘s intensity, because the loading screen has no blood running down it. Credit: MiKeYROG

With regard to continuity, the Prince’s narrative arc remains in place. The Two Thrones continues the plot of its direct predecessor and even returns to some events from The Sands of Time. In particular, the game explores what would have happened in a timeline where the events of the first game had not taken place; the Vizier ends up murdering Kaileena (she had accompanied the Prince on a return journey to his kingdom following the conclusion of Warrior Within) and using the Sands of Time to become a godlike figure. The Prince, as ever, must make use of his acrobatic skills and combat prowess to join erstwhile companion Princess Farah and take down the mighty Vizier.

vizierisback
The Vizier is back. And rendered in much higher quality this time around! Credit: MiKeYROG

Said acrobatic skills are altered little from Warrior Within. The Prince maintains his maneuvers and battle abilities, as those were among the most celebrated improvements that had been made between the two preceding titles. The chief update to the Prince’s movement and combat repertoire is a whip-like weapon used to fight enemies and swing from overhead beams. As with earlier mechanical flourishes, this is tied into the plot: the Prince is infected by the Sands of Time, resulting in an internal battle between his naturally heroic personality and a menacing Dark Prince which manifests within him. The Dark Prince fully takes over during certain gameplay portions, giving the player access to new whip-oriented special moves and necessitating that the player character track down potions to further fuel the transformation.

swinginonachain
Sure you’ve tried wall-running, but have you ever tried chain-swinging? The Dark Prince has. Credit: MiKeYROG

These sequences constitute the game’s most controversial element. The narrative provided players closure, the battle and acrobatic moves were characteristically strong, and the Prince’s personality had managed to reintegrate much of its earlier charm while not abandoning the wrinkles it had picked up in Warrior Within; still, the gameplay sequences featuring the Dark Prince were jarring, stressful interruptions to a formula that players had grown to love. These were even decried by some critics as frustrating time trial segments.  

stealthattack
Stealth kills were the order of the day, along with QTEs. Credit: MiKeYROG

At the same time, the creeping specter of quick-time events (QTEs) cast a pall over otherwise engaging action scenes. These moments, in which the player must tap buttons displayed on-screen to carry out contextual actions impossible during standard gameplay, serve much the same purpose they do in contemporary games like Resident Evil 4 (2005) and God of War (2005). Unfortunately, QTEs fail to mesh with a franchise that had  been defined by consistent player control over his or her avatar’s fluid actions. By reducing player agency, Ubisoft Montreal had enhanced cinematic scope at the expense of the series’ distinct personality.

ruinedtown
The Two Thrones carries on the trend of improving environmental art design from the Sands of Time Trilogy. Credit: MiKeYROG

These are relatively minor criticisms, of course. Ubisoft Montreal had established a high level of quality with Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time in 2003 and built upon that foundation with its two direct sequels. Inconsistent tone and the integration of incongruous gameplay elements could not fully tarnish a franchise with the strong art direction and engaging acrobatic gameplay of Prince of Persia. With the third entry in an apparent trilogy complete, however, Ubisoft would begin exploring ways to move beyond its reboot of Jordan Mechner’s classic. In the manner reminiscent of so many media properties during the 2000s, this would take the form of yet another reboot.

134392-prince-of-persia-playstation-3-front-cover

Prince of Persia (2008)

During the three years separating Prince of Persia: The Two Thrones from its successor, a significant new title was released by Ubisoft Montreal: Assassin’s Creed (2007). This IP, which would go on to become a household name over the following decade, actually originated as a Prince of Persia project. Patrice Désilets had directed Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time and had been assigned to develop a follow-up shortly thereafter. His ambitions were too great, however, for the resulting Prince of Persia: Assassin game to remain tethered to Jordan Mechner’s IP. Désilets would spend three years using the Prince of Persia foundation to inform a vast open-world adventure starring a member of the Assassins, a radical 12th Century Holy Land faction. At some point along the way, Ubisoft concluded that this was too much of a departure from the core series and the studio’s next classic franchise was born.

asscreed
Assassin’s Creed does share some cosmetic similarities with its spiritual predecessor. Credit: TetraNinja

As Prince of Persia chugged along through the mid-2000s, meanwhile, it evolved little from the basic premise and mechanics established by 2003’s The Sands of Time. This continuity would be upended during the development of the franchise’s seventh entry as the development team, still led by Ben Mattes, looked to the opportunities presented by new Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 hardware. Assassin’s Creed confirmed that players appreciated the opportunity to explore massive, non-linear spaces, setting the tone for the Prince’s next swashbuckling adventure. The development process was uncharacteristically documented through a series of humorous vignettes on the game’s Ultimate Edition release (now available on YouTube).

colorifying
2006’s Okami seems to have had an impact on the Ubisoft Montreal team, though I could not confirm this. Credit: SourceSpy91

Prince of Persia would be released in 2008 without any number or subtitle differentiating it from the series’ 1989 debut. Ubisoft Montreal intended this to be the start of a new era, cleanly breaking with the past. The gameplay, narrative, and visual design had been thoroughly overhauled to compete with a new generation of action-adventure games. 

elikahelp
Who needs acrobatics when your mystical buddy can just fly you around? Credit: SourceSpy91

Acrobatic moves remain at the core of the series’ identity, though these are now augmented by a cooperative element. An AI-controlled woman named Elika accompanies the player character and functions in a manner similar to the Dagger of Time from the preceding trilogy, saving him from incurring fail states via combat or environmental hazards. Enemies are also designed to confront the player character in fewer numbers. This hearkens back to the earliest Prince of Persia game, eschewing the increasingly complex battles from Warrior Within and The Two Thrones. Consequently, duels are intended to function as engaging, fast-paced puzzles.

colorfulbattle
Battles are impressive mechanically and visually. Credit: SourceSpy91

Combat sequences proceed through a combination of standard attacks and QTEs. The former is inspired by one-on-one fighting games, though it eschews the limited playing space and heavy emphasis on memorization which characterize the fighting genre. Instead, players are encouraged to make use of a handful of reliable button sequences to string together combo attacks. At the end of a successful encounter, the player makes use of QTE button prompts to execute a finishing move. As Elika will rescue the Prince from a killing blow dealt from an enemy, combat is focused on gracefully arranging attacks rather than simply winning through attrition.

prince
Much of the Prince’s garb is made up of dull colors, but his scarf, headdress and open tunic instantly suggest a more flamboyant direction for the character. Credit: SourceSpy91

Bearing no relation to the Prince of the original three games or their successor trilogy, the newest release’s main character has a fashionable look intended to highlight the elegance of his gymnastic flourishes. Elika is similarly appointed with mystical garb that dovetails with her dual functions as the Prince’s protector and one of the last remaining vestiges of a fictional Persian society called the Ahura. Enemies are few in number, so each is heavily stylized to evoke the game’s central conflict between Zoroastrian deities.

enemy
Enemies are relatively few in number, but each one is lushly designed. Credit: SourceSpy91

Ancient Persia’s native cosmology underpins much of Prince of Persia’s narrative. Previous series entries had been set in and around the Persian Empire, but the newest game would be the first time that Zoroastrianism played a significant role in the narrative. A struggle between dieties Ahriman and Ormazd (i.e. Ahura Masda) one thousand years before the game’s events sets the stage for the Prince’s exploits, as the virtuous Ormazd imprisons the sinister Ahriman within a tree and then disappears. The Ahura, Ormazd’s followers, have abandoned their duty to ensure Ahriman’s continued imprisonment over the following millennium; at the start of Prince of Persia, only the Prince and Elika stand in the way of Ahriman’s escape.

prince2
The colorful, hand-drawn style is clear in the game’s opening moments. Credit: SourceSpy91

In spite of its similarities to contemporary open-world action-adventure games, Prince of Persia is set apart by a distinctive aesthetic. Mickail Labat reprised his role as Art Director for the first time in the series since Warrior Within, and took a radically different approach than he had in earlier games. In harmony with the animation staff, Labat spearheaded development of a technique Ubisoft Montreal titled “Illustrative.” This involved drafting hand-drawn illustrations and modelling in-game visuals to reflect those still images. Prince of Persia’s visual design consequently evokes a moving painting rather than the increasingly realistic character models which were typical of mainstream video games in the late 2000s.

wilderness
Prince of Persia (2008) starts in the open wilderness rather than a dungeon or urban area, as most previous entries had done, setting a more natural tone. Credit: SourceSpy91

Ubisoft’s latest entry in the long-running series was a critical success. Elements of its simplistic mechanics were perceived as a step back from the Sands of Time Trilogy’s comparative complexity, but the game’s narrative and presentation were universally lauded. The relationship between the Prince and Elika, which would have been so easy to either over-emphasize or under-emphasize, was noted for being particularly successful.

lighting
Sequences in which the Prince is flown around complex obstacles are a visual standout and a reminder how integral cooperation with Elika is to the game’s events. Credit: SourceSpy91

Players gain access to a major new area and extend an already-engaging narrative in the series’ first instance of downloadable content. This proved somewhat controversial, as it diminished the impact of Prince of Persia’s moving conclusion and iterated little upon the most maligned element of the base game: its combat. Fans’ muted reaction seems to have taken the wind out of Ubisoft Montreal’s sails, as the DLC package was published only for console players; owners of the Windows PC version would not receive access to its added content.

savingtheprince
Elika’s contributions to saving the Prince in battle are more controversial, but no less memorable. Credit: SourceSpy91

These odd post-release decisions did little to diminish the impact of Prince of Persia. For the second time in a decade, the series had been successfully reinvented by Ubisoft. Fans expected that the studio would stick to its development model in the years ahead, pumping out sequels with varying degrees of similarity. These reasonable assumptions, surprisingly, would be mistaken.

206848-prince-of-persia-the-forgotten-sands-xbox-360-front-cover

Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands (2010)

Rather than develop a sequel to Prince of Persia (2008), Ubisoft opted to return to the Sands of Time Trilogy. The timing was no coincidence, as Jordan Mechner had finally gotten a major Hollywood deal to write the script for a big-budget Prince of Persia adaptation starring Ben Kingsley, Gemma Arterton, and Jake Gyllenhaal. This 2010 film would be based on Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time. Sensing an opportunity to remind audiences of the movie’s video game origins, Ubisoft released five versions of its newest game across seven platforms: Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, Windows PC, Wii, PlayStation Portable, Nintendo DS, and mobile devices. The final three versions will be covered below in this article’s Spinoff section, but we will confine ourselves to the console/PC versions here.

custscene2
Cutscenes are beautiful, and appear to have been influenced by series’ offshoot Assassin’s Creed. Credit: World of Longplays

Abandoning the narrative and characters of the preceding entry in the core Prince of Persia series, the Xbox 360/PlayStation 3/Windows version of The Forgotten Sands falls chronologically between The Sands of Time and Warrior Within. It is explicitly intended to serve as a bridge between the radically different personalities of the Prince in those two previous-generation titles. This is the only version of the game developed by Ubisoft Montreal.

climbingice2
The Prince can now freeze and climb flowing water. Cool, figuratively and literally. Credit: World of Longplays

Gameplay is reminiscent of The Sands of Time, with parkour-inspired acrobatic flourishes allowing the Prince to navigate ornate 3D environments. Time manipulation functions as it had in the Sands of Time Trilogy. The battle system is similar to earlier games, though QTEs have been excised entirely. This mechanic had proven unpopular with fans, so Ubisoft Montreal instead revived the Prince’s reliable context-sensitive sword combat. The most significant new wrinkle is the Prince’s ability to alter nearby elemental features; flowing water might be frozen or flames might be manipulated to overcome some environmental obstacle. These abilities become more complex over the course of the adventure.

jumping
Jumping between narrow platforms remains as engaging as ever. Credit: World of Longplays

The narrative spans a series of vignettes rather than a continuous linear or open world. The central relationship, rather than being between the Prince and one of his various love interests, is between the Prince and his brother Malik. Each is attempting to stop a rival power from invading Malik’s kingdom by making use of a magical seal intended to imprison Solomon’s Army, a seemingly benevolent force. The story’s inciting incident is the shattering of the seal into two pieces (each held by one of the brothers) and the release of Solomon’s Army; in the tradition of earlier Sands of Time games, this military force is revealed to be antagonistic. Everyone in the surrounding area is quickly transformed into monstrous sand creatures. Malik slowly becomes corrupted by the seal, using it to amass power even as the Prince attempts to destroy it and end the supernatural uprising with the help of a Djinn called Razia.

razia
Razia is, troublingly, the first female partner in a Prince of Persia game to not be a love interest for the player’s male avatar. Credit: World of Longplays

The Wii version of Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands, developed by Ubisoft Quebec (and surprisingly documented by a “making of” featurette posted by the studio on YouTube), is entirely unrelated to the one developed for the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and Windows PC. Its only similarity is a return to the mechanics and chronology of The Sands of Time. Unlike its HD contemporary, this iteration of the Prince’s newest adventure is actually built upon the previous-generation Jade Engine used to develop the Sands of Time Trilogy. Unfortunately, the integration of a freely controlled third-person camera obscures some of that engine’s elegance.

wiiverscutscene3
Same Prince, different game. Credit: BunnyBoiler72

Aside from a clumsy player-controlled camera, The Forgotten Sands’ Wii variant is also hamstrung by motion controls. Ubisoft Quebec intended to avoid over-emphasizing the Wii’s most controversial feature, so many of the Prince’s acrobatic techniques rely on traditional button controls, but combat is dragged out by the imprecision of motion inputs. This is compounded by the arenas in which battles occur – waves of enemies beset the player character in uncharacteristically confined spaces and must be fully wiped out before the Prince can move on to more interesting exploration sequences.

leafbaddie
At least the enemies, like this fascinating leaf creature, are compelling to look at. Credit: BunnyBoiler72

The narrative is less ambitious than other recent Prince of Persia titles, though it serves to quickly get the player into the action. The Forgotten Sands (Wii) is kicked off by the Prince wishing for his own kingdom from a genie named Zahra and being delivered to a cursed world. If he is able to undo the curse, the Prince will receive ownership of the kingdom as his reward. Zahra functions as a helpful companion and a source of amusing banter despite her rather inauspicious introduction.

abstractwii
Environments are well-rendered throughout, expanding the series’ metaphysical horizons as the plot progresses. Credit: BunnyBoiler72

Lest readers think that The Forgotten Sands (Wii) was a disappointment, it’s worth considering the game’s unique strengths. Its art direction is actually more inventive than the HD version of the game, as it branches out into increasingly abstract environments as the narrative progresses. Numerous bonuses are also included if the player completes unique but unnecessary tasks throughout the game. These include documentaries on the game’s development, costumes, concept art, additional areas to explore, and even an emulated version of the series’ 1989 debut. Finally, a second player can control Zahra and aid the Prince throughout the entirety of the adventure; this is not necessarily an exhilarating cooperative mode, but does allow a skilled player to help a less skilled player see the whole game.

306514-prince-of-persia-the-fallen-king-nintendo-ds-front-cover

Spinoffs and Portable Entries

The decade following the original release of Prince of Persia saw no spinoffs or portable releases. It seemed difficult enough to keep the series going on PCs and consoles, so fans should not be surprised that additional adventures would be little more than an afterthought. By the 2000s, though, the franchise had been acquired by Ubisoft and would be exploited on as many pieces of hardware as possible.

haremadvspikes
Leaping over a spiked pit? This is indeed a faithful Prince of Persia spinoff. Credit: JAVA Mobile Games

The first of these represents an odd trend present in the Prince’s console outings but more prominent in mobile spinoffs: titillation. Gameloft developed and released Prince of Persia: Harem Adventures in 2002, filling the lengthy gap between Prince of Persia 3D (1999) and Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (2003). Harem Adventures’ 2D gameplay and visual design are reminiscent of the first two games in the series, though both are an understandable step down from earlier titles. Bizarrely, the plot involves the Prince saving the Sultan’s harem of women and receiving images of them as a reward. Many bear an uncomfortably overt message of sexual desire from the rescued damsel.

dialogue
Not sure what market Gameloft was trying to attract with its scantily-clad low-res sprites. Credit: JAVA Mobile Games

The next unique spinoff from the core Prince of Persia series, developed in-house by Ubisoft Montreal, would be published in 2005 on the Nintendo DS. Battles of Prince of Persia is a staggeringly ill-conceived combination of incongruous presentation and mechanics. The narrative is set between the first two entries in the Sands of Time Trilogy, but the gameplay is entirely divorced from its console counterparts. Instead of emphasizing the classic entries’ characteristic motion and elegant real-time combat, or even the contemporary entries’ time manipulation, Battles of Prince of Persia is a tactical strategy game featuring collectible cards. The player commands his or her in-game army from an overhead perspective by using a deck of cards to issue orders. As it offered little connection to its source material, aside from the presence of the Prince and Warrior Within’s Dahaka, the game proved to be divisive among fans and critics.

battlesOFhorse
There is a certain Advance Wars-eseque charm in Battles of Prince of Persia. Credit: MasterOfTheVoids

The final spinoff separate from portable versions of core series titles was likewise released on the Nintendo DS. Prince of Persia: The Fallen King (2008) directly follows the events of Prince of Persia (2008) and features characters from that chronology; Elika remains behind as the Prince sets out on an adventure to recover four pieces of a mysterious artifact. The visuals are clearly inspired by Ubisoft Montreal’s Illustrative style, but are presented in a cartoonish chibi manner reminiscent of the same platform’s 2007 Final Fantasy IV remake. Gameplay involves navigating the Prince through 2D side-scrolling environments entirely explored using the touchscreen. Combat is similarly dependent on the player’s use of a stylus, echoing the previous year’s Legend of Zelda: The Phantom Hourglass (2007). The Fallen King was widely panned for its simplistic approach to a beloved IP, abandoning most of what had attracted fans to the series.

fallenking
The Fallen King is far from a technical marvel, but it does at least introduce an entirely unique art style and input mechanism to the series. Credit: Unigamesity

Interestingly, most of the core series entries since 2003 also received portable adaptations of varying quality. These are different enough from their console versions to merit inclusion here. Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time was released on the Game Boy Advance in 2003 with a sprite-based 2D visual palette that suggested it might play like the first two releases in the classic Prince of Persia series; it actually has more in common with GBA entries in the Castlevania series, including scenarios in which the player must switch between playing as the Prince or the bow-wielding Princess Farah to overcome environmental obstacles. A mobile version developed by Gameloft rather than Ubisoft Montreal and released the following year looks similar at a glance but lacks many of the GBA version’s engaging puzzles and navigation elements.

popgbaboss2
Prince of Persia‘s GBA adaptation includes some lushly rendered boss sprites. TASVideosChannel

Prince of Persia: Revelations (2005) was developed by Pipeworks Software and serves as the PSP tie-in to Prince of Persia: Warrior Within. It is less divergent from its source material than the GBA version of The Sands of Time had been. Instead of switching to a 2D approach, Revelations instead seeks to replicate the console experience on a portable device. The console base game is intact here, but is beset by numerous control issues and glitches (including a relatively high likelihood of locking the entire device up, necessitating the removal of its battery before rebooting). In addition, twenty uninspired bonus stages have been added. Gameloft’s mobile version of Warrior Within is more interesting, if only because it trades the console version’s 3D for side-scrolling stages in the same way its mobile predecessor had done. It also includes the violence of its console contemporary while simultaneously reviving the titillating sprite imagery from the studio’s 2002 Harem Adventures spinoff.

warriorwithingameloft
Even the bad guys are trying to seduce the Prince in Gameloft’s take on Warrior Within. Credit: JAVA Mobile Games

Prince of Persia: The Two Thrones was ported to Wii and PSP as a relatively faithful adaptation of the PlayStation 2/Xbox/Gamecube original, though the former integrates motion controls. Gameloft again released a mobile phone version featuring 2D action more closely related to the classic Prince of Persia series than its modern successors. In the manner of the studio’s earlier mobile phone releases, Gameloft added new gameplay wrinkles from The Two Thrones’ console version: the use of a whip to navigate obstacles and battle enemies are chief among these additions.

gamelofttwothrones2
I find Gameloft’s approach to adapting 3D Prince of Persia games strangely fascinating, as it fuses together the studio’s own off-kilter interpretation of the series with an attempt to faithfully reproduce new or noteworthy elements from each console game. Credit: JAVA Mobile Games 

While Ubisoft Casablanca created The Fallen King, the primary portable tie-in to Prince of Persia (2008), Gameloft continued to release mobile versions of the series’ console titles. The 2D, sprite-based adaptation of Ubisoft’s newest outing is similar to earlier portable Prince of Persia games, but features a rail shooter sequence for the first time in the series’ history. At the same time, Gameloft released a 2.5D version of Prince of Persia (2008) on Symbian phones and the Nokia N-Gage. This version features fully polygonal character models inspired by the console version.

popforgpsp2-5
Ubisoft Quebec really made the most of the final .5D in 2.5D when developing Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands for PSP. Credit: AG Games

Three adaptations of Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands were also published on various portable platforms. The PSP iteration was developed by Ubisoft Quebec – the same team responsible for the Wii version – but is similar in presentation to Gameloft’s N-Gage version of Prince of Persia (2008). Its environments are 2.5D while its characters are fully textured polygonal models typically based on assets from the Wii version. The DS adaptation was developed by Ubisoft Casablanca and is built on the same touchscreen-oriented engine used by The Fallen King. Surprisingly, this is the only version of The Forgotten Sands which takes place after the events of The Two Thrones rather than between The Sands of Time and Warrior Within. Finally, the mobile edition of The Forgotten Sands is a 2D sprite-based side-scroller developed by Gameloft. This is the only port which directly retells the HD console version’s plot.

Conclusion

Aside from mobile ports and HD re-releases of older series entries, Ubisoft has steadfastly avoided releasing any Prince of Persia content since 2010. The reasons are unclear, but it would be reasonable to conclude that the studio believes that Prince of Persia would compete with its own Assassin’s Creed franchise. The two series have superficial similarities, so Ubisoft’s reticence would be understandable in a business context.

Still, it is disappointing to contemplate a future with no more adventures starring the series’ nameless Prince. Optimism may be warranted, however, by Jordan Mechner’s public comments concerning his hopes for the future of the franchise in early 2018. Whatever the future holds for the Prince of Persia series, fans can remain grateful for so many innovative games over the past twenty-nine years.


What do you think about the Prince of Persia series? Which is your favorite game? Do you think Ubisoft will return to the franchise and, if so, do you expect a continuation of the Classic, Sands of Time, or 2008 narrative? Which is your favorite trap? Let’s discuss in the comments below.

Next week, Franchise Festival will feature guest writer @wolfmanjew exploring the Super Smash Bros. saga. Check back in at 9:00 AM EST on December 7, 2018 to revel in the series’ history before jumping into its newest entry later that day!