One Giant Leap, 1989: Prince of Persia

In One Giant Leap, Dramus18 charts the evolution of the platformer genre, one year at a time. This month: we take our first foray into the world of PC gaming with Prince of Persia

So far in this series, we’ve focused pretty exclusively on the arcade and console spaces. That’s not a trend that’s going to change much going forward;1 this is a genre that largely developed on consoles, and is mostly defined by what happened there. Most PC platformers of the era were bedroom hobbyists doing their best to emulate what they saw on the NES.2 But, the PC scene writ large was decidedly not just the console’s little brother. It was an entirely separate ecosystem in those days, with completely different audiences and aims. So, what would a platformer look like when run through this prism?

Prince of Persia is a great example of the strengths of this era of PC games. Released in 1989, initially for Apple II but ported to basically every computer on the market, it’s a massive leap forward when it comes to animation. The sprites in Prince of Persia are rotoscoped, which is a technique where you basically trace over film footage. It results in very fluid and lifelike movement, and the difference is stark, especially compared to what was happening in contemporary games.

These sorts of big experiments were what the early PC scene was best at. And Prince of Persia carried the realism of its rotoscoped animation into its general design, too. It comes from the Pitfall school of platformers, except with the graphical horsepower necessary to consistently make things that look like things. In Prince of Persia, you’re dealing with pressure plates, spike traps, crumbling floor, and regular dudes with swords. It’s a “no changing your jump arc, no falling more than a few feet” sort of deal. It also has some cinematic ambitions, or what passed as such for 1989, as between levels you see a short cutscene of the trapped princess your prince is rescuing. (The more things change…)

Of course, long time readers might see where this is going. The major tradeoff in a realistic platformer is control. And Prince of Persia is the most egregious example I have ever played. It gets hit from all sides; not only do you have the expected restrictions on jump arcs and whatnot, but the fancy rotoscoped animation comes at a significant cost as well. Looking at the gif above, you notice how the floor is divided into segments? If you press a side arrow key for even a single frame, the prince will travel the entire width of one of those segments. The thing about having a long, detailed set of movement sprites is that it takes you a while to get back to neutral. Mario’s 2 frame run cycle might not be especially convincing, but it gets the point across and lets the player stop basically wherever they want to.

And it gets worse. Prince of Persia uses Shift as a sort of all-purpose “do something” key. You can hold it while running to tip-toe instead, which, hey, that alleviates the issue I mentioned above! But, you don’t jump very far when holding shift, so be sure to let go before hitting a ledge with enough space to get in at least one run cycle before you need to jump. But also holding Shift in mid-air is what lets you grab ledges, so make sure to get back on it at some point before you land or you’ll just smack into the wall and die. The result is a game that plays like a glorified Dragon’s Lair rather than a proper platformer.

Some of this tension is simply a product of the time. Modern games don’t have to make such drastic choices between animation fidelity and usable controls; they can do a bunch of tech art bullshit3 to blend out of any position in the walk cycle to a full stop in a quick enough timeframe. But there will always be a tension there, philosophically. Like, anticipation is one of the 12 principles of animation, but a designer would call that “input lag”. A game that’s perfectly responsive to player input won’t look especially impressive to a third-party observer. A game with perfectly realistic animation will feel like butt to play. And by massively overachieving, Prince of Persia lands itself in the latter camp.

Prince of Persia is neat encapsulation of what makes this era of PC gaming cool. There was no one around to tell Jordan Mechner he couldn’t film his brother running around the backyard and trace over it, and so he did, and the result is something unique and impressive. But also, when a game is the product of one person more-or-less dicking around, you’ll get problems like “this game is impossible to play unless you have a memorized sequence of Correct Inputs” and there’s nobody there to fix it. But on the whole, I think I’m glad it exists. I do not recommend anybody ever play it, but it’s cool to watch footage of, to enjoy the animation and imagine an alternate path gaming could have taken. One where a commitment to animation fidelity wins out over a commitment to game feel, one where verisimilitude makes “gamey”4 a bad word, one that produces games that look very beautiful and feel like nothing, at best, when you play them.

After all, it’s not like there are any games like that these days. Right?

Stray Observations:

  • In one of the between-level cutscenes, the princess is shown petting a rat, who runs away after a few moments. Just a bit of mood-setting? Nope, a crucial gameplay hint. In the next level there’s a part where you have to raise a gate, but the pressure plate is beyond where you can reach. The solution is to stare longingly at it for a little bit; the mouse will run in and help you out. The sort of thing that might be a fun beat in a screenplay but absolutely sucks to play. Again, good thing games aren’t made like that these days huh.
  • I didn’t get anywhere near far enough for it to matter, but there’s a 60 minute time limit on the game, and it doesn’t reset when you die. I have no idea why it’s here, but I probably would have gotten very frustrated with it if I were even close to good enough for it to matter.
  • I’m not sure if it’s apocryphal, but I remember once reading about how the game’s cover art (seen in the header) proved controversial with publisher Brøderbund, who felt it was too racy. Compared to the industry today, that’s adorably quaint and also I would trade anything to go back.

Other 1989 platformers of note:

1989 saw the release of the Game Boy, and with it Super Mario Land. SML is a weird little game, full of charming idiosyncrasies. Mario encounters real-world icons like the Great Pyramids and Easter Island heads, and the game plays the Can-Can when you’re invincible. Also there are shooter segments. Again, weird game.

Also it was monochrome, since Game Boy

Next Time: Speaking of Mario, we head back to consoles to see his debut on the brand new Super Nintendo, with Super Mario World.