One Giant Leap, 2003: Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time

In One Giant Leap, Dramus18 charts the evolution of the platformer genre, one year at a time. This month: we ground the 3D platformer in realism (as grounded as a game with time travel can be, anyway) in Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time

A while back, we checked out the Apple II classic Prince of Persia. To refresh, this was a game that featured incredibly detailed (for the era) animation, achieved via rotoscoping, to really sell the game’s platforming action. However, on a technical level the game’s animation was sprite-based, and that interacted poorly with the highly detailed animations when it game to responsiveness and overall gamefeel, creating an experience that I for one could not tolerate.

And at least on consoles (the platformer’s home turf) this way of thinking won out. Platformers retained broad, simple animations that prioritized player control, as well as a design philosophy that didn’t remotely care about realism. So we get things like the player being able to alter their jump arc in midair, or even the double-jump becoming genre staples despite how literally impossible they are. And especially as the genre transitioned to 3D these sorts of concessions became even more important, making Prince of Persia’s brand of platforming even more out-of-step. There was even an attempt to bring the series to 3D back in 1999, the aptly named Prince of Persia 3D, that was received quite poorly1 seemingly proving this point. Prince of Persia was a product of a bygone age, incompatible with modern times. But while most people think of time as a river that flows swift and sure in one direction, I can say that they are wrong. Time is an ocean in a storm. And in 2003, it was time to make the past feel revolutionarily new.

Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time maintains its focus on realistic platforming. You can’t adjust your jump arc in midair, your jump distance is normal and not superhuman, and if you fall more than a few feet you start to take fall damage, taking lethal damage at relatively low heights2 just like in the old games. But even working within the confines of plausibility SoT is able to push new ground, thanks to the popularization of parkour. The Prince is now able to run up or alongside walls, granting him some extra height and length on his jumps in a way that still feels wholly grounded. The animations are also still based off of real human movement, this time motion captured instead of rotoscoped. But while rotoscoping clashed with sprite-based animation, creating an unwieldly movement system with no room for fine control, motion capture plays very nicely with skeletal animation, which is the main method in 3D. Skeletal animations can be blended into and out of algorithmically at a moment’s notice, in a way that isn’t really possible with sprite-based systems3. The end result is a Prince that moves like a man but responds like a video game character, the best of both worlds.

Hardcore parkour!

Now, that’s not to say that there are no limitations from the new approach. Sands of Time is still far more limited in terms of player ability than a disciple of Mario. The fixed lengths and trajectories of your jumps mean far less variation in what you can do, and far less ability to improvise. And it’s easy to imagine this costing the game dearly. Levels in Sands of Time tend to have one very obviously telegraphed path; only one ledge jutting out from the wall, only one hanging bar next to it to jump to, which leads you to the only shimmy path in the room, etc. There’s a universe where this results in a game that barely involves the player at all, a game where you just press the “make progress” button until the funny little guy is done doing his fancy running, like a sort of glorified Dragon’s Lair. But Sands of Time avoids this pitfall4 by giving the player just enough control. You wall run where it’s obvious to do so, yes, but you still have to manually jump off the wall at the correct time. You have to jump at the apex of your swing on a bar to cover the correct distance. Trickier maneuvers like wall-jumping require several jumps to be timed correctly. Even when you identify the way to go there’s an execution challenge there. Not as much as some other platformers, but enough to sell that you’re in control. The result is a movement system that is utterly enthralling; the game’s desire for realism is perfectly realized.

And that’s not even getting into the titular mechanic! Early in the game you acquire a magical dagger that lets you control the flow of time. The main impact is that you can rewind a short distance a certain number of times, allowing you to quickly correct for a mistimed or misaimed jump. I adore this feature. It’s immediately useful in that it helps cover over what would otherwise be a major flaw with this game’s level design. Since this is a realistic game, levels aren’t just a series of floating platforms; they’re made to look like plausible spaces, with the platforming elements hiding in plain sight. This means that there’s a certain element of “guess what’s background geometry and what’s interactable” going on here; not a ton, but enough to theoretically get frustrating. That is, if you weren’t able to rewind to right before you tried to jump on something the developers didn’t expect you to at the push of a button. You still have to learn the game’s visual language, but having this grace makes that a far more enjoyable experience than it otherwise would be.

It’s another “I uploaded a gif as a video because fuck WordPress” special!

However, this game is not without its flaws. I’ve spent all this time praising the platforming, but unfortunately there’s also sword fighting. The combat in this game is awful. Everything’s a slog; enemies take several hits to go down, not even counting how often they block. And even once they’re down you have to stab them with your dagger and absorb them into it to confirm the kill; otherwise, they just revive5 and leave you with even more to do. Combat encounters have 10-20 enemies, but never feature more than 4 active at a time, spawning in reinforcements as you kill the current crop. There’s just way too much time involved in any given encounter, the pacing is abysmal. And there’s hardly any variety, or even any options for a bored player to tackle things differently.

What’s even worse is that, at least for me, I wound up having to play ~70% of the game’s combat encounters twice. I say “70%” because that’s what my save file said when it soft-locked, because it turns out there’s at least one save point in this game that you can’t actually use, because it spawns Farrah6 in a bad spot and breaks everything. And when I did some light googling to confirm that I was in fact boned, I found that there are like 4 different soft-lock points in the game. Which, for a game that’s both strictly linear and pretty short is honestly pathetic. It’s the sort of thing that would get you rejected by a platform holder in a world where cert wasn’t a “oh that one can go through, it’s a Ubisoft” sort of affair.

But what’s interesting about these frankly massive flaws is that it’s not really reflected in how the game’s remembered. Indeed, they weren’t reflected in my own memories of first playing this game ~12 years ago7. Which gets at something I’ve noticed about how games are received. People don’t tend to conceptualize games as a sum of their parts, adding up everything good and everything bad and seeing what the score is. Every game has a certain core to it, something akin to a Minimum Viable Product, and if you get that core experience right it literally does not matter what else is wrong. It’s why games like Fallout New Vegas amass dedicated fanbases despite legions8 of bugs, and it’s why Sands of Time is rightly remembered as a classic despite everything that isn’t platforming.

Because the platforming here really is that excellent. Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time is probably one of the 5 most influential games I’m covering in this series. By demonstrating how platforming can work in a realistic setting it expanded the genre (or at least its mechanics) to a whole new section of games. Suddenly you didn’t need to be a cartoon mascot to enjoy a little jumping action. There are so, so many photoreal games9 these days that feature the sorts of climbing and parkouring popularized by Sands of Time. And if they’re even half as fun to play as SoT is I think we’re in for a treat.


Stray Observations:

  • There’s also one really obnoxious puzzle beat early on, where a random human who survived the sands yells at you every time you make a single wrong move. It’s like, do you wanna come down here and do this yourself? Or do you want to let the player actually play and learn and shit?
  • The sound mixing here is very “PS2”. Voices are way too low in the mix, you can barely hear them. Also the sound files are weirdly compressed?
  • There’s a section late in the game where you lose the dagger, and the platforming suddenly gets like 50% worse. It really is key to the whole experience. I want a Dagger of Time in every game, and I’m not joking.
  • There’s a remake of this game supposedly in the works, but Ubisoft is a sexual harassment corporation that dabbles in games when the mood strikes so who knows when/if that’s ever coming out.

Other 2003 platformers of note:

2003 gives us a pair of sequels to prior entries in this series. First up, Ratchet and Clank: Going Commando, just 1 year after the first game. This one refines the experience in some key ways; the player’s guns gain experience and become more powerful as they use them, giving the game a greater emphasis on combat and also encouraging the player to use everything at least a little so they can max out every weapon. It’s a sequel that makes a lot of sense compared to its predecessor, minting a formula that would stand more-or-less intact from then on.

A sequel that does not make much sense, Jak II is a wild departure, ditching Banjo-Kazooie for Grand Theft Auto III. The game begins with Jak and friends being transported to a mysterious city, where Jak is immediately captured and tortured in medical experiments by the evil Baron Praxis for the next two years. He finally escapes, but is no longer the happy-go-lucky mute protagonist of the first game; indeed, his very first words are “I’m gonna kill Baron Praxis”. Playing an edgy boy who steals hovercars and shoots guns doesn’t make sense as anything other than trend chasing, but given that Jak and Daxter was just 2 years old anyone who viewed it as a childhood favorite was themselves still a child, meaning there was no scandalized outcry.

Looking at that goatee, though, maybe there should have been.

Next Time: The granddaddy of the indie games scene: Cave Story