Rescuing the Prince of Persia from the sands of time

October 15th, 2012 2:17 PM
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Jordan Mechner is a hot ticket these days. I don't know exactly when that happened — in 2003 when his Apple II classic Prince of Persia got rebooted for a modern gaming audience, or 2010 when the franchise was adapted to film, or 2012 when he was the PAX East keynote speaker. Regardless, he and his properties seem to be popping up everywhere these days, with The Last Express coming out for iOS this month and a new Karateka due out real soon now.

The Mechner story that was perhaps of most relevance to Apple II users occurred earlier this year, when the source code for his original Prince of Persia was found and salvaged. The effort was 95% Tony Diaz, with the other 5% being Jason Scott knowing to bring Diaz into the equation. As the connective tissue, Scott observed the entire experience and gave a presentation about it on Friday, September 28, 2012, at Derbycon. The entire 52-minute session is now available online (note: contains NSFW language):

Remove the foul language and the tendency toward eccentric clothing, and Scott is still an entertaining speaker who knows his material and has a good delivery style. I recommend this and any other presentation of his you have the opportunity to attend.

What's next for Jordan Mechner? At PAX East, he commented that computer gaming was essentially a sidequest toward his goal of becoming a Hollywood scriptwriter. Yet gaming seems to be where he's known best, and he continues to return to that scene. Whichever one makes him happy, I look forward to his continued works.

The legacy of Prince of Persia

February 13th, 2012 1:45 PM
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I've written several times about Prince of Persia, Jordan Mechner's seminal platformer that debuted on the Apple II and has since been translated, reimagined, and adapted across video game platforms, comic books, and Hollywood. At its core, the game and its plot are simple yet enduring, having survived across decades and dozens of reinterpretations. Why?

wallpaper_prince_of_persia_warrior_within_08_1600This is not the Prince of Persia you grew up with. What's given him so long a life?

Ryan Lambie at the Den of Geek has an answer. In a thoughtful if occasionally rosy reflection on the original game, he points to Prince of Persia's tension and challenge as its timeless qualities.

It didn't matter that the levels themselves were a comparatively sparse amalgam of grey walls, blue tiles and white spikes — when the Prince hung by his fingertips above a precipice, or leapt through a closing gate with barely a second to spare, the experience was akin to stepping into the shoes of Indiana Jones or Luke Skywalker.

[But] was the game's challenge that made it so addictive. No other game could match its sense of danger, nor the horrendous sense of loss when the Prince was inevitably sliced in two, run through with a sword, impaled by spikes, crushed by falling masonry, or had his bones shattered by a precipitous drop. Even now, it's difficult to think of a game whose animation, control system (which, looking back, was extremely fiddly) and level design merge so seamlessly.

As true as it is that Prince of Persia possessed these traits, I'm not sure they can explain what makes the franchise unique. Many early computer and arcade games possessed their own kind of anxiety and difficulty: who can forget being chased by stormtroopers through the halls of Castle Wolfenstein? That game inspired a 1992 first-person shooter and a series of modern sequels, but I've not witnessed it infusing popular (or at least geek) culture of the degree Prince of Persia has.

Is it just luck of the draw that made Prince of Persia succeed in ways that its contemporaries, such as Choplifter and Lode Runner, have not? Or has Jordan Mechner's genius made his opus into something unquantifiable and irreproducible?

Classic Prince of Persia on Xbox

July 7th, 2011 6:06 PM
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Plenty of Apple II games are getting sequels and reboots or are serving as inspiration for spiritual successors. But, except maybe on the iPhone, fewer games get outright remakes: one-to-one translations that preserve the gameplay and layout of the original while adding modern graphics and controls.

Prince of Persia is a notable exception, having been recrafted for the Xbox 360 four years ago. Available as a $10 downloadable title, it lets today's console gamers experience the classic fun of Jordan Mechner's best-known game.

Steve Melton's review (published just last week — a retro review of a modern classic that's a remake of an original classic? — gives the game a seemingly lukewarm reception, saying that though it's fun and attractive, it boasts no additional content over the Apple II version and thus is overpriced at $10. I'm a bit biased in the matter, as Melton points out that the game is aimed at folks like me — "those wanting to relive their days sitting in front of a DOS PC" (or Apple II, if you want to be authentic). And true, the game runs on a sixty-minute timer before which it's game over. But trying to defeat the evil Jaffar before that clock runs out takes much longer than 60 minutes, courtesy the multiple deaths and wrong turns the challenging game will force you to experience.

IGN's review, also published last month (why all the recent interest in this game?), is a bit friendlier to the game:

The sequel to the original 1989 game, The Shadow and the Flame, was ported to the original Microsoft Xbox, but only as an Easter egg in Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, the 2003 reboot of the franchise. Perhaps it too will enjoy a renaissance, as LucasArts' Monkey Island games recently have.

In the meantime, I encourage other retrocomputing enthusiasts to download the free trial, or spring for the full game right off. POP Classic was one of the first games I bought for my Xbox 360 when I got it as a Christmas gift in 2008, and I consider it an investment well-spent.

Jordan Mechner's Prince of Persia

May 27th, 2010 11:27 AM
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Tomorrow sees the release of the film Prince of Persia, produced by Jerry Bruckheimer and starring Jake Gyllenhaal. Although the latest of many video-game-to-movie adaptations, it marks perhaps the first time an Apple II game has been translated to the silver screen — an honor not yet bestowed upon Choplifter, Lode Runner, or even Castle Wolfenstein.

Despite not all video games making for great movie material, I've been encouraged by the constant presence of the original game's creator, Jordan Mechner, throughout this project. When interviewed in the December 2008 issue of Game Informer magazine, he reflected:

With Prince of Persia, I've had the opportunity and the challenge of recreating the character and story anew, not just once but several times, since the first Apple II version 20 years ago… Each of these projects gave me the chance to work with a great creative team in a new medium—a triple opportunity that in my Apple II days I could have only dreamed of.

Around that time, Mr. Mechner published a wealth of historical data about the evolution of his original vision and game. For a game designer to extensively document his creative process, retain that information for decades, and then make it available to the masses is ever historian's dream. In addition to his handwritten notes from the era, he also uploaded several videos of his younger brother David that he rotoscoped to serve as the animation for the titular prince. Observe this source material:



Now compare it to an early draft of the art that would appear in the final game:



For the Apple II to have played host to such a early depiction of realistic motion is an honor. It warrants at least a cameo by Jordan or David Mechner in the film. What better an Easter Egg could there be?

(Hat tip to Juiced.GS Volume 13, Issue 4 [Mar 2008], pages 18–19)