Friday, November 25, 2011

East vs. West: Prince of Persia (PC Engine, 1991)

It's the day after Thanksgiving here in the US, and I wanted to spend some of my extra free time with a game I am particularly thankful for.  I settled on Jordan Mechner's classic Prince of Persia, which arrived in 1989 as one of the last big Apple II titles and spread to many other platforms shortly thereafter.  Prince of Persia featured innovative rotoscoped graphics, but most of all it demonstrated that a game could blend challenging action, puzzles, and finessed swordplay, and only players who took the time to master its simple but elegant controls and timing could hope to rescue the Princess in the scant 60 minutes allotted.  I am grateful for its existence, because without Prince of Persia, there would arguably have been no Tomb Raider or Uncharted to expand and improve on the basic formula Mechner came up with more than two decades ago(Granted, the 2010 Disney Prince of Persia movie would also not have existed, but I enjoyed it as a silly bit of old-fashioned fun, and it's easy enough to ignore.)

I've played the (somewhat expanded) SNES port back in the 1990s, and the more recent HD remake for XBox Live Arcade, but I am sampling the PC Engine CD-ROM version for the first time here.

It was licensed by Riverhill Soft for the Japanese market, and the only notable differences from the original US edition are that the opening text is in Japanese, this CD-ROM version features atmospheric orchestral music, and the game manual features manga-style renderings of the game's handful of characters -- our hero the Prince, the evil vizier Jaffar, the Sultan's daughter, and some sword-wielding thugs.  The level designs and controls have not been modified, and such was Prince of Persia's popualrity at the time that post-NEC marketer Turbo Technologies Inc. released this version (in English) in the States for the struggling Turbo Duo.

The game opens with an animated prologue played out in effective pantomime -- Prince meets Princess, and then Prince gets thrown into the dungeon by the jealous and evil vizier Jaffar:

Jaffar threatens the princess, then causes an hourglass to appear.  Clearly, time is of the essence -- the Princess must agree to marry the vizier, or die, when the hour is up.  Our plucky hero, meanwhile, must escape from the dank dungeons beneath the palace and save her from a fate worse than death (we aren't given much information about Jaffar, but one presumes that Death doesn't, say, sit around on the couch in its underwear eating nachos.)

The PC Engine version has been dressed up a bit -- the backgrounds are more colorful, and the character sprites are more detailed.  The Prince and his enemies now feature distinct clothing and colors, without compromising the fluidity of Mechner's animation, aside from some visual noise and jumpiness induced by the additional detail.  Mechner's simpler color scheme was probably a wise choice and not just an Apple II limitation, but a few years had passed and the visual state of the art was moving on; the updated graphics certainly don't interfere with the gameplay.

The best new thing about this version of the game is the CD-quality redbook music that plays in the background for atmosphere. The CD audio is occasionally interrupted by chiptunes when significant events occur, which has the effect of making this retro game feel extra retro, as we cut from a full-blown orchestra back to the PC Engine's mid-1980s audio hardware whenever the Prince, say, drinks a potion or discovers a sword:

Making difficult jumps, landing on the desirable switches and jumping over the undesirable ones, and battling sword-wielding guards who become increasingly difficult to defeat provide most of the action.  The level designs become subtly more difficult as we progress, with more complicated puzzles and larger stretches of territory to cross before we can stop to rest.  There are semi-hidden upgrade potions that extend the Prince's life, and there are also poison potions which are visually indistinguishable from the normal potions; learning and memorizing which ones are which is part of the challenge.  There's nothing quite so satisfying as finally getting the dungeon's exit door open, and climbing up another level.

There's an in-game menu that allows saving the game, setting the player's name, quitting, and varying the movement and battle speed.  (At the maximum speed, the animation runs very smoothly, but the Prince becomes harder to control.)  The game also uses the PC Engine's persistent memory to track best times for each of the 12 levels:

I'll be the first to admit that I've never actually finished the original Prince of Persia -- while I've played through several of its modern sequels from start to finish, the original game's old-school approach to difficulty has always been a little daunting on any platform.  The game is divided into levels, each of which can be finished fairly quickly IF (and this is the big if) we execute more or less perfectly.  The Prince can sustain a short fall and take a few sword blows while fighting the guards; he can even survive drinking a poison potion.  But if he runs into the spikes that occasionally spring out of the floor, or misses a step and falls from a great height, or both, he's instantly dead (and a bit bloodier than the norm for 1991):

Each time the Prince dies, we have to start over at the beginning of the current level with all of its enemies and dangers reset.  The only thing that doesn't reset is the game's ever-ticking 60 minute clock -- a death costs us not only frustration, but precious time.  It's this time element that usually shuts me down -- I'm not ashamed to try and retry a difficult section, but when I find myself getting hung up on a tricky jump near the very end of level 2, and just getting to level 3 with half the Princess' time gone, I know I won't be rescuing her during this run.

Plus, I wasted about ten minutes down in this dungeon trying to fight this skeleton, hitting him when I could get a blow in and trying to back him up against a stone wall -- before realizing that he was impossible to kill, there was no way out of this chamber, and I was probably on the wrong track entirely:

So I played on until I just ran out of time, and was slightly disappointed that the final screen only shows an empty chamber, with the hourglass run to completion and no sign of the Princess, so we don't really know what's happened as a result of my abject failure.  Last I saw her, she was looking a little bored and depressed:

So, yes, I'm not going to be able to tell you much more about this one.  But Prince of Persia is a classic game that's well worth getting to know, and I always enjoy spending some time with it.  The PC Engine version is solid, faithful and very playable, and the CD-enhanced audio and upgraded graphics make this one of the most polished ports of its era.  It's well worth a play -- just be forewarned that the 60-minute time limit does not necessarily imply that this game can be played through in an hour.  It only means that you have to stop playing in an hour.

Domestic versions abound at affordable prices, but should you be interested in the PC Engine CD, it might be available for purchase here.

1 comment:

  1. I've sadly never played any version of this classic game, but now I want to at least give the PCE version a try -- thanks to this write-up. Good job :)