Programming note - I must begin by apologising for my long, long absence. As it has a habit of doing, real life got in the way. Hopefully updates will be more consistent from now on.
To say that I am a Prince of Persia
fan would be a slight understatement. As someone who owns five copies of The Sands of Time
and considers it one of the greatest games ever made, my attachment to the franchise is long and highly affectionate. So let's trek back in time and take a little look at how my favourite franchise has evolved over the years. Bear in mind we're only covering the 'mainline' games here - there have been a ton of ports, alternative versions and handheld games, but they're too numerous for me to track here.
Prince of Persia (1989)
The first game was originally a one man coded job created for the Apple II in 1989. Said one man was Jordan Mechner, the father of the franchise who has been a perennially recurring figure across its lifespan. After his first game Karateka had been a success, Mechner was moved in create a platform game in the wake of the massive impact of the Mario series. His major breakthrough however, was the integration of fluid, lifelike animation to his main character. Famously, he achieved this by filming his younger brother jumping across gaps and animating over the negative frames, creating the idea of rotoscoping in videogames. Combined with some neat level design and fiendish traps (it's generally considered a very tough game) it was a huge success, selling a ton of copies and being ported to many different platforms, including PC, Amiga, MegaDrive and a later, enhanced version for SNES. The game was fully remade in 2007 into an 3D rendered HD version which took aesthetics from The Sands of Time
and was released for Xbox Live Arcade and Playstation Network. These days it's generally recognised as an important early evolution of the platformer and though it isn't held up as revolutionary in the same way a Mario or Sonic would be, it has the distinction of a minor classic.
Prince of Persia 2: The Shadow and the Flame (1993)
A steady, workmanlike sequel to the original released on PC, Macintosh and SNES. It keeps most of the design points of the original, although it updates the graphics and provides a longer, richer experience. Notably, it introduces the concept of a 'Dark Prince' an aspect that would later return (heavily modified) in The Two Thrones
. Unfortunately, there's really not too much else to say about it. It's by no means a bad game, and is probably technically better than the original, but it's arguably the least remembered of all the POP games. After this, Mechner left the franchise to work on his under-appreciated adventure game gem The Last Express
Prince of Persia 3D (1999)
Oh dear. This is where it all went badly wrong for the franchise. Produced six years after the last game in an attempt to move in on the vibrant ground Tomb Raider
had created for 3D platformers, it's a game even die-hard POP fans like myself prefer not to talk about. Developed by the unremarkable Red Orb Entertainment, whose only other product of note was a tangential involvement in Riven
, this is a very bad game. What's even worse is that it's a bad game that had the potential to be quite good. There's some neat level design and the graphics were pretty for the time. But it controls like a drunk hippopotamus and some toddlers with ADHD appear to be in charge of the camera, which renders the final product near unplayable. It's also very buggy and it feels like corners were cut at every opportunity. These days it's mostly only referred to as an example of how not to translate a 2D character into 3D, and it's failure meant the franchise would lay dormant for a few more years.
Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (2003)
For many modern fans, this is where the franchise really began. Ubisoft acquired the rights from the wreckage of POP3D
. Seemingly determined to do right by their investment, they hired series creator Jordan Mechner to come back on as a creative consultant, and he was apparently integral in setting style, aesthetics and story. Ubisoft also put their up and coming Montreal studio, fresh off the success of Splinter Cell on to development, and the results speak for themselves.
Sands of Time
was ecstatically received by fans and critics alike, and was showered with praise for its smooth platforming, excellent graphics, great level and puzzle design and charming story and characters. Particularly approved of was the clever time-rewinding effect that removed much of the frustration inherent to the platforming genre. The unique combat was more divisive (I like it a lot), but everyone agreed that the Prince's reinvention into a wisecracking adventurer and the interplay he shared with his female companion Farah were highlights of the game. Interestingly, this is also the last time any of the games in the series would be even remotely 'Persian' as after this different aesthetics began to take over. Commercially the game was a sucess, and revived the franchise's good name, but Ubisoft were mildly dissatisfied with sales relative to the outstanding review scores, and set about making a more marketable sequel.
Prince of Persia: Warrior Within (2004)
This game has acquired a reputation as the black sheep of the trilogy, and it's a shame because there's a lot of good stuff here. The dark, gothic design often blends nicely with some great environment puzzles, the new hack'n'slash combat system is a lot of fun and there's a neat plot twist that allows for some nice mind screwing. But unfortunately, it's reputation as a black sheep is largely deserved, because of Ubisoft's effort to appeal more to the lucrative teenage boy market. And that of course that means...more blood! More cursing! More nudity! It's a textbook example of how making something 'darker and edgier' actually makes it less adult, not more. There's also some unfortunate gameplay choices, mainly the introduction of boss battles, which simply do not work and aren't fun. The character derailment suffered by the Prince was another common complaint, with his playful charming personality replaced by, as Gabe from Penny Arcade put it
, "a cookie cutter brooding tough guy with zero personality and a handful of poorly written and often repeated one liners." And the inclusion of Godsmack on the soundtrack was so laughable it's something of an in-joke even to this day. Jordan Mechner, who left Ubisoft after SOT
was completed, went on record as being against the changes, and that was the general reaction from critics as well. Ubisoft Montreal has since apologised several times, but the damage was done. There's a good game in there, but you have to look beyond the rather ugly surface.
Prince of Persia: The Two Thrones (2005)
This was essentially Ubisoft Montreal's mea culpa
after the critical bashing the last game had recieved. An attempt to explain the Prince's sudden personality shift, a return to the more open, outdoor environments of SOT
and a neat capstone to the trilogy were the aims here and for the most part they're achieved. The Prince returns to being a somewhat likeable fellow, aided greatly by the return of his charming British accent
and a partner to riff off of. The 'Dark Prince' concept is a neat idea to explain the Prince's gradual change in character and provides a decent mixup to combat and platforming also. The combat from WW
returns largely unchaged bar the addition of 'speed kills' which add a nice element of stealth. Unfortunately, boss battles also make another appearance, particularly unbearable this time. Overall, the game is a fine effort, a good recovery from the mess of WW
. But it's also clearly subject to the law of diminishing returns, and the concept was beginning to wear a little thing. A radical rethink was needed.
Prince of Persia (2008)
Affectionately dubbed Fresh Prince of Persia
by myself and others with poor taste in puns, this was the most radical rethink of the franchise in years. Still in the hands of Ubisoft Montreal, they decided to go back to square one and rebuild the franchise from the ground up, as indicated by the title. The result was one of the most divisive games in recent memory.
Everything started again. Based on their stunning Anvil engine (developed for Assassin's Creed
) the developers drew a brand new world in gorgeous pastel and watercolour shades, and with it a new Prince and a new mythology. Emphasising a super fluid style of movement, the platforming was reshaped to be simpler and more intuitive, and the world redesigned to be open, with backtracking and upgrades required to traverse its whole expanse. Out went group combat, to be replaced by one-on-one duels with recurring boss characters. And out went the time rewinding sand, replaced by new character Elika, a mystical magician who accompanies you on your journey and facilitates the greatest and most controversial change of all - you can't die. Literally, every time you die she'll save you.
Naturally, opinion on the game has been furiously divisive, and split almost entirely down the middle. Its sizeable force of critics claim it's dumbed down, insultingly easy and removes the intricate puzzles and assault courses of earlier games. Me, I think it's a masterpiece, a textbook example of how to reboot a franchise and focus on core strengths, and that the game rivals The Sands of Time
. The debate rages to this day, but clearly Ubisoft were disappointed by what they saw. Though there have been many claims this iteration has not been abandoned, for the next game Ubisoft decided on a step back into familiar territory.
Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands (2010)
An 'interquel' that's set chronologically between SOT
, Forgotten Sands
also reverts to those games's play style, reintroducing the time rewinding concept and the character of the Prince from SOT
. It isn't related to the Sands of Time movie, although the timing is surely just a little too good to be true. Most likely Ubisoft were looking to take advantage of the added publicity swirling about. I'm not going to go into too much detail on this one, because I'll have a review up in the next couple of days.
So, that's the history of the mainline Prince of Persia
games up to this point. What's next? Well, it's difficult to say. As critically and commercially successful as the Sands of Time
games have been, surely this is as far as the story and concept can be taken. At the same time, given the mixed reaction that surrounded it, there's a undeniable reluctance by Ubisoft to embrace the continuity created by Prince of Persia (2008)
. Whether they ultimately do decide to continue that story or go for another full-on reboot. I expect a gestation period of a few years as Ubisoft Montreal plans and works on the other projects it has on the go. No matter how long it takes though, I and many others will eagerly anticipate the Prince's next adventure.
P.S. I hope it looks a bit like this
Any and all feedback welcome please, you can't improve without criticism! Next time up - Forgotten Sands review