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Prince of Persia cover art

Prince of Persia

If you play retro games, you probably know the Prince of Persia. I believe that many people who do not play retro games also know about this legendary game. Although the game was initially a commercial flop, over time it became a hit and determined the emergence of a new genre of cinematic platformers.

In 1986, Jordan Mechner began working on a game he had no idea would be so prominent in the gaming market. The game became so popular because its gameplay was unparalleled at the time. Probably the most significant differences were the smooth animations of the characters. It is definitely worth saying that the game is animated using a rotoscope, which is a redrawing of animations frame by frame, this achieves realistic movement. You need a pattern to create a rotoscope animation. Jordan used his brother David, who practiced martial arts and was willing to jump in front of the camera, as a role model. To record the movements, Jordan bought a VHS camera for $ 2,500, which he received from the sale of his previous game Karateka. When he got all the shots he needed, he returned the VHS camera to the store within a month to get back the money he still needed to develop the game. You're probably thinking about how he converted individual images from the VHS tape. It was a really complicated procedure. He released the aforementioned tape on a television in a darkened room. He stopped the video after every three shots and took the picture with a film camera. Then he evoked the film, blackened the character's surroundings and scratched out the character to get the silhouettes of him. He scanned the films made this way and printed them on paper. He then scanned the individual papers using his camera connected to Apple. Jordan then redrawn everything pixel by pixel. Although he wanted to make the movement as realistic as possible, he allowed himself some art to adjust the animations. For example, the prince's jump on the platform was created by combining two movements, a jump and a strut on a wall.

David's movement serving as a model

Jordan was helped not only by his brother, but also by his father, who discussed his every move with him. When Jordan presented his project at Brøderbund, he wanted the largest percentage of sales and did not get a fixed salary. Jordan eventually bargained as much as fifteen percent of each copy of his game sold. This step was advised by his father and it proved to be a very smart move. Jordan Mechner then moved to California, where Brøderbund was based at the time. From there, he only had a short distance to Hollywood, where he wanted to work as a screenwriter all his life. That's why he was incredibly excited when he heard from Hollywood that they liked his script, which he had sent them some time ago. He immediately went to Hollywood to fulfill his big dream. No wonder he's stopped the game development. He actually started developing it just to shorten the wait for a response from Hollywood. He took creating games as a hobby. It followed eight long months when Jordan did almost nothing on the Prince of Persia. He only went to work for about half an hour. The management of Brøderbund did not like it, but they could not fire him, because he did not receive any salary and had a contract only for a percentage of the sale. Mechner returned to Brøderbund eight months after he did nothing in the film or on the game. He returned to the code he didn't recognize, but after a few days he looked around and returned to work. In California, he met a Disney animator who advised him to place his game in the environment of their fairy tales such as Sinbad or Ali Baba. Until then, Jordon drew mainly from the film The Thief from Bagdad, which is why the game was until then called Bagdad. The story of the game is simple, its simplicity gave the author the opportunity to work out the game mechanism. The evil vizier Jaffar kidnapped the sultan's daughter, and if she did not marry him within sixty minutes, he would kill her. Prince of Persia, the nameless hero, tries to save her within this time limit. He must avoid all the pitfalls that are, in addition to traps, also the vizier's guardians.

Comparison between versions for MS-DOS (left) and Apple II (right)
Mechner's sketches of jumps

The enemies were not originally supposed to be in the game, because Apple II's memory could barely contain a whole screen with animations. Tomy motivated Jordan with her constant demand for combat in his game so much that he freed up some space in the Apple memory. The first enemy in the game was Shadow Man, which was created by simply copying memory using the exclusive-OR command and shifting the colors by one bit. After releasing a few kilobits in the memory, he wanted to add other enemies to the game. However, he had to create an animation of the combat and his brother was at the other end of the United States. So Jordan decided to do a fencing match himself, but that didn't look too exciting as a result.

The first prototype of a fencing fight

He finally drew a duel from the 1938 film Robin Hood. It's only a few seconds repeated in a loop, but the interplay of movements is sufficient.

The final combo model used in the game

When you ever play Prince of Persia, notice that there is always a maximum of one enemy on one screen, because of the low memory. For the same reason, the game does not scroll the screen according to the player's movement, but switch between the individual screens. Despite the lack of computer memory, the game mechanics were very successful. There was a stealth basis in the game, where enemies turn forward loud noises, such as running, jumping, pressing a button or dropping a ceiling. In the same way, simple physics worked in it, it was possible to load platforms with a fallen ceiling, a player or a dead body. In the original version of the game, there was also pirate protection, which was a room with several potions, and with the help of the manual, the user found which potion to drink and stay alive.

Piracy protection containing 14 potions, only one keeps the player alive

Jordan Mechner released the Prince of Persia on the Apple II. The only problem, however, was that at that time, almost no one was using the Apple II anymore. The game was almost never sold at first. But then its ports went to shops and the Prince of Persia began to spread throughout the market. It didn't look like that at first, but in the end the game was so successful that it sold more than 2 million copies.