Take on the NES Library

An 8-bit Extravaganza!

#71 – Prince of Persia

This classic PC game does okay on the NES hardware.

Both the look and music are almost calming.

To Beat: Reach the ending
Played: 1/8/18 – 1/19/18
Difficulty: 7/10
My Difficulty: 7/10
Video: Prince of Persia Longplay

When you play as many video games as I do, there are bound to be some games that seem like a perfect fit but you just never seem to get around to them. One such game is Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, or any of the other games in that series. I get it. I really like 3D platformers, action games, and charting my way through these kinds of spaces. I’m sure I would love it, but at the same time I feel that ship has sailed. I haven’t played any of the Prince of Persia games until now. At least I can right one of my gaming wrongs. Prince of Persia is a carefully crafted experience that plays well enough on the NES.

Prince of Persia was created and developed by Jordan Mechner. To fully understand and appreciate the history, let’s back up a bit and talk about his first game. Karateka is an action and fighting game originally released for the Apple II in 1984. You play an unnamed hero and want to rescue a princess from a mountain fortress. Enemy encounters play out like an early one-on-one fighting game and you punch, kick, and dodge your way to victory. It is notable for its animation by rotoscoping, which is a technique where drawing is done over top of video. In this case, Mechner used footage of his karate instructor to draw the characters in Karateka. It was a huge success and one of the best-selling games on the Apple II. It was also widely ported to many computers and consoles, including the Famicom version from 1985.

Prince of Persia was Mechner’s next game, released on the Apple II in 1989. It also contains rotoscoped animations and hand-to-hand combat, but is a much more expansive game than Karateka. Despite critical acclaim, it did not sell well at the start. This is likely because the Apple II was not a viable platform for game development anymore. Sales really took off after its various ports. The original version was both published and developed by Broderbund. The NES version was released in November 1992, published by Virgin Games and developed by Motivetime Ltd.

The game looks even better in motion.

The game went on to spawn sequels and a new series. Prince of Persia 2: The Shadow and the Flame was released for MS-DOS in 1993. It was also a big success. The next game, Prince of Persia 3D in 1999, was not. The Prince of Persia franchise was soon sold to Ubisoft, who went on to develop many games in a new series and several spinoffs. The aforementioned Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time was released in 2003 for PS2, Gamecube, Xbox, and Windows. It brought the series firmly back into the limelight. Sands of Time was quickly followed by Warrior Within and The Two Thrones over the next two years, and a fourth game The Forgotten Sands came out in 2010. There was also the film Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time released the same year.

The story for Prince of Persia takes place in a faraway land. While the Sultan is away fighting in war, his Grand Vizier Jaffar has taken power. Meanwhile, the Sultan’s daughter has fallen in love with an adventurer. Jaffar has this adventurer arrested and thrown into prison, while giving the Sultan’s daughter an ultimatum. She can marry Jaffar or be killed, and she is given an hour to decide her fate. You play the role of the adventurer as you seek to recover your sword and battle your way out of the dungeons within the hour to save the Sultan’s daughter.

Prince of Persia is a side-scrolling action-adventure game. Each level of the dungeon is its own maze with possible branching paths. The objective is to find the staircase to the next level which is hidden behind a locked door. Some of the floor tiles contain switches that open or close gates within the dungeon, and one of these switches opens the exit stairs. Find the switch and reach the exit while avoiding traps and enemies. There are twelve levels in the dungeon and when you reach the Sultan’s daughter you win the game.

Floor switches aren’t always this obvious.

The controls are a bit complex for a side-scrolling game. Use the D-Pad to walk left and right. You can tap one of those directions to turn yourself around and face the other way, and you can hold Left or Right to run in that direction. Press the A button to jump. You can do a running jump while you are moving. If you are standing still and press A, you will do a large leap forward a couple of tiles. The B button is used to tiptoe. While standing still, press B and he will take a small step forward. You can use the tiptoe method to walk right up to the edge of the platform. Position yourself underneath the edge of a ledge and hold Up to jump, grab onto the ledge, and pull yourself up. You can also press Up to jump in place. If you are standing beneath a breakable tile, you can bonk it from underneath which causes it to fall and gives you a new path to climb. You can descend from the edge of a ledge. Tiptoe up to the edge of a ledge, turn around, and hold Down to lower yourself gently. Hold either the A or B button to dangle off the ledge if there’s no floor underneath. If you want to jump across a large pit, hold the A or B button after leaping to grab the far ledge if you come up short. You can cross gaps three tiles wide by tiptoeing to the edge, jumping with A, holding either A or B to grab the ledge, and pulling yourself up. Enter the exit door at the end of each level by pressing Up. You can also press Start to pause the game. As you can see there is nuance to the controls that give you a lot of versatility when you learn it.

Your health is represented by red triangles in the lower left corner. You start out with three health points. Most traps in the game kill you outright. There are trap tiles where spikes pop out if you step on them and that instantly kills you. Spiked gates open and close and you die if you are caught in between when it closes. Falling down three or more tiles is also instant death. Falling two tiles knocks off one health point. Some floor tiles crumble away when you walk over them, which often leads to plunging to your death.

There are potions within the dungeons that can have several different effects. Most potions will restore one health point. There are some of these potions that look the same but reduce your health by one instead. Another potion, one that looks slightly different from the health potion, fills your health entirely and increases your maximum health by one. If you can survive to the end of the level, the max health carries over to the next stage. One quirky thing about the health is that you can get up to six total health points, but then it always goes back to five if you die or finish the level. There is one other potion in a later stage that has a level-specific effect.

Ah yes, a sword! This should help!

Another feature of the game is the sword combat. You begin the game without a sword and have to find it within the first stage. When you enter a screen with an enemy, his health is shown with purple triangles in the lower right of the screen. Approach the enemy to automatically draw your sword. You can inch either left or right with the D-Pad. The A button lets you strike with your sword, and the B button lets you parry and deflect an enemy strike. The manual says you can also parry with Up and put your sword away with Down, but I don’t think they work in this port. Each hit reduces one health point for either side. I found swordplay to be awfully tricky and inconsistent. Sometimes I could rally several consecutive hits, and other times every move I made got countered.

Besides the control scheme, the other major gimmick to Prince of Persia is the timer. You are indeed given an hour to finish the game. The bottom of the screen will occasionally display the number of minutes remaining. You can press Select to force the time to appear and see how well you are doing. Dying sends you back to the start of the current level and you don’t get any of that time back. Once time has expired you have to start all over again.

Prince of Persia has a password system that helps alleviate the time constraint. Each level gives you an eight-digit password once completed. This saves which level you are on and the total amount of time remaining. You can use this to help you work through the game. First, take your time and figure out how to solve the level. Then, start over with your last password and try to finish it on the first try. That way you will have more time left for the later stages. I gotta say, I think the password screen in this game is clever. You enter in the password with the D-Pad and press Start when finished. Your guy will then drink a potion on the ground in front of him. If you get the password right he goes ahead through the door to the proper level. Type in the wrong password and he immediately dies from the potion.

Sword combat is randomly tricky.

As I mentioned above, this was my first time playing Prince of Persia. The NES port is a later release and not common. It runs close to $20 for a loose cart but it is readily available online. At one point I had two copies of the game. One I remember buying in a small lot where The Krion Conquest was the highlight, but I don’t recall where I got the other one. My double sold quickly when I listed it for sale.

I took a different approach than what I outlined above for beating the game because I knew I wanted to try and beat the whole game in one shot. I approached each level casually with no real regard to the overall timer, recording my passwords each time and noting how much time was remaining. Once I ran the timer out, I used the latest password to learn that level before starting over entirely. On each subsequent playthrough I updated my passwords if I had more time remaining. This way I could make overall progress, improve my passwords, and keep sharp on already completed levels all at once. I think it was a good strategy for my overall goal. I started over five or six times before beating the game the first time on my final minute. My recorded longplay went really poorly but I managed to beat the game just barely.

The good thing about passwords is that I also used them to practice certain levels I would have trouble with. If a level involved multiple swordfights, it was probably one that gave me a lot of trouble. I was just too inconsistent. There were a few difficult jumps that necessitated a running start and these gave me the most trouble. The last jump in the game was by far the hardest. I finally figured it out by standing in a very specific position before taking the running start and jumping at the last possible moment. I was pulling my hair out trying to make that jump, but I did it.

The graphics don’t vary much further from this.

I noticed the controls and movement of Prince of Persia are in direct conflict with the goal at hand. This game is all about battling the timer. To minimize the amount of time spent, you have to move as quickly as possible. However, moving too quickly is sure to get you killed. Some ledges end immediately when moving to the next screen, which seems like a major design issue but might be a screen-size issue only appearing in the NES port. This makes running quite dangerous unless you know exactly what is on the next screen. Once you know where you are going, there is more than enough time to beat the game. You just have to learn to be fast while also making precise movements. There are some buttons that activate timed gates where the timing is very tight, and you have to map out exactly where to stand, when to run, when to stop, when to jump, how to dodge traps or unwanted switches, and so on. This war with the timer is always present, but for some reason it just works. By the end of the game you know exactly how to move and how to put yourself in position to clear just about any trap or jump. These difficult sequences are very rewarding to clear and most of the time there is a consistent strategy by using all the types of movement and climbing available to you.

Two things stand out to me that really annoyed me in this version of Prince of Persia. The first is that there is a problem with the font and the digits 6 and 8. The best I could tell, there are only two pixels different between the two numbers. This is a problem because the passwords are all numbers and it’s easy to cross them up if you aren’t paying close attention. I didn’t make any mistakes writing passwords down but I can see where it might be a problem. The other issue I had with the game is inconsistent ledge grabbing. There are at least a couple of places in the game I could recall where you make a jump and your foot just catches the ledge enough so that you stumble off it but somehow bypass the ledge grab. Sometimes you just miss altogether for no apparent reason. I can’t prove it but I suspect that this is an issue with just the NES port of the game. Free running seems like it puts you in pixel positions where edge cases don’t give you expected results. If you do careful steps and jumps you can usually put yourself in position for more consistent success. It’s a minor quibble that occasionally becomes a major problem when time is most precious and setbacks are most costly.

Prince of Persia is a beautifully rendered, timeless game in its own right. The NES port is reduced in quality but it still fun to play. The controls work well for the most part. The music is repetitive but is okay and doesn’t really get in the way. The graphics look good though there are only two kinds of tilesets and two enemy types used throughout the game. Thankfully the animation is excellent because the graphical variety just isn’t there. While I haven’t played any other versions of the game, I do know that both the in-game story and level layouts were compromised in the conversion to the NES. Some screen transitions are poor enough that you will easily die if you don’t know or remember what’s ahead. This is not the ideal way to play Prince of Persia. But if the NES version is all you’ve got, it’s still worth playing.

#71 – Prince of Persia

Posted In: Finished

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