Prince of Persia, 30th birthday of the title which revolutionized videogame animation

Realized in 1989 by Jordan Mechner, who was just 21 years old, thanks to a cutting-edge technique: rotoscoping

2019 marks an important stepstone in the videogame world: the thirtieth anniversary of the release of Prince of Persia.

A game which earned its place in history, not only for its commercial and critical success, which led to an incredible series of sequels and reboots: from Prince of Persia 2 (1993) and Prince of Persia 3D (1999), to Prince of Persia: the Sands of Time (2003) and the new Prince of Persia in 2008 (but the list may not be over yet, since last year rumours spread out about a possible new chapter) and even a movie in 2010.

What made the game published by American software house Brøderbund really unique was its unprecedented level of animation, which made it the first real cinematic platformer and inspired so many following games in this genre.

 

Prince of Persia’s plot

Let’s start from the game plot which, as the title hints, takes place in ancient Persia.

In the absence of the sultan, who is fighting a war in a foreign land, the evel vizier Jaffar seizes the throne.

The only obstacle between him and the power is the princess, the sultan’s daughter, whom Jaffar kidnaps and locks in a tower, leaving her a terrible choice: marrying him or dying within the hour.

Her saviour, before the fateful 60 minutes run out, will be the brave youth she truly loves, a foreign traveller.

Thrown prisoner in the castle’s dungeon, the protagonist forces his way out using a sword he found in his prison, and he gets to the palace tower in time to defeat Jaffar.

Of course, the future prince succeeds in his adventure only thanks to the player, who controls him making him running, jumping and sword-fighting.

 

A young and brilliant author: Jordan Mechner

Jordan Mechner, a young student at Yale University, first came up with the idea to create this game in 1985, when he was just 21 years old.

Mechner developed a passion for programming using the assembly language on an  Apple II personal computer (a system which was already declining at the time).

Up until then he had only published one videogame, Karateka, just the previous year.

Inspired by the Arabian Nights stories and by the success of movies such as Raiders of the Lost Ark, Mechner opted not to make a sequel of his first martial art title, but to create a brand new original game.

And, despite being an independent and amateur designer, at the time he was among the first ones to use a pioneering animation technique: rotoscoping.

To recreate the prince’s movement mechanic, Mechner traced a lot of video footage he purposedly shot, filming his younger brother David while running around and climbing in a white tracksuit.

For the sword-fighting sequences, instead, he rotoscoped the famous final duel scene between Errol Flynn and Basil Rathbone in the movie The Adventures of Robin Hood. “For a few seconds, the camera angle has them in exact profile – Mechner recalls – This was a godsend.

I did my VHS/one-hour-photo rotoscope procedure, spread two-dozen snapshots out on the floor of the office and spent days poring over them trying to figure out what exactly was going on in that duel, how to conceptualise it into a repeatable pattern”.

 

A milestone in videogame history

The result of this technical innovation, which took three years to be completed, was an amazingly fluid and realistic animation, like no one had ever seen before.

This was the very secret behind the huge success of Prince of Persia.

Despite the original edition for Apple II selling only 7,000 copies in the United States, it was its PC version which boomed in Europe and Japan, before being ported, during the following years, to basically all different home computers and consoles available at the time.

By 1993 it had already sold more than 2 million copies worldwide; by 1999 it had reached 4 million.

But maybe the most strikingly aspect of this story was that the decision to use rotoscoping didn’t came to Mechner’s mind due to a deliberate artistic or technical choice.

It was simply a need: “I wasn’t thinking about being cutting edge – he admits today – We did it essentially because I’m not that good at drawing or animation, and it was the only way I could think of to get lifelike movement”.

Maybe he wasn’t a good drawer, but with this solution Jordan Mechner managed to become one of the most important videogame creators of all times.