Our tale begins in 1989 with a game published on the Apple II. Its creator, Jordan Mechner, has already had a hit with an early fighting game called Karateka, developed while he was attending Yale University. Published by Broderbund, Karateka was widely praised for its advanced animation, which pretty much defined what people meant by 'lifelike' at the time. With Prince of Persia, however, Mechner is to take things even further. This time Mechner has looked to the tales of the 1001 nights for inspiration, and he has combined the Eastern fantasy found there with the action and suspense of the first ten minutes of Raiders of the Lost Ark to create the template for his game. Prince of Persia is indebted to the platforms, traps and puzzle play of the US game classic Lode Runner, but you can see the Indiana Jones influence every time the eponymous hero takes a leap. The Prince makes jumps by the skin of his teeth. He rolls through traps without a second to spare. He snatches ledges by his fingertips and, with an effort, pulls himself up. This isn't the way Mario does platforming - it's platforming with a sense of real human physicality and weight.
But it's the art and the animation that proves dazzling. Mechner uses a process akin to the film process of rotoscoping - best known from Ralph Bakshi's animated film of Lord of the Rings - where the animators trace over live action footage to get a realistic depiction of human form and movement. In a way, it's the antecedent of the motion capture processes used in today's films and games. Mechner's process isn't quite so sophisticated. He shoots hours of footage of his younger brother, David, clad in white and performing the same kinds of jumps, falls, rolls and fighting manoeuvres that the prince will use in game. He then spends many more hours transforming this into a bunch of animated sprites.
In a world where sixteen frames of animation is considered state of the art, the effect is jaw-dropping. Prince of Persia is an instant gaming sensation. The game is hard, but the visuals are stunning and the level design imaginative and tight. Gamers love the Arabian theme, the traps, the puzzles and the duels. Over the next few years, Prince of Persia will be ported to just about every computer and console platform going, from the Commodore Amiga to the Game Boy. In 1993 it's followed by a sequel, The Shadow and the Flame, which propels the Prince's story forward while using the graphical capabilities of the IBM PC, Apple Mac and SNES console to make the prince and his world even more cinematic and immersive. Again, the game is a hit.
But then we have to wait six years for the next instalment. In 1996 Lara Croft arrives. Clearly indebted to the Prince for many of her moves and much of its gameplay, Tomb Raider takes the Prince of Persia-style action/adventure into glorious 3D. Broderbund's Red Orb label finally responds in 1999 with a 3D reworking of Mechner's original. Prince of Persia 3D captures a lot of the style and action of the Prince's 2D outings, and has a great villain in Rugnor, a half-monster rival to the prince who whisks the princess away, leaving you spending much of the game in hot pursuit. All the same, it's compromised by camera and control issues and numerous bugs on release. This could easily have been the end for our heroic Persian prince.