Review: Prince Of Persia (Atari ST)

So that randy old goat is after your woman – and I can see why. Ruling the land is just a nice bonus… Also, someone got a bargain.

ST Format Review (Issue 19)

Equipment Used/Recommended

  • MiSTer box running the Atari ST core – a 1MB STE running TOS 1.62 – you can replicate this with the Steem emulator.
  • Any of Automation 398, Vectronix 222/3 / 781/2
  • Speedlink USB Joystick

My Review

So here you are, in the fortunate position of having just pulled the Sultan’s daughter. Well done. You’re pretty pleased with yourself. Problem is the Grand Vizier Jaffar has seized power and wants to consolidate it. The bigger problem is that to do so he needs to marry your mrs. To that end he’s had you shoved in a cage and he’s given her an hour to choose – marriage or death. Now personally unless he had really poor personal hygeine or has some particularly quirky kinks I’d probably go with marriage but each to their own.

Just hanging around, don’t mind me…

So your quest begins – you have no sword and are dressed only in pyjamas which don’t do much to repel the stabby gits who litter each level. You’ll want to get a sword then. Getting it is easier said than done though. The palace in which you’re trapped is a bit of a health and safety hazard. Bits of floor are loose, shaking when you land near them or jump on them and falling to the ground with a crash. Portcullises grash on your head, spikes appear in the floor for you to fall onto, and then there’s all these dickheads with swords trying to turn you into a sieve.

He could often be a bit spiky with people…

Now the thing is all this is fairly standard so far. Nothing there particularly stands out. Stab people, jump on platforms, rescue the girl, all very ho-hum. So why is Prince Of Persia so highly regarded? Well it’s in no small part down to the animation. At the time the standard approach to animation was that someone would hand draw the sprites and this would include drawing all the frames of animation. What they did instead here was use motion capture to generate a particularly realistic animation, and to make that work animation is at a solid high frame rate rather than the ST’s usual slow speeds. Now this comes at a cost of course. There’s no scrolling, backgrounds are static, you’ll only have one enemy on screen at once and so on. It’s actually not terribly demanding of the processor, but that’s fine, it keeps frame rates ticking over nicely, and even allows enough headroom that the ST can have sampled sounds. Interestingly, animation does slow down if a gate is rising while you’re running, further backing up the notion that it had to be flip screen to achieve this level of fluidity.

Oooh nasty

Watching videos you might expect controls to be an issue, with the character having momentum, especially once you read that a jump across a chasm is executed with a joystick diagonal. You’d expect to miss the timing and fall to spiky doom. Not so. In fact the game has a bit of sense and will wait to just the right spot to perform the jump if you diagonal nice and early. It’s pretty swish. Additionally, you can clamber up to the next platform up or clamber down safely knowing the game will do what you intend – holding the fire button lets you take cautious steps left and right, while pressing down will lower you on a ledge, releasing when you release the fire button, and up allows you to clamber up. All this quickly becomes second nature. Combat is also pretty good – there are clear tells for your opponent taking a swipe at you and you have to time your block (up on the joystick) correctly to stay alive, and get your attacks in on time. It’s a decent combat system with a nice level of tension and a decent requirement of skill.

Why am I wandering around in my pyjamas with no sword?

Difficulty on the first level isn’t too bad – I’ve not played the game before but was able to clear the first level fairly rapidly once I’d got the hang of the controls. I soon found myself quite comfortable jumping around from platform to platform, shimmying up and down, leaping like a demented salmon and stabbing Jaffar’s henchmen in the face. In many ways while the movement looks spectacular, the controls mean that it’s actually quite a carefully co-ordinated and controlled business, while there are actually a limited number of places at which the player can come to rest on screen, being half steps or full steps, turning the levels more into puzzles than the kind of platforming you’d expect in a Mario game where missing a jump is death (though the presence of spikes certainly adds some jeopardy if you do screw up).

At last, a sword. Just ignore the skeleton. Don’t grab the skull and start reciting Shakepeare…

Video

This game looks ok static but looks best in motion. Here’s a video of me playing the game and talking a bit about it. I also briefly show the Amiga version for comparison. For once the ST version looks better.

Verdict

Prince Of Persia doesn’t look anything special in static screenshots, but in motion it truly comes alive thanks to its fantastic animation, using a technique which would eventually become an industry standard. The game is not without technical limitations, the occasional slowdown being one, but it also makes a feature of its other limitation. Because of the animation the game uses a static backdrop with the screen flipping between locations, and the player’s freedom of movement is restricted due to the additional animation frames required for smaller steps. This creates a more puzzly feel than the more freeform flowing nature of a Mario game.

“Did you spill my pint?”

Clearly the technical side has less of an impact now than it did in its day and yet it’s still a super-attractive game. For once I actually prefer the look of the ST version with its more clearly-defined tiles and better colours vs the Amiga looking quite flat, muted even, though I’d appreciate the Amiga’s reduced slowdown. Still, while the technical side tends to be what people talk about, but this is a good game. I’d not played it before so I gave it a go last night to prepare for the video and this review, and I had a damn good time. I had fun when I was doing the video too, even if I did die more often than I’d like. It’s a good game and that’s not nostalgia talking, after all how can I be nostalgic for a game I never had much interest in back in the day?

“No, I spilled your blood.”

Resources

Manual: https://www.popuw.com/files/pop1manualA_A_CPC_PCC.pdf

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