Way back in 1989, smooth animation wasn’t on the mind of too many gamers. The usual series of bleeps and bloops was enough, and besides — we had enough to worry about dodging Bowser’s fire blasts or ducking one of Mike Tyson’s knockout jabs; whether the pixels looked pretty while doing it wasn’t exactly a top concern. Of course, gamers rarely know what they want until they see it for the first time, and much like with the mind-blowing cutscenes that Ninja Gaiden introduced so many to, it’s hard to forget the first time seeing the silky-smooth animation on display in Broderbund’s Prince of Persia.
Granted, by now many players had moved on from the Apple II, as dying of dysentery on the Oregon Trail and traveling around the world yet again to chase down Carmen Sandiego no longer held the same appeal as whipping Dracula to death or gunning down ducks in front of a snickering dog. Still, there were always those friends who just hadn’t managed to convince their parents of just how necessary something like Metroid was to their playground social life, and so, they were stuck with a keyboard and those weird floppy disks. But every once in a while they would have the upper hand (something PC gamers apparently have always had); for a while, Prince of Persia was one such example.
Play some NES games long enough and you’ll understand exactly what the big deal was. Here was a video game character that didn’t go from standing to jumping in one frame, whose run action didn’t come off as robotic and endlessly recycled. The Prince seemed to move like a real person (or at least a beautifully drawn cartoon), with all the fluidity and momentum that living beings have. That may seem like nothing now, but the level of animation in Prince of Persia was something rare for video games, and giving players access to controlling such a character introduced them to new ways of thinking about how to play. Suddenly the avatar wasn’t as immediately responsive as a Mario or Mega Man, and the character seemed to be more precious, more relatable. A different approach was required for fighting and platforming that required more careful planning and foresight than those other reflex-heavy experiences.
This increased movement also established a connection with the Prince that was different from the gun-toting Contra guys or plodding Simon Belmont. His plain look and lanky motions came off as sleek-awkward, which made so many of those sweet stunts that much more plausible — something anyone could imagine themselves doing. And when he was stabbed to death by Jaffar or impaled on the spikes at the bottom of a pit? Man, we felt it. This guy was one of us, and it was kind of amazing to see that up on the screen, much less be allowed to dictate it. Why couldn’t every game have animation like this?
One need only go back to a typical NES platformer to understand why this animation style never quite caught on. Prince of Persia might have blown minds with its visuals, but it also smashed keyboards; this was — and is — a frustrating game. When cancelling animations isn’t a thing, and each move must be completed before the next one can begin, one wrong or late button press can cause catastrophe. Getting the timing right is part of the challenge, just as it is with most platformers, but the windows to success are a little narrower when flexibility is removed from the equation. Solving each room in Prince of Persia is more like solving a timing-based puzzle; a little trial and error (and a lot of patience) does the trick.
This type of gameplay inspired some debate on the playground. Arcade-style running and gunning or sword-slashing had become the order of the day by late ’89, and though us whippersnappers could step outside the box for the occasional RPG, the appeal of gaming had much to do with the kind of reflex tests with which to assert superiority over siblings or friends. Still, many were hypnotized by the lifelike gait and delicate strokes on display in Prince of Persia. The intricate animation seemed to hail a new era for video game production values, bringing them that much closer to the cinematic experience. But while I was also greatly impressed by these pixelated visuals, a pathway closed in my brain.
Prince of Persia‘s revolutionary rotoscoping was certainly a landmark step toward the future, but it also cemented in my mind that the way a game feels is more important to me than the way a game looks. It’s a philosophy that has only become more entrenched over the many years since those carefree days back in 1989, and one I’ve repeatedly expressed on the NXpress Nintendo Podcast. That said, it’s not hard to imagine that many gamers were inspired to the opposite, and have celebrated each step closer that the medium has come in regards to depicting visual reality. So many want to better identify, become more absorbed in their digital experiences, and for that to happen, it’s not only photo-realism that matters.
That first step was smoothly (and seemingly interminably) taken so long ago, but Prince of Persia will likely always be remembered by those who first saw it. It elegantly changed the importance of animation, and gracefully poked players’ imaginations.