If you've ever heard someone say, "Back in my day, video games were hard! We didn't have fancy save systems or checkpoints! We died all the time, and we liked it!" chances are pretty good that person has a tale or two about Prince of Persia. Originally released in 1989 for the Apple II and then ported to pretty much every other system of the time, Prince of Persia was defined by its top-notch animation, tough combat, and challenging platforming elements. Eighteen years later, the game has received a serious face-lift and has been released on the Xbox Live Marketplace for 800 points ($10). A shiny new coat of paint and a more forgiving difficulty curve make Prince of Persia Classic a game worth owning if you're a fan of the original, a fan of the more recent Prince of Persia games, or just a fan of action platforming games in general.
As in the original, you play the role of The Prince, and you are charged with rescuing The Princess, who has been imprisoned by the evil Jaffar. Ever the thoughtful one, Jaffar has given The Princess exactly 60 minutes to decide to marry him...or die. Even back in 1989 the whole "save the princess" thing wasn't particularly original, but hey, who can say no to a damsel in distress? Accepting the challenge means you've got 3,600 seconds to run, jump, and sword-fight your way to the exit door of each one of the palace's 14 levels and save The Princess from a fate worse than death: marriage.
The action takes place on a 2D plane, but like Castlevania or Metroid, there's plenty of exploring and backtracking to be done. Impeding your progress are spiked floors, blades that shoot out from the floors and ceilings, gates that can be raised only by stepping on specific floor panels, and a plethora of hair-raising jumps that give new meaning to the phrase "leap of faith." Thankfully, The Prince has a large arsenal of moves with which to navigate through the palace. He can tiptoe through spikes, dangle and pull himself up from ledges, roll under quickly closing gates, and backflip his way to hard-to-reach places. In this day and age of analog control, the digital control here often makes it frustrating when you're trying to position The Prince precisely. He quite often moves more or less than you were hoping, and that often results in death for The Prince and a flurry of expletives from the player.
Jaffar doesn't just rely on traps to keep you from reaching The Princess; there are sword-wielding guards throughout the palace, too. There isn't a lot of combat in the game, but sword fighting does play a large role, since you generally need to dispatch the foe at hand to progress to the next room. You hit one button to swing your sword and another to parry your opponents' attacks. The first few fights start off slow and easy, but you'll soon find yourself engaged in some intense, fast-paced duels. For the most part, the simple combat is enjoyable and a welcome break from sweat-inducing jumps. If you get dinged during a fight there are health potions hidden among the levels, but even then you'll likely fall victim to your enemies' blades on numerous occasions.
Prince of Persia Classic still counts down the minutes until The Princess has to choose her fate, but instead of getting a "Game Over" screen when an hour has passed like in the original, you can now keep playing. You can still save the princess, too, though you get a slightly different ending if you beat the game in under an hour. Also making the game more forgiving, and as a result, more enjoyable, is the addition of a checkpoint on each level. Once you've reached the checkpoint you can start from there if you die, but know that the clock keeps ticking and doesn't reset to the original time when you hit the checkpoint. For anyone who isn't used to older games that simply drop you into the proceedings armed only with a "Good luck!" a glowing Tinkerbell-style sprite that points out where you need to go next is a nice addition. You can turn this assistance off if you wish.
Even with these changes, Prince of Persia Classic is a challenging game. It's unlikely that most players will be able to finish the game in less than 60 minutes on their first attempt, even if they've got a walk-through handy. And only an extremely talented few will be able to successfully complete the game in survival mode, where you have only one life and the 60-minute time limit to deal with. If you're interested in honing your skills, you can play levels over or try a time attack to see how fast you can beat the game. Online leaderboards let you see how you stack up to the competition.
For its time, Prince of Persia was a very impressive-looking game. Sure, the environments weren't anything spectacular, but the way The Prince was animated really brought the game to life. The way he rolled, jumped, grasped a ledge, and wielded his sword looked smooth and lifelike. Now, thanks to updated graphics, these moves look just as impressive as ever. There's a wide array of realistic-looking animations, and the transition from one to the next is seamless. The Prince now resembles the character from the more recent games and is nicely detailed, as are the environments, though there isn't much variety to them. On their own, the cutscenes that play before each chapter aren't anything amazing, but for a downloadable arcade game they're impressive, and they tell the story adequately. There's not a tremendous amount of audio in the game, but here, the frequent absence of sound is used to great effect--there's nothing to distract you from the fact that you're dangling from a ledge, 50 feet above a pit of spikes.
The only thing that's disappointing about this version of Prince of Persia is that the original game doesn't appear to be part of the package. Sure, its punishing difficulty might not hold up all that well today, but its inclusion would have been nice, if only to show how great of a job Gameloft did on Prince of Persia Classic. Other developers should take note: This is how you bring a classic game to a downloadable service.