Bit-History: Prince of Persia – The Sands of Time

"I defy time... and Newton's Universal Law of Gravitation."

“I defy time… and Newton’s Universal Law of Gravitation.”

I was rather fortunate to be born at a time when home consoles were still in their infancy. I got to experience the one joystick, one button combo on the Atari, but it wasn’t until the NES came along that I began to realize the true potential of gaming. The first title I had wanted was Super Mario Bros… but I got Rad Racer instead. My NEXT game however WAS Super Mario Bros, and it was SO… MUCH… FUN! From there I played the likes of Zelda, Metroid, Castlevania, etc. There had been a great variety of gameplay styles to enjoy, but the early days of gaming was all about platforming. Technology only allowed for pixels to be manipulated on screen by moving them around, so playing in three dimensions had been out of the question. So as a result, my childhood was spent platforming my way across a variety of worlds with an impressive ensemble of characters. Could this be why I still prefer a platformer to almost any other style of gameplay? Perhaps, but I still think a challenging platform game is more fun in general than the likes of Halo or Call of Doody.

But, as the third dimension became ‘a thing’ – thanks to Dreamcast, Playstation and the N64 – platforming was getting a facelift… a facelift I didn’t think it really needed, but it got one anyway and the results were surprisingly good. Super Mario 64 forever changed the world of gaming for me, and it’s still one of my most replayed classic titles of all time. The camera sucked, but what could you do? At least the controls felt great, which is more than I could say for the likes of Tomb Raider (I’m sorry, I just don’t think the original Tomb Raider games were very good). But things sort of came to a grinding halt after that… until Grand Theft Auto 3 came along. That’s when 3D/open world gaming really began to improve… but GTA III isn’t really a platformer, so when did platforming actually begin to change for the better? As far as game changers go, and without hesitation, one game comes to mind – Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time.

Before the game’s release, the genre was mostly comprised of fun sandboxes that sent you on fetch quests – Go from point A to point B, make you way to the boss and take ‘em down, collect a given number of goods (I hated acquiring those damn red coins in Mario 64), etc. It was fun, yes, but not really engaging. The Sands of Time changed all that in a big way. For starters, the plot actually serviced the gameplay, as opposed to being the other way around. Basically, a series of events amidst a power struggle tricks our Prince into releasing the sands of time from an enormous hour glass that resides in the King’s treasure vault. A terrible sandstorm is released, which turns those within the palace into powerful monsters. As a result, it’s up to the Prince to see if he can return the sands to the hour glass, but it’s a daunting task that will push him to his limits. Fortunately, he runs into Farah, an Indian Princess, and although they don’t really get along at first, it’s clear that they need each other’s help if they hope to bring things back to their natural order.

This story introduces one of two things – First, the dagger which has the power to harness the sands of time. This is what released the sands, and it will eventually be what whisks them back in place. However, the Prince is able to maintain possession of it throughout his journey… and he’s able to take advantage its power whenever he gets in trouble. Since the game focuses on intense swordplay and risky platform tricks, there are PLENTY of mistakes to be made along the way, mistakes which often cause the Prince to fall to his death. However, as long as you have sand stored in the dagger, you can rewind time and put the Prince back in control of his destiny, allowing him another chance to carry on and learn from his mistakes. This is a core gameplay mechanic which spun some freshness into a genre that was feeling tired, because the ‘rewind time’ ability wasn’t just a gimmick. No, it was at the heart of the story.

And speaking about ‘heart’ and ‘story’, that’s the second thing this game exceled at – Making you feel a connection with the characters on-screen, something I don’t think had been done very well before this game’s release (again, in a platforming game). The Prince is resourceful and charming, but not particularly wise. No, his own pride and ignorance played a part in allowing the sands to be released, and because he’s never depicted to be all-knowing as things progress, he never comes off as superhuman. Then there’s Farah – She’s smart and strong – not to mention a bit feisty – but she has flaws of her own. It’s fun to watch these two characters start off with witty snarks, only to eventually lower their guards, realize they need each other, and fall in love.

The whole thing is a bit predictable, and the clever story comes off feeling somewhat shallow as a result, but the actual gameplay is so damn fun you don’t even care. Outside of the fantastic, refined gameplay though, another thing this game nailed was that ‘arabian nights/storybook’ vibe. You’d be hard pressed to find a single place in the game that doesn’t look dreamy and beautiful. Although The Sands of Time is as linear experience as they come, but the backdrop and level designs go a long way in allowing this world to live and breathe. The artistic intent was one of the most charming aspects of the game as a whole, and it was something I sorely missed the subsequent installments… that is, until The Forgotten Sands brought it back in a glorious way.

It call comes down to this – The entire platform genre owes a great deal to this game. Not just in regards to the designs or wonderful (albeit simple) plot, but because the controls were fluid and intuitive, which was rare for a platformer at the time. Furthermore, the combat actually made sense – You weren’t merely forced to hack and slash your opponents. No, you were actually encouraged to block and evade in order to survive. If that wasn’t working out, the agile Prince could leap over their heads and slash them in the back. I know it sounds underwhelming compared to today’s standards, but those standards are a direct result of the mechanics in this game. Of course, the platforming itself was the most important, and genre changing aspect. Without the Prince’s insane running and jumping – which includes running along walls – who knows? We may not have seen such a refined experience in the likes of Tomb Raider (2013) or Uncharted. Last but not least, there were some interesting puzzles to solve as well, making The Sands of Time a well rounded experience.

As far as how the game holds up today… I’d say fairly well. The graphics obviously look ancient, even in the HD version available on PSN and the Prince of Persia Trilogy collection, but that magical storybook vibe is still present and enveloped me with ease. The combat and platforming is still decent, but seems way too easy.

To be fair though, this game was always easy. That’s really the only complaint I’ve ever had about The Sands of Time – It has a great story with interesting characters, but there’s not much of a challenge to speak of. This doesn’t really make the experience less enjoyable, but it can make areas where you’re fighting waves of bad guys come off as a slog. The AI wasn’t much to speak of, so the devs seemingly wanted to compensate with tests of endurance. That’s all well and good, but when the enemies are a breeze to annihilate, you just feel like the game is padding its runtime.
All in all though, this is one of those games that I simply cannot live without. I’ve owned it on the PC, Xbox, and the PS3, and if I ever need to pick it up on a future platform, I won’t hesitate to do so (although the HD PS3 version should last me for a long time). If you haven’t played this gen, or any of its sequels for that matter, you should jump on the Trilogy collection ASAP.

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