Space Ace had truly gob-smacking animation but left you wondering what went wrong with the gameplay. Rick Dangerous was a frighteningly addictive puzzle game but the graphics were far from state-of-the-art. So where' the ultimate game with Space Ace-style visuals and Rick Dick-quality gameplay? Mark Higham puts on his pyjamas, climbs aboard a magic carpet and asks if this could be the one...
Prince Of Persia
Films like Tron and The Last Starfighter have proved just what computers can do whe it comes to sophisticated animation and mimicking reality. Surprisingly though, this animation has rarely found its way down onto the humble home micro. Space Ace came the closest, offering Disney-style animation on an ordinary ST, but it was more like watching a PD demo than participating in a game. Prince Of Persia may not quite scale the same dizzy heights but the animation is absolutely incredible.
Don't expect a radically original plot, though. The adventuresque storyline goes something like this: the busty blonde little hostess with the mostest that you fancied has gone and got herself imprisoned in a Persian castle. You must rescue her from her captors, produce a wedding ring out of thin air and marry her before she realises you're really a bit of a wimp.
Working out how to get through the castle is the hard part. Your task in each level is to discover the exit through to the next. Unfortunately, it's usually protected by malicious swordsmen and you don't stand a chance in hell of destroying them without locating the sword first. In level one this means you have to work your way forward through the level until you get all the way to the end, pick up the sword, carry it back safely and then hack the head off of the bearded Arab. Once you've collected the sword it stays with you into the remainder of the levels.
What makes this objective even tougher is the heaps of puzzles you must solve to work your way through the castle. These are focused on trying tests of your joystick skill and simple switches. If you screw up and get killed you're returned to the beginning of the level to try again.
Through all this, the animation is wonderful. All the movement is so detailed that you can make your playing character run over three tiles at a time, walk across single tiles or stop dead. To climb up ledges, you simply push the joystick up and your hero thrusts his arms into the air and pulls himself upwards. If you look like tumbling off a ledge, you can even thrust out your arms and grab onto the precipice - if you're quick. When it comes to jumping, you can either leap from a standing start or take a running jump over bigger gaps.
It's all beautifully realistic - but you do need to exercise all these moves to work your way through the castle. In one of the screens on level one, for instance, you need to walk carefully over one switch to cause a portcullis to rise, then leap over the next two tiles - the first tile falls beneath you if you stand on it and the second causes the portcullis to drop before you can reach it.
If you fall down gaps in the tiles you can either lose energy or end up dead, depending on how far you fall. To refresh your energy you need to find a potion. These are often hidden in secret sections of a level which can only be discovered by jumping up and knocking out tiles above your head. All good fun, so long as you don't get killed in the process.
Perfectly smooth animation is what makes Prince Of Persia special. There are so many frames of animation used in walking, running, jumping and climbing that the movement looks brilliantly realistic. There's even several frames for such a simple activity as turning round. There's a tiny delay in the game's response to your movements and the animation tends to slow down slightly when there are other things happening on the screen - such as tiles falling around you - but this doesn't disturb the gameplay.
To move around the level you have to dash across rows of tiles. There is no scrolling, so as you move off of the end of one screen you're instantly transported to the start of the next. These screens are all set against a boring black backdrop - but compensating for the lack of backgrounds are some kaleidoscopic intermediary screens between levels which are so colourful they make your eyes sting.
Sound effects are a long way off rivalling those used in Space Ace, where sampled music was played throughout. Simple sampled shot effects are used instead to indicate when you're running, collecting items or activating switches, and a sound chip tune introduces each level. There is a nice gory "shht" effect when you fall on the knives, though...
Prince Of Persia is an enormously entertaining game. Even when you tire of the puzzles, you can still enjoy the quality animation. Each of the screens is equipped with many testing obstacles, and when you believe you know a level inside out it's still possibly to accidentally discover a pathway to more potions and another swordsman.
One major point in Persia's favour is the way the traditional lives system has been abandoned. Instead, you get a 60 minute time limit to explore the castle. This means you can die over and over again, always returning to the beginning of the level. The only complaint comes when you're tackling a few annoying obstacles and you're constantly returned to the start of the level rather than being given the option to continue from where you last failed. It's even worse when you race all through a level, pick up a sword and then fall down a hole just seconds before you meet the swordsman guarding the level exit. This is a minor complaint though, and one you quickly learn to tolerate.
Precise, detailed animation is married with entertaining puzzles to produce a thoroughly absorbing game. If you're looking for something you can impress your friends with and still be addicted to after a marathon 12-hour playing stint, this is it. Let's hope Prince Of Persia is about to make a change in animation techniques so that we can finally kiss goodbye to the laughable character movement in such games as E-Swat, Ninja Remix and Rick Dangerous. If only all games could be like this!