When Jordan Mechner decided he wasn’t good enough to animate his next Apple IIe game, he came up with an insanely complex solution. But it was also a solution Disney had used 50 years earlier. So maybe it’s no wonder Prince of Persia looked way better than it should have. PRINCE OF PERSIA (THE FIRST ONE)
DEVELOPERS JORDAN MECHNER PERSONALITIES UH... JORDAN MECHNER RELEASED 1989 NUTSHELL Simultaneously “failing” college and at the same moment having his Apple IIe game Karateka hit the Billboard number one [“Me and Madonna. Yow.”] put Mechner in a weird creative space. As a result, he made a game with animation at least five years ahead of its time. By cheating just like Walt Disney.
Good artists master technique. Great artists invent some kind of tool or machine so they can skip the tedious 10,000 hour process of mastering that technique. We have a special word for this kind of artist: Engineer.
Jordan Mechner isn’t an engineer, though. He’s a filmmaker. Or is he a game designer? It’s hard to say. Really he’s one of those classic 80s computer geeks who, back in the day, could do anything... because he had to do everything.
His parents thought he was at Yale to do music and psychology. Yale thought that too. But after the final music exam in 1985, when Mechner’s best mates asked him what he’d be doing next year, he replied: “Writing computer games.”
How do we know this? Because he kept meticulous journals, and eventually published his 1986-1993 volumes as “The Making of Prince of Persia”. Nothing ambiguous about that.
Mechner built those games on an Apple IIe. Sure, it couldn’t do non-capital letters like his fancy Mac, but it did condescend to let him program it in the 6502 microprocessor’s assembly language. This in turn had allowed him to create a sort of beatem-up game called Karateka. It was a martial arts action title and it sold... quite well.
“Dad called. Billboard’s top-ranked program for this week is, indeed, Karateka. That’s Step Two in my convincing myself of this. Step Three will be when I see it for myself.”
Step One, we assume, was finishing college.
Now today, all sorts of indie developers can get “number one” in various different ways. Most downloaded free app. Top game on Steam. Top Game On Steam Under $10 And Purchased After 1500h Eastern Standard Time Since Tuesday. Top Game That Didn’t Immediately Get Refunded. And so forth.
Mechner’s number one was a Billboard number one. There were so few PC games, it wasn’t even a gaming rank. As he says, it was the number one software. But it also beat Flight Simulator II and The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. In 1985, the Dad Domination of the PC gaming space was finally coming to an end.
Even so, his first royalty payment was $2,117. Karateka sold 2000 “units” in April 1985. That was enough for number one.
PRINCE OF WHERE NOW?
Wait, wasn’t this Hagionaut trip going to be about Prince of Persia? Sure. But you’ve played it. Every PC gamer played it, even if only for five minutes on DOSBox so you could tell some irritating older relative that it doesn’t look that great to you, you [Snip – Ed (wait, you don’t get to say things and it with –Ed, only I can do that –Ed)]. But it doesn’t look great. Those rotoscoped animations of the eponymous Prince leaping and shuffling and occasionally - by which I mean, every fifteen seconds - being brutally eviscerated by a corridor-high double-guillotine. They were next level.
PoP was born on the Apple IIe, but by the 1990s it looked amazing on school computer lab 386s because those machines had 256-colour graphics. Our Apple Lab teacher in 1991 maintained there weren’t that many colours, but he couldn’t deny the slabs of rock or whatever those corridors were made of, sure did look a lot smoother on the PC. Then he’d ban us from the lab for playing games.
Before all that though, Mechner had a problem. The problem was how to get all the amazing animation actually into the
computer. In digital form, I’m saying. There were not digital cameras or scanners available to the likes of Jordan Mechner, in 1985.
But Mechner, like all 80s geeks, knew that Disney had created the amazingly smooth and lifelike animations of the female leads in Snow White, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, and more, by simply filming real actors. They then loaded the film into their light boxes and traced every swish of fabric and every flick of 1930s hairdo.
Mechner knew the basic process of how to “rotoscope” - as the technique is called - and that’s why the Prince has the distinctive skinny frame and gait of his brother. It also explains why, even as the Apple IIe struggled to depict a brick that looked more like about forty Hs stacked on top of each other, the little dude running and jumping over each brick had real momentum. He was the right proportions, and his arms and legs had the kind of weight even many modern games can’t quite get right.
But turning the grainy video footage of Mechner’s brother into the grainy graphics of Mechner’s game was possibly even more involved and difficult than animating the whole thing freehand.
That’s because the Apple IIe had no video input. But it did have a thing called a VersaWriter.
This hideous pre-pre-precursor to the graphics tablet our art director uses to make this very magazine looked more like something a jeweller would use to check the authenticity of a diamond. But it plugged into the joystick - sorry, game paddle - port and allowed Mechner to trace every single frame into the computer.
NOT SO FAST
Oh wait, first he had to play the video on his TV and take a photograph, with his 35mm film camera, of each frame (more or less, since VHS doesn’t have the same kind of frames as... never mind, it was a pain, is all).
Then he had those photos developed and printed at the local photo shop who must have thought he had a weird - but not very weird by the standards of what they saw every day - fetish.
Back home with a giant stack of photos, Mechner then traced each one into the Apple IIe with the VersaWriter. Each frame took hours. The first eight-frame running sequence took days.
“But the result was worth it,” Mechner told Forbes in an interview. “The moment I finally saw the character running across the screen, I got chills. As rough and pixel-y as it was, I recognised my brother’s way of running, his physical personality. It was the illusion of life.”
He gave that interview in December 2017, which (along with this Hagionaut trip) just goes to show the enduring charm of Prince of Persia. From that game, Mechner went on to create a sequel, then he wandered lost and confused in Hollywood until becoming one of the only videogame original creators to write the (first draft of the) screenplay for the movie adaptation of the videogame he created. Got that?
Though to be fair, Prince of Persia the movie was based on Ubisoft’s Prince of Persia:
The Sands of Time the game, which was only loosely based on Broderbund/Mechner’s Prince of Persia Wasn’t There a Subtitle About
an Hourglass No Okay Then the game. Also, most people think the movie sucks.
But Mechner doesn’t care, because there’s a Prince of Persia LEGO theme. And we know what he means. Everyone gets a movie these days. But when LEGO licenses your idea, that’s when you know you’ve made the zeitgeist.
Back home with a giant stack of photos, Mechner then traced each one into the Apple IIe with the Versa Writer.
“Okay, I’ll just edge forwar-” *awful death scream*