Ha­gio­naut

PCPOWERPLAY - - Contents -

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.

STEADY HAND

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*

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