In the third grade, a friend of mine bequeathed me a handful of floppy disks. These were the kinds of floppy disks that actually flopped, of course, and these disks could be flopped for good with a simple finger-flex. And yet, despite their shabby get-up, floppy disks were, to me, treasure chests of possibility. What lay inside? Garbage, maybe. Or maybe something capable of Harry-Potter levels of magic.
My parents didn’t really buy me games, you see, but my father was a journalist so we owned a computer. Whenever friends or family handed me games on floppys, they were copies of the original, dubious and without box or instruction manual of any kind. This was an age without internet, mind you. I could not google “What is Wolfenstein 3d?” or “Catacomb Abyss FAQ” or “Altered Beast secret level.” A game labeled “Gauntlet” was delivered to me stillborn - frozen at an oh-so-tantalizing load screen - and not being able to know what I was missing was perhaps the most maddening thing of all.
Each title was a mystery, a personal treasure for me to experience alone. Like all little kids, I loved them and played them whenever I could (which wasn’t often), but in all that time, one game above all went untouched, like some tarnished and evil-looking lamp that you just KNEW would bring trouble.
That game was Prince of Persia.
Prince of Persia was too frightening, too real for me to dive into right away. It both drew me and frightened me; I thought of it in the same way that I thought about my taped VHS of Poltergeist (a movie I could only watch in daytime snippets). My other games seemed more forgiving, more colorful than Prince of Persia. Prince of Persia was hard, it was disturbing, and it did not need me as a friend.
The opening cinematic was a mostly silent and mysterious scene that unfolded with the slow and refined drama of a Japanese Noh. Right away, a sense of mood. The animations were rotoscoped with pain-staking care (an animation-industry high-water mark for the time), so that you knew exactly who these characters were (The Princess & the Vizier). They moved so convincingly, it felt like you were watching a tiny play. And then, on an ominous note, it ended.
BANG! The guillotine smacked down behind you, and there you were, crouched, rising slowly to your feet in the stark and unforgiving black. “Level 1” it said. “60 minutes left.” You were defenseless. You were alone. And you could just tell there would be blood.
And oh, was there blood. Because this Prince was not the nimble King of Parkour that we know today. This Prince of Persia ran fast but never fast enough, he changed directions with a long “Risky Business” slide, and he leapt to his death… a lot. I can’t tell you how many times I’d miss a jump and watch him hit the stone floor with bone-crunching force. If your avatar fell through more than one screen, he… screamed. A mortal terror kind of scream, on that always ended with sudden and tremendous violence. And then… silence. No music, no sad theme to play you off you. Just you, a crushed heap of white linen in a lurid pool of blood.
Blood. It looked so shocking onscreen, so red against the black. When guillotines sliced you in half, they continued to bang their bloody teeth long after you died. Pressure-sensitive spikes could impale you with terrifying speed, and leave you to hang like a bloody marionette.
Swords rang and stone crashed. You fought skeletons that could not be killed. And - in one of my favorite gameplay twists of all time - you encountered a magical mirror that split you in two, spawning a shadow doppelgänger that haunts your footsteps for several levels.
Prince of Persia holds up well. You can play the first few levels online, so if you get a chance, check it out, if only to savor the fluid animation and shocking sound effects.
And then watch this Taylor Swift video. Because I can’t get this song out of my head and I think it’s like the Ring and I have to infect others if I’m to have any hope at all.