A Quick Look At Arabian Nights: Prince of Persia

I loved Flashback. It was such an epic game. The rotoscoped animation of Conrad B. Hart, the cinematics, the fantastic storyline and pacing of the adventure. You really felt like you were playing a role in the greatest sci-fi caper ever told; you literally had the fate of mankind in your frail, meat-based human hands. I initially experienced Flashback on the Mega Drive (and later the Jaguar and 3DO) and once I'd finished it, I looked into other games that were similar in scope and design and eventually my quest lead me to buy an earlier title from the bountiful table of Delphine Software and US Gold: Another World.
I'm not going to lie in an attempt to look like some learned and well-versed gaming expert: I thought Another World was shite. Even though it was lauded by the press, I couldn't even get past the first couple of screens with that big black dog and those stupid snaggle-toothed slug things nipping at my ankles. Ultimately, Another World (or Out of This World if you're American) was tossed aside after about an hour of trial and error (and random outbursts of rage at the TV screen if I remember rightly). Before you start foaming on your yellowing, crumb-filled Amiga keyboard know this: I have since played it as an adult and fully appreciate the game now; but back then in my youthful 'fresh from Flashback' comedown period, I thought it was an impenetrable mess. A good looking mess with excellent cut scenes, but a mess all the same. I can only apologise for such adolescent idiocy.

I looked again for another title that could fill the void left by Delphine's spectacular adventure and eventually I landed a copy of Prince of Persia for the Mega CD. I knew that Prince was basically the grandaddy of the genre - side-on action with relentless hardcore puzzles and cruel trial and error insta-death gameplay - but I vividly remember buying it from a stall in Manchester's Arndale market, and excitedly absorbing the contents of the manual on the bus back to my squalid homestead. After getting home and slapping the CD into my Multimega, I recall that it took me about 10 minutes to realise that Prince of Persia was not a game I would be enjoying in this life, or the next. Constant deaths, shit controls, graphics that looked like something out of a Kinder egg. The CD was quickly removed from the machine, replaced with Silpheed and never spoken of again.
If I said that was my last experience with Prince of Persia, I'd be lying. I played the shit out of Sands of Time on the Gamecube and Warrior Within on PSP, and even went to see the movie adaptation starring Jake Gyllenhaal. The more I think about it, the more it becomes apparent that I've had quite a history with the franchise...but not through any sentient thought process. Just goes to show that if you drift through life like I do, you'll develop weird relationships with all manner of random, antiquated and forgotten crap. Cough.

Anyway, let's get back on track. During the Dreamcast era, I was aware of Prince of Persia 3D/Arabian Nights but because the game never got a PAL release, I just let it pass me by. I'd heard it was shit anyway so figured I wasn't missing much. Last week though, I managed (through the kindness of a friend) to finally get my hands on a copy of this much maligned 3D platformer and my torrid affair with his Highness was rekindled. Contrary to what you may expect though, I was pleasantly surprised by the whole experience, and not because of his rugged good looks and legendary witty banter.
The later Prince of Persia titles on the PS2, Xbox, Gamecube et al are widely considered to be some very decent games, and I'd be inclined to agree. Prince of Persia: Arabian Nights though, is widely condemned as a bit of a dog's dinner. A dog's dinner that has already been eaten and subsequently passed though the brown eye of said canine, no less. Indeed, before playing it myself, I'd heard traumatic tales of a terrible camera system, atrocious graphics and wanky controls. As you can probably appreciate, I went into this with an air of trepidation on just how crap the game would be, and was gearing myself up to write an absolutely damning report of almost Spirit Of Speed 1937 proportions. The thing is, Arabian Nights is actually rather good.

Yes, you read that right. I was expecting a total abortion of a game, but what I got was a perfectly functional 3D action adventure in the vein of the original Tomb Raider. The story is as contrived as you'd expect (you're basically a prince rescuing a princess, natch) but the execution is perfectly fine. Control of your onscreen avatar is via the analogue stick, you can crouch under objects and jump over chasms. The D-pad lets you adjust the camera or switch to first person, while the triggers act as modifiers for combat, sidestepping etc. The only odd thing I must note is that 'grabbing' ledges etc is not automatic - once you jump, you must press the 'action' button to grab a ledge. Failure to do so will inevitably lead to some form of death. And death comes very quickly, which is really my only real bugbear with Arabian Nights. I recall that the Mega CD game I played for twenty minutes all those years ago was packed full of 'instant death' moments. Be it falling down a shaft lined with spikes or having your head cut off by some arcane system of pulleys and wires - the same is true in Arabian Nights. While you have a health bar of sorts, if you come a cropper in one of the game's many, many unannounced and downright illogical traps (sometimes you literally can't tell if a door handle will kill you), then that's it - you're dead and you have to reload from the last checkpoint.
That said, this is a quickly learned behaviour in Arabian Nights. If something looks too good to be true...it usually is. See that health vial over there? If you pick it up without first analysing your surroundings, the chances are you'll probably activate a trap as soon as you collect it...and then you're dead. No ifs or buts. You are dead, now fuck off. Annoying, yes...but it does make you treat everything - everything - with suspicion. And for that, I kinda like it.

So what of the other aspects of the game? Well for a start, it looks pretty great to be honest. The environments are quite varied and well textured and the locations are nicely realised. Prisons, city streets, rooftops, caves, underwater caverns...it all looks good as far as games from the era go. Sure, it's a port of a PC game and so it doesn't make much use of the Dreamcast's dedicated hardware (as is evident in the angular character models) but apart from that it looks fine...and even better through VGA. There is no slowdown whatsoever and the engine seems perfectly at home with even the biggest of open areas...which is more than can be said of any of the Tomb Raider titles on the Dreamcast. The sound is also very good - the music is perfectly suited to the 'Arabian' setting, with lots of drums and whining horns. The voice acting is also pretty good - even NPCs you encounter have good quality dialogue.
I must say that after reading such damning opinions of Arabian Nights, I was pleasantly surprised at how enjoyable (and polished) it actually was. Apart from the bizarre insta-death traps (of which there are many), the trial and error nature of the gameplay and the slightly cringeworthy CGI cut scenes, Arabian Nights: Prince of Persia is a nice little action adventure that rounds off the original trilogy in a fitting way. I'm not entirely sure why the game didn't get a PAL release, but maybe the low review scores and poor sales had a hand in that...which is the story of the Dreamcast's life in all honesty. In summary, if you can find this game for a decent price, it is well worth investigating.

2 comments:

Lehnah said...

Thanks for this. I've always wondered what this game was like. I'm a big PoP fan but never had the opportunity to check this game out, mostly because - as you say - so many said it was rubbish to I didn't bother. I think it's available on GoG so maybe I'll grab it there. Great article!

Caspian said...

Quite an accurate review. I played the game back in its time and it was a very decent one. I do not understand the extend of the negativity in the reviews. The game would give a similar feeling to the one offered in "Omikron: the Nomad Soul" in most respects: graphics, handling, gameplay. Both are direct PC ports anyway with no obvious effort to improve on them. All in all, if someone does not have Shenmue-like expectations, he would have a very pleasant time playing through this game.

Note that this game is regarded something like a collectible if I judge by the prices I see in Ebay. So, more often than not, someone would have to pay a bit extra to buy an original copy.