If the complete history of videogames were a nation-state then the four faces carved into the side of a mountain, as a monument to its founders, would be made up of Mario, Sonic, Link and the Prince of Persia. Or at least it would be, were I part of the committee tasked with deciding who made the cut.
All four of them are major franchises, having been around almost as long as videogames themselves. They've all endured over the years, successfully changing with the times, yet still retaining their original charm. For the most part that is. Mario and Link are as strong as they've ever been, and Sonic despite more than a few wrong turns along the way - I'm looking at you Unleashed - is still, well, Sonic. Which was enough to warrant the release of Sonic 4 - Episode 1 in 2010 and then Episode 2 in 2012.
In contrast to the others, the Prince hasn't fared so well in recent years. "Ah", I hear you say; "the Forgotten Sands was released in 2010, that's only four years ago”! Yes well maybe it was but let's be honest here, that was a slap dash movie tie-in which was cobbled together in a hurry. It wasn't a real part of the franchise, just some weird abnormality that series fans would rather lock up in the attic and forget about. Not unlike the film itself.
The last real Prince of Persia game was, maybe not surprisingly, Prince of Persia released way back in December 2008. Sadly it was only a good game, and not as Ubisoft seemed to hope, a great game. Its aim had been to take the series in a bold new direction, and yet despite looking unquestionably pretty, it was dragged down by some pretty fundamental flaws. The lack of jeopardy, brought about by removing any form of punishment from dying, softened the series in the eyes of many fans. This along with the inconsistent level design, which ranged from the majestic to the mundane, the over-simplified puzzles and the absence of a strong villain meant that the 2008 iteration of the Prince didn't match up to the standards set by the previous Sands of Time trilogy. As a result of its perceived failure, and along with the colossal rise of Assassins Creed, the franchise was shelved and its bold new direction was discarded by the subsequent release of Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands in 2010.
And I can't help but think Ubisoft may have made a big mistake in dumping the concept so abruptly. If they'd have had just a little more faith in their new Prince, and didn't have the pressure of a major Hollywood movie to contend with at the same time, then I'm convinced that the Prince of Persia could have led to something special. Okay the game wasn't great but neither was the original Assassins Creed (the series the Prince will now forever be compared to). It wasn't until Ezio and renaissance Italy came along that the series began to turn heads. However there was evidence in its DNA that Assassins Creed and Altair were on to something.
So surely the same could be said about Prince of Persia, it had flaws but underneath it there was a great game just waiting to be made. Ubisoft just needed to trim the fat off a few saggy recesses and up their game a little for their second run. The new direction it had taken showed a lot of potential and could have proved a fantastic foil to Assassins Creed. Who knows, it could have even prevented Ubisofts over-reliance on the series and curtailed need to release new Assassins Creed games every year.
Now it wasn't without consideration that earlier I compared the Prince of Persia to the likes of Mario and Sonic. The reason I felt it apt to do so is because those games, and more specifically, those characters have withstood the test of time in what is now becoming a very unforgiving industry. And it's not because the people behind them keep trying to re-invent the wheel. It's because those games were founded upon a few key principles which have been flexible enough to allow them to change with the times, yet are still robust enough to ensure they remain relevant and provide an experience in-line with their original incarnations.
For example, Super Mario 64 is a completely different game to Super Mario Galaxy. Yet they both require you to collect stars from a variety of different worlds and they both end in Mario going toe to toe with Bowser, and eventually rescuing Princess Peach. What he's not doing, is crouching behind chest high walls and calling in napalm strikes on the Mushroom Kingdom before it's overrun by Goombas and Koopa Troopas. The same principles that have been there from the start are still in place, yet Galaxy feels original and just as fresh to any longtime fans as it does to any would be newcomers dipping their toe for the first time.
The same applies to the Prince of Persia. However in the case of the Princes games those principles may be a little less obvious. Outside of the Price himself and his acrobatic skills, you may be hard pressed to identify just what exactly it is that's irreplaceable. One key aspect of the franchise that was missing from the 2008 release, that I alluded to earlier, is the absence of the Vizier. A central character in the Prince of Persia universe that was so perfect he was even appropriated by Disney for Aladdin in 1992. Even the live action movie, Prince of Persia: The Sand of Time understood the necessity of keeping the treacherous Vizier as a key character. In 2008 he was the missing piece of the puzzle, and without his arch nemesis the Prince felt a little lost and the game a little blander.
Yet despite its flaws the game did show promise and had it been given the chance for a sequel then its problems could have been easily remedied. The other principles of the series were remarkably strong and could easily be considered the high points of the game. Elika as the new interpretation of the Princess was a well written and fully fleshed out character. The standard of dialogue writing between her and the Prince was outstanding, and conveyed a natural chemistry between the two characters. The way their relationship evolves from prickly resentment, through foolishness, fondness and eventually into love is wonderfully told. Then there was the world building mythology based upon the ancient Persian religion of Zoroastrianism which was fascinating and allowed for the design of a new and beautiful looking Persian world. Finally the growth of the Prince himself from self-serving miscreant into a hero capable of self-sacrifice was well executed in small, subtle steps. And not only that but the game’s final scenes and its Epilogue DLC held a surprising narrative twist that set things up nicely for a sequel.
Unfortunately for us that sequel never arrived. The potential of seeing this particular incarnation of the Prince wrestle with his darker self, confront the Vizier, rescue the Princess and emerge as the great ruler of the Persian Empire will forever remain unfulfilled. And it's a shame that we won’t get that chance to play what could have been the Princes greatest adventure yet. If its potential had been fully realised and with backing from Ubisoft comparable to the likes of Assassins Creed I've no doubt that Prince of Persia II could have been not only a great game, but a great series for Ubisoft, one worthy of following the Sands of Time trilogy.