Monday, 17 October 2011

Prince Of Persia (C64)

Nine days ago, Andreas Varga (aka Mr. SID) announced that he'd be releasing a C64 conversion of the classic Apple II version of Broderbund's Prince Of Persia - and today he delivered on his word, with a near-perfect port freely available as a cartridge image in the popular EasyFlash format. It's an awe-inspiring achievement, although arguably being one that perhaps wouldn't be quite so impressive if it wasn't for a little bit of help from the 21st Century hardware required to run it on a real machine.

For those of you who haven't heard of EasyFlash before, basically it's a 1MB flash cartridge for the Commodore 64, with the bonus being that it is entirely programable from a standard system with a disk drive - it's relatively user friendly with no UV lamp or EPROM programmer required and it's cheap to build yourself or buy online. Now that's all well and good, but until now use of the device has been limited to replaying old cartridge games and the occasional enhanced crack. However, with Prince Of Persia - a game specifically written for the EasyFlash - it's true potential for releasing new games that wouldn't be feasible in other media formats has been realised; EasyFlash now has it's killer app.

Weighing in at a whopping 505KB, the first thing the player is presented with after inserting the cartridge (in either a real C64 or VICE 2.2) is a neat little joystick-controlled menu where you can select to load the game or read the instructions. Now 90% of you won't be interested in reading the manual to such a classic and well-known game, but I took the time to do so and it was nice to see a brief project insight from Mr. SID at the end of the well written and concise document - it gives the whole package a nice personal touch (something you rarely get with a downloadable ROM image). But enough romanticism about trivial details - what about the game?

Well, first off, it loads pretty much instantly - upon hitting the 'Start The Game' option the immediately recognisable introductory sequence fires up within seconds, and it's clear from the outset that this is something really special. The presentation here is outstanding, with a mixture of multicolour and hires graphics resulting in visuals more akin to that you'd expect from a 16-Bit title than a Commodore release, and the familiar soundtrack pumping through the SID is enough to bring tears of nostalgia to the eyes of even the most hardened retro gamer.

Starting the game proper, and things just get better. The fluid and realistic animation of the original is present and correct and the visuals and sound far surpassed my already high expectations from seeing the teaser images posted on the CSDB forum thread. "There's just no way all this can fit in 64KB of RAM!" was my first thought upon seeing the game in action on a real C64. And it seems that I was correct.

"It's not using EasyFlash as a storage solution, but as an actual ROM cartridge, so there's lots of (speed-)code, data and tables in ROM", Andreas explains. "It needs a cart because the player sprites alone take about 40K (and are pre-mirrored on the C64) and there's about 32K of code and also lots of tables. Background graphics tiles also take a fair amount of space (15K for palace levels). And then there are two bitmaps (8K each) for double-buffering, and lots of other smaller things (music, sfx, animation data, etc.)."

This innovative use of hardware is to be applauded; even more so when you consider the quality of the end result. Based on the original Apple II code (including the original's minor bugs and glitches for completeness sake), Prince Of Persia on the C64 is pretty much identical in terms of gameplay, with our hero gallantly leaping, climbing, sword fighting and puzzle-solving his way to the top of the Sultan's palace to save the princess from the evil Jaffar (all within the space of an hour) in exactly the same manner as he did back in 1989. However, it's worth noting that the C64 port also has some really nice additional features such as the option to save your progress to the cartridge after reaching level three, and of course the fact that it's enhanced to run at a smoother pace on the C128 (for those of you who are lucky enough to own one).

Starting with Domark's aborted work on a conversion in 1993, then followed by another failed homebrew conversion attempt in 1996, in 2011 the game that never was has finally become a reality. Not only that, but it has surpassed all our wildest expectations. C64 game of the year? Well, there's still a few months left, but I'd say Mr. SID has pretty much got that award in the bag.
Download the game here (from the Commodore Scene Database).
Run it using VICE (free software).
5 out of 5

Second Opinion

A bloke I went to university with now works as a motoring journalist and is paid to drive ridiculously flash cars and then write about them. I was massively jealous of him until Prince of Persia was ported over to the Commodore 64 and I got the chance to test drive this Lamborghini of video games!

Prince of Persia was a masterpiece. It’s a fact of life. It was a massively innovative game that was just really, really good. I came into this review thinking that it would be a real bitch to write because of this, and also because Prince of Persia was on constant rotation on my Amiga 500 for years and years. I thought I would have to try really hard to be critical of this game. Then I fired it up on VICE and, after peeling the remains of my scalp off the wall behind me, realised that attempting to be hyper critical of this masterfully ported masterwork would be a futile and cynical venture.

The term ‘game of the year’ is being thrown around on some websites already, and it’s not hard to see why. Even if Prince of Persia for the C64 is not the game of the year, it certainly is one of the major events in retro gaming this year, probably the biggest. Coder Mr. SID painstakingly assembled this C64 port from the code of the original Apple II version of the game, and although he admits to a few glitches and grey areas in the code the fact is that (I’m trying to not write this last bit in capital letters) it’s still Prince of Persia on a C64!

The controls of this game are almost perfectly smooth, dovetailing neatly with the fluid rotoscoped movement of David Mechner in a karate suit, and the genuine slickness of the production underlines the fact that not only did somebody port Prince of Persia over to the C64, they did it to a shockingly high standard. I would have been pleased with a game half as good as this.

The moment when you first get killed by a guard is still brutal and jarring. Finding the sword for the first time is still a fist-in-the-air moment. The long drops to pit traps are still heart-stopping. At times I forgot to breathe. Mr. SID has captured the heart and soul of the game as well as the nuts and bolts.

The graphics are spot on, the audio is excellent, and my bank of superlatives is starting to look pretty barren. Every facet of gameplay is scimitar-sharp and as thrilling as a back-alley swordfight. The atmosphere of tense yet sedate exploration mixed with bursts of do-or-die violence and the ever present likelihood of falling to a horrible, slumped death on steel spikes has been perfectly preserved. The C64 port of Prince of Persia is nothing less than a gem of a game, excavated from the shadowy sands of the last millennium and showcased in the mind-blowing display cabinet that is the Easyflash cartridge.

It doesn’t take Arabian mysticism and crystal ball gazing to see that sales of the EasyFlash and the components to make it are going to take flight in the near future. After all, the EasyFlash is (currently) the only way to play Prince of Persia on a real C64 (this humble reporter has to make do with emulators) and this game is the undeniable proof of just what the breadbin can do with such power bolted on.

Ruari O'Toole