At a time when most video game characters looked and moved like crude stick figures, Prince of Persia introduced a hero who ran across the screen and leaped between platforms with incredible fluidity and lifelike movements. It was a big part of what made the game so enjoyable, but realizing that animation style was a long, tedious task.
As part of its War Stories series, which delves into the unique challenges and clever solutions that marked the development process of several beloved video games, Ars Technica sat down with Jordan Mechner who detailed his experiences creating the original Prince of Persia. The biggest challenges came from Mechner’s choice of platform, the Apple II, which, despite being the first personal computer to support color graphics, suffered from endless limitations in terms of storage and memory.
But, as was often the case with some of the most popular video games of the ‘80s, it was those hardware limitations that inspired some of the most clever gameplay mechanics, such as the Prince of Persia’s enemy known as the Shadowman which was simply a color-shifted duplicate of the player’s character to reduce memory demands. It sounds like a cheat, but the way Shadowman was introduced, and his unique characteristics, set him apart from the typical video game baddie of the time.
Some of Mechner’s most interesting anecdotes about the years he spent developing and perfecting Prince of Persia detail the arduous process of making the game’s characters move so realistically. Modern game developers have access to entire motion-capture studios that can translate the movements of a real person—such as an NBA star playing basketball—to a virtual character that then moves and behaves exactly like the real thing. Prince of Persia was created decades before that technology was even in the early research stages, forcing Mechner to get especially creative to bring his character to life the way he wanted.
The process he eventually settled on started with Mechner using a video camera to record his brother running and jumping in a parking lot across from their high school. Once he found a take that worked, the video was played back on a TV in a dark room and the screen was photographed with a 35-millimeter film camera, frame by frame, creating roughly 35 photos of his brother in action. Mechner then traced over each photograph with a black marker and white correction fluid to create a high-contrast black and white silhouette of each pose, and then used a photocopier to assemble all of them onto a single sheet of paper that was scanned into an Apple II using a special capture card.
With the poses all digitized, Mechner then painstakingly cut them all out, pixel by pixel, and used a special graphics tool to assemble them into frame animations. Despite the crude process, the results yielded a character that moved realistically across the screen with believable weight and momentum, and the technique would go on to become a staple of video game development in the years to come, with iconic titles like Mortal Kombat taking a similar approach before motion capture became the standard process for digitizing human performers.