The Prince of Persia series likely means different things to different generations of gamers, from unprecedented realism in the 2D era, to unforgettable 3D platformers and pioneering mobile games. The franchise dates back to 1989, but if you were born in this century, it's likely that you haven't played any of the Prince of Persia games growing up. After all, the last game in the main series was released in 2010.

With the release of a new Prince of Persia game in 2024, The Lost Crown, this is an excellent opportunity to explore the older games in the franchise and understand how they have inspired some of today's most popular titles.

One Man Makes a Difference

In 1985, Jordan Mechner started working on Prince of Persia for the Apple II series, then the dominant home gaming platform. The game established a new genre called "cinematic platformers," with characters that move in a realistic manner.

In addition to fighting enemies and avoiding traps, you'd need to notice the environment, as some floor tiles would open gates when stepped on, and others would fall off. To create the animations, Mechner used video footage of his younger brother and a scene from the 1938 film, The Adventures of Robin Hood.

The game was released by Broderbund in 1989. Three years before Disney's Aladdin, a royal vizier named Jaffar locked the princess' unnamed love interest in a dungeon, and threatened to kill her if she didn't agree to marry him within an hour.

All of the game's 12 levels had to be completed within that hour, regardless of how many times the protagonist died during that time. At first, the game was a failure. By then the Apple II was an aging platform, with only four colors during gameplay and ear-piercing music.

In the years that followed, the game was ported to many other platforms, including MS-DOS, Apple Macintosh, Nintendo (NES), Sega Genesis, and the Game Boy and Sega Game Gear handhelds, among others. These versions offered much improved graphics and sound. The SNES version was arguably the definitive edition, with 20 levels and a two-hour time limit. Combined, all versions sold over 2 million units.

A sequel to the original game, titled "The Shadow and the Flame," was released for DOS in 1993. This installment featured vocal narration and more varied (and, towards the end, surreal) environments. For this sequel, Mechner only contributed the initial design instead of creating the entire game himself. Similar to its predecessor, most of the game had to be completed within 75 minutes, although this time constraint didn't integrate as naturally into the plot. In contrast to the first game, the player could face up to four enemies simultaneously (originally, Mechner planned for only two), but these enemies were weaker and less challenging.

The game was ported to Macintosh the following year. However, it wasn't until 1996 that the SNES version was released. Unlike the original game, the SNES adaptation was shorter and omitted several levels, including the final one. A Genesis port was developed but never released. In total, the game sold approximately 750,000 copies – a respectable figure for most games at that time but a significant decrease from the original's sales. The final part in the trilogy was canceled.

3D is Hard 2 Do

In 1996, Broderbund set to create a 3D Prince of Persia game for Windows, with Mechner serving as a development consultant. However, later that year, they were outpaced by the release of Tomb Raider, which essentially embodied Prince of Persia in a 3D format. It featured exponentially more complex puzzles, replaced swords with guns, and introduced the adventurous Lara Croft as the protagonist. Within a year, Tomb Raider sold 2.5 million units, and Lara Croft became a household name and a sex symbol.

During development, Broderbund was purchased by The Learning Company (TLC), which in turn was acquired by Mattel. The new owner insisted to release Prince of Persia 3D in late 1999, just weeks before the launch of the fourth Tomb Raider game in as many years. This rush led to the retail version being released with many minor bugs, which were fixed over the following weeks through patches.

However, the patches couldn't rectify the game's fundamental issue: it was essentially just Prince of Persia in a 3D format, and almost everything it offered in terms of gameplay had already been accomplished by Tomb Raider – and arguably done better. The most common criticisms included a control system that was too sluggish for the level design, camera angles that often failed to reveal traps until it was too late, and poorly animated cutscenes.

A port of the game was released for the Sega Dreamcast a year later, under the title Prince of Persia: Arabian Nights. This version introduced an inventory screen, allowing the Prince to store healing potions rather than consuming them immediately upon pickup. It also omitted the two levels that received the most criticism in the PC version. However, this version allowed game saving only at infrequent checkpoints, which led to player frustration. A Sony PlayStation version was announced but eventually canceled, possibly due to the aging console requiring extensive graphical modifications.

In 2001, "Ubi Soft" acquired the gaming assets formerly owned by TLC and decided to develop a Prince of Persia game for the new generation of consoles. Mechner, who still held the rights to the series' name, was impressed by the presentation shown to him and eventually returned as the game's designer and writer.

In 2002, the series entered the mobile gaming market with Prince of Persia: Harem Adventures. The first version was monochrome and didn't even feature enemies, but following versions played a big part in establishing phones as a legitimate gaming platform. The plot was a joke and all levels used the same crass visual design, but they successfully recreated the gameplay of the classic Prince of Persia games.

In late 2003, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time was released for the PlayStation 2, Microsoft Xbox, Nintendo GameCube, and Windows by the newly rebranded Ubisoft. The game received universally positive reviews and sold 2 million copies by the end of the year.

The new game featured a different, unnamed prince: he wasn't the lover of a princess, but the son of a sultan. He could run up or across walls, swing on horizontal poles, and climb by jumping between two walls. Graphically, it was one of the most impressive games of its time, and still holds up well today thanks to not trying to look fully realistic. The game's levels were interconnected without load screens, though they still had to be played in a linear sequence.

Two elements made the game more accessible to beginners than Tomb Raider: The Angel of Darkness, released the same year. First, it used a modern control system, with movement relative to the player's perspective. More uniquely, it featured the ability to rewind time up to 10 seconds back on a limited number of occasions.

Combat was simple yet challenging and visually engaging. The Prince could climb over enemies to attack from behind, bounce off walls for momentum-based strikes, or temporarily turn enemies into easily destructible sand statues. Healing by drinking from water sources was a good compromise between one-time healing potions and the constantly regenerating health of modern games.

The mobile version was just as impressive for what it was, with beautiful visual design and mechanics such as wall-running and wall-jumping. Despite generally positive reception, the Game Boy Advance (GBA) version paled in comparison to the others. Console limitations aside, it simply didn't play like a Prince of Persia game. If anything, it resembled the Aladdin game that found success on the Genesis a decade earlier.

The Prince's Identity Crisis

Mechner began writing the script for a Sands of Time movie in early 2004, while the rest of the Sands of Time team began work on a Prince of Persia game for the next generation of consoles. Simultaneously, a new team at Ubisoft Montreal was working on a direct sequel to The Sands of Time.

Prince of Persia: Warrior Within, released towards the end of that year, made a blatant attempt to appeal to an older audience, with blood, curse words, heavy metal and female characters that made Lara Croft look like a prude. The Prince's voice actor, Yuri Lowenthal, was replaced by Robin Atkin Downes. The game tried to look more realistic with more detailed textures, but on a modern display they look smeared and dated.

Instead of turning enemies into sand, the Prince could throw them over his shoulder, pick up the weapons of dead opponents and either use them in tandem with his own sword or throw them at other enemies, and perform tens of combo attacks. Unlike The Sands of Time, the player navigated back and forth between levels and traveled between the past and present via portals.

While reviews for Warrior Within were mostly positive, they were more mixed compared to those of The Sands of Time. Nevertheless, the game sold 1.9 million units within a month. It didn't have a Game Boy Advance version but was ported to the PlayStation Portable (PSP) a year later as Prince of Persia: Revelations, which was an impressive but flawed adaptation. In 2010, it became the only 3D game in the main series to be ported to iOS, with only the touch controls detracting from a quality transition.

As Warrior Within's development neared completion, Ubisoft Casablanca started working on a sequel called Prince of Persia: Kindred Blades. This game was to feature an open-world design and the ability to transform into the Dark Prince, a physical manifestation of the main character's negative traits. The gameplay choices were intended to affect the game's ending. However, in early 2005, the game's design was scrapped, and its development was transferred back to Montreal.

In that year's holiday season, the game was released under the name Prince of Persia: The Two Thrones, attempting to recapture the plot and game structure of The Sands of Time. Lowenthal returned to voice the Prince. The Dark Prince remained a character, but players no longer had the choice of when to transform. The game introduced stealth kills and chariot races. The nine-month development time in Montreal impacted the game's length and enemy variety (except in boss battles), and the unrealistic placement of jumping platforms compromised the game's internal logic.

Despite its issues, The Two Thrones received as many positive reviews as Warrior Within but fewer negative ones. However, being less controversial didn't increase its popularity, as it sold 1.5 million copies in its first month. In 2007, it was ported to the PSP and Nintendo Wii as Prince of Persia: Rival Swords. Lessons from Revelations were apparently learned, and the PSP version added multiplayer to the main series for chariot races.

The most bizarre addition to the franchise came in 2005 with the release of Battles of Prince of Persia for the Nintendo DS. This turn-based military strategy game incorporated trading-card game elements. While most reviewers enjoyed the game, the static presentation and visual design were widely criticized, and it wasn't clear how such a game would appeal to fans of the franchise.

The series became a leader in another market with Prince of Persia Classic for the Xbox 360 in 2007. In the days before triple-A games could be downloaded on consoles, the download-only game stood out on the Xbox Live Arcade service. Officially a remake of the original Prince of Persia, it actually presented somewhat different gameplay with the same levels, utilizing The Sands of Time's graphics and character design.

The Prince could wall-jump, back-flip and roll to avoid traps. The tiles that the Prince needed to step on were clearly marked. The combat system was rebuilt, with separate buttons for striking and blocking. The game was later ported to the PlayStation 3, Android and iOS, where it replaced Prince of Persia Retro, a direct port from Macintosh that didn't work well with touch controls.

A Prince Who's Not a Prince: Assassin's Creed

Over these years, the Sands of Time team had been developing a Prince of Persia game set in an open world. The project quickly shifted its focus to the Prince's bodyguard, an assassin who used the crowd for concealment. In 2006, the working title of the game, Prince of Persia: Assassins, was changed to Assassin's Creed.

The game was released the following year and had sold 8 million copies by 2009. For a decade, the Assassin's Creed main series released a new game almost every year, along with various spin-offs, helping the series surpass 200 million units sold by 2022. In recent years, the series has remained highly profitable, with fewer games and more downloadable expansions.

With the Prince of Persia title being used for a different game, the name was available for another project. This new game, released in 2008, was simply titled Prince of Persia. It centered around a treasure hunter who called himself "the Prince," and was accompanied by a magical princess named Elika. Unlike the realism-focused Assassin's Creed, this game was designed to resemble a watercolor painting. Combat always involved a single enemy, allowing for close-up camera angles.

The most misunderstood aspect of the game was that the Prince couldn't die, as Elika would always save him. That didn't turn the game into an interactive movie, but simply saved the need to return to the last checkpoint after failing. The control system was redesigned to minimize simultaneous button presses, although it sometimes required different buttons for similar actions. The game featured an open-world design, allowing players to choose the order of level progression, but this also meant that all levels had a similar difficulty level.

The game was released for the PC, Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 during early December, and by the end of the month had sold 2.2 million units. Reviews were mostly positive, but somewhat mixed. One aspect that wasn't mentioned in many reviews was the ending, which went against everything the player did in the game. An expansion pack called Epilogue that wasn't released for the PC could fix things, but mostly dismissed the ending and focused on a different part of the story.

The only full sequel to Prince of Persia was a Nintendo DS game called Prince of Persia: The Fallen King, released the same day. The story was similar to that of its narrative predecessor, except for the ending. Elika was replaced with a magician named Zal. As his powers grew during the game, he could help the Prince reach areas that weren't accessible when first playing the level.

The game received mixed reviews and was primarily criticized for its control scheme on a console with physical buttons. The Fallen King was controlled almost entirely with a stylus, featuring automatic running, jumping, and wall-running, making it resemble a modern smartphone game. Apart from the mobile phone version, this new incarnation of the Prince never appeared in another game.

Prince of Persia – The Movie

Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time finally hit theaters in 2010, starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Gemma Arterton and Ben Kingsley. In the motion picture, the Prince was the adopted son of a king and named Dastan. Elements from the game such as parkour and time rewind were included, but as a movie, it wasn't a masterpiece.

The action scenes were cut in a manner that made it obvious that the main actors didn't perform the stunts, and the romantic subplot was severely underdeveloped. According to Rotten Tomatoes, The Sands of Time received 36% positive reviews, which was considered good for a movie based on a video game at the time.

The Sands of Time grossed $336 million worldwide, surpassing the $275 million record set by Lara Croft: Tomb Raider in 2001 for a video game adaptation (although, when accounting for inflation, the figures are roughly equivalent). However, its production budget was estimated to be between $150 million and $200 million, with marketing costs adding over $100 million, including a Super Bowl commercial. Not surprisingly, Disney never ordered a sequel.

What's in a Name?

Alongside the movie, Ubisoft released four completely different games for consoles, all bearing the exact same name and cover art. These games differed not only in graphics and controls but also in plot and setting. The main commonality was that they were all sequels to The Sands of Time game (not the movie), with Yuri Lowenthal reprising his role as the voice of the Prince.

Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands for Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 featured the most detailed graphics, and the PC version included an HD texture pack. The game boasted some of the series' best platforming, largely thanks to the ability to freeze and unfreeze water, transforming waterfalls into ice walls and vice versa on the fly. The story was predictable and not intended for deep contemplation.

The most controversial part of the game was combat. While fighting dozens of enemies simultaneously looked impressive, their endurance was seriously compromised, otherwise fights would take an eternity. The Prince didn't even need to block attacks, as it would have been a waste of time against such fragile foes. Instead of all of the tricks introduced in Warrior Within, all he could do was kick enemies to make them drop their shield.

As the game progressed, battles gained a tactical element with different enemy types. Killing enemies awarded XP points, which could be used to acquire powers like freezing and burning enemies, but these were not specific to any enemy type, so the choice of powers was inconsequential. Additionally, the healing system was the least logical in the entire series.

The Wii game appeared as a more kid-friendly option due to its lower skill requirement, but it introduced interesting gameplay ideas like creating whirlwinds for lift, hanging onto sand rings on walls, and using floating sand bubbles. The game also featured several puzzles involving overlapping rails. Graphics were less detailed, but it could run at 60 fps.

The story was told through conversations between the Prince and a female genie companion, as well as a mysterious narrator. The experience was only dragged down by tedious fights against enemies that didn't require much strategy to beat, but could take a lot of damage.

The PSP game was a misunderstood gem. The story was poorly integrated into the gameplay, making it less appealing for those who play games for the narrative. Its side-scrolling perspective effectively accommodated the console's limited button layout. Instead of just freezing water, the Prince was accompanied by a time spirit who could slow down or speed up platforms, traps, enemies, and turn whirlwinds into movable pillars.

The game was criticized for its automatic target selection, which was difficult to alter during movement, practically limiting the player's sequence of actions. However, if one accepted this as part of the gameplay, the challenge could be enjoyable. Combat, though, was underdeveloped, and most enemies could be defeated simply by jumping on them and throwing them into each other. Collecting sand allowed for an upgraded arsenal of attack moves, adding some variety.

The Nintendo DS game bore a strong resemblance to The Fallen King. With no second character on the screen, controlling the Prince with a stylus became inexcusable. The game added animated intro and outro, but except for them barely had a story at all. Its only redeeming qualities were the ability to rewind or slow down time, and manipulate sand, including sand-made enemies.

Another game for consoles, titled Prince of Persia: Redemption, was proposed but never produced. In 2013, Prince of Persia: The Shadow and the Flame was released for iOS and Android, serving as a sequel to Prince of Persia Classic. In 2015, Prince of Persia: Time Run was released for iOS in Australia and New Zealand. This game incorporated wall-running and time-rewind mechanics into an endless running gameplay style, but it was removed from app stores a few months later. Since then, the series has only seen two mobile pseudo-games, primarily used for displaying advertisements.

Not Your Father's PoP: The Modern Prince of Persia

The final installment in the original Prince of Persia trilogy was actually in the works, with significant involvement of Mechner, but canceled in 2019.

The following year, Ubisoft announced a remake for The Sands of Time. The trailer was heavily criticized for looking like a game that already needed a remake, making Ubisoft delay the game indefinitely, shifting development from Pune and Mumbai to Montreal.

Prince of Persia: The Lost Crown isn't just the first game in the franchise for the PS5 and Xbox Series, but also for the Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, as well as PC.

Reviews for the game are the most positive the series has seen since The Sands of Time. From the start, it's clear that it differs from previous Prince of Persia games: the Prince's name is revealed as Ghassan, but more importantly, he is not the protagonist. Instead, players control Sargon, a member of a magical warrior clan called the Immortals.

The Lost Crown shares the side-scrolling perspective of the original Prince of Persia games, but its movement is distinctly different. While air dashing could be explained as magical, even standard jumps feel like rocketing into the air.

The game fits into the genre popularized by Metroid and Castlevania series, featuring a single interconnected map (similar to Warrior Within) and parts of levels that become accessible later in the game (as in The Fallen King).

Time irregularities are a recurring theme throughout the game, but unlike The Sands of Time and its sequels, the playable character is not the one manipulating them.

If you've read this far, you may still wonder what the Prince of Persia series even is, with changing characters, artistic styles and gameplay mechanics. Yet, whenever a Prince of Persia game is released, you will know it will be a game like no other. If The Lost Crown and The Sands of Time can attract a new generation of gamers to the series, it's likely that many more titles will follow.