High definition may be all the rage these days, but the recent rush of HD collections – God of War, Sly Cooper and now Prince of Persia – owes more to the unique way videogame platforms used to be sent off to the glue factory four or five years after release.
In some respects it's cynical. With PlayStation 2 and particularly Xbox now airbrushed from history, and only piecemeal backwards compatibility on the new formats, publishers recognise the potential to make some more money off old games. But then these games might otherwise be lost, or at least off-limits to a new generation of gamers, and in some cases that would be a real shame. This Prince of Persia Trilogy is a good example.
Admittedly, the "high definition" element of the update is only a partial success. The Sands of Time, first released in 2003, stands up well – its curvy, wind-hewn masonry, cartoon-like character models and penchant for translucent veils and light diffused through sparkly sand preserve its ethereal atmosphere against the ravages of time. But the younger games, Warrior Within and Two Thrones, are home to some ghastly animations and character models introduced as the developers sought a mainstream audience. Look past that, though (and the eight-minute mandatory hard-disk install) and this is a fine compilation.
The Sands of Time is the predictable standout. The Prince of Persia and his dad are flush with new toys after a playable intro where you invade India and loot the Maharajah's city, but one such trinket, a dagger, unleashes unspeakable horrors when a treacherous Vizier tricks you into releasing the Sands of Time. It's bad news for the Prince, but for us what follows is a cleverly told, atmospheric platform adventure in a mysterious palace full of excellent ideas and puzzles.
The Prince is easy to control and has a useful range of abilities – he runs up and along walls, has never met a ledge he can't hang from or sidle along, and knows his way around a trapeze – but the important thing is that he does everything fast and moves fluidly between actions, which back in 2003 gave Sands of Time an advantage over clunkier rivals like the then-ailing Tomb Raider. Others have caught up since, but the Prince still holds his own.
It was rewinding time that helped the series make its name, though, and it's still a welcome idea, better implemented here than in many derivatives. Should you foul up a jump or take one too many hits in combat, you can use the Dagger of Time to rewind a few seconds' worth of gameplay and do things differently.
It was no surprise to see time-manipulation return in other games and genres in the years that followed Sands of Time, but it is perhaps surprising that some of the game's other good ideas never caught on. Whenever you reach a save point, for example, you're shown a cool little video montage of things you're about to do, and, with frequent checkpoints evenly spaced, more often than not it compels you to continue rather than call it a day.
There's nothing jarringly anachronistic about Sands of Time either, although you may be surprised at how small a distance the Prince can fall and still perish compared to his superhumanly resilient descendants and contemporary cousins. There are some rough edges though, especially the combat, which is dull and increasingly frustrating as you get to the end of the game, while switches in camera perspective often catch you out elsewhere.