One step. Two step. Three step. Jump. [Next screen] One step. Two step. Jump. Grab ledge. Pull yourself up. [Next screen]
In practice, Jordan Mechner's classic Prince of Persia (1989) was a lot more exciting than that. Its delicate pacing and knife-edge precision marked it out (then, as now) as a platform game of singular grace and refinement. Last year's acclaimed console update, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, impressively transposed that grace and refinement into a mostly faithful 3D adventure, but the anxious chicken steps of the 2D original had been replaced by swift, safety-net gaming. So my personal hope for this side-scrolling GameBoy Advance companion (to the "proper" Sands of Time) was that it might re-affirm the drama and accuracy of that platform gameplay that first established the series fifteen years ago. It would appear I was hoping for too much.
Right from the opening cut-scene, Sands foolishly aims for the same pomp and bombast of its big-budget namesake and, predictably, falls short. It's a shame that Ubisoft didn't take advantage of the handheld format rather than simply trying to find ways to get around it, and tactlessly telling the same story with the same script and the same gameplay for a totally different and unsuitable platform.
All the things that made the 3D Sands such an intuitive experience are implemented here with little consideration as to their relevance or purpose. Take the somewhat questionable physics of the game's time-manipulation element. During the first boss encounter, for instance, the "Rewind" function doesn't actually reverse the direction of the falling rocks; it merely acts as a button that enables the player to hurt the enemy when depressed… A gimmick, in other words. The time-manipulating and dynamic controls of the 3D iteration were necessary to allow the gameplay to flow with the pace and ease of a classic 2D platformer, and to eliminate the common frustrations that have plagued the genre in recent years. As such, this classically-styled 2D Sands has blindly adopted mechanics which simply do not apply to it, merely serving to make the gameplay unnecessarily cluttered and to stifle any original ideas that might have sprouted in their stead.
There is a lamentably fine line between innovation and gimmick, and I wonder when game designers will learn that they need neither to make a good videogame. The proof is right here, because when it's bold enough to "restrict" the player to a sparse, but healthy, diet of running and jumping, the handheld Sands is wholly successful in emulating the slick gameplay of its 3D twin. The combat system may be banal and the level design is positively suffocated by the gamut of genre tropes included (moving platforms; spiked platforms; unfair deaths; frustrating boss battles-they're all here), but character movement is generally fluid and pleasurable, and the game benefits from colorful production values and some neat spatial puzzles. There's not much of an atmosphere to speak of-the series' plastic, clichéd Arabian Nights setting is just as phoney as ever- but there remains a compulsive desire to work through the adventure, such is the simple attraction of its bread-and-water platform gameplay.
The leveling-up system-whereby the Prince increases his seemingly arbitrary attack and defence ratings for every few sand creatures killed-may be nothing more than a token gesture towards some kind of depth, but it does the job adequately enough. Encouraging the player to embark upon a Metroid-style completion search for every character upgrade and secret medal presents a superficial, but irresistible, reason for revisiting each area in greater detail. Interestingly, this is just the kind of palace-combing exploration that some felt the 3D version would have benefited from, and it certainly does seem to consolidate the experience on offer here.
Furthermore, the section in which the player can switch between controlling the Prince and Princess Farah (the former's accomplice and love interest) opens up another tight and rewarding mechanic that is unique to this handheld interpretation. So it's unfortunate that the idea is ditched after only one level (as if the clever design was just too much effort), and that the Prince must go through a lonely and rather unfulfilling journey of self-improvement for the rest of his adventure.
The Sands of Time is a fine 2D platformer, but a rather undistinguished and disposable specimen. Perhaps "fine" 2D platformers just don't cut it anymore, and the golden age of the genre is best left as a memory. Even a classic side-scrolling series like Metal Slug is finding it hard to hold its own nowadays, and the only recent notable exception would be Viewtiful Joe, a game so rammed with fresh concepts and tricksy gameplay that it's virtually unrecognisable from the 16-bit games that inspired it. Similarly, Sands' roots are in the past, but its head is stuck in the present. Perhaps, rather than trying to keep pace with its sensational 3D brother, this Prince of Persia ought to have slowed things down, looked back to its own heritage, and followed in the cautious footsteps of the series' illustrious ancestor before attempting to leap on ahead: One step. Two step. Three step. Jump.