Why the pixelated land of Prince of Persia was my most exotic childhood experience

A floppy disk copy of the 1989 game revolutionised our Luddite household.

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Neeeeooowww na na na neeooowwww. Neeooww na na na neeeooeewwwwww.

Like a cat yowling over the sound of dial-up internet, that unmistakeable music at the opening of the 1989 original Prince of Persia is a journey. A journey both back in time, and to another land.

The classic “Arabian” tune – accompanying what are essentially as few pixels as you can get away with on one screen while still denoting heavy orientalist overtones – was the most exotic experience of my childhood. And I visited my family in the actual real-life Middle East. Every year.


So exotic. Photos: screengrabs from the game, which you can play here.

Prince of Persia – or just “Prince” as we referred to it (going by the handwritten label on the floppy disk rip of the game from my dad’s colleague) – was the first cool computer-y thing we had.

Putting the Amish in Armenian, we didn’t own much in the way of up-to-date gadgets. My dad didn’t believe in microwaves, for example (Can they chop obscene amounts of parsley? Can they make hummus? Can they barbecue lamb every damn weekend without fail? NO!). And when we finally bought our long-awaited Dell PC, my mum used to cover it with a red bedsheet out of shame, like a cuboid Handmaid.

We only had four TV channels (which, I admit, thrillingly went up to four and a half in ‘97). We didn’t have a video player, so my only Disney knowledge now is the The Road to El Dorado VHS my grandma had at her house I used to watch on a loop – and that isn’t even Disney.

When we finally joined the World Wide Web just before my GCSEs, it only worked approximately 13 per cent of the time because, according to my (ironically IT worker) father, “America must be using all the internet”.

I didn’t even get a mobile until long after all my friends were way over Snake.

So that one floppy disk was our portal into the modern world.


A sleeveless jumpsuit, ahead of its time.

For those of you who haven’t played it, the aim of the game is to navigate the imprisoned Prince of Persia – wearing a white onesie and somehow, for reasons I assume of Western privilege, blond – through the dungeons to free the Princess, who sits around in her room all day looking at an egg timer. Same tbh.


WHEN WILL MY EGG BE BOILED?

The jeopardy is that the Princess must “Marry Jaffar… or die within the hour”. So often were we presented with this terrible scenario (the floppy disk would randomly skip to the beginning, forcing us to watch the entire opening sequence), my sister and I could repeat the story by heart. I can still recite it now in times of deadline stress (“Marry Jaffar… OR FILE WITHIN THE HOUR”).


Bloody patriarchy.

Anyway, someone called Grand Vizier Jaffar has captured the Princess. The Prince has to swordfight his mean mates, all of whom my sister and I referred to as Jaffars (pronouncing it like the “Jaffa” in Jaffa Cakes), as well as a skeleton who is particularly hard to kill because it’s already dead. Clever.

As the levels progress (unless you’re constantly being sent arbitrarily back to the beginning of your quest), new challenges present themselves – including the Prince creating and being tormented by his own shadow (deep, huh?), and enlisting the help of a mouse strategically released by the Princess, who is well pissed-off by that point.

All the while you run, jump, fight, rush under closing portcullises, drink potions to renew your lives, and, so very often – with the distinctive squelch like a scratched vinyl – fall and instantly die on hidden spikes. Upon replaying the game years later, it still makes my heart jump when the red pixels devour his hitherto unblemished onesie. Cue robotic Arabian dirge.


Romeo Dungeon.

Hours of weekend afternoons were spent in this underground world – occasionally yelling for my dad to stop chopping parsley and come and help fight the Jaffars (which he did with vengeful Armenian aplomb), and in general marvelling at the fact we owned a computer game. We were so tech.

By the time I actually completed it (which took years longer than the allotted hour – sorry Princess), no one was interested anymore. We had a dancemat that plugged into the telly by then. MSN Messenger was the place to be. I’d managed to fill my iPod with Limewire downloads. But I remember feeling proud, and really quite bereft, when I killed that final Jaffar and was reunited with the Princess. Beats a microwave meal any day.

This article was part of the NS’s “Vintage video games week”, click here to read more in the series.

Anoosh Chakelian is the New Statesman’s Britain editor.