Jordan Mechner: The Man Who Would Be Prince
Karateka – meaning ‘practitioner of karate’ – was a breakout hit, ranking as the best-selling game during April 1985 by Billboard magazine. Early sales were well over 500,000, an astronomical figure given that videogames were still in their infancy. “Karateka was a life-changing breakthrough for me,” says Mechner. “Until then, programming computer games had been my hobby and passion. Karateka’s success proved to me – and to my parents – that this could be a legitimate career. It helped me decide, right after college, to go on and make another computer game, Prince Of Persia.”
Karateka would be ported to several other systems, including Commodore 64, NES, and Game Boy, but each was lacking a mischievous Easter egg that Mechner built into the Apple II version. “The programmer doing copy protection for the game figured out that by messing with the bit table, the whole game could be played upside down, which is really hard to do,” he explained at San Diego Comic-Con in 2008. “We thought it would be hilarious if we burned the flipped version of the game to the other side of the disk. We figured of all the people who buy the game, a couple would accidentally put the floppy in upside-down. That way, when that person called tech support, that tech support rep would once in a blue moon have the sublime joy of saying, ‘Well sir, you put the disk in upside-down,’ and that person would think for the rest of their life that’s how software works.”
Mechner graduated Yale in 1985 with a BA in psychology, and spent the next several years working towards the release of Prince Of Persia, a game that would redefine what the medium could be. At around that time, he began keeping an intricate journal of his experiences in the entertainment industry – now publicly available via his personal website – detailing how POP was almost never finished, and how, time and time again, Hollywood dangled a movie deal just beyond his grasp, like a mouse being toyed with by a humourless cat.
Mechner wrote a screenplay in conjunction with the game, and struggled to decide which project he most wanted to see come to fruition. On 2nd October 1985, Mechner logged a journal entry stating, “The Doubt is still there in the back of my mind. It talks to me from time to time. ‘Jordan!’ it says. ‘What are you doing? You’re taking a step backward. You want to be a filmmaker. It’s time to move on! You brought the Apple-computer-game thread of your life to its climax a year ago. You caught the industry just before it started to die, before you started to lose interest in games yourself. Now you want to do ‘just one more game’… Why? Timidity! Fear of breaking loose! You’ll waste a year, man! If you’re going to try for Hollywood, now is the time!’“
With that gnawing doubt in the back of his mind, Mechner spent the next 14 months preparing to move to San Francisco from his home in New York – he felt that being closer to the videogame and film industries was integral to finding a way into either. At the same time, he was locked in a dispute with Brøderbund over percentages for his new game idea – at that point called Baghdad – and a possible sequel to Karateka, which the publisher had no intention of letting him develop despite being the copyright holder.
Mechner didn’t write a single line of code for 18 months after graduating from Yale. He was developing techniques for capturing lifelike movements and transferring them into a videogame, and while his labour would prove invaluable to Prince Of Persia’s reputation, it consumed a great deal of his time and, to hear Mechner tell it, sanity.
“I first used rotoscoping in Karateka,” he explains. “It’s an animation technique that goes back to the early days of film – Ralph Bakshi used it in his Lord Of The Rings, and Disney animators had used it back in the thirties for Snow White. My own drawing and animation skills weren’t at [a] professional level, so rotoscoping was the only way I could get the character looking as fluid and lifelike as I wanted [it to be]. The challenge was to do it on the Apple II with