No no no, that’s not what happened. The idea of ​​an entire story told in flashbacks has been used many times in movies and books, probably less so in games. But there are many ways to tell a story, so even the wrong ones can be considered. What if the story suddenly changes and the main character dies? Well, he’ll have no choice but to interrupt the flashback, break the fourth wall by addressing us directly, and take the story back to that untimely death.

It was one of the fascinating storytelling techniques that led to the return of Prince of Persia in 2003. Sands of time. I’m here to look back at what made this comeback so special and still worthy of a new playthrough some 20 years later.

Has it aged well? We’ll let you decide.

First, let’s stop and go back to the late 80s. What is special about the original 1989 Prince of Persia? Was it a compelling story? Or perhaps an exact recreation of a palace in ancient Persia? No, it will definitely not be the right choice. Rather, it would be a rhythmic gameplay, incredibly smooth movements of the prince along with exquisite graphics. Well, for a while.

However, let’s not forget that The Sands of Time was not the prince’s first foray into 3D space. In 1999, Red Orb introduced us to Prince of Persia 3D: while largely forgotten today, it was well received by critics as a puzzle-heavy alternative to Tomb Raider. But the audience didn’t seem to appreciate the slow pace and clumsy combat mechanics. In 2001, after acquiring the franchise license (12 years after the original’s debut), Ubisoft wondered: How can we get people to care about Prince of Persia again?

The Sands of Time built on the original’s strengths while also working on new features that would make sense to 2003 audiences. This wasn’t a simple cosmetic update or a transition to another successful action series. Of course, Sands of Time has great graphics along with the smooth movement of our main character. But after 36 months of operation, the most significant twist to the proven gameplay of the franchise was the time-rewind mechanic. Come to think of it, this was the result of a project that didn’t even have an art director almost 12 months of development!

You can’t argue with the aesthetics of the game.

While the first few minutes seem like a typical 3D action game, when the Prince breaks the hourglass and finally masters the time-rewind mechanic, it completely changes the mood of the action platformer. Now you can return to an untimely death or simply re-jump or exit the fight with a little more health. The game does not limit your possibilities; rewinding can be used in any situation (if, of course, there is enough sand).

Rewinding time was not only a brilliant gameplay mechanic, but also a central motif of the narrative. With the story built on a memory and the idea of ​​going back in time to warn the princess of the vizier’s betrayal, a wiser prince would look back on the actions of his slightly younger and more reckless self. The story served the action entirely as the gameplay never stopped to let the characters talk.

Original Prince of Persia creator Jordan Mechner, who worked as a writer on the project, recalled that the original plot was much more complex, featuring nine different characters with opposing political factions and goals. These ideas would later be abandoned in favor of a simpler and stronger story that was as grounded as possible and kept in one place. Ditching the long story cutscenes to really reinforce the idea that The Sands of Time is primarily an action movie was a directive Mehner saw to be the first to be fulfilled after canceling the original story.

Among many creative narrative ideas, the prince himself was found to be responsible for activating the traps in the palace. Basically, you’re just making the whole game more difficult for yourself as you blindly follow the guard’s advice. Princess Farah was also a secondary character for much of the action. Not just a damsel in distress, she is a real helper who helped solve traps and fight guards. The banter between the two would serve to showcase their respective narrative arcs and their slow-burn romance, a technique that would be used in many other Ubisoft games in the future.

The game had a very nice color palette.

Along with solid combat mechanics, a modern and beautifully written narrative, and sweet platformer mechanics was a great soundtrack by Stuart Chatwood. Personally, I’ve always been fascinated by the closing track – “Time only Knows” – which wouldn’t have seemed out of place in an epic romantic drama. The heartbreaking love song, which filled a sour and aching note of longing, ended with a performance that perhaps foreshadowed the dark turn for Prince to come later.

20 years later, Sands of Time is still a great lesson in bringing back the relevance of an early 90s platformer title. Instead of a straight remake – or a reboot that changed everything – the team decided to bring back what made Mechner’s games legendary, elevating their concepts while still keeping them challenging for the player, both in terms of narrative and gameplay. Despite the aforementioned development issues, Sands of Time was a surprise success for Ubisoft and signaled the beginning of a trilogy, as well as inspired the narrative structure and gameplay of Assassin’s Creed.

You’d think that such a brilliant concept and game mechanics would easily translate into a clear direction for a successful series of 3D platformers, but… no, no, no, that’s not what happened. The first follow-up, Warrior Within, down-tuned the guitars, changed Arabic melodies for Godsmack, and suddenly morphed into a weird weird nu-metal mood. Now the prince was an anti-hero running from his “dark self”. It wasn’t terrible in terms of gameplay, but it seemed to function as a showcase for questionable design choices. Not to mention the writing, which seemed to be more for angsty teenagers than the mature audience of the previous title.

The original trilogy was capped off with 2005’s Two Thrones , which somewhat quelled the anger by feeling like half an apology: a designer re-confiscation that ended up being a bridge between the two games. In 2008, the series returned with an updated version of the same name, which focused less on action and fierce battles, and more on a poetic combination of platforming and action. With the story of the original trilogy complete, Ubisoft opted for yet another reboot, but this time the inspiration was clearly Ico rather than the platform games of the MS-DOS era. Although it was praised by critics, the public did not accept the new poetic Prince at all, and the planned (second) trilogy was never launched.

The original Sands of Time was designed by a small team of 10 people, which eventually grew to 65. It was the product of talented designers who were left alone to work on what they loved, while receiving significant design and writing assistance from the franchise’s original creator. Result? A unique product of its time, a meeting of talents that, unfortunately, was not repeated in any of the subsequent games.

With all this in mind, it’s probably no surprise that unlike 2003, Ubisoft today (or, well, whatever it was in 2020) decided to bring the series back with a direct remake of the original Sands of Time. Probably the only decision that made business sense: why risk investing in an idea that might fail spectacularly when you can just rely on the tried and true value of nostalgia?

Can another remake capture the magic that made the 2003 game so special?

In any case, the modern Ubisoft, from the moment of the announcement, it seemed that it was difficult to understand what message they wanted to convey to the audience. Was Sands 20 supposed to be a simple remake or a completely new experience, staying true to the original? The answer was probably all of the above. Three years after the first announcement, the fate of the remake hangs in the balance, or perhaps it should be said, frozen in time.

In what direction can the modern Prince of Persia title go to win back its audience? Maybe going back to the successful Sands of Time plan would be a great idea to start with. For example, Ubisoft could easily imagine a metroidvania where a prince explores faraway lands to Arabic melodies in the background, an engaging story enriched by delicious 2D graphics and – why not – a time control mechanic. Could this be the right injection of life into a franchise that feels almost buried in the sand these days? Well, as the prince would say… “Wait, what did I just say? This did not happen. Let me back up a bit.”