How the Humble Handhold Changed Gaming
Raiders of the Lost Ark opens with a famous set-piece – Indiana Jones escaping from an ancient Peruvian temple laden with booby traps, including that giant rolling boulder:
The sequence is iconic in action adventure movies – and influenced a young video game designer named Jordan Mechner. Channeling Indy and the 1930s swashbuckling movies of Errol Flynn and Douglas Fairbanks, Mechner created Prince of Persia, 1989’s classic Arabian Nights-themed platform game.
Prince of Persia was influential in its own right. To understand why, we have to look back at what the genre had been missing.
In the beginning was the platform game, an industry standard for many years.
If you grew up in the 8- or 16-bit generation you know how hard games pushed you back in the day. In platforming, jumps had to be pixel-accurate, and timed to perfection.
This was the era of tense “tippy-toe” platforming – maintaining intense focus with every move, inching your way towards the edge of a platform to optimize every leap. There were no do-overs. Missed the jump by the slightest fraction of a pixel? Instant death – game over.
You didn’t have mastery over the platforms – the platforms mastered you.
Never mind the poison darts, or the rolling boulder, or the spikes. Watch how Indy made that jump in Raiders of the Lost Ark. In a moment of action heroics (and brilliant physical comedy by Harrison Ford), Indy leaps, grabs onto the ledge, hauls himself up, and dives underneath the temple door.
Prince of Persia made this possible in gaming:
The ledge grab – for the first time in video games you could cling on to the edge of a platform. By simply holding down the fire button the Prince latches on to a ledge, halting his fall and enabling him to scramble back onto his feet.
Prior platformers focused on your feet first, straight-jacketing your character. Why could you not simply throw your arms out to seize that platform?!
Gamers asked, and Prince of Persia answered.
More than this, Prince of Persia’s clever controls allowed the player to carefully climb down from ledges and safely drop to lower levels.
Prince of Persia’s realistic, fluid animation, achieved through rotoscoping, was a game-changer. No longer would gamers crush their controllers in frustration as they plummeted to another humiliating death. The platform environment was now mastered.
Prince of Persia’s innovative controls had a huge impact on platform games, and beyond. Following the template closely was Flashback (1992), a sci-fi cinematic platform adventure that featured similarly realistic animations and ledge grabs. Zool (1992) added a neat ability to stick to sheer surfaces.
From 16-bit into the 32- and 64-bit generation, the move into full 3D meant that clinging onto platforms became even more critical. Judging distances is trickier in three dimensions, and the ability to hang on to edges in games such as Super Mario 64 (1996) and the Tomb Raider series eased the frustration level.
For Super Mario 64, the ability to grab and vault up onto ledges formed a vital link in the plumber’s free-flowing chain of runs, dives, somersaults, and leaps. Mario was now a fully-fledged freerunner, able to tackle any obstacle with grace. The game’s fluid movement was another massive platforming leap forward.
(While we’re talking about Mario – what about wall kicks? Pushing off one vertical surface onto another to climb has been a feature of video games from Batman: The Video Game (1989), through Super Mario and Metroid, up to the present in games including Super Meat Boy and the recent Prince of Persia titles. Wall jumps are as awesome as ledge grabs – and deserve an article of their own!)
The ledge grab mechanic was streamlined in The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (1998). Beyond the notorious difficulty spike of the Water Temple, Ocarina of Time received some criticism at the time for Link jumping automatically across platforms. A few fans had missed the point – and, in fairness, most now accept the design genius of the auto-jump, which freed you from platforming concerns to focus entirely on exploration and puzzle-solving.
Later Zelda games refined the maneuver. With The Wind Waker (2002), Link could now shimmy along ledges (another evolution), while Skyward Sword (2011) added a Stamina Gauge which drains while Link is climbing. The strength meter was an obvious borrow from Shadow of the Colossus – more on that later.
Latching on to platforms in 3D refined gameplay for generations – without this simple move, there would be no true complete control over your character, or the game environment.
There are countless examples of the handhold being incorporated into games beyond platformers (for a list, check out Giant Bomb’s excellent article). In the beat-’em-up genre, Nintendo’s Super Smash Bros. series features the ledge grab as a last-ditch effort to stay in the arena after being thrown off by an opponent. In stealth, the original Thief: The Dark Project (1998) and Splinter Cell (2002) enabled the player to “mantle” up platforms – providing new ways to sneak up on unsuspecting enemies. Metroid Prime 3: Corruption (2007) drew on its side-scrolling platform roots, with designated “Grab Ledges” that can be grappled.
Later Metroid titles neatly expanded Samus Aran’s moves – in Metroid Fusion (2002), Samus could now hang on to platforms; in Metroid: Zero Mission (2004) a new Power Grip upgrade enabled Samus to simultaneously cling on to a ledge and fire her arm cannon.
Modern platformers have continued the tradition. In as unforgiving a game as the indie roguelike adventure Spelunky (2012), grasping for platform edges keeps you alive (for a short time at least). Climbing Gloves are a savior here – they allow you to grab onto sheer walls.
One game released in 2003 could trace its heritage straight back to where it all began – UbiSoft’s reboot, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time.
The genius of the updated Prince of Persia lies in its faithfulness to the source. The developers pay homage to original elements – the One Thousand and One Nights motif, amazingly animated acrobatic running and jumping, swashbuckling combat, right down to recreated booby traps like floor spikes and pressure pads that temporarily open level exits.
The Sands of Time further expanded the Prince’s repertoire of moves. Not just grabbing onto platforms (and now ladders, poles, bars, and ropes), but parkour, shimmying across narrow ledges, and wall kicks. From palace gardens and libraries, to baths and majestic towers, this Prince of Persia fashioned a stunning environment in which to redefine platforming.
Prince of Persia’s spiritual successor, Assassin’s Creed (2007), built on the template. One of the game’s many hooks was the ability to grab and grapple anything in your environment. In the Assassin’s Creed series all the world’s a ledge – from the sun-baked city of Jerusalem during the Third Crusade, to Renaissance Italy, to Colonial Boston’s townhouses (and the forests and cliffs of the American frontier beyond).
Assassin’s Creed fashioned a new type of platformer – a cinematic freerunning, open world adventure.
In recent years there have been many examples of top-notch platform-grabbing. Naughty Dog’s Uncharted games have drawn on cinematic action, with Nathan Drake a throwback to the physicality of Indiana Jones. EA took a risk with Mirror’s Edge (2008), a first-person actioner featuring ledge grabs, shimmying, and wall running across skyscrapers.
But the final word on ledge grabs goes to Fumito Ueda’s revered Shadow of the Colossus (2005):
Shadow of the Colossus is built entirely around holding on. The colossi embody every genre of gaming – defeating them requires exploration, puzzle-solving, combat, and (of course) platforming. To reach their weak points you will need to jump, grab, and climb over their huge frames. A strength gauge for your handhold runs down, furthering the tension as the colossi struggle to throw you off while you desperately clamber over their armor plating and furry limbs.
Shadow of the Colossus is a unique game, deeply atmospheric in its depiction of physical and spiritual desolation. It is impossible to tease apart this modern classic’s artistic and technical components, but in terms of gameplay Shadow of the Colossus is perhaps the ultimate expression of the ledge grab.
The ledge grab, the handhold, the mantle – the ability to hang on to platforms changed gaming. No longer was the platform’s edge an insurmountable challenge.
Platform games have been at the core of gaming since the very start. Why the platformer? There is something fundamentally relatable about the simple act of jumping – it’s childlike fun at one level, and an unforgiving test of reflexes and coordination on another. The only thing better is grabbing onto a ledge when jumping. Like the opening scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark, just missing that landing spot is a heart-stopping moment of drama. Prince of Persia captured that perfectly, and set the tone for platformers that followed.
So here’s to the ledge grab on its 25th anniversary, and thank you to Prince of Persia and its creator. Jordan Mechner set out to recreate the acrobatic action of classic adventure movies, and in doing so he also defined one simple gameplay maneuver that changed the platform genre and video games forever.