Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time
(2003, PlayStation 2, Xbox, GameCube, and PC)
I can't be sure, but I think Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time was the last game I played without the aim of writing about it. There may have been others, but it was right near the end. It was definitely the last game I fell in love with and played repeatedly, content not to rush on to the next big thing (or not so big thing).
A common theme on this list, among the games predating 2004, are games I got for Christmas, because that was the way I got them for the first part of the decade. This was no different. In 2003, I remember seeing TV commercials for two games: this, and Castlevania: Lament of Innocence. When either ad came on, I'd comment about wanting to play them, but when Christmastime arrived and my girlfriend handed me a suspiciously game-shaped box, I found myself desperately hoping it would be Prince of Persia and not Castlevania. I'm not sure why. I don't think I'd read any reviews. I'd been a Castlevania fan in the past, especially Super Castlevania IV and Symphony of the Night, but held no particular affinity for anything PoP. Still, when I unwrapped that gift and saw a sword-wielding Prince leaping out at me, I felt relief more than anything.
As I delved into the game, my relief turned quickly to excitement. Sands of Time is nominally similar to Tomb Raider, a franchise I have never liked because of its unforgiving and slow-paced platforming, but it solves every problem that Tomb Raider had, including some I didn't realize existed. The acrobatic Prince performs one impossible stunt after another, and the beauty of the game is that you don't often have to stop and line up your next move exactly right. Using only two buttons, you can wall-run over a gap, then spring onto a bar, flip around it once before leaping to a pole, then shimmy up it and disembark for a perfect landing, all in one smooth and unbroken sequence. Navigating the game's physical space is thrilling. I had never felt such freedom of movement in a game before.
Smarter still is that magical sand. I can't believe it took until 2003 for somebody to come up with the idea to let you rewind upon making a mistake. There's no such thing as a cheap death in this game. Instead, you learn what you've done wrong and can immediately correct it. That doesn't make the game too easy or simplistic. It makes it fun.
The sand is the linchpin of a surprisingly powerful story. From the beginning, the game is cast as a flashback, with the Prince narrating his incredible story to someone whose identity we don't learn until the end. The writing is fantastic, and so is the acting. Yuri Lowenthal, as the Prince, strikes exactly the right note of raffish charm. His sarcastic asides to himself as he progresses through the game are funny, and his gradual acceptance of responsibility for having unleashed the Sands of Time is both believable and affecting.
(Why Lowenthal was replaced in Warrior Within by some generic gravelly voiced dude, I have no idea. Nolan North did all right in last year's Prince of Persia by playing, as he always does, Nolan North, but Lowenthal is the definitive Prince.)
It's the game's finale that pulls the rug out from under you. Throughout the game, the Prince has been slowly developing a relationship with the Princess Farah, at the end of which they are well and truly in love. Standard stuff. Then, after the Prince topples the evil Vizier and rewinds time, back to before the Sands destroyed everything, it's as though they've never met. When we realize that the Prince has been talking to Farah all along, and not to us, it is a perfect storytelling moment: funny, surprising, achingly romantic. I don't remember if Farah falls in love with the Prince after that, but I did.