Jordan Mechner jumped and kicked his way into gamers’ hearts with Prince of Persia and Karateka, two seminal releases that expanded the possibilities of what games could be and how they could tell stories. But it was the Last Express that proved to be the most ambitious title of Mechner’s game-making career. The period-drama point-and-click adventure sported fetching animated visuals and a long, involved story with multiple narrative branches.
And now that cult favourite is on iOS, thanks to a new port done by dev studio DotEmu. (The French collective were responsible for bringing Eric Chahi’s classic Another World to iOS, too.) It may seem easy to port older games with smaller file sizes to modern devices. But that’s not the case at all. When I asked Mechner about bringing The Last Express to a new platform, he said that the size of his game made things difficult.
“It’s a big, multilayered story to begin with, and the content goes much deeper than just what you need to do to finish the game. For example, you might decide to follow a nonessential character — say, the two young women you pass in the smoking car on the first evening,” Mechner explains. “You could eavesdrop on them at dinner, then when they go to breakfast the next day, sneak into their compartment, search their luggage, find the girl’s private diary and see what she wrote, and then hurry back to the restaurant car in time to eavesdrop on their lunch conversation.”
“None of this is part of the essential walkthrough of the game, it’s all completely optional,” he continues. “Another player might ignore the two young women completely, and instead loiter in the corridor, listening to the train conductors argue about politics. The game has 30+ characters, all acting independently in real-time, and they can be affected by what the player does. The non-linear parallel action and large number of alternative paths made this an extremely challenging game to playtest and QA.”
It may be well-loved by people who know about it, but The Last Express doesn’t enjoy quite the same kind of popularity as Karateka or Prince of Persia. Mechner offered a few reasons for why that might be. “In terms of numbers of copies sold, it’s true that Last Express can’t compare to POP, which has sold 17 million games,” he said. “PC point-and-click adventure games are a much smaller category than console action games. This was especially true in 1997, when Last Express came out. We might have hoped we’d be the rare breakout exception that would sell millions of copies on PC alone, like MYST, but the reality is that would have been extremely unlikely even with a major marketing campaign — which we didn’t have. It’s a different kind of game.”
“To follow the POP analogy,” Mechner elaborates, “if Last Express were a movie, it wouldn’t be a Disney-Bruckheimer summer blockbuster.” The movie analogues are different. “It’s closer to Alfred Hitchcock or Graham Greene — a thinking person’s thriller, like The Third Man or Tinker Tailer Soldier Spy, about a particular moment in 20th-century European history, with some elements that are quite dark and even tragic.”
Of course, he’s excited that a new generation of players will get to experience The Last Express. “I never imagined that the people of the future would want to use their amazing futuristic devices, like the iPhone, to play 20-year-old games,” he says. But, now that that’s happening, Mechner wishes another game that came out in the 1990s would find its way to mobile platforms. “Grim Fandango! I’d love to have that on my iPad. Tim, are you listening? Call George Lucas!”