By Jeff Jensen
Updated January 14, 2009 at 05:00 AM EST

Once upon a time, videogames were ?fun-for-all-ages affairs. The likes of Pong, Pac-Man, Donkey Kong, and Super Mario Bros. ? united young and old, male and female — at home and at the arcades. (Remember those?)

Today the medium seems something of a gentlemen’s club, minus the gentle. Signature titles like Grand Theft Auto, Halo, and Metal Gear Solid are mesmerizing but murky entertainments, squarely aimed at dudes dazzled by extreme irreverence and edgy fantasy. Sure, the gorgeously realized apocalypse of Fallout 3 is an extraordinary artistic achievement. But it also represents another KEEP OUT! sign to those genuinely interested in videogames yet convinced that their local GameSpot has little to offer them.

Enter Prince of Persia. A friendly and inviting reinvention of a much-beloved franchise, Persia offers a way in for those wary of all that geek and gloom. The titular hero is a quippy, gold-hunting adventurer caught up in an epic, Tolkienian mess: A rogue wizard, furious with grief over his wife’s death, has unleashed an ancient god of evil, causing the varied realms of their enchanted world to become saturated with corrupting darkness. As the prince, your task is to escort the aforementioned madman’s super-responsible princess daughter Elika — part Arabian Nights beauty, part Tomb Raider action heroine — to each ? infected realm so she can magically restore her shadow-choked world to lush fertility. Hmmm. A wondrous universe made bleak by death-worshipping men, in desperate need of renewal and a woman’s touch? Sounds like a winky critique of the current videogame landscape.

Persia possesses the grandeur and good-natured charm of Pirates of the Caribbean, which may be no accident: Disney is now mounting a Jerry Bruckheimer-produced film based on the 20-year-old franchise. The game has a propulsive narrative, unique action (the prince specializes in gravity-defying, wall-running acrobatics), and awesome art direction. But the leads themselves steal the show. Beholding — and participating in — the evolving friendship and budding romance between the maturity-challenged prince and the mysterious princess is a welcome departure in a genre where male-female relationships are often crude, or just plain nonexistent.

The game’s only deficiency is that it’s not much of a challenge. There’s no death, no “Game Over.” Stumble into the abyss, and Elika always intercedes to save you. This ? dynamic nurtures the couple’s camaraderie, but minimizes the stakes so much that Persia often feels like an interactive storybook rather than a game with actual life-and-death consequences. Longtime fans might feel sold out by this unabashed bid for large-audience accessibility, and one might worry about the overly simplistic precedent it could set for gaming. Not me. Not yet, at least. Prince of Persia is an old-school, wide-appeal blast that I’d love to see more of. Sure, it’d be nice if they made ’em harder — but please, just make more. A?