I’d been considering what to look back at this week to start the new year until the decision was made for me yesterday. I already owned it, but what better opportunity to return to the land of the high seas than the prospect of paying US$1 to receive the most recent copy of Sid Meier’s take on pirates, parley and plundering?
It started life in 1987 on a self booting disk, the same year I was born. Back then the idea was to brand Pirates! with Sid Meier’s name to appeal to fans of his earlier simulations, but the swashbuckling open-world simulator took a life of its own. While the game never developed into a great MicroProse franchise or icon in the way Civilization or XCOM did, it’s been remade several times.
The most recent is a port for mobiles, but the one people might be more immediately familiar with (if not because of the latest Humble Bundle) is the 2004 remake. It’s a shame that the remake didn’t revamp the controls as well, with users only recommended to use the arrow keys if they’re playing on a laptop/notebook.
But I digress. Controls are pretty simple. On the main screen, you can turn your ship left or right, set one of two settings for your sails, pick the type of cannon ball you want to fire and change the camera view. In fencing the controls change to give you a variety of attacks and movement options (dodge, jump, parry and so on). It’s all pretty straightforward.
(The below shows gameplay from the originals, all of which you can find in the modern remake. It’s a good argument for just how good Pirates! is, although the 2004 version adds a map and a touch of fast travel that corrects the painful slowness of the earlier releases.)
It’s a simple hook, too. You start as a pirate affiliated with one of the four great naval nations, namely the Spanish, Dutch, English or French. You’ll encounter other pirates and non-affiliated towns as you traverse the open seas, of course, and you’re not limited to appeasing your starting faction for the remainder of the game either.
A quick chat with a governor will often give you a letter of approval so you can go and plunder the enemies of that nation to your heart’s content, and continuing to please governors can also result in you going on dates with their daughters. The only dates I thought pirates approved of were the ones that came in a snack form, but anyway.
Perhaps what’s so great about Pirates! — and this doesn’t just apply to the most recent remake — is the way things just happen around you. It’s taken for granted now that open worlds have to feel alive, but that wasn’t the case when Pirates! was first designed. Even playing now, it feels like you could anchor somewhere and wars will break out. Hostilities will cease, discoveries will be made, marriages will be made in the name of politics and goods will be plundered from pillar to post.
There’s an overarching theme to it all, besides the trading, fighting and wheeling and dealing between factions. An evil villain has captured your family and you’re tasked with getting your crew, ships and fame (or notoriety, really) high enough to the point where you can challenge him. That involves a good deal of intelligence gathering though, which you’ll be able to do through quests, travelling from town to town, and just exploring the high seas and abandoned islands.
It’s still a cracking game over a decade on, and it’s a shame you rarely see it discussed or acknowledged on forums or social media today when talk of retro games pop up. Hopefully the fact that it’s available for bugger all changes that a little. Hell, it’d be even nicer if Firaxis took another look at the IP and gave it the XCOM treatment. They’ve certainly got the talent for it.