Plundering The High Seas, Sid Meier Style

Plundering The High Seas, Sid Meier Style

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.


  • Arrrrrrg!!!!! Mighty fine choice @alexwalker, ya mangey dog!

    I spent many an hour plundering the Spanish Main, wooing governor’s daughters, and being a general, all round, scallywag!

  • I heard nothing but praise for that game, so much so that I ended up buying it, and man-o-man it bored the hell out of me.

    Less than half an hour in, I had an unbeatable fleet, and a new level of hate for dancing.

      • I did. I was like a timid little fish in an ocean of sharks at the beginning, trying to pick of whomever was smaller than myself.

        Oh and I swear the dancing gets longer the higher the difficulty.

  • It started life in 1987 on a self booting disk, the same year I was born.

    Wow dude, for some reason I had this idea in my head that you were in your 50s. Geez. My bad. Things you’ve said in some articles make so much more sense now.

    On a related note, the latest humble bundle is fricken amazing. I already owned most of the games, but had to put the money down again because of how good that deal is. Some awesome games in there! (Case and point, the reason for this article.)

      • Oh god, I’m older than Alex?! I feel like my bones are turning to dust as I type.
        Seriously though, did you get into the good ol’ C&C games?

        • Naturally. Red Alert and Civilization were two of the first three games my brother or I bought ourselves (the other one was Wing Commander: Privateer).

          • Brilliant. I have a hankering for old RTS games that nothing these days seems to fill. Give me old-school 2d RTS’s please, world! A few of us TAY people have given the Red Alert Online games a go, highly recommend it 😀

          • Because I forgot the name of the thing 😛 Also, I wasn’t a big fan of the ‘tweaks’ they made to the game. I liked the roughness of the original

  • I loved Pirates! Played the 2004 version all the way through uni, was a great game that you could, theoretically, have fun with in 15mins and then get back to work. I rarely made it back to work, but that’s beside the point.

    I spent a weekend in Sydney just before it was released and they were projecting the trailer for the game onto the walls in the train stations pretty much non-stop. You spend 15mins waiting for a train and you’re watching that thing at least three times. It’s the only time I remember advertising really working on me. The game just got drilled into my brain.

  • I so fondly remember playing the origional c64 version (and numerous of the pc remakes) .. I sunk so many hours into the first game i STILL know the entire map by heart. All glory to Sid Meiers’ early titles !! ….. not so much the recent stuff.

    ps – the c64 version seemed nicer than that nintento offering in the video.

  • Loved Pirates!, Pirates! Gold and Sid Meier’s Pirates!
    Three best pirate games ever made, and I played a lot.
    And I couldn’t count the hundreds of hours I have put into each.

  • I got this for my PSP way back when, probably the game I played the most except for FFVII: Crisis Core (which I’ve just remembered I never finished -_- )

  • Have played the latest one as recently as last year. It’s just so fun.. I’ve tried other developers’ takes on the same thing over the years too but they never quite capture the fun, excitement and feel that the Sid Meier’s versions always did.

    The only thing that has come close is Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag.

    Would really love to see a new Sid Meier’s Pirates done..

  • Still one of my most cherished games to this day. Always keep hoping they’ll follow it up with somtehing on current gen consoles

  • I had a pirated version of C64 Pirates! (in fact, I think everyone did!)
    The only way to pirate.

    You sail into Cartagena. You find out the Treasure Fleet is in town!
    You: 1 Pinnace. 150 Men.
    Cartagena: 4 Forts. 600 Men.
    Do you attack?
    Yes. Yes you do. Coz death comes to us all and did I mention….TREASURE FLEET!

    Just found the old Pirates! map too!

  • Pirates! is great… However, I feel like games like Covert Action and Sword of the Samurai were just as great just not as well recognized.

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