Uncharted Waters (SNES) review
"Now, the true value in this game isn't the town mode, or the exploration mode, or even the battle mode. Instead, it's the way the three come together. As you work through the game, your ultimate goal is to gain fame for your country, wealth, and the heart of the princess of Portugal (who is quite the looker). The way in which this is accomplished is left entirely at your discretion."
Have you ever taken one of those pseudo-astrological tests at the beginning of some video games, where you answer pointless questions for a time until your answers somehow come together to form an insightful analysis of your personality type? Are you more like a mountain-climbing duck or are your ankles fat? Your answer to such questions may be important, because it could give you a good idea of whether or not you'll like one of Koei's early role-playing offerings, Uncharted Waters.
I'm of the opinion that this is the sort of game that was made for one type of person only. Everyone else is going to find it dull and perhaps even unplayable. So here are a few questions of my own, and I promise they'll make more sense than an astrology test. First, do you like large role-playing games that aren't driven by story, but rather by a curiosity and the desire to explore? Does the idea of micro-management as you build a fleet of ships make you all tingly inside? Do you relish the thought of mapping out new trade routes while avoiding pirates that wish to plunder your wares? Or, perhaps, do you think it would be pretty cool to arm yourself to the teeth and turn to a life of looting and warfare? Would you like to do it all in one game? If you answered 'yes' to most of these questions, Uncharted Waters is your game. It's as simple as that. If none of that sounded particularly appealing, well, please look elsewhere.
Assuming you didn't head off to the greener pastures games like Doom and Grand Theft Auto, you likely stuck around because you like thinking, you like the idea of a seafaring adventure, or you're a masochist who wants to read about a game you're certain to despise. Whatever your reason, you should know first and foremost that you are a strapping young Portuguese lad. No, that's not optional. You are from Portugal, you want to win the heart of a young lady, and your only friend is a sailor fellow who smells like barnacles. You have a bit of gold, a bit of spice, and you'll have a small little boat by the time the game's opening scenes have unfolded completely. You're pretty much the smallest fish in the sea, and it's the Age of Exploration, in the late 1500s.
Now that we know who you are--again, without astrological inquiries--it's time to settle on a name. I recommend 'Jason' due to the noble ring that name has to it, but I'll understand if you don't share my bias. Anyway, the game gets you right in the swing of things fairly quickly. There are several basic aspects to the game, and they all combine in a seamless fashion that you may utilize in the manner you find most suitable.
The first mode is what I shall call the 'town' mode. I'm sure Koei has a better name for it, but this is my review, not theirs. Basically, you're on a one-screen map of a port city. The contents of this map will vary depending on the map, but you can usually expect the same thing from most of the well-developed cities in the area: a shop, a tavern, and a port. Generally, with the exception of the capital cities, you'll see a castle where the ruler of that nation resides.
In the port, you can head to the tavern and flirt with barmaids for rumors about good trade routes, treasure, and the location of your devious rivals. You can also gamble, with poker and blackjack being your two options. Gambling is a fun little diversion, and a good way to increase your funds early on. There's quite a bit of luck involved in the poker game, though, and at times things can be quite tedious. If, by some odd chance, you have a substantial winning streak, no one will want to play against you and you'll have to find a new port to terrorize until rumors of your incredible fortune have subsided.
Your selection of gambling buddies isn't the only thing that varies from port to port, though. As I mentioned, there are also shops. Everything you would expect here is true. One port might have sugar for 50 per unit, while another port might sell it for 75 and purchase for 65. You'll soon find it's important to keep an eye on prices for each item at the different ports. However, writing down everything on paper won't do you a bit of good because prices fluctuate depending on supply. If you saturate a shop with artwork because it was once a good way to make a quick buck, you'll eventually find that the city buys artwork for less than you can purchase it for elsewhere. The result is that it's not possible to overuse one single trade route; you would do well to alternate from one to another. I'm really pleased that Koei did this, as it's tempting to exploit flaws in lesser games that don't take such things into account.
Of course, once you've made yourself wealthy, the time comes to spend your money. There are several ways to do this that will likely appeal to you. The most sensible one is to buy supplies such as food and water for your sailors. From there, you can concentrate on upgrading your ships, or trading them in for speedier, sexier models. Why settle for one mast when you can have two or three? And those triangular flags have just got to go!
While in town, you can also make investments, provided certain conditions are met. This makes good business sense because if you plop down a few thousand gold investing in a port or a shop, the people that work there will start to like you more. Invest enough in a given shop, for example, and you'll be given the option to haggle. Very cool. Also cool is the way you can invest enough that a city is won over for Portugal. Buy enough cities and your king will definitely shower you with favor. Of course, while you're expanding the glory of Portugal, other sailors are investing for the sake of Spain or Istanbul. Certain cities are therefore easier to claim and maintain for Portugal than others.
But like I said, the town isn't the only portion of the game, and Uncharted Waters would be tiresome indeed if it were. The true joy of course comes when you leave town and set to the high seas. This will allow you to view the world map screen. Leave a port and your ship appears as an icon on the map. A red anchor will represent a port, and there's green land and blue water all around. From there, you can press a direction to indicate where you wish to sail, then let the sea do the rest. This feels awkward at first, if you're used to games where every move happens only at the press of a button, but it does make sense. However, a few other things don't work quite so well, and may leave you frustrated.
Suppose you're going to head to Bordeaux with some sugar. Sounds simple, right? So you leave Lisbon and head up along the shore, but for some reason you can't find your destination. You comb the shore, and finally the place comes into focus. A red anchor symbol pops up out of nowhere and you can land (hopefully before your sailors have gobbled down all your grub). Other games have used this technique since (Wild Arms, anyone?) with limited success, but you'll never convince me it's intuitive. Purchases like a spyglass and careful attention to map coordinates will help, but I can't ever quite escape the notion that if sailors don't have a good idea of where a port is before they arrive, they shouldn't really be sailing.
Anyway, that's two modes accounted for. However, it's the third mode that gives the game the majority of its depth. This is the battle mode. Whenever your ship meets with another on the map, you may choose to talk, or inspect, or whatever. Sometimes, the other ship will instead prefer to attack you. Pirates like to plunder and such. Or--and this is the really cool part--you can be that pirate. That's right: you can be the terror of the seven seas! This is a terrific way to increase your fortune and fame without having to do much work, other than give orders. Assuming you've got the ships and loyal crew members (keep them loyal by paying them), you can really come out of most fights in good shape (that, or your mates will flee with your good ships and you'll be sunk to the ocean floor by enemy cannon shots).
Regardless of who picks the fight, a battle will work about the same. There's a one-screen map of the area, possibly with land mass and seaweed in the midst. Ships will be represented by icons, and you must move them into position to attack. The options available will depend on how you've fitted your ship. For example, you might be able to fire one or two squares over, or more than that if you did a good job purchasing weaponry. Each ship will have an indicator so you know how much damage it can take before sinking. Battles will quickly grow expensive if you lose so much as a single ship in the process, and limping back to port to spend all your money on repairs is no fun (besides, another ship might attack you while you're in crippled condition). Therefore, it pays to play it safe in battle.
Cannons aren't your only option, either. You can also sneak up beside an enemy vessel and board it. At this point, the captain with the most experienced (and largest) crew is the one who will have something to sing about. Once pirates board, you really have no control over what happens. It's purely a battle of statistics, so hopefully your stats are sitting pretty or you're going to be shark bait.
Now, the true value in this game isn't the town mode, or the exploration mode, or even the battle mode. Instead, it's the way the three come together. As you work through the game, your ultimate goal is to gain fame for your country, wealth, and the heart of the princess of Portugal (who is quite the looker). The way in which this is accomplished is left entirely at your discretion. No matter what route you go, though, there are things to consider. Suppose you want to go the 'friendly merchant' route. Even if you never pick a fight, pirates can still attack you. Or maybe you're a warmonger. If that's so, each nation has battleships and they're not afraid to use them! Finally, you might decide to be a pirate. If that's so, get ready for everybody and his seadog to attack at every opportunity. And then there's the final option: do a little of everything. Because things are so free-flowing, it's really up to you. Tired of trading spices? Rob an innocent merchant! Tired of looting and pillaging, take a break with some artwork trade. Or start investing your money in port cities to see if you can make one of the inland coasts belong entirely to Portugal. There are plenty of ways to amuse oneself.
As for flaws, well, there are some of those too. I already mentioned the system that requires you to find ports, but that's not the end of it. Some other areas would have benefited from some refinement, as well. Graphics are often quite primitive. In fact, most of what you'll see here looks little better than the NES version of the same title. More vibrant colors and a speedier interface are about the only differences. Sound also grows tiresome, as there's a pretty major lack of variety. You'll only hear a few songs over the course of the thirty hours or so this game will keep you occupied, and none of what's here is particularly inspiring.
Of course, those are small flaws, minor marks against what is a great package overall. It's not a game for everybody, sure. And even those who love it will have to admit some portions grow tiresome. But of the many role-playing titles that graced the Super Nintendo system, Uncharted Waters is undoubtedly one of the best. And hey, you even get to save a princess!
Staff review by Jason Venter (Date unavailable)
Jason Venter has been playing games for 30 years, since discovering the Apple IIe version of Mario Bros. in his elementary school days. Now he writes about them, here at HonestGamers and also at other sites that agree to pay him for his words.
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