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Pirates! (NES) artwork

Pirates! (NES) review

"Sid Meier is a name associated with strategy and management. Civilization, Colonization and Railroad Tycoon are among Meierís better-known games, but before these monuments of intellectual gaming there was bloodthirsty high seas thievery in Pirates! "

Sid Meier is a name associated with strategy and management. Civilization, Colonization and Railroad Tycoon are among Meierís better-known games, but before these monuments of intellectual gaming there was bloodthirsty high seas thievery in Pirates!

The game opens with a jaunty nautical ditty that has stuck in my mind all these years, and that sets the tone quite nicely Ė light hearted but not frivolous. Beyond the title screen, Pirates! wastes little time getting you out onto the Caribbean waves. After some nationality, period and difficulty options Pirates! whizzes you through a quick back story for your character (with superficial variations depending the options you selected), which really has very little effect on anything other than to provide a justification for seeking lost family members during your piratical career. With very little ceremony, the player is then thrown into a duel against an ineffectual captain for control of a small ship. And thatís that Ė you are now a pirate. Or more accurately, as the game manual itself points out, a privateer. But letís not quibble over semantics.

What makes Pirates! an experience to remember is the same thing that would have made Elite great if Imagineer hadnít made a mess of it: freedom. Like Elite and many later games including the Grand Theft Auto and Elder Scrolls series, Pirates! turns the player loose in its world with a few hints as to what you might want to do, but no pressure to actually follow that route. The governor of whichever town you start in lays out the current political situation Ė essentially which nations his own government is currently at war with Ė and points your fresh-faced pirate in the direction of the nearest enemy settlement. Aside from that gentle nudge you can do whatever you please, and that is what has brought me so much pleasure for so many years.

The various back stories, flimsy though they are, all share one feature: your character broke free from a life of poverty and/or indentured servitude by going into piracy. It would by brazenly hypocritical of the game, then, to funnel you down a particular path. You have your freedom. If you want the slow, but relatively safe, graft of the honest trader, then feel free to buy commodities (sugar, food, cannons and the evasively-named Ďgoodsí) and shuttle them from town to town for profit. Thereís enjoyment to be had there, if thatís your thing. Or you could follow the game titleís bold declaration and launch into a life of violent theft and wanton destruction. Letís face it, thatís probably what you bought the game for. Or, if you choose, you could become the bane of the titular buccaneers, mercilessly attacking any ship you see that flies pirate colours. But this openness of career choice isnít the true freedom. Rather, the freedom comes from flexibility. Accept a Letter of Marque from the Dutch to attack the Spanish, then later change your mind and side with the French against both. Go out and recruit as many men as you can find from the taverns and defeated crews of the Caribbean, then fling them at a heavily-fortified enemy that outnumbers you four to one, just so that you can win great treasure and not have many crewmen alive to demand a share. Arrrr!

As in Morrowind, Fallout 3 and an assortment of other games, the player makes their own way in the world of Pirates! and the extent of their success depends on their own decisions. For the late Ď80s/early Ď90s this was an intoxicating proposition.

Thereís no denying, though, that Pirates! has flaws and I should acknowledge them before I start to seem like a drooling fanboy. First off, it looks hideous. I bought this game when it was only a year or so old, and even then it wasnít pretty. Iíve been told that the Amiga version is easier on the eye, but I havenít seen it for myself. The control scheme can be pretty clunky, too. Ships generally feel heavy to turn, and although this is presumably intentional with the larger vessels, it can still be frustrating. Thereís no fluidity to their handling. At Journeyman difficulty and beyond, the control issue is worsened by the wind Ė a brisk breeze can make your mighty galleon twitch around the compass directions like an ADD boy scout.

Itís also far too easy to accidentally raise or lower your shipís sails in the middle of battle, by catching up or down on the d-pad while steering. This is often infuriating, as the wrong sail position can easily make you a sitting duck. Worse yet, your gunners wonít reload the cannons during the sail raising/lowering process, leaving you vulnerable at the most inconvenient moments. Perhaps the most serious problem, in my opinion, is land battles Ė and this is an area that the 2004 Xbox/PC remake definitely improves upon. In the NES version, little stick men have to be laboriously dragged through a landscape of green smears using the least responsive controls ever devised, with no control over when or where they open fire, in an attempt reach an enemy fortress while dodging other stick men similarly moving at the speed of continental drift. It is hideous and I have avoided it as much as possible for all the years Iíve owned this game.

Similarly, sneaking into an unfriendly town is basically a roll of the dice Ė and once a particular nation is sufficiently hostile to you, itís impossible to succeed at entering their towns. Again, the 2004 update replaces this with a simple stealth minigame which, while still a little annoying, does at least allow the player to make some contribution to their success or failure.

Some other aspects can be either flaws or strengths, depending on how you look at them. In this age of user-friendly interfaces and easily-accessible information, it might seem bizarre to lack an in-game map, particularly since the world of Pirates!, while not huge by todayís standards, was a good size for its time and is still big enough to get lost in. The game came packaged with a map (my copy now held together by antique bits of sticky tape) which makes navigation much easier, but if you find yourself lost you must resort to using the sextant. This requires spending a whole game day tediously watching the sun rise and fall in order to discover your shipís coordinates. Itís a pain, and does you no good without the map anyway, but those of a generous disposition could make a case for this being an attempt at authenticity rather than a blockheaded obstruction to the player.

Finally, most of the available side tasks in Pirates! donít deviate too much from the standard few actions. Treasure hunting is a bit different, requiring you to buy fragments of map and then sail around looking for the right stretch of coastline, but otherwise everything comes down to ship battles, personal duels or selecting an option from the list in towns. On the bright side, this means that the game isnít a wall of complexity and is pretty easy to pick up (though there are layers of detail, such as ideal ways to sail specific ships, for the pedantic among us). Fortunately these elements are also generally well integrated, and appear in such carefully (or perhaps just fortuitously) balanced proportions that it takes a while for any one element to get old.

The long and the short of it, then, is that Pirates! has plenty to do. If you want to coast around on a whim, attacking vulnerable towns and sinking merchant vessels, knock yourself out. Fancy wooing a governorís shrewish young daughter while youíre at it? You can do that too. Play the avenging prodigal son who rescues his missing relatives, hunt for lost Incan gold, carry secret messages for trusting governors Ė Pirates! offers all kinds of little variations to its standard formula, and while itís true that theyíre all built on the same basic set of templates they stay fresh for longer than exclusively modern gamers (and developers) might expect. And at the end of your career, when advancing age and years of battle make it just too hard to keep up with the young-blood privateers, you can retire and get a concise Ė and often amusing Ė summary of your last years, including your post-piracy profession, the status of your family and your relationship with your wife (if you have one). To my continuing mirth, I have never yet managed to marry a woman who hasnít become a nagging harpy in old age. Oh well, thereís always another piratical career awaiting me, and if you havenít had one or two of your own yet I strongly recommend you try your hand. Plunder awaits the bold!

SamildanachEmrys's avatar
Featured community review by SamildanachEmrys (November 06, 2010)

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