Ahoy there mateys! Welcome back to Retro Freak Reviews. And before ye all send me down to Davy Jones’ locker for not posting a review during the entire summer, let me redeem my sinner soul by offering ye this fine review in this finest of International Talk Like a Pirate Day. I’m talking about Pirates! (the game, not in general…)
Pirates! (aka Sid Meier’s Pirates!) is an action-strategy game made by Microprose and originally released in 1987 for the Amstrad CPC, Apple II, Commodore 64 and the PC Booter. It was re-released the following year for the Apple IIgs and the Macintosh. In 1989, it was again re-released for the Atari ST, PC-89 and the PC-98. In 1990, it was ported for the Amiga, in 1991, it was ported to the NES and in 1994, the PC Booter version was officially ported to DOS (earlier DOS versions were actually the PC Booter version modified and/or hacked to play on DOS).
Pirates! came to be when famous game designer Sid Meier along with fellow designer Arnold Hendrick wanted to make a roleplaying adventure game but Bill Stealey, Microprose’s co-founder, was skeptical because Microprose was only known back then by their vehicle simulations. Still, Meier and Hendrick were able to convince Stealey to take a chance at different genres and inspired by pirate novels, they created Pirates!
But as always, let’s first look at the covers:
First we have this cover which depicts a naval battle between a pirate ship and some other ship (probably some poor merchant’s). The artwork is good and action-packed but I’m not a big fan of the purple border, although I do like the title art.
Then we have this cover which is one of my favourites, as it depicts a more swashbuckling action scene, reminiscent of an old Errol Flynn movie. It could perfectly be a pirate novel cover. It’s also the first game cover to include Sid Meier’s name, as Microprose thought his name would help increase sales.
Now this cover isn’t that half-bad although it’s not as action-packed as the former covers are but the background could be more colourful.
Now I don’t oppose to the usage of photos (or realistic art) over traditional artwork, but I do wish this cover was, again, a bit more action-packed or the background more busy. Still it could be worse, I suppose.
This is the NES cover and it’s another of my favourites as it showcases a lot of the stuff this game features. And it even has a pirate skull, years before the Pirates of the Caribbean movies.
But it’s time to boot this booty:
Later versions of the game feature a nice CGA title screen (although you can play the game with EGA graphics) and then after the settings menu, you go to another menu where it asks if you want to start a new game, load a previous game or command a famous historical expedition (later on this).
As you start a new game, you have the option to choose your nationality (between English, Spanish, Dutch and French, the nationalities that were more active in the Spanish Main between 1560-1700), the time period (if you don’t choose a specific time period, then the game takes you to the easiest one, The Buccaneer Heroes in 1660) and finally your last name (I suggest something from your chosen nationality or a famous pirate name). Then you choose the difficulty setting between 4 and a special ability between 5. This special ability will define your playthrough and can make it easier or harder depending in how you use it, so choose wisely.
The game then gives you a backstory about how you traveled to the Spanish Main in the Caribbean in search of fortune but ended up as a slave working at a plantation, where you meet some sailors. The sailors ask you about either the Silver Train or the Treasure Fleet (which is the game’s copy protection). If you get it right, the sailors turn out to be pirates and then encourage you to challenge their captain in a sword duel for leadership.
This is your tutorial of sorts into sword duels, where you need to use either the keyboard or the joystick to control your character in attacking and parrying your opponent. If you answered wrongly the copy protection question, this duel will be very hard to win and if you lose, you’ll get a smaller crew and a pinnacle as a starting ship. But if you answered correctly, then the duel should be much easier and a victory will give you a bigger crew and a sloop as a starting ship. I like the fact that failing the copy protection question doesn’t automatically boot you out of the game but instead gives you a harder challenge.
Then you and your crew find yourselves in a random colony belonging to your chosen nationality, where you can visit the governor, who informs you who his country is at war or at peace with, can offer you a letter of marque (making you a corsair for that specific nationality), can also offer missions that can give you the opportunity to raise your rank and can present to you his daughter which opens up more options.
Still in the colonies, you can also visit taverns to chat to the owner but also to get news regarding other colonies, hire more people for your crew, buy treasure maps or get more inside knowledge of other colonies. You can also visit merchants to buy and sell stocks, food (which you’ll need to feed your crew), cannons and sell extra ships. After doing everything in a colony, it’s time to set sail and explore the Spanish Main.
After leaving a colony, you’re presented with an overhead map in which you control your ship. I suggest having your Spanish Main map at hand because Pirates! it’s a sandbox game and you have the complete freedom to go anywhere you want and do whatever you want. You can attack other boats, whether they are merchants or pirates of all nationalities, pillage or trade goods between the colonies (again, regardless of nationalities), go search for buried treasures or simply explore the Spanish Main. This makes Pirates! one of the earliest open-ended sandbox computer games.
It’s actually quite easy to control a ship once you get the hang of it, the secret is to use the wind in your favour (these are wind-propelled ships after all). Just look at the clouds at the overhead map and raise or lower your sails accordingly. And when you finally master the sailing, then you’re ready for some sea battles. When simply sailing near any colony, you’ll have random encounters with other ships, who can be merchants or other pirates. You have the option to attack (or they’ll attack you) or simply hail them for news.
The sea battles are also pretty simple: you basically steer your ship towards the other ship (or a fort, if attacking a colony), using the winds in your favour, all the while firing your cannons (which are situated on both sides of the ship, which will require some great steering and accuracy in order to hit the other ship). The objective is to ram the other ship, giving you and your crew the opportunity to board it. When that occurs, the enemy captain then singles you out for a sword duel.
Sword duels are how any battles are ultimately decided between the captains. But before the duel starts, you have to choose which sword to wield between a rapier (a long and weak sword), a longsword (a medium weapon) or a cutlass (a curved, short but powerful sword). Even if your crew is outnumbered by a larger enemy crew, you can still win the fight by defeating its captain (but don’t expected a single-digit crew to defeat another crew in the hundreds), regardless of your skill with a sword.
After defeating another crew, you’re able to plunder their ship for treasure and goods (and some of its crew might even want to join you) and also the choice to add the ship to your fleet or sink it. There are several types of ships you can capture and use as your own, beginning from small, faster ships like pinnacles and sloops to bigger but slower ships like galleons and frigates. I recommend getting a ship with a balance between speed and size.
You can also attack colonies either by sea (which will prompt a sea battle against forts armed with cannons) or a land battle featuring your crew against a colony’s guards. These types of battles are harder than the aforementioned sea battles but again it might end with another sword duel against the guards’ captain.
There’s also a sort of storyline where you search for your family members but it’s presented as another common side-mission. But just like all the other missions, is totally optional. However, you need to pay attention to the relations you maintain with all 4 nations, because it’s possible to become a wanted man by 1 or more nations and then they’ll send corsairs to hunt you down. Heck, even entering an enemy colony might be problematic because they can sink your ship (if said colony has forts, though). Luckily, you have the option to infiltrate colonies but if you’re spotted by a guard, you’ll have to fight him and run away.
After exploring and plundering the Spanish Main and dig up several treasures, your crew might grow restless and attempt to leave or worse, commit mutiny. In which case, I recommend sailing to a friendly colony and split up the treasure (as the captain, you’ll entitled to a bigger share). And after it, you have the option to either retire or hire a new crew. However, don’t think you can do this forever, as you age throughout the years and if you’re getting older (and less healthier), you might want to consider hanging up your booties and retire. And according to the wealth, lands and status you’ve accumulated throughout the years, you can end up your days from a common beggar all the way up as the King’s advisor.
And in case you’re looking for a bigger challenge, then I recommend selecting a harder difficulty setting, a different time period or even a historical expedition, where you take control of a famous captain of the past and have a determined objective (usually to go to a specific colony with your fleet intact) but it maintains the same open-ended sandbox style gameplay, which means you can do whatever you want.
I guess this covers almost all the main mechanics. There are more options and features in the game available, but I’ll let you find the rest. Now for the technical aspects: the sound and music are almost non-existent (except for the Tandy version). The little music themes aren’t bad but the wind noises in the overhead map can get a bit annoying. The graphics are colourful and well detailed (despite some small sprites) with some decent animation here and there. The controls are also good, although I recommend a joystick or a gamepad over the keyboard.
As other versions go, the Macintosh version might have more detailed graphics (despite being in black and white with an ugly overhead map) but it has perhaps the best control scheme with a mouse. The NES version is also pretty good but with smaller sprites and perhaps with the best animation, but personally the best version out there might just be the Amiga version with beautiful graphics, sound and music, apart from great controls also.
Pirates! had such a great success among players and critics alike (especially due to its historical and geographical accuracy) that Microprose decided to do remake it years later as Pirates! Gold.
Pirates! Gold is an action/strategy game developed by MPS Labs and published by Microprose. It was originally released in 1993 for DOS and the Sega Megadrive/Genesis. It was re-released the following year for the Amiga CD32, Macintosh and Windows.
And of course, it came with its own covers:
In the vein of the original cover, this depicts another sea battle. But this time, without any ugly borders and with a cool title logo.
This is the Amiga CD32 cover and as you can see, it’s a bit more action-packed than the previous cover. I simply wish it also was a bit more colourful. At least, it’s a lot better then the inside cover:
Yeah, I’m not a fan of this cover. And if you’re wondering if that’s a screenshot from the game, I think it was supposed to be part of the intro as it’s very reminiscent of, but I never saw it while playing.
This is the Megadrive/Genesis cover and I also like it, especially the fact that the guy in the centre always reminds me of Captain Hook from Peter Pan.
But enough covers and let’s boot this new booty:
As you can see, this remake has vastly improved graphics, resolution, music and sound. It’s basically the same game play-wise but with some new features, like new missions from the governors, new characters to interact with and new options to explore.
I particularly like all the visual aids this remake provides, like an in-game map (with all the colonies displayed) and the ships and captains’ status during seas battles and sword duels. Not to mention a turbo mode that can be used in the overhead map, making the sailing on open sea a lot faster (and less boring). And also due to these new features, the gameplay feels a lot easier in comparison with the original’s difficulty.
Pirates! Gold also has a particular art style that reminds me of Baroque paintings that complements the game perfectly, graphic-wise. And the music is also top-notch, although a few of the sound effects here and there seem a bit out of place (like when getting hit during a sword duel).
But Pirates! Gold is far from a perfect remake. The game’s controls use a mix of mouse and keyboard (even the manual recommends using the keyboard over the mouse in some sections). And although the mouse is perfect to navigate the menus, it’s not so easy to use it on the rest of the game. In fact, I recommend the keyboard for the sword duels because using the mouse feels clumsy and counter-intuitive (although in some instances it’s a bit better than the keyboard, like when sailing)
And also, you can only save the game when in a colony, in contrast with the original, where you could save anywhere. I personally don’t like this new direction. And when Pirates! Gold was originally released, it came with some game-breaking bugs that caused some crashes and although the game is currently patched, it still occasionally crashes here and there.
As far as other versions go, the Macintosh version is very similar to the PC version except for being even more buggy if that’s possible. The Genesis/Megadrive version however, has a cartoony artstyle depicting bigger sprites and a presentation closer to the original, as is the Amiga CD32 version, although the latter has CD quality music and digitised sound effects. In fact both these versions look more like remasters than proper remakes but they also have much better controls than the PC version.
So in conclusion, both Pirates! and Pirates! Gold have an extremely in-depth gameplay where it offers players absolute freedom to engage in it however they want. I must confess I slightly prefer the original over the remake: in one hand, the original Pirates! has great controls and more attention to detail in the text descriptions, despite the graphics, music and sound aging a bit. In the other hand, Pirates! Gold has a beautiful graphical and aural presentation, easier gameplay but the controls are inferior and there are still some bugs here and there.
Like I mentioned before, Pirates! had an enormous success but its remake didn’t. This was due to the fact that Pirates! Gold was heavily bugged and that most people probably thought it was a sequel with very few new features instead of a remake. Still, the original game had such an impact on the industry that a second remake called Sid Meier’s Pirates!: Live the Life was released in 2004 with 3D graphics and even more new gameplay features and options.
In fact, one can say that almost, if not all pirates games that came afterwards were influenced one way or the other by Pirates! You can even find such influence in modern titles like Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag and Sea of Thieves. And now that Microprose announced a return, I’m hoping to see a new modern remake with new features, like character creation and customisation, among others.
Well, I hope you’ve enjoyed this BIG review (to make up for my absence) and I wish you all a happy International Talk Like a Pirate day. I’m preparing another special review for Halloween but I’m going to try to squeeze another review until then. So, shiver my timbers and keep on playing or else I’ll send ye down to Davy Jones’ locker! AAARRRRRRR!