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Sid Meier's Pirates! Review

TomParker By:
GENRE Action / Adventure 
E10+ Contains Mild Violence

What do these ratings mean?

Yo ho ho and a Blistering Thumb.

Ever since Johnny Depp first put on black eyeliner and started acting like Keith Richards back in 2003, it seems like you haven’t been able to swing a dead parrot in a mini-mall without hitting a poofy-sleeved shirt, skull and crossbones flag, or some other form of pirate paraphernalia. Pirates have become, well, populaaarrrrrr. Sorry, that’s ‘popular’. My keyboard must have gotten stuck there.

As I was saying, pirate lamps, pirate belt buckles, pirate bedsheets, even pirate band-aids can be yours if you have the pieces of eight. But before Orlando Bloom ever looked wistfully at Keira Knightly, before anyone knew Davy Jones’s locker had a key, even before Captain Jack Sparrow ever downed his first swig of rum, there was Sid Meier’s Pirates!, the classic game by the empire-building guru who gave us Civilization
click to enlargeWhen it first came out in 1987, Pirates! was adored by critics and players alike for its clever non-linear game play and excellent replay value. Watchful cynics may find the timing of the re-release of this game a little bit suspect, as it arrives on shelves with the pirate fever epidemic already widespread. The truth is, though, that this great game always deserved a remake.
The plot of Pirates! remains the same as the original: Your family has been ruthlessly enslaved by a nefarious tyrant. Armed only with a rapier in your belt and vengeance in your heart, you book passage to the new world to lead a mutiny and become one of the most feared and revered pirates of the Caribbean. Your mission: track down your missing relatives and confront the perfidious scoundrel that led you to a life of crime in the first place. 
But there’s plenty of time for that. The open, non-linear game play means that there’s buried treasure to be unearthed, rival pirates to take down, lovely ladies to seduce, and of course, fat and juicy ships to plunder. Your family has been enslaved for ten years already. What’re a few months more? 
The unfortunate downside of the non-linear play, however, is that you start the game without so much as a word about what you’re supposed to be doing or how the game works. Seems they forgot the tutoooaaarrrrrial. Excuse me! Sorry, I don’t know why I keep doing that. My apologies. At any rate, the game isn’t all that complex, so the persistent privateer will eventually figure it out, though some sort of swashbuckling primer would have helped get you off on the right foot, or in this case, peg.
click to enlargeIn theory, you work for one of the four imperial powers vying for control of the region: The English, the Spanish, the French, or the Dutch. But you are a pirate, after all, and you are beholden to no man. So if you see a nice looking Spanish galleon passing by, go ahead and grab it! Surely somebody is at war with those scheming Spaniards and will reward you for your pillaging. Avast ye!
I’m sure there’s a lot of strategy in ship to ship fighting, as you try to maneuver the opposing ship into exposing her broadside to the fury of your cannons without making yourself vulnerable to the reverse. But the fact is, there’s no real need for all that finagling. It’s easy enough just to zip up to the enemy ship and board her without damaging what’s about to be yours anyway. Once your men have leapt onto the unsuspecting target, you must face the captain in a swordfight to claim the schooner as your own. 
The swordplay in Pirates! is a good example of both the best and the worst aspects of this game. Like everything else, the cinematic fight scenes look great. The animation matches that Disney feeling of carefully manicured filth we’ve come to associate with the pirate genre, and the rich colors make you almost want to dive into the beautiful cobalt blue sea. The animation as you cross sabers with your foe while chasing him up and down the length of the ship makes you feel like you’re controlling your very own blockbuster pirate movie. 
On the other side of the doubloon, however, the fighting is way too easy and repetitive. Maybe it’s because I chose the swordsman specialization, but I’ve never even come close to losing a battle. And after many, many, many battles, the clever animation starts to get old, and you feel like you’re stuck watching hour after hour of Olympic fencing on ESPN7. It’s enough to make you want to walk the plank.
click to enlargeOf course, if you get tired of the violent life, there are a number of more genteel mini-games that you can entertain yourself with. Why not discover the fascinating world of importing and exporting by buying cheap goods in one port and selling them at a profit in the next? Or you could work on flirting with the never-ending parade of impossibly-bosomed Governor’s daughters, who all want you to impress them by dancing with them at the ball. Or, hey! Didn’t you have some white hot vengeance to administer? Maybe it’s time to look for those lost relatives of yours.
Strangely, the only person who seems to know anything about them is the scurvy Baron Raymundo, who you have to track down and defeat time after time for tidbits of information about each of your family members. Wouldn’t it be more efficient just to beat it out of him all at once? At least he always travels in a ship that’s helpfully marked “Baron Raymundo EVIL!,” so he’s easy to spot from a distance.
However you decide to spend your swashbuckling career, the music you encounter is decent and varied, going from traditional pirate fare (Think “Yo ho, yo ho”) to steel drum calypso (Think “Under the Sea”). But, you could just as easily plug in your iPod and listen to your own theme music, whether it’s 101 Sea Shanties or Captain and Tennille’s Greatest Hits, and you wouldn’t be missing all that much. Or heck, you could just listen to the soundtrack to Gaarrrrrden – pardon me, why does that keep happening? – Garden State, which staaarrrred Peter Saaaarrsgaaaaaaarrrrr… Shiver me timbers, ya scurvy landlubbers! I’ll be sticking me pegleg where the sun don’t shine if ye don’t buy this game! Don’t make me keelhaul ye! Yo ho ho and a bottle of… of… um. Huh. I’m so sorry. I don’t know what just came over me! It’s not even Talk Like a Pirate Day! Wow, that was crazy.
Clearly, I had a good time playing this game. While it’s not flawless, Pirates! still delivers a lot of replay value and a lot of fun. And for my money, that’s a baarrrrrgain.  Ahem.
B Revolution report card
  • Nice animation
  • You’re a pirate!
  • Non-linear
  • Tutorial?
  • Repetitive
  • Easy
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