In Praise Of: Pirates!

Or to give it its full title, Sid Meier’s Pirates! We’ll chuck the “Sid Meier’s” part – since it’s more of a trademark these days, kind of like Uncle Ben’s or Potatoes O’Brien – but we’ll keep the exclamation mark. In the case of Pirates!, it’s actually justified.

 Talking about Pirates! gets a little complicated because the game has been remade twice. The original Pirates! was released in 1987. It looks more than a little bit primitive. I’ve never played it, but I understand it was excellent for its time. Then there was the first remake, Pirates! Gold (or Pirates! for Windows) in 1993. This is the version I played to death about ten years ago; as far as I know it’s identical to the original in almost every respect save the graphics and the absence of what sounds like an unutterably tedious navigation minigame. And then finally came a “modern” remake in 2004 (which is looking rather long in the tooth itself now) which made a whole host of minor changes and additions to the gameplay, with the result that it plays appreciably differently to either of its predecessors. It’s this last one that I’m going to be writing about here, but you should keep in mind that while all three games have similar basic gameplay goals they’re not really the same thing at all, and it’s possible to like both Pirates! Gold and the Pirates! remake for entirely different reasons.

So! You’re a pirate set loose on the Spanish Main at some point in the 17th century. You name your painfully generic-looking avatar (one of the major missteps this game made was in not letting you customise it at all, forcing you to stare at this horse-faced buffoon for approximately 50% of your playing time), you pick a starting date (affecting both the relative power of Spain as the major colonial power and the overall military power of all four nations with a presence in the Caribbean) and a speciality (Fencing, Gunnery, Sailing, Dancing or Medicine, depending on what you’re worst at), and then you choose a starting nationality which nominally determines whose side you’re going to be on to begin with. Then the game hands you a tiny sloop of war crammed with a couple of dozen men and leaves you to get on with it.

Pirates! is divided into two main gameplay sections. There’s the overworld, where you sail around on a rather gorgeous blue Caribbean ocean docking at various towns, trading for goods, recruiting crewmen and searching for juicy, poorly-defended prizes that you can seize in battle. Then whenever you actually do a thing – attack another ship, invade a town in a land battle, romance a governor’s daughter etc. etc. – you get chucked into a very quick and simple minigame, the difficulty of which is determined by how good your setup on the overworld map is. If you’re outnumbered by an enemy crew two to one then the subsequent fencing minigame is going to be very tricky for you; your opponent will be lightning quick and you can’t afford to make many mistakes before getting dumped into the drink and losing the battle. If on the other hand you outnumber them heavily then there’s a good chance they’ll simply surrender outright after a single broadside.

 This heavy reliance on minigames would be rather obnoxious if they weren’t so quick and if they had no relation to what you were actually doing on the overworld. Fortunately at the time Pirates! was made Microprose were starting to specialise in this kind of minigame-based game design quite heavily — see Sword of the Samurai, Covert Action, Hunt For Red October etc. — and in Pirates! they struck just the right balance between the two extremes of having the minigames be a pointless waste of time (Bioshock, any other game where you have to hack something) and having them take so long that the simple concept outstays its welcome (Spore). By having the outcome be a combination of both your performance on the world map and your performance in the minigame, Pirates! allows you to both make your life easier by stacking the deck in your favour before you even start a minigame, as well as succeeding when the odds are against you by excelling at the minigame itself.

I should probably talk about how the minigames work given that they’re so integral to the game’s structure. There are four main ones, each controlled with the number pad (good luck playing Pirates! on a laptop, by the way). There’s the sea battle, where you exchange broadsides with an enemy ship while trying to get the weather gage and avoid rocks and shoals (which, awesomely, are visible on the world map allowing you to attack from a good position if you can swing it). If you close with and board the enemy ship you get dumped into a fencing minigame against the enemy captain. First you pick a sword which dictates the speed of your attack and defence, and then you have to stab your opponent right in his face while avoiding his ripostes. Stab him enough and you’ll win the battle outright, but if he’s particularly tricksy then the advantage bar at the bottom of the screen will start to swing in his favour and your crew will begin haemhorraging men at a truly ghastly rate. If you run out of men, you lose. If he runs out of men he loses, but in practice fencing ends with him either being chucked off the ship or being able to last long enough that your crew gets massacred. There’s also the land battle minigame, an incredibly simple strategy experience that would be unbearable if the AI wasn’t dumber than a sack of rocks and thus incredibly easy to beat, and the dancing minigame.

The dancing minigame is one that’s come in for a lot of criticism over the years from idiots who think that it has no place in a game about Pirates! Personally I don’t see a problem with it – after all, how else are they going to gameify romancing a governor’s daughter for trinkets and booze – although I suspect I might start to agree with them if I weren’t completely awesome at it. “Completely awesome” here is something of a relative term since the actual minigame mechanism involves pushing buttons in response to your partner’s hand prompts, but whatever. I’m the best at pushing buttons, and anyone who says any differently is a filthy liar. Do well here and you can get free items, tips on bounty opportunities or secret treasure, and even ask for the daughter’s hand in marriage.

That’s what you spend most of your time doing in Pirates!, then. But what is it you actually do in Pirates? As in, what’s the point of the game? The answer is – like all the best open world games – there is no real point. You set your own short-term goals and try to fulfil them without your ship blowing up or your crew mutinying or something. The game tracks your progress through Fame points which are accrued by doing a whole bunch of different stuff – amassing wealth and land, getting noble titles, taking out other notorious pirates, marrying a particularly attractive governor’s daughter1, finding the long-lost members of your family and so on – and like most Microprose/Firaxis games your Fame will determine your score when you finally choose to retire, but these are rather vague, long-term goals that you pick at for a while before moving on to something else. What I find more engrossing are the more personal end goals determined by the player, like bringing the entirety of the Carribean under the flag of Holland or trying to achieve the maximum rank possible for all four nation states. These are genuinely difficult things to do and have no reward when you finally manage them, but I enjoy them nevertheless because all I have to do is look at the world map to see what I’ve managed to achieve so far in the game. Pirates! is one of those games where the world is almost entirely at the player’s mercy. It’s kind of like Minecraft: the game doesn’t direct you to do one particular thing, instead opting to quietly give you the option to do anything.

This is very much aided by how organic the whole thing is. Those ships you see sailing around on the ocean? Those are all doing something. Maybe they’re transporting reinforcements to a town. If they get there the town will have more soldiers and will be harder for your (and other) pirates to sack, so if they belong to a nation you don’t particularly like it’s a good idea to mug it before it makes landfall. Other ships move around governors or immigrants, increasing the size and economic prospects of any town they successfully reach. Spanish trade galleons are ubiquitous, and if you’re lucky you might even run across a treasure ship transporting a couple of thousand pieces of eight. Excellently you can induce a lot of these events yourself – Jesuit missions dispatch immigrants to the destination of your choice, smaller settlements will send governors to take over larger towns, and you can even persuade pirates and Indians to raid certain targets, often softening it up for your own attacks. If Pirates! does have a goal, it’s “Do as much stuff as possible,” but this is tricky when there is just so much of it.

And while you’re stuck in becalmed waters in the middle of the Caribbean time is ticking slowly by. You start out as a fresh-faced 18 year-old so you have a while before old age starts to kick in, but eventually your health will start to decline and things will start getting harder. Your fencing movements will become more sluggish, you won’t be as sure-footed when dancing and pirates are more reluctant to follow an old man whose best days are already behind him. While you can extend your active life through medicine items or the Medicine special skill, eventually you’ll have to retire. This adds the pressure of time to your considerations; for an inveterate power gamer like myself it’s a real challenge trying to figure out how to cram as many achievements as possible into the twenty-odd years of your pirate’s active lifespan. Pirates! does the old Microprose thing of telling you what you went on to become after retiring depending on how well you did during the game, making it a bit of a slap in the face when you barely manage to make Pig Farmer after decades of effort and giving you an incentive to go for a nice high score.

 The last thing I should mention is the difficulty mechanic. Pirates! takes something of a unique approach to difficulty levels; there’s the usual selection of five ranging from Adventurer (insultingly easy) to Swashbuckler (almost unfairly hard), but the game’s masterstroke is to link the amount of money you personally receive directly to the difficulty level you’re playing on. As time goes on the morale of your crew slowly declines because they haven’t actually laid hands on any of the ill-gotten gains you’ve plundered from the merchant ships of the Caribbean. They’ll gradually become more and more mutinous, forcing you to periodically divide up the plunder and fork out shares of the money to every surviving crew member. The amount of money you get from this depends on how daring you’re being. Timid Adventurer captains get just 5% of the hoarded money, while Swashbucklers take home a whopping 50%2. However, you’re not locked into one difficulty level for the duration of an entire game; every time your divide the plunder you have the option to progress to a higher difficulty level, taking more risks but also getting more loot. This allows new players to find their feet during a game without making them feel like they’re wasting their time, and it also lets more experienced players get into a good position on a medium difficulty level before attempting the frankly ridiculous3 Swashbuckler setting.

I think the main reason I like Pirates! so much, though, is because it’s a slightly different take on the Elite-style open world trading/fighting game, a genre which has kind of died a death these days unless you like badly translated Russian attempts. There’s less of the trading and ship outfitting going on, but that’s because the game is concentrating almost completely on its open-world mechanic. This is something at which it succeeds very, very well, and while it’d be nice to have a few more options in how I play I don’t think I can really complain. It’s a game called Pirates! and it lets you be a pirate. A very arcadey sort of pirate in a rather cartoony world where nobody ever dies and everyone speaks in a peculiar – if rather excellent – dialect of gibberish, but while Pirates! might not be that deep it makes up for it by being extremely broad. If I were a better writer there’d be some sort of cunning nautical metaphor there wrapping up this little retrospective; as it is, though, you’ll have to settle for me telling you it’s £6 on Steam, and even cheaper during the perennial sales. While it’s not a perfect remake I think it’s good enough for it to be a shame that it gets rather unfairly overshadowed by Firaxis’s main cash cow, and that more people should give it a go, especially if you like open world games. Pirates! is one of the best.

  1. One of the things that has always bugged me about Pirates! is that it directly correlates female attractiveness with the size of their cleavage.
  2. The Pirates! Gold manual rationalised this by saying that the easier difficulty level was down to the quality of your ship’s officers. Good officers meant smoother sailing, but they’d also demand more pay. Which I thought was a fairly neat way of justifying it, really.
  3. Swashbuckler is so hard, in fact, that the game starts to become rather unfun in places, usually when you’re fighting a named baddie with a special duelling skill that you can’t hope to counter. I once fenced against a Captain of the Guard for a solid quarter hour; he couldn’t land a hit because my defence was so good, but even when the advantage bar was full I couldn’t hit him either because the game made it physically impossible to do so with a cutlass. This is why I spend most of my time on Rogue difficulty
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4 thoughts on “In Praise Of: Pirates!

  1. Adam Benton says:

    My laptop has a numpad, so harhar! Also, I do love this game for the reasons you say. The minigames aren’t really treated as minigames which means they aren’t made distinct and isolated.

    • hentzau says:

      It gets a bit tiresome when you have to do the dancing one for the hundredth time but on the whole they stand up extremely well to repeated play. I mean I started a game on Friday because it was the only thing that’d work on the jalopy piece of shit computer I’d taken with me to Leicester, and a week later I’ve sunk twelve hours into the bloody thing.

      (And you can play it on laptops without numpads, you just have to go through an .ini file and manually redefine every single key in every single minigame. This takes a while.)

  2. DukeDutch says:

    How could you plunder 15800 from a single ship as in the picture? The most I can get plundering ships is 8000 and thats from spanish treasure fleet with 3 ships.
    Any tips?

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