Sid Meier’s Pirates! Review
Pirates! is a game I’ve had installed for an absurd amount of time, and its long period of neglect was largely due to my worry that I didn’t have enough time for it; not only do the Civilization games bearing Sid’s name manage to be a black hole of a time sink, but the Pirates! series includes two other games in the original DOS version and its Gold remake that I felt obligated to play through in order to get a feel for how the games have evolved over time before reviewing the 2004 incarnation. Lately I’ve been working on playing through the depressing number of games I’ve installed and ignored, however, so I braced myself and finally began to play through all three games.
Pirates! and Pirates! Gold
The original Sid Meier’s Pirates! was a pain to get running. While it was included with Gold, Steam didn’t actually set it up—and even the Gold version opened to a buggy green screen—necessitating messing around with settings in D-Fend until everything worked properly. Gold was the first version I got to work, so I set the difficulty level to its easiest setting and began my voyage. Maybe ten minutes later, my pirating career had failed spectacularly thanks to a bizarre bump in difficulty. As it turns out, Pirates! Gold includes a cruel method of DRM where you eventually face a pirate and have to guess their name from a list based on the flag. Playing the game for the first time, however, this seems like an arbitrary choice. Unaware that there was a right answer, I fell victim to the DRM that raises the difficulty once you answer incorrectly until the game (to quote the manual I read through too late) “rapidly becomes unplayable.” The video below of the Gold version shows me managing to make it about 45 minutes after providing the wrong answer before being crushed by the difficulty, which proved to be a personal best.
Putting the DRM aside, the sword fighting in Gold seemed to come down more to luck than skill, and the most effective course of action often proved to be mashing the 7 and 1 keys on my keyboard’s numpad to rapidly attack. Eventually I got tired of this and moved on to the original, which I managed to get working in the meantime. Upon starting a new game, I was asked a question about the date a shipment shows up at a certain port. Stupidly assuming yet again that this was an arbitrary decision, I made a random choice and was summarily crushed in the very first sword fight, having fallen victim to the first game’s DRM scheme that again raises the difficulty to an extreme level. Needless to say, I was fed up with stupid DRM schemes by that point, but I found a list of the right answers and soon found myself playing something that actually proved to be quite fun. The sound effects and graphics weren’t anything special, but we’re talking about a game that’s as old as I am. The video above of the 1987 incarnation of Pirates! highlights something else, though—the game is really quite hard. Even once I was past the DRM. Even after playing through the more accessible 2004 version that helped me get a sense for the general gameplay. Even after setting the difficulty to the easiest level and trying to avoid unnecessary dangers. Long story short, I tried playing through both the original Pirates! and Pirates! Gold and never managed to accomplish much, and the internet guides I eventually consulted made it sound like save-scumming (that is, saving constantly and reloading saves until you get your ideal outcome) is a big part of the game. I’d rather not, thanks.
And then there’s the 2004 version…
Eschewing the darker, more realistic style of the first two games, the 2004 incarnation (which has an identical name to the original 1987 game, confusingly enough) made some much-appreciated changes that allowed it to be much more accessible to newcomers than the earlier games. For one, there’s no DRM scheme that makes things impossible if you don’t scour the internet or install directory for a manual with the right answers hidden somewhere in its many pages. Secondly, ships are visible as you sail around rather than being random encounters as in the first two games, making it much easier to get a sense of where everything and everyone is.
A third change is that information—such as one country having made peace with another—is much more accessible to you the player, with popups informing you about nearby happenings and the allegiance of each port being visible as you sail. Then there are all kinds of other welcome changes, such as sword fighting suddenly making sense, turning into a minigame of sorts rather than the incoherent mess of Gold (and even the original game to a certain extent).
All of that is really just the tip of the iceberg. The game’s difficulty is much more forgiving in general, and hitting rocks will damage your ships rather than sinking them outright as often happened in the previous games. Despite the many changes, however, it still proved to be a very familiar experience going in after playing the previous games. Controlling the ship with the numpad is identical to how it works in Gold, the same basic story of your family being kidnapped is present, you can still attack cities by land or sea, you can still buy maps to help find lost treasure, and the basics of capturing ships and goods are largely unchanged. What’s new is the better music, colorful graphics, the (infamous) dancing minigame, and how attacking a city by land works (previously you would sneak a group into the city in real time, whereas here it plays out through a turn-based strategy minigame).
The changes make this version the best
If I ever play through a Pirates! game again, there’s a significant chance that I’ll choose the 2004 version because of how enjoyable an experience it proved to be. There was no fumbling around with confusing sword fighting systems or DRM schemes—the 2004 version was everything I had wanted the previous games to be, giving me a ship and telling me to go out and make my fortune however I could while doing everything in its power to make that pursuit as entertaining as possible. As with the other versions, I started the 2004 incarnation on the easiest difficulty setting, but each time I divided the loot, I chose the option to increase the difficulty level until I was playing on the Rogue difficulty, which is the second hardest. Each bump in difficulty was immediately noticeable, with sword fights and dances becoming noticeably faster and items seemingly costing more (though whether that’s a real difference between difficulty levels or just something I erroneously perceived due to better items being available, I can’t be entirely sure), but the difficulty never struck me as being unnecessarily punishing for the sake of being so.
Instead, the easier difficulty levels proved to be a crash course in learning to cope with the realities of the harder difficulties, so by the time I reached the Rogue difficulty level, I was more than prepared. I suppose it’s of note that even then, going back and trying to play the previous games still resulted in me getting massacred on the easiest difficulty setting. The obvious difference between the games, then, is that the original Pirates! and Pirates! Gold are games that ask you to have fun in spite of their mechanics, whereas the 2004 version allows you to have fun because of its mechanics. It may not sound like a big distinction in writing, but actually playing through the games, it makes a huge difference. Put simply, it’s the difference between constant annoyance and wearing a big dumb grin on your face as you attack an allied ship carrying a peace treaty because war is good for business.
If you trust the rumblings of the random internet peoples, the dancing minigame is the biggest problem with the game. In it, you’re left to follow the (admittedly vague) hand signals of your dancing partner and press the corresponding key on the keyboard on the next beat. For example, when she motions to move left, you press 4 to move left when it makes sense to in the context of the music. Should she motion down and left, you press 1 instead. The biggest obstacle to successfully dancing is becoming comfortable with which hand signal means what, but beginning on one of the easier difficulties allows the dances to be slower in addition to giving you time to acquire helpful items that cover up many of your inevitable mistakes while you dance. By the time I had reached the Rogue difficulty, I was comfortable enough with dancing for it to not be a problem at all. In fact, I had done many of the dances so many times that I had parts of them memorized, further simplifying the whole process. The minigame isn’t perfect, but it’s certainly better than most make it sound.
As it turns out, there are some other issues with the game
For all the complaints about the dancing minigame I heard going in to the game, the problems I had never heard anyone complain about ended up being the biggest annoyances. The most obvious would be exploring on land, which is pitifully slow. In addition to that, the maps you find are often incredibly vague about the precise location (usually offering clues like “north of [city]” without indicating how far north, leading to 15-minute treks through nothingness), and there are repeated elements all over the world, meaning that deserted cabin and stone face you found don’t really function as helpful landmarks no matter how often maps include them. Since trudging around on land to find things vaguely hinted at by maps is required to find hidden treasure, lost relatives, and the hideout of the bad guy who wronged your family at the beginning of the game, I found my fun constantly interrupted by long slogs through same-y areas. If you’re lucky, the place you’re looking for isn’t far from the coast where you land. If you’re not, you can expect to spend an hour wandering aimlessly through a sea of ugly trees, looking for a little building that could be hidden just about anywhere.
All the while, time is passing and your crew is becoming more and more unhappy. I found myself in a few situations where I had to quickly sail to a friendly port and divide the plunder so that my crew stopped deserting and leaving me with too few sailors to sail my fleet of ships at full speed, all because I spent an unreasonable amount of time searching for some little shack hidden in the middle of nowhere that my map did almost nothing to help me find. Needless to say, this got old quickly.
Compounding this even more was the way using the scope while on land (which only makes things slightly easier to find) and then returning to the ship caused the scope to stay open and the ship to sail at the painfully slow pace my crew moved on land. The only way to fix this was to slowly sail to a city and then leave it, which fortunately turned off the scope. Sometimes the nearest city is quite a ways away, however, and I could see that becoming a huge problem. I don’t even know if it’s a bug or something that happens to everyone who forgets to put away the scope.
Finally—and most annoyingly—there’s the final confrontation with Montalban, the villain who wronged your family at the beginning of the game. As you hunt him down and repeatedly best him, you find pieces of a map showing the location of his hideout. Once you make the long trek on foot to actually find this “hideout,” however, you discover that it’s actually a stronghold rivaling many of the game’s cities that’s protected by Native American mercenaries rather than being the little cabin that “hideout” seems to imply. If, like me, you haven’t brought a large enough crew with you, you’ll stand no chance in the ensuing turn-based strategy section. Even if you do, however, losing to Montalban sends you all the way back to your ship, and the game doesn’t save after the strategy section. Rather than spending another 30 minutes finding his stronghold in the middle of nowhere again, I found it more appealing to reload a save, and that meant having to complete the same annoying turn-based strategy section every time I lost the sword fight (which is quite the jump in difficulty, especially if your character has aged enough by that point to slow down their movement). I even discovered a bug around that area (~2:20) where my entire crew was teleported into the ocean. This whole section was a serious low point.
Some final thoughts
While I was pretty fed up with the game by the time I finally beat Montalban, I continued playing anyway and things began to become fun again. I found some lost Incan and Maya treasures on land without too much trouble, bought and danced my way to new items until I had obtained everything the game has to offer in that regard, and continued to sack cities and enemy ships until my poor health forced me into retirement. By that point, I had found such success in pirating that I was made the governor of a major port, left to live out my days in wealth with my wife and rescued family. It was a nice ending considering that the best result I had managed in the previous games was ending up a sad and bitter farm hand, and looking back, I can say I enjoyed the game even more than any of the Civilization games.
Graphics and music
Graphically, the game is cartoon-y, but that’s given it a timeless appeal allowing it to remain visually appealing despite its age. The only real downside is that the highest resolution it supports is 1600×1200, but the game became so engrossing that I didn’t even notice after awhile. The music is similarly fantastic, creating oodles of atmosphere and even making many of the dances fun (for me, at least). Visiting a governor and then leaving to the port menu highlights another fun feature that I’ve recently become more aware of, that being two versions of the same track playing simultaneously and switching between each other depending on where you are. This is something you can notice at the end of the “Dancing minigame” video embedded above when my character leave the governor and the music changes to a different version of the same song. It’s a really fun effect that’s easy to overlook, but little touches like that make the music that much more enjoyable.