With games such as Sea of Thieves and Skull and Bones making pirates new and interesting again while not relying on Jack Sparrow to save them, it’s easy to forget that there’s a long history of great pirate games over the years. The Monkey Island series were stand out examples and there’s another which made living the pirate life something of an addictive experience.
Sid Meier’s Pirates! was first released by Microprose on the Commodore 64 in 1987 and tasked players with seeking fame and fortune in the Caribbean as a pirate or privateer during the 16th to 18th centuries. These options would tailor parts of the game in relation to the politics of the region and the ships you’d encounter. That the game was willing to cover such an extended period of history was a good early sign that the experience ahead of you was not going to cut any corners.
Pirates! presents the player with an open world to explore any way they see fit. Starting with a small ship you can travel the ocean, stopping at ports, chase down other pirates and of course search for buried treasure. For a game involving pirates and ocean battles and all sorts of skullduggery it’s a surprisingly chilled out experience in action as there’s little pressure involved in how you play. Time passes as you go and through successes and failures you’ll eventually retire and be graded for your adventures.
Avoiding capture and jail will help you a lot in stretching out your pirating career but initially it’ll be a familiar ending to you. I think a few of my early attempts resulted in me spending more time imprisoned than running a ship but the game always went out of its way to get you back on the ocean quickly so it was entirely my own fault and lack of skill that put me in that situation. The way the game handles failure contributes nicely towards keeping you in the game and not immediately restarting as capture and jail doesn’t necessarily mean game over, just a few less years until retirement.
The game would go to multiple platforms including the PC, Atari ST, Amiga and NES and would later receive a PC re-release (Pirates! Gold) in 1993 which was full of visual enhancements. It was another tens years before the game returned in 2004 with a reboot for PC, Xbox, Wii and later mobile where it went fully polygonal with an art style that I think perfectly fit the jovial and chilled style of the game.
My first exposure to Pirates! was through the Commodore 64 version – not at release but later when emulators first began to gain popularity in the early 90’s. Finally being able to play games that myself or my friends had heard of but never seen for real was compelling and helped start me down the track of being a retro gaming fan. Apart from Impossible Mission, I spent most of my early C64 emulation time playing Pirates!. When I finally became a PC owner I soon picked up Pirates! Gold but my addiction really hit its peak with the 2004 version (now developed by Meier and his new team at Firaxis) which could run on just about anything and only needed the keyboard to play.
Much like Sid Meier’s Civilization, the game banked heavily on the name of developer/creator Sid Meier and was actually the first of his games to do so. It made a lot of sense at the time as Meier had already a massively successful back catalogue of titles in the simulation genre that earned him a lot of fans – I know I had my fair share of entertainment from playing games like Solo Flight, Silent Service and later F19 Stealth Fighter. Pirates! was nothing like past Microprose games but if Sid Meier was behind it, it had to be something special. It’s worth checking out the below video from IGN to get some additional insight on the game from the man himself.
It’s been more than a decade since we’ve last had a new version of Sid Meier’s Pirates! (excluding mobile ports of thea2004 game) and I think that is almost a wasted opportunity. The concepts behind it are now thirty years old but it’s still a fresh and addictive experience that could show newer titles a thing or two about making games fun. 🙂
Greatest Games is a feature where we highlight our favourite games from the past and try to explain what we think makes them great and worth searching out to play again. If you’ve got your own thoughts on the subject, please feel free to share them in the comments below.