Sid Meier’s Pirates! first set sail in 1987 on the Commodore 64 before being ported to everything from early Macs to the NES.
Firaxis then gave Pirates! an enhanced remake in 2004 and, if you’re not still living in the late 80’s, you can play this version on PCs, tablets, consoles and even your mobile phone. That’s right, you can spend your morning commute plundering the Spanish main.
Pirates! had a loose plot. The player’s family owed a Marquis some money so he captured them all and decided to store them in remote garden sheds throughout the Caribbean. The player’s goal was to repeatedly hunt down “The Evil Baron Raymondo” who, to be fair, did look a bit of a bastard. After hitting him with a sword a few times Raymondo would give you the location of the Marquis who kidnapped your family and you could go and give him the same treatment. If you’re actually dedicated enough to hunt down Marquis Montalban you’re rewarded with a small chunk of a map that supposedly leads to one of the garden sheds. Then you do it all again for the other bits. And then rinse and repeat for each family member. Can you see why players tend to disregard the main story?
The true joy of playing Pirates! comes from its other activities. You can sail from port to port trading in various commodities if you’re the sort of chap who flicks through the Financial Times for enjoyment. You can hunt down the ten legendary pirates that have been added to the game or you can side with one of the Caribbean’s four colonial powers and spend your time ruining the lives of whoever they’re at war with. You can even disregard all of that, go full Blackbeard and just plunder everything that moves for your own personal gain.
It’s not all fun and games though. Your ship has to be maintained, your crew has to be fed, you need a regular income to keep morale up and the loot has to be split every year or two or your first mate risks buggering off with one of your ships and half of your things. Added to all this you age quite drastically which has a large impact on your sword fighting ability. It doesn’t seem to stop you getting your groove on with the Governor of Barbados’ attractive Cilla Black lookalike daughter though so it’s not all bad.
Sword fighting, daughter wooing, naval combat and capturing cities are all handled through a series of mini games. Both the sword fighting and ballroom dancing sections involve pressing a directional button (or number on PC) at the right time to get the better of your opponent or not trip over your dance partner. City capture is more of a turn based affair where you have to use cover, flank attacks and high ground to get the best out of your various troop types. Naval combat, as you would expect, is the best of the bunch. You need to keep wind on your side and either close distance if you think you can take their captain out before all of your men die or simply sit back and blast them out of the water if you’re not too bothered about plunder and think you have them outgunned.
The weirdest thing about Pirates! is the way you lose track of time playing it. You boot the game up, pick a couple of French ports to sack and, next thing you know; six weeks have passed, you’ve grown a beard, your friends think you’ve died and you may well have developed scurvy.
It’s worth it though.