Sid Meier’s Pirates!

Playing Sid Meier’s Pirates! is a strange and wonderful journey that begins somewhat dubiously. It starts out as a series of surprisingly simple minigames played with one hand on the keypad and one on the mouse, which means your keyboard is shoved off the left side of your desk. There’s cannon shooting, sword fighting, and ballroom dancing (yes, ballroom dancing). All you need is a bit of timing. Or not. It’s almost impossible to fail.

11_1In between, there’s lots of sailing and exploring to do in Sid Meier’s Pirates!. Sometimes you get a trinket, like a fiddle or a hat, that does something or other. Maybe you get a map to a bunch of gold that’s waiting for you to walk up and take it. Most of the time, you just shoot up other ships and then click “Take All†when they surrender. All the while, your fame score steadily ticks upwards. There doesn’t seem to be any challenge, much less anything resembling a fail state, in sight. This is all a joke, right?

But here’s where Sid Meier gets you again, because a funny thing happens on the way to Tortuga. Just as Civilization began with a single settler and then layered in the rules, Pirates! begins as an absurdly easy collection of minigames, and then layers in the actual gameplay. As you play further, you realize you’ve been dropped into the aptly named apprentice difficulty level, which is pretty much a demo of how everything hangs together.

But there are points during your pirate’s career when you can notch up the difficulty, raising the level of risk and reward. The wind starts shifting direction. Your timing is a bit more important in the fighting, shooting, and dancing. The enemy ships aren’t so quick to surrender. It’s not so easy to keep a fleet crewed or a woman wooed. That fiddle and hat start to really help. And somewhere along the way, a goofy exercise in button-slapping transforms into one of the most addicting RPG-strategy hybrids ever.

It’s not easy to explain what makes Sid Meier’s Pirates! tick. It’s partly the breezy Caribbean presentation, with its cool blue and tan palette. You quickly learn to flick your thumb over the enter key to skip the cutscenes. These are the pirates of “Pirates of the Caribbean,†the ride. Their butts catch on fire and they leap into the water to put it out. Things fall on their heads and knock them out. The swords might as well be wooden. Rum, blood and cuthroatery (not a word, I know) are nowehere to be seen, making this a very cartoony, Monkey Island tier presentation.

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One central feature of Sid Meier’s Pirates! is the free roaming aspect which, love it or hate it, will require a quick brush with the manual. There’s a plot, but you’re free to ignore it if you’d rather just dawdle along the many islands. This format recalls the 1987 Pirates. There’s something inherently compelling about being given freedom in a dynamic world where you create your own story by making choices. Will you side with the Dutch or the English? Do you loot your fellow pirates or maintain honor among thieves? Should you take a nimble Sloop of War or a hard-hitting Frigate? Should you sell all this sugar now at eight gold a ton, or keep hauling it around in hopes of a better price?

21_1Perhaps the most compelling aspect of Pirates! is how its many elements are so thoroughly integrated. Each of the minigames are pretty simple, but none of them stands alone; they feed into and sometimes undermine each other. For instance, if you nail the dance with the governor’s daughter, you might net the gift of a Perfectly Balanced Rapier, which will make swordfights easier, which lets you take a ship by simply dueling its captain rather than pounding it with gunfire, although you need a big enough crew to hold out during the melee, which means cruising friendly ports to recruit sailors.

It all fits together as a tightly designed lattice of bite-sized challenges that combine to tell the story of your pirate’s life. In the end, you’re left with a breakdown of how famous you are and what you did to get that way. And you’re also left with the urge to start again, maybe to do it better or just do it differently, maybe at a harder difficulty level or in a less pirate-friendly era. There’s plenty of freedom, and that’s what pirating is all about.

System Requirements: Pentium III 500 MHz, 128 MB RAM, Win98

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