SID MEIER'S PIRATES! (2004) / Atari / PC
Pirates! is a PC classic, but not the most accessible or approachable game to play. Various ports and remakes over the years have attempted to modernize and rectify that with varying degrees of success, but none ever felt like it did the job that this 2004 remake has in preserving the original feel and strategy of Pirates! while fusing in modern elements and smoothing out rough edges. It might not end up being the ultimate version of Pirates! but it's by far the best one yet.
If you're totally new to the game, you start out as an 18-year-old who leads a mutiny on board a ship due to cruel working conditions, and becomes the captain after winning a duel with the previous captain. You'll be forced to retire from the rigors of maritime life around age 40 or so, so the only goal is basically to provide for your retirement as best you can in the meantime. Looting ships and sacking ports is certainly one main option, as the name implies, but you can also search for your long-lost family members, discover buried treasures and Aztec cities, romance the daughters of governors, and even engage in a little trading.
The interface has been as simplified and streamlined as possible while still retaining the full features of the original game, but there are some new twists. Obviously the graphics have been modernized, with a look that's like a cartoony version of old 1950s Errol Flynn-type swashbuckler movies. There's also a full new soundtrack with music that's very period- and country-appropriate. And characters speak with Sims-esque pseudo-speech, which is entertaining when the Mysterious Traveller conspiratorially confides to you "There's pet tax!" or the bartender greets you with a hearty "HARD WIMMIN!!"
But some aspects of the gameplay have been modernized and elaborated on as well. Most notably the sword-fighting scenes. Aside from being longer and having a cinematic presentation, these now employ the entire 9-digit numeric keypad for various types of swings and blocks. On the lowest difficulty settings you can hack your way through most fights, but on the moderate-to-high ones you have to defend with good timing and learn to recognize enemy moves and how to counter them.
One misfire is a new dance sequence used to woo the ladies the first couple of times you talk to them. This is actually even faster, more complex and harder than swordfighting. I guess with a desktop and a full-sized keyboard this wouldn't be a big deal, but on a laptop it's impossible to keep up with the dance with a mouse, and the game (at least via Steam) refuses to let you engage the virtual numeric keypad while playing. Aside from never being able to get married, not being able to win at the dances also prevents you from accessing the Aztec cities quests, since those map pieces are gifted to you by the governors daughters.
I'm impressed by how faithful the game stays to the source material, but there's a few negatives from the original Pirates! that probably should have been improved here. One is the constant east-to-west wind that makes sailing back east take forever. I dunno if thats the usual wind pattern in the Caribbean, if it is this is one place where realism could have taken a backseat to fun. Your crew also gradually gets tired of sailing and will become more and more discontented, eventually ending in desertion and even mutiny if you don't eventually divvy up the spoils. This has to be done roughly every two to three game years, and the game forces you to take seven months off before being able to set out again, which is a huge chunk of time just to pacify your crew. Couldn't there be an option to just pay off crew that want to leave when they want to leave? I mean, you're constantly losing crew to sea battles and such, and replacing them with fresh blood anyway. And I know this is the 1600s and all that, but it's a little ridiculous how decrepit you get after turning 30.
Ultimately, as fun as the game starts out, it does sort of exhaust its possibilities within a few hours. There's lots of different stuff to do, but not much variety to the action - go from port to port until a Mysterious Traveller gives you a map scrap or info on a notorious ruffian, go to where the X is or where the ruffian was last seen and follow their trail, then either have a ship battle, a sword fight, or march inland to find something. There's a lot of time-killing while drifting slowly back and forth across the reaches of the Carribean while doing this.
Other games have since done the Pirates! concept with more depth, but very few of them. And this one is still fun for a run-through every year or two, if only to see how much of the world you can take over for your chosen nation via land invasions. Look for it during the big Steam sales for 2 or 3 bucks.
* Gameplay Video