Tuesday, 10 May 2016

Chapter XXXII: Pirates!

It's pretty obvious by now that I'm not even trying to give this blog any semblance of continuity. That's because I don't know of what game or episode of my life I'm going to be reminded of by looking at some broken glass on the floor or a bird taking a poo. But let me assure you that if everything was done by the book, this would definitely be chapter one.

In 1990 I was just another kid with a ZX Spectrum. While I do have some fond memories of playing games on in, I never developed the kind of emotional attachment that many people do. At the time my computer had to compete for my leisure time with cartoons, action figures and playing football on the street, and most of the times it lost. But those days were changing.

Someday, on some Saturday, I was visiting my family. When I arrived at my grandparents house my grandpa said to me “go check on your cousin, I think your uncle got him a new computer”. You're probably aware of where this is heading, but I have to assure you that I never even heard of the Amiga before that day.

Needless to say that when I arrived at looked at my cousin's Walter monitor, my jaw dropped to the floor in absolute awe. What I was looking was the image of the tavern keeper scrubbing the tables in Sid Meier’s Pirates. So many colours! The animation, it looked so real.

Ever since, I don't recall any technology step up that was as significant as going from the humble Spectrum to the almighty Amiga.

Unlike some other game where I played for some time and then have put aside forever, I played Pirates! throughout the six or so years that my Amiga lived. In fact I accomplished everything the game had to offer, eventually reaching the king's advisor rank on the most difficult setting. I'm sure this is the single player game I've sunk more hours on this machine, and maybe ever. At least it helped me a lot with my understanding of Caribbean geography.

There's not going to be too much in the way of revelations by playing it again since I hardly forgot anything. I also played the remakes of Pirates! gold and the one from 2004 intensively.

What makes this game so special The first reasoning must be about it being a sandbox game at a time not much else existed. I only recall Elite being in the same category.

Even before starting the game I know exactly what the name of my wannabe corsair is going to be. I also used to play this game together with my friend Earl Piranha, and our hero name was Cagagrosso, which roughly translates as “Thick-Shitter”. It wasn't my idea, I can assure you, but I can't hide the fact that I found it hilarious. I still do. Maturity is overrated anyway.

I know I'm biased when I write this, but I think this version of Pirates is still the best looking. The mid-nineties remake for PC Pirates Gold went for a realistic and gritty look that took much of the charm of the first game. On the other hand, the console version of the Gold remake was too cartoonish and garish. The newest remake of ten years ago kept the bright look of its engine sibling Civilisation IV, and that did nothing for me. So the right balance was struck the first time, at least for my not very impartial outlook.

So, let's start by listening to the “pirates songs” included in the main menu. I find hard to believe that pirates listened to J.S. Bach, but maybe that's just my preconceptions. Anyway, I never cared much for classical music but I'll make an exception when it's coming out from an Amiga. It sounds great of course.

What always pissed me off about this game was the absence of Portugal, which made choosing my corsair's nationality extra hard. Yes, I know Portugal didn't have any colonies in the Caribbean, but try telling that to ten year old me who used to be taught at school that the Portuguese were the best. I went with England, just because I can understand what they say, which is a reason as good as any other, and I don't want google how "Cagagrosso" is written in French.

Maybe they have loads of those caramel cookies in the cargo hold
I don't remember exactly what each of the special abilities do, but if navigation means some extra speed against winds I'm all for it. How could I ever forget the boredom of sailing east in the western part of the map.

Pirates! is still a great game, probably one of the best on the system, but what used to be small annoyances, are now full blown irritations. I'm talking about wind, of course, not only of the navigation variety, but also when it comes to battles. Many times I have to slowly maneuver the ship while trying to catch some favourable winds so I can catch that stupid Pinnace that’s sailing away. What about you happen to find the Cowardly Pirate Vasquez, or whatever, and he’s running circles around your boat firing cannon shots all the way Not a particular pleasant experience.

Great earring George Michael!
I always had the habit of exploring the Spanish Main clockwise, which made, due to the dominant winds, the exploration of western and southern regions of the map, which also happen to be the most inhabited, the most fun. Traversing the Caribbean Sea between Panama and Cuba is an exercise in absolute frustration, and god forbid if you have a treasure map in Vera Cruz or want to marry the Governor's Daughter in Bermuda. Forget it, she’s not worth the trouble.

Speaking of women, it’s quite a troublesome message that the game sends to a kid that the prettier a woman is, the more successful you have to be to have a chance with her. At least that’s what happens with this game. I suppose it worked as an extra incentive to get good grades, so I can’t really fault Pirates!.

This is pretty much a game that is much more the sum of its parts. The mini games who weren't never great to begins with, aged terribly. The sword fights are bearable because they’re over quickly, but the sea and ground battles were very much improved by the latest remake. Yes, even if I still think that this is the best looking Pirates! around, the 2004 game brings lots of improvements that make the experience more enjoyable.

Sailing against the wind aka "The Quest for Eternal Doom"
So, will I play Pirates! again sometime in the future? Probably not, unless I want to show someone, or some descendant, what was the Amiga all about. And then I will be made fun of. I still think it was one hell of a game to start this whole adventure, and I'm happy I was born in 1981, so that this could be one of the games that made me.


  1. Always good to read new stories about Pirates! =) And hey, we're of the same vintage!

    1. It's literally vintage. It was a great year for wine:)

  2. Two of my friends liked to play Pirates! on their C64 when I visited them after school. I can't remember if you were able to save your progress or had to finnish the game in on sitting. Any memory of a save feature?

    1. In the Amiga version you have a save feature. Don't know about the C64, but saving games on a cassete based system was always a source of anxiety and immense frustration:D