How it would have ended if I had captured the treasure fleet in Campeche (yes, it took a few reloads).
As we've already seen, Pirates! is barely defensible as a CRPG--my only excuse for playing it is that it's on MobyGames's list--and I've already exceeded the postings I said I was going to make for the game, but I figure that since I played it through, I might as well rate it as a CRPG and see where it comes out. Here's my GIMLET for the game:
1. The boundin' Main. Pirates! is set in the real world, albeit a fanciful depiction of it. Its sheer size and its attention to historic detail are grand, but even better is the way that things happen irrespective of your actions. Nations go to war and declare peace, Indians attack settlements, and other pirates sack towns. But these events aren't just random, ex-post-facto occurrences. In one month, the treasure fleet is in Puerto Bello, the next in Cartegena, and in between, you can actually intercept it as it sails between them. If you hear about a pirate raid on Tortuga, you can reload, get to Tortuga sooner, and catch the pirates before they attack! Very few games feature a world in which events occur so dynamically. And your actions change the nature of the world: you can disrupt trade, affect prices, instigate wars, and convert cities. I can't think of many games that do it better. Score: 9.
2. Gettin' yur sea legs. The lack of traditional CRPG-style character development is one of the reasons that Pirates! is only marginally a CRPG. You do not have attributes or gain levels or get experience for your quests and combats. In fact, the opposite occurs: you get older and sicker and slower, and you eventually have to decide whether it's worth extending your years of piracy. Although you can pick a nationality at the beginning of the game, it seems to have no bearing on anything except your starting town: you can advance in any nation's admiralty, and no one ever refers to you by your nation. The only real development is the advancement (at your own discretion) through the apprentice, journeyman, adventurer, and swashbuckler ranks, but the downsides to doing so (harder gameplay) generally outrank the benefits (a slightly higher share of the gold), although to be fair I played this last game fairly safe, keeping to the apprentice level for most of my career, and had few challenges. Score: 1.
3. Jawin' wit' mateys. The "NPCs" in the game include the governors, tavernkeepers, other pirates, and governor's daughters. No matter their location or nationality, they always say the same things, and you always have the same limited options while talking to them. You learn very little about the game world from them. Probably a little more variety could have been put into this part of the game. Score: 3.
4. Scallywags and scurvy dogs. The encounters in the game occur with various ships and other pirates. Unfortunately, they almost all play out exactly the same: you approach a ship and note the style, then "investigate" to see the nationality. At that point, you have the option to close for battle, hail for news, or sail away. You generally attack ships of the nation you're against and/or pirates and hail or sail away from the others. The encounters don't play any differently with different nationalities, although other pirates are slightly less likely to let you sail away or hail them. There are nonetheless roleplaying options in these limited choices, as you saw yesterday with my sudden decision to make enemies of the Dutch or my early decision to make a living as a pirate hunter. Still, some variety would have been nicer. No dedicated captain ever scuttles his ship to keep an enemy from capturing it, and no one ever shows up and attacks you. Score: 4.
5. Swasshbucklin' and hoodoo. No magic in this game, of course. There are three types of combat: ship-to-ship battles, land combat, and swordplay. All of them depend partly on probabilities (e.g., your age and level, and whether you chose "skill at gunnery" or "skill at fencing" in the opening), but mostly on your own aim, timing, and reactions. None of them are terribly hard. In my entire game, I never lost a ship-to-ship battle or sword fight (although I came very close to the latter once or twice) until the very end. Land combat is the most intriguing of the group, as it involves tactics such as choosing the right terrain, dispersing your parties, and flanking the enemy. I've never done it often enough--not even when I was younger--to get really good at it, although I suppose you could have a career in which you engaged in land combat continually, trying to capture towns for your favored nation. Ship-to-ship combat can be fairly tactical, especially when you're trying to do something crazy like taking on a war galleon with a pinnace. Ultimately, however, all combats get repetitive and boring towards the end of the game. Score: 5.
6. Me Effects. Another element that problem disqualifies Pirates! as a CRPG is the lack of any equipment. It would have been cool if you could have used some of your booty to buy better swords, ship upgrades, maybe some light armor, and so on (although since Sid Meier wasn't trying to make a CRPG, I can see why these options aren't present). Score: 0.
7. Swag. The economy plays a vital role in the game. You can actually affect the prosperity of a city--and, consequently, the trade value of goods--in the way that you buy and sell. Some people play Pirates! as traders, doing not much more than buying and selling; this seems exceedingly boring to me, but there are a lot of logistics that go into it. You have to watch the news carefully for signs of new gold mines, Indian attacks, and plagues, and you have to record the prices you get for goods at various towns. I basically just sold based on convenience, which is probably why I ended up as a "rather wealthy man" instead of an extremely wealthy one. Although there's no equipment to buy with your booty, you do need it for treasure maps, intelligence about cities, letters of marque, and ship repairs. Your total gold also determines your crew morale, along with the length of the voyage and the number of crewmembers, adding a bit of fun strategy. Finally, gold never stops being important, since it affects your final score. I guess I just wish there was more stuff to buy. Score: 7.
8. Goin' on account. There is no one "quest" in the game--another sign of non-CRPGness--but you do have a lot of options for self-imposed quests, such as rising the ranks of various nations, rescuing all your family members, getting married, sacking a particular town, capturing the treasure fleet or silver train, and achieving a certain total in gold or land. Your ultimate "quest," I guess, is to get as high a score as possible in the final tallying, although some players might prefer individual achievements--like four dukedoms--to any overarching score. The governors also give you some minor quests, such as delivering letters or capturing pirates. Score: 6.
9. Graphics, Sound, and Inputs (aye, there be no pirate talk for these). The graphics in the DOS version are tolerable, but the sound really is not, and I played most of it with the speakers off. The game has an annoying tendency to make you wait until its little victory tunes finish playing before you can see the results of your ship captures and such. I wish the controls had involved less arrow-scrolling through options and more ability to choose by letter, but generally they were fairly intuitive. Score: 4.
10. Yo-ho-ho. The gameplay is really the best element of Pirates! It is completely non-linear, allowing you to do whatever you want whenever you want. Much of the fun in the game comes from strategizing next actions, since time is so precious. Do I waste four months finding the buried treasure near Villa Hermosa, or do I wait until I have some other business there? Should I travel from Gibraltar to Havana via Santa Catalina, where someone has intelligence about my missing mother, but knowing that I will likely have no other significant encounters? Or should I travel up the Lesser Antilles, knowing it will maximize my chances of finding my enemies' ships? Do I trade in the heavily-defended San Juan, knowing the fort might fire on me, or do I head for the undefended but poor Trinidad? As we covered in the first posting, Pirates! allows for considerable role-playing, and in that role-playing comes enormous replayability. Once you master certain aspects of the gameplay, the challenge suffers a bit, but you can always ratchet that up by giving yourself a promotion. As you might guess from the frequency of my postings about the game this weekend, it is enormously addictive. For all of these reasons, I give the game my highest score in this category so far: 9.
The final score of 48 seems awfully low given how much I enjoyed the game, but of course I'm ranking it as a CRPG rather than a strategy game or simulator. For its real category, I would invent another kind of GIMLET scale.
The game was actually marketed as Sid Meier's Pirates! Like Richard Garriott, Meier is one of the few names that you know if you know games. He would later go on to create the Civilization series, which I sheepishly admit I've never played and am unlikely to play as part of this blog. But I will be dipping into other MicroProse titles with Darklands (1992), BloodNet (1993), and Master of Magic (1994).
Having finished this game, I have a few questions for other Pirates! players:
- Has anyone ever sailed all the way up to Bermuda, or walked across Honduras to Gran Granada? If so, why?
- Has anyone played an entire game after failing the copy protect question at the beginning? How did it go?
- Is the 2004 version basically just the same game with better graphics and sound, or does it add a lot of new material?
Although I probably tested the patience of CRPG purists with these postings, I added Pirates! Gold and the 2004 re-release to my list, maybe just for one posting, to see what's changed. I look absurdly forward to finding out.