Life is full of disappointments. Video games doubly so. With the Rare exception (pun intended), gamers who have been pining for an awesome pirate’s life have virtually no options. Sure, Sea of Thieves is a good time if you have the friends and community to really enjoy it. But solo players looking for a bit o’ swashbuckling have virtually nothing to choose from. Your Ports Royale and AC: Black Flags can be fun but don’t capture the lively spirit of adventure a budding buccaneer would expect. If only there was a perfect pirate game full of naval combat, rum-running, buried treasure, romance, and more. Oh wait. There is, matey!
Sid Meier’s Pirates! (yes, THE Sid Meier) was originally released in 1987 but received several remasters throughout the ‘90s. Yup, the best pirate game of all time wasn’t even released this century. But don’t be fooled by its age and its dated polygons. Pirates! stands the test of time as an absolutely perfect game that delivers a staggering amount of depth and adventure in a file size that’s a fraction of your average patch update.
The premise of Pirates! is straightforward: You’re a pirate.
You choose an era of history (although they’re all pretty much the same) and align yourself with one of the great seafaring empires that include Spain, France, England, and the Dutch. Choosing a country of origin determines which port cities will be safe havens and which will throw you in jail depending on ever-shifting alliances and frequent double-crosses. You can also go rogue at any time. Advance to be a captain for the French and then turn on them because you’ve got your sights set on a valuable merchant ship, and your crew is ready to mutiny unless they get plunder ASAP.
There are almost too many aspects of this game to talk about. There is an astonishing number of games within the game, too.
To wit, there is naval combat and ship customization, which sees you sailing around an open world map of the Caribbean wreaking havoc on the water. You can attack towns and fortresses from the sea, or you can land and invade from the shores. This triggers its own mini-game involving turn-based combat where you command riflemen and cavalry and have terrain buffs to calculate.
There’s an economic system too. Buy goods like sugar in Havana on the cheap (or steal it from vanquished ships) and sell it for a profit in Barbados. Stop into towns to recruit more pirates. Perhaps a shady merchant has something to sell, like a set of dueling pistols or a gift for the governor’s daughter.
Yes, you can romance women in towns and ports around the Caribbean to marry your way into power and influence. This isn’t just a dialogue tree, either. Romancing requires you to play a ballroom dancing mini-game that is an addictive challenge. Woo a lady enough, and a jealous suitor may emerge, triggering a swordfight where you duel for her honor. Or, dance like an ass and you’ll talk to the hand.
You’ll swordfight a lot of other folks too, from runaway prisoners worth a tidy bounty to the captains of enemy ships. And did I mention the buried treasure maps? The legendary Aztec city of gold? Your quest to reunite your long-lost family?
All of this is delivered with shockingly well-designed mechanics.
For as many things as there are to do in Pirates!, all of them are fun to play. Ship combat has you maneuvering your guns into position while avoiding your enemy’s blasts. The land raids are tense and tactical, the ballroom dancing rhythm games are precise and the swordfights are easy to learn but hard to master. It is a game that pulls you into multiple directions at once, the only real objective is listening to the Blackbeard in your heart about where to go and what to do next.
Time is the real enemy, as your character ages in the game and eventually gets too old for seafaring. You’ll finish many a game with a lot left undone, compelling you to start again and again and again.
Sid Meier’s Pirates! is available on PC and is currently on sale for $2.50, so get it ASAP.