Sid Meier was the king of computer games in the ’90s, an era when the growth in processing power made available a great many improvements over what had come before, but the restrictions were still significant enough to force games to focus on creative and entertaining ideas, as they couldn’t wow you with amazing graphics and all-but-realistic presentations of gratuitous violence. Whether you think modern games are better or worse than ’90s games, it cannot be denied that a different kind of game typifies these periods. Certainly the number of ’90s games being ported to modern mobile devices is testament to their ability to remain popular, decades after their creation.
‘Pirates’ for the iPad is actually a port of a 2004 redesign of the original 1987 game for Commodore 64, which over the following years was ported to a number of platforms common at the time. The 2004 version is available for PC, Xbox, PSP, and Wii. I never played the PC version of ‘Pirates’ (though I did help fund at least one Meier family vacation to the moon), so this review is as much a review of the game itself as the iPad-port.
An introductory cut-scene sets the highly predictable stage; Your family has been captured and dragged off by some evil 17th century douche with a silly wig and you will have to become a pirate and sail to the Caribbean in a quest to rescue them. It’s classic and melodramatic; just as it should be. After all, what’s a pirate story without parrots, revenge, and dicky accents?
Following this you enter a name (as far as I can tell there are no bonus points for stupidity, but maybe I just haven’t tried hard enough yet), sign up as a privateer captain and set sail from a home port that varies according to your national allegiance (which becomes largely academic pretty quickly). There is a tutorial option that I didn’t take, and it may have made some the game mechanics and goals clearer from the outset, but failing to do it doesn’t seriously hamper your ability to figure that all out pretty quickly.
There two layers of goals; the single-iteration, long-term story, to whit; getting your stolen family back, and the not-directly-related quests you do along the way. The game play is fairly repetitive on both goal-layers, a fact that doesn’t necessarily make it any less entertaining. Advancement on both paths can be made fairly quickly, which keeps the game moving, aided by (initially) subtle reminders from your 1st mate that maybe you’re getting a little distracted.
The main stage is a map of the Caribbean that you sail around in your ship (you can maintain a small fleet, but subsequent ships are less involved in the actual mechanical process of the game). From this map you can interact with other ships (sink and/or rob them) and towns/settlements (bombard them, or dock to trade, make repairs, etc). Four nations (Spanish, English, Dutch, French) occupy the backdrop, and your interactions with their ships and towns will colour their attitude toward you, though you are able to actively curry favour with multiple nations simultaneously.
Ship battles involve cannon-exchanges; won through careful maneuvering and judicious application of black-powder, and (sometimes) boarding actions; won through your fencing skills or weight-of-numbers. You have to board a ship if you want to get any loot obviously. (Amassing treasure is, unsurprisingly, a critical activity along the path to your ultimate goals).
Town bombardments are a little simpler, basically involving aiming, and controlling the speed of your ship. Town visits are primarily a set of character-interactions; getting information from bar-keepers, wooing governors’ daughters; all the staples. Some sword-fights are also to be had from time to time.
Everything off the main map is basically a mini-game, and the map is a way of getting between them. These are kept fairly concise, although the tap-tap style dancing game one must play with a seemingly never-ending string of governors’ daughters gets a bit old.
The mechanics of the game are very well suited to the iPad and don’t take too much getting used to. The game-play is just tricky enough to remain entertaining (multiple difficulty levels aid this), but simple enough not to be off-putting. Various aspects of the game combine to create a pretty addictive experience; I’ve only played it a few times, but most of those times have involved at least a couple of hours of play, which for me, on a mobile device, is a long time.
Verdict: Should prove entertaining for gaming enthusiasts and casual players alike. 4 foul-mouthed parrots out 5