Sunday, 3 August 2014

Game of the Month August 2014: Pirates! Gold

Author Trantor               @trantornator

Designer (Original)Sid Meier
Designer (Gold)Paul Murphy
Release date
  • 1993
GenreAction/adventure, Strategy
PlatformGenesis (also available for DOS, Windows, Mac, Amiga CD32)

You can't talk about Pirates! Gold without first briefly discussing Side Meier's Pirates!

Back in 1987 a revolutionary game hit the Commodore 64: Side Meier's Pirates!  The name included the designer's name, because up until that point Microprose was exclusively known for vehicle simulation titles, like its famous F-15 Strike Eagle series.  Worried that a departure from their bread and butter genre might cost them sales, Sid Meier's name was added to the game's title to lure buyers of his other games in, establishing a trend that would continue with future games by the prolific designer, such as Sid Meier's Civilization, Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri, Sid Meier's Gettysburg, etc.  Pirates! was also constantly referred to as a simulation game, which in many ways was accurate, but the term strategy/action-adventure would have been more on point but less familiar to Microprose's built in audience.

In Pirates!, players could, for the first time, freely move within the living breathing world of the 17th Century Caribbean.  There was a constantly shifting political landscape to traverse, the economics of outfitting, feeding and keeping your band of pirates happy, the search for hidden pirate treasure, real time naval battles with shifting winds and the effects of your chosen weapons and even an emotional plot involving the attempt to save your family from indentured servitude on sugar plantations.

Pirates! was something like we had never seen before and a game that seemed could only be truly realised on a home computer.

In 1993 that all changed, as Pirates! Gold, a graphically revised and control system reworked version of the original game was released on the Sega Genesis.  While an NES port had been released two years earlier, it offered no improvement on the 1987 game's graphics or menu systems.

Pirates! Gold still has you dealing and wheeling throughout the Caribbean, but now the graphics look stunning.  Many of the menus have been replaced with graphical cues and the few blemishes from the original game (the location mini game, where you measured the location of the sun to figure out your latitude) have been buffed out or replaced, creating a smoother feeling experience.

The game lets players choose the year they wish to start in (six options set between 1580 and 1680), which largely just differ in the strength of the Spanish presence throughout the region.  You choose your nationality (Spanish, English, Dutch or Portuguese) and your story then begins.  You are a young man (sorry ladies), who decides to take control of the pirate ship you are serving on, by challenging your current captain.  After defeating him, the adventure begins!

Now you can align yourself with different nations, gaining titles and honors, but watch out, that letter or privateer from the English asking you to attack Portuguese ships may not be worth much if the English form a new alliance with Portugal in order to wage war against Spain!  You'll have to hit port often and find out the latest news, talk to the local governors.

 Or maybe even wave a phony flag and engage passing ships in order to find out if they are legitimate targets.
Or maybe you just want to be a trader, buying low in Havana and selling high in more desolate spots such as Tampa?  What?  Is there a crop failure in San Domingo?  Well, let's buy us some grain and get there to sell it at outrageous prices!  
 Or maybe you just want to sale around and attack everyone, building a warrior fleet, taking no prisoners and giving no quarter, as you have to sale into harbour by nightfall to sell your ill gotten gains? 
 Or maybe just attack the town and take it by force, setting yourself up as the new governor?

The possibilities in the game are endless, but you'll ultimately have to decide when to retire.  Staying in the game too long, will mean you'll slow down, your reflexes will fail you in sword fights, young blood in your crew will try to take over and ultimately you may lose all your riches.  That one last bounty may mean the difference between living out your life as a rich baron or telling stories of past glories to the other drunken beggars on the streets of Port Royal.
Pirates! is one of the greatest game designs of all time, leading to a second reworking of it 2004, called simply Sid Meier's Pirates! (just like the original) and ended up being released on Windows, Xbox, Xbox 360, Mac, Wii, iOS, Windows Phone and PSP.  This very consolified version added several more mini-games and simplified some of the sailing segments.  It is a phenomenal version, but many still consider Pirates! Gold to be the best rendition of the game. 

Pirates! is an undisputed classic that almost 30 years on can still teach us a thing or two about open world gaming.


  1. A great game no doubt. I remember playing this all the time with my friend Morten on my trusty old A500. We would take turns being the navigator (holding the map that came with the game) so that we both got to control the game :-)

    I need to find that map again...

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