Biased Notes Vol. 5: Sid Meier’s Pirates! (2004)

by Jed Pressgrove

Note: Observations below are based on the 2004 remake of the 1987 original.

1. Meier’s revered simulation includes everything from sword fighting to treasure hunting, all in the name of building fame. What sticks out the most is the puerile focus on wooing governors’ daughters. A pirate game’s objectification of women is hardly surprising, but unlike The Witcher series, Meier emphasizes awkward courtship rather than lustful build-ups to sex. To have a chance at furthering a relationship with a governor’s daughter, you must engage in a ballroom-dancing minigame (after creating enough of a reputation so that the woman notices you in the first place). Interestingly, to succeed as the pirate, you must follow the lead of the daughter in the ballroom, clicking the correct sequence of dance moves as she moves faster and faster. The idea subverts the game’s main thrust as a male power fantasy. Plundering, sinking ships, and the like suggest domination through one’s strength and wit, but the ballroom scenes imply that you must be willing to be instructed to impress the upper class, or you can’t reach the ultimate level of fame. I could see this requirement being a turnoff to many wannabe alpha males. (Admittedly, I could also see any person being turned off by the contrived nature of the whole shebang.)

2. So many things in Pirates! are predictable to the point where it’s hard to feel like you’re on an adventure. If you can find one buried treasure, you will have a good idea of how to find more buried treasure (buy a map in a tavern, follow directions to the proper landmass, walk on land and find the treasure based on obvious landmarks). If you see one French governor, you’ve seen them all. And so on and so on. Thus, the details that make the world of Pirates! seem alive tend to stand out. For example, spice is a good you can sell to merchants for gold, but the going price for spice varies across cities, so it can be worth it to sail a little farther to make more of a profit in another place. This economic variation might not seem like much (it’s certainly not as exciting as the trade economy in the second world of Secret of Evermore), but I welcomed anything in the game that could make me think a little more about my decision-making.

3. I didn’t play Pirates! long enough to experience this (I only got to play it at a friend’s for a while), but as time passes, you become a weaker pirate, and eventually you must retire. Because the goal of the game is to accumulate as much fame is possible, this element doesn’t make the simulation any less of a power fantasy than, say, Far Cry 5, but it does make me wonder about the possibilities of an aging mechanic in action games. It could be interesting to see a developer tie this quantitative factor into more explicit storytelling.

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3 comments

  1. Good observations, Jed. I think the ageing and retirement mechanic in Pirates! are a bit of simulatinist holdover, it doesn’t do much, I think. But there’s potential there.

  2. About the aging mechanic…

    I thought some time ago, when I finished Vanquish in Hard or whatever, about something like that.

    There is a sense of progression in that kind of action games that comes parallel to an improvement in abilities for your character. You get better in the game (Platinum style action games for your example) and your character empowers at the same time.

    There are some examples where your character stop improving at a fast rate and you have to improve as player (ex. Viewtiful Joe). In Vanquish (or bullethell, some sport games, etc.) you have the exact same moveset from start to finish, so when you finish a difficulty mode and start the next, you feel really empowered as player, because you can continue due to your improved ability to kick asses.

    So Mr. Hideki Kamiya… Can we have a game where your character gets weaker and weaker and you have to overcome the obstacles getting better and better as player? Maybe the enemies don’t get any more powerful, but your character gets weaker… I think that’s a good match for an aging mechanic, not putting some mustache on your Solid Snake.

    Good luck balancing that game, whoever makes it.

    Sorry about my long rambling in my poor English! 😜

    1. That was some good rambling! While reading this, I couldn’t help but think of the veteran athlete. This athlete might have been one of the quickest and strongest players in a sport, but in later years, the athlete must use various subtle (sometimes legal, sometimes illegal) tactics to get an advantage against other players.

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