Have You Played… Sid Meier’s Pirates!?

I haven't even played the 2004 remake but I enjoyed this piratical stance too much to consider a screenshot from the previous millenium

Have You Played? is an endless stream of game recommendations. One a day, every day of the year, perhaps for all time.

The exclamation mark doesn’t mean I’m shouting at you. It’s part of the game’s name. Originally released in 1987 (though I first played it on an Amiga in the early nineties), Pirates! was the first game to carry Meier’s name in the title, although not the first game created by the statesman of strategy. It’s a fine early example of open world gaming, allowing players to create a unique legacy within its ever-changing world.

Meier’s latest, Starships, has little in common with Pirates! but you can’t swing a pegleg without hitting a game that carries marks of its influence. Sunless Sea has some of the same saltwater in its veins, although it has mostly jettisoned minigames, replacing them with myth, mystery and memoir.

I remember how pleased I was when I mastered fencing but I never did get the hang of port raids.

The dynamic world is the game’s most extraordinary feature. Major nations shifted their allegiances and engaged in hostilities from time to time, and I often felt like a piece of flotsam, tossed on waves of misfortune. It was the first time I’d believed that the actors in a game world continued to go about their business when my back was turned, and that sensation is still precious and rare.

48 Comments

  1. Flopper says:

    This is one of my favorite games. I played it when it was new then I bought it again about 4 years ago on Steam and still play it sometimes. So good.

  2. ButteringSundays says:

    I see people talk about this game a lot, and although I did enjoy it for a few hours, I found it very tedious. It was essentially just a few mini-games that you played over and over again.

    Maybe if I;d played longer I would have opened up more minigames?

    I wonder if it’s because I came to the game long after its prime, only a few years back, with a lack of nostalgia.

    • Zenicetus says:

      Well, getting the most out of the game requires some role-playing of the character. You’re supposed to be careful about who you make alliances with, who you choose for a wife, and whether you retire from piracy with wealth or in a sad state. Without some role-playing, yeah… it’s just a series of mini games. But they all lead somewhere.

      I played it on PC years ago, and remember the overland battle stuff was tedious, but the rest was fun. Then more recently I picked up the iPad version. It’s stripped-down (doesn’t have the land battles), but it’s tremendous fun… maybe because it’s just the core of the game. The touch interface works fine for controlling ships in battle, and it’s perfect for the dance mini-game.

      • Great Cthulhu says:

        I liked the land battles!

        Had tons of fun conquering settlements and installing majors. Took me ages, but I eventually conquered the entire Caribbean mainland for the Dutch.

        • Zenicetus says:

          I think a big part of my problem with land battles was that my PC at the time was barely able to handle them, so the frame rate was slow and the controls felt unresponsive. The rest of the game played fine, but I think when the game went into full 3D it was more than my PC could handle smoothly enough to be fun.

  3. Yachmenev says:

    One of my all time favorites. Played it a lot on Amiga 500, Amiga CD32 and then on PC (the remake). A game that should inspire many many more games then what it has. I think Mount&Blade is the only game that’s really similiar to it, that I have played.

    Anyone making strategy/RPG titles would do well to have a deep look at this game, and be inspired by the dynamic open world system that’s mentioned in the article, and how the special events with the Treasure Fleet, The Silver Train and the famous pirates works.

    • Rise / Run says:

      Yes. This was one of the first games I bought _with my own monies_ on C64. So wonderful. Never played the new versiony thing.

      Sword of the Samurai is another game in a similar vein…

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      phuzz says:

      You had a CD32?! I’ve only ever seen pictures of one of them! My fifteen year old self is very jealous of you right now.

  4. Uglycat says:

    I preferred Broderbund’s [i]Ancient Art of War at Sea[/i]

    • Axess Denyd says:

      I’m glad I’m not the only one that remembers that one. It was *really* good. Or at least it seemed that way at the time!

      • MacTheGeek says:

        As a teen in the 80s, I loved both AAoW and AAoWaS. I keep hoping that GOG will dig them up, but it seems like the entire Broderbund catalog has dropped off the earth.

  5. RollingStonePT says:

    One of my favorite games ever. I’d love to see a remake of this game.

    • CommanderRaj says:

      Play Mount and Blade: Warband. The M&B series is basically a love letter to Pirates, just set in a different time period. Also the combat is pretty incredible.

      • April March says:

        Which just makes it sadder that Caribbean! is apparently not up to snuff. I was looking forward to it.

      • RollingStonePT says:

        I suffer from motion sickness while playing some video-games, so i can’t play anything with First-person perspective or lots of camera movements, or else I’d play Assassins Creed, I heard it is pretty good.

    • ryth says:

      It’s already been re-made twice (original, vga, current version), not that I wouldnt like to see another. The most amazing thing about this game is that despite 3 iterations it is essentially exactly the same game it was when it was released in 87 (aisde that bloody dancing).. I’ve been playing it on and off ever since.

      • Phier says:

        Oh god the dancing, I forgot about that. There was more strategy too in the original for overland battles.

        • Zenicetus says:

          The dancing is actually fun on the tablet version. You just tap in time to the music, and aiming a finger at the target points is much more instinctive than trying to steer a mouse.

          The sword fighting mini game also works better on tablet, I think, with the sweep gestures more-or-less matching what you’re trying to do with movement and the swordplay. OTOH, the tablet version doesn’t have as much strategic depth, so that’s the trade-off. I still keep it on my iPad for re-visiting every once in a while. It’s one of the best PC-to-tablet conversions I’ve played.

          • orangetruck says:

            Just tap in time to the music? Do you have any idea how hard that is for some of us music impaired non-dancing types? If I could bloody dance and chat up girls would I be pretending to do it on an ipad? Or writing about it on a games website …

    • JohnnyPanzer says:

      A second remake? Why?

      • RollingStonePT says:

        For one, it could remove the dance parts. But the best thing they could add would be some kind of multiplayer.

  6. Wowbagger says:

    Meep.

  7. frogmanalien says:

    I too got a bit bored of this – although I’ve only played the “recent” version- it just felt… repetitive. I suspect I was missing something.
    When it comes to adventures at sea (and I feel bad admitting this) my favourite game is still The Odyssey – Winds of Athena (a bad sign when it’s only available to buy on a causal fish titled game website) – but as puzzlers go, this still feels quite fresh and the setting/style works really well together. OK- there’s no swashbuckling, just you and the sea, but I liked it none-the-less.

  8. TehK says:

    I played this on the C64 and it was ridiculous.

    Think about it: A huge part of the caribbean, the sailing (incl. simulated weather), the whole fleet management with different ships, different towns with mayors and mayors’ daughters that you can court and marry and the tavern and simulated trading (with different prices and hints where prices are good/bad) and the search for your family and of course the different factions with a reputation system and then of course the ship combat as well as the fencing and land combat where you can fight forts and you can get captured and be put into prison…

    AND ALL THIS WITH 38911 BASIC BYTES FREE!

    • SanguineAngel says:

      You are not wrong, friend

    • supermini says:

      And there was no in game map, so you had to use a paper map and sort of estimate where you are. That could be a huge problem when you’re in the middle of the sea.

    • airmikee says:

      “38911 BASIC BYTES FREE”

      Hahaha, that sounds like the video game equivalent of a senior citizen reminiscing about being able to buy a soda and sandwich with a nickel, and having change left over for a picture show.

  9. Mud says:

    Yes I did on my C64 with a 5 1/4 floppy drive, I still remember when I had to swap the disk I got an error.
    God I was mad and had to do a 80km trip to get a new copy which wasn’t on stock anymore so I got home with “periscope up”.
    Bought Pirates a few months later and played it for dunno how long, great game for that time.

  10. c-Row says:

    I still would if I could get the new one working on Windows 7 64bit…

    • Fishpig says:

      Have you tried recently? I’ve been reading the Aubrey/Maturin books over the last few weeks (Master and Commander etc), and this “Have you played…?” was the trigger for me to reinstall it on Steam, but your comment worried me…however it works fine on my Win7 64bit Pro, although it nobbles some of the colour scheme. Hope you find the same, such a great game – except the dancing.

  11. BlackMageSK says:

    Actually preferred the extremely obscure but very similar New Horizons for the SNES which is like Sid Meier’s Pirates made as an SNES RPG with a little more depth in some areas.

    • WiggumEsquilax says:

      After playing both of the SNES Uncharted Waters’ to death, finding absolutely everything and hitting the level cap, Pirates felt like a demo.

  12. SanguineAngel says:

    For some reason I never found the later version of Sid Meiers’ Pirates! quite as engaging as Pirates! Gold (the first remake) which felt steeped in atmosphere to me. I think it was the overall clean cartoon vibe that did it.

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      SoundDust says:

      The text and the simpler graphics – and not to mention the steeper difficulty – of the original made the atmosphere. The latest action-focused remake was fun, but Pirates! was about the simulation and the story, too.

  13. Laurentius says:

    Yes and actually it is a game that will never leave my HDD as i play it now and then b/c it is so awsome. Everything is so great from sailing, sea battles to mini games, simple buy joyful but with actuall sensible game underneath.

    “The dynamic world is the game’s most extraordinary feature. Major nations shifted their allegiances and engaged in hostilities from time to time, and I often felt like a piece of flotsam, tossed on waves of misfortune. It was the first time I’d believed that the actors in a game world continued to go about their business when my back was turned, and that sensation is still precious and rare.”

    Yes it is and I simply can’t stand that such old game has more deep simiulation then modern ones, i.e AC:BF.
    ANd you can actually influence this world, when you capture ports for given nations, help them with colonists, mayors, fen of piratas, these ports wil flourish, there will be more merchant ships in the area and if the war broke up there will be huge nilitary conwoys going to invasions. It is charmful microcosm that you can ride a along or have fun influencing it for your fun.

    This game is AMAZING 1!11

  14. amateurviking says:

    The version of Pirates! we had booted straight from the disc instead of from DOS. I remember thinking that was cool. Loved the game. Really enjoyed the more recent remake too, although it seemed shallower.

  15. pilouuuu says:

    The funny thing is that I consider that Pirates does a much better job than many games at showing how to tell a story in a game. Procedurally open world sandbox stories with a different ending each time you play!

  16. thetruegentleman says:

    I’m sorry, but I just don’t ‘get’ this game: everything you do feels so…meaningless. You can get a wife, but she does nothing; you can buy property, but it does nothing; you can make a huge amount of money, but it does…well, you get the idea.

    Nothing I did ever seemed to change the world in any interesting ways: I wanted to be a pirate so famous that all the nations of the world condemned me as the devil himself and allied together to hunt me down, but all I got was a few score-numbers ticking up every time I won a minigame, and the occasional ship chasing me down.

    • cpt_freakout says:

      I think that’s the thing – there’s nothing to get about Pirates! because it’s just about having a good, simple time; I guess you should think of it as an ‘arcade game’, where everything revolves around simple systems and straightforward gratification. I enjoyed it immensely, it was one of those games I spent hours and hours playing because it was so much fun to me and I didn’t really have to intellectually engage with it. I guess if you want to think and to seek meaning, then maybe Mount and Blade is better suited for you. :)

      • whorhay says:

        Your chosen difficulty level affects how challenging the game is to a huge degree. The point of the game is to eventually retire and see what score you get. I don’t remember what the end goal was in the newer version but in the original I believe the highest rank was King’s Advisor or something like that. Which at least to me as a 12 year old seemed impossibly hard to accomplish.

    • fredc says:

      I don’t find it meaningless at all. The point, like whorhay says, is to get your Pirate to wherever you want him to be in life. To some extent, like other SM games (Red Storm Rising, Colonization, early Civs) this means achieving a better end of game rank, but it’s also role playing. Do you want him to be rich, powerful, save his family, marry well, come to a bad end, etc. You can’t do everything in the time allowed, so you have choices to make.

      Also, the world does react to you (perhaps more in the earlier versions, strangely?) and you can make yourself hated and hunted by all factions if you really want to. Not sure what more you were expecting than being attacked by ships and towns of factions you offend?

      IIRC you can’t choose eras in the last PC version (?), which also affects immersion and replayability, but you can probably still play the earlier ones in Dosbox.

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      Andy_Panthro says:

      The point for me was trying to conquer the entire Caribbean for England. I never quite managed it, there were always a few Spanish towns left. I found the ship-to-ship combat particularly fun.

  17. racccoon says:

    Privileged games reside in my c:/Games/ folder and this is one, Pirates! has stood the test of time as its still used and is such a great relaxing game to play when you want to.
    Shame the man who made it went all loopy for HEXagonal game development & programming

  18. Grayman says:

    Every couple years I give this game a day or two of intense play. I will never finish any of the main quests but the journey is so enjoyable.

  19. King in Winter says:

    I played the C64 cassette version. This is one of my top C64 games of all time. I still remember a ridiculously good run I once had, as an english pirate I recall, where I looted nearly every city on the map and turned them into British colonies to boot. Then I didn’t have the good sense to retire, got captured on next voyage due to some poor decisionmaking, and spent enough time in jail for my sailing days to be nearly over.

  20. fredc says:

    For some reason I must have missed the original, original Pirates, but I’ve played and loved the various updated versions.

    Glad to see I’m not the only one who finds the dancing in the later ones grates. The problem isn’t really the mini-game, but it takes so long and seems to be inflicted on you every time you talk to the governor’s daughter. You spend more time on that than sailing and fighting. I rather liked the land battles in comparison.

    Pity they never updated it with multi-ship (on your side) battles so you could really put your pirate squadron to work.

  21. MonolithTMA says:

    I have spent many hours playing the various versions of this game. First played it on a friend’s Commodore 64, and then on my Franklin Ace 2200 (Apple 2 Clone). I played Pirates! Gold on my Mac. I have it on Steam and on my Sony PSP. In the early days I was able to spend hours playing it, but now it’s more of a nostalgic experience and I don’t play for as long when I get the urge.

  22. ChaseGunman says:

    IMBRIGLICATED!