Next to Sid Meier’s Civilization, there are few PC games with as much affectionate nostalgia attached to them as Sid Meier’s Pirates! Mixing the legendary designer’s penchant for surprisingly deep, yet playable, strategy with adventure gaming, he created a pirate-themed game that has lived on long after its initial release in 1987 on the Commodore 64. Pirates! has hit more platforms than we can remember, but now it’s on your iPad.
If you’ve never played any of the many iterations of this classic, it might seem like a strange game to have such sticking power. In truth, it’s very basic in terms of game mechanics. Mixing sailing, trading, swashbuckling sword fights, ship-to-ship battles, and even a bit of romance, the secret to the game’s success is that it keeps everything simple.
By the same token, however, this is an open world game that can become as deep as you want. The storyline focuses on a young boy who manages to escape capture when his whole family is forced into bondage by an evil lord. Fast-forward ten years, and the boy is a man about to embark on his first sea-going voyage. Soon after that, he starts his new career as a scourge of the open seas.
Pirates! takes place in the Caribbean, and the visuals have a nicely lush and picturesque quality. The water effects are particularly impressive. The audio is solid as well, though there’s no voice work, so expect to do a lot of reading.
I’ve come to sink your battleship.
For newcomers, reading is especially imperative. The game comes with an in-depth onboard manual and plenty of interesting historical material to help players first starting out. You’re essentially just thrown out to the sea, so learning the mechanics and flow of the game can take several tries. While there’s a central story and story-based quests, you are free to sail around and do what you like. You can ignore the plot entirely to focus on trade, high-seas piracy, collecting bounties for the flag you sail under, or a mix of all of the above.
The controls and menu layouts for all this pirate goodness have always been intentionally simplistic, so the move to a touchscreen feels very natural. Sword fighting is a swipe-based rock-paper-scissors game of avoidance and striking at just the right time. It takes a bit of practice to master, though. Sailing around the islands is easy and fun, and even the trading aspects are simple to grasp.
The biggest draw to Sid Meier’s Pirates! is its open-world nature. If it had just been a series of minigames attached to a linear storyline, we wouldn’t still be playing after more than two decades. Taken individually, the various aspects of the game aren’t particularly impressive. For modern gamers, some of the gameplay (such as the sword fighting) might be too simplistic. Thankfully, the expert design and charm of the game as a whole is still impressive. While the luster may have diminished somewhat, this is still a high-seas adventure worth taking.