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Sid Meier's Pirates!
Developer: Firaxis Games
Publisher: Atari
Genre: Strategy Game
Release Date: November 2004

PC Xbox

Review by Al Giovetti
August 23, 2005

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Al Giovetti has been an innovator in the gaming industry since its infancy. Not only was Al one of the original reviewers for Shay Addam's Questbusters, but he also collaborated with Ultima's Lord British to author some of the very first published strategy guides. His syndicated television program - The Computer Show - has been on the air since 1995.

We will be featuring and collaborating much more with Al in the future, but for now we hope you enjoy his in-depth review of Sid Meier's Pirates.

Pirates screenshot - click to enlargeSid Meier’s Pirates!” was first introduced in 1987, and was further modified by Microprose until 1993 as “Pirates! Gold” for IBM PC on DOS 3.3 or higher. The Pirates game engine and concept spawned other games, such as the hit “Sword of the Samurai” and the bug-plagued “Darklands” (both of which were excellent games).

Sid Meier, of Civilization and Colonization fame, did the original design and programming, with Arnold Hendrick providing original Historical Design. Sid Meier is an icon in the industry who went on to found Firaxis when Microprose went out of business. The Microprose founders abandoned ship (“Wild” Bill Stealey in 1994 and Sid Meier in 1995) after Microprose was acquired by Spectrum Holobyte. Eventually, Atari acquired Microprose, and Atari published this Windows XP and X-Box version of the game.

Old vs. new

In many ways the game is very close to the original—so close that parts of the manual and script are verbatim from the original game. The only thing missing is the “command a famous expedition” option from the original game. These six short, scripted missions were delightful. The game suffers from the omission.

The plot of the game is the same: your family is indebted to the pirate Marquis de Montalban (Ricardo?) and, when your ship fails to come in, your family is pressed into indentured servitude at the hands of the pirate who probably hijacked your merchant fleet. You play the role of the young scion of the family who manages to escape the Marquis.

Evil Colonel Mendoza goes around the Caribbean and kidnaps all the governors’ daughters that you court. He keeps the daughters in his forecastle, which looks surprisingly like the abandoned cabins where evil Baron Raymondo has hidden away your sister, uncle, aunt and grandfather. At one point I had twenty Colonel Mendozas sailing the seas. I found four of them sailing in formation north of Santiago.

When creating your character you have five skills, same as the old game: fencing, gunnery, navigation, wit and charm, and medicine. To my mind, fencing and wit and charm are the most important. Fencing helps you win the fencing battle when boarding enemy ships, which gives you an undamaged prize to sell. Charm and wit now helps you impress your partner on the dance floor, helping with the dancing mini game. In the original game charm and wit helped you get better information from the townsmen (and women!) in port.

As in the original game, you can start out on a French, Spanish, English, or Dutch vessel. Nationality, historical age, and difficulty choice determines your starting ship for the game. Details like this really make a game. There are lots of juicy details that make every game with different starting game parameters a new and different experience.

The original game had nine ship types, while the new game has 27 different ship types—three times the original game number. This new variety of ships is a welcome addition and makes the game more interesting. There are nine ship upgrades, eight crew specialists, and 36 special items that you can buy and find as loot after ship-to-ship battles and win as gifts from governors’ daughters respectively. This is another example of the wonderful details that enrich the gaming experience. Be sure you get both types of dancing shoes, calfskin boots and dancing slippers, to make your mistakes in dance keypressing less damaging.

Pirates screenshot - click to enlargeYou can go over land to attack towns and cities using a grid-based, top-down, tactical battlefield to decide the battle. You can sneak into town and get to the governor’s mansion and the tavern to conduct business. You can bombard the fort or town from your ship to soften up the troops. You can leave the ship and go overland, searching for pirate treasure, Maya temples (lost cities), kidnapped relatives, and Montalban’s hideout, with or without maps to guide the way. The amount of the top-down map you can see shrinks with each level of difficulty. A barely adequate and difficult to use spyglass feature is supposed to help you see things in the distance. The perspective was claustrophobic and gave you no sense of the outdoors. I wanted to use control or the right mouse button to change the angle on the perspective view. This feature could have been done better.

Fencing is different. The original game used the 1 through 9 buttons of the numeric keypad to deal the nine side-view fencing moves: high, mid-level and low slash, thrust and defense. The new fencing game uses seven keys for thrust and parry, chop and jump, slash and duck, and taunt. Number pad controls for all games was best – while mouse control worked on menus in the mini games, the mouse was a liability.

The tavern is the most interesting place in a town. This is where you can talk to a bar maid, a bartender, a mysterious stranger, recruit more crew, locate and capture the embezzlers, libertines, blackmailers, spies, and traitors, and fight the rude ship captains that monopolize the barmaids and prevent the barmaid/bartender from providing information. Look out for the Sid Meier look-alike who asks, “Where is your parrot?” Forget looking for the parrot – there isn’t one.

In port you can speak with the governor or mayor for a quest, get a promotion from governor, talk and court the governor’s daughter if your rank is high enough, get your ship repaired, sell loot from raids, go to the tavern, get ship upgrades if available, and sell ships. Gone is the bank where you changed difficulty, and saved and restored in the original game. Those features are accessed by hitting escape. You can only save and load games now on the high seas.


A nice new feature is that quests are tracked for you, so that you only have to take minimal notes. A quest line can fill the top of your screen with the heads of your quest targets. Quests involve Montalban, Raymondo, Mendoza, notorious pirates, Connery the spy (Sean?), Shawshank the blackmailer (Redemption?), Faulkes the traitor (Guy?), Chatterly the libertine (Lady’s lover?), Farthingsworth the embezzler (I would give a farthing to know who this was), Maya temple map, pirate treasure map, Montalban’s hideout, and your lost relatives.

There can be multiples of all but Montalban and his hideout (map), Raymondo and your relatives (map), Maya temple (there are four in the game), notorious pirates, and pirate treasure. There are only nine notorious pirates, nine pirate treasures, four Maya temples, four relatives, and four pieces to every map. Once you find these items, the game does not give you any more.

Pirates screenshot - click to enlargeYou are forced to age and die: the game does not go on forever. Many games run the credits and return you to the game and dispense with the effects of age, thus allowing you to play forever. Most players that I know prefer this type of open-ended game play – so that they can take their time playing the game and doing things they never tried before. Not so in Pirates - your character physically ages. You can see him develop lines and blemishes on his face, and by the age of 44 – 52 he is forced into retirement if he is dumb enough to divide the spoils and attempt to forge an expedition. His reflexes and skill in dancing and swordplay deteriorate. So date those daughters fast and get the nasty pirates early before your reflexes deteriorate to the point where you have to get lucky tripping the villain with your cane. This game could only have been better if you could have avoided the nasty reality of aging, forced retirement, and forced game ending. How is your Pirate 401K?

I found that I had to take notes on the governors’ daughters’ kidnappings. The game does not keep track of what daughters you have rescued and need to return to their fathers, or when you have returned a daughter before you get married. It can be embarrassing, but to my knowledge not detrimental to the game, to return to a governor after you have returned his kidnapped daughter. The daughter will insist that you marry her or reject her. So it would behoove you to steer clear of that governor until you marry the beautiful woman of your choice.

New for this version, the governors’ daughters come in three varieties: plain, attractive, and beautiful. (All the governors had beautiful daughters or nieces in the first game.) You need to work harder to court the beautiful daughters, and the rewards are greater. The plain daughters are more forgiving of dancing mistakes, but give you fewer reputation points when you display your trophy wife on the personal status screen. Dancing with beautiful daughters in capital cities is the most difficult, with the most challenging dance sequences and the most unusual music.

Mini Games

In the ship-to-ship battles, you can stand off and pound an enemy ship, making the resale value on that clunker a lot less, or you can come close to the enemy vessel and board the vessel to fence with its captain for control of the vessel. When fencing, your crew is fighting his, and if one crew count drops to zero, no matter how good a fencer you are, you lose. This is really good game design, and I enjoyed this part of the game immensely. Thankfully you spend most of your time capturing ships.

There are lots of choices in ship battles, and a bunch of ship upgrades help: copper plating for faster turns, cotton sails for faster sailing, grape shot for decimating the crew without damage to hull and sails, chain shot for damaging sails without damaging hull and crew (Good old round shot is standard for pounding enemy hull and guns), and other strategic items.

“Experience the untamed era of piracy through stunning new VGA/Super VGA art and graphics!”

Pirates screenshot - click to enlargeThe original game had great graphics for its time, with screens very similar to the ones in the 2004-2005 version of the game. Pixel counts, colors and graphics, have improved immensely since the four-frame animation, 16- and 256-color VGA graphics days. The screens are similar but much nicer, and are integrated with multi-frame animation and millions of colors.

The ship, tavern, governor’s mansion and land battle sword fights provide unique three-dimensional animations similar to the best animated films. A nice feature is the personal status screen that allows you to relive these victories by clicking on romance, notorious pirates, pirate treasures, wealth, country ranks, rescued relatives, Maya temples, and revenge, replaying the animation sequence. The Maya temple sequence is a beautiful vista, as you and your crew climb up a hill and the multicolored temple is revealed.

A good sense of humor and style permeates the beautiful animations and layout of the game. One ending swordfight scene is a running joke, using ragdoll animation, where a bale of cargo swings at an unsuspecting foe. I won’t spoil it for you. Play the game and see it for yourself. If there is any fault in the game, it is that there are far too few of these wonderful animation sequences. You find yourself wanting more of the humor and animation. When is the Sid Meier’s Pirates movie coming out?

Historical periods

You still select a historical time period from five: 1600, 1620, 1640, 1660 and 1680. I recommend you read the exceptional manual for more background on these periods. The original game also had The Silver Empire – 1560, as an option, for six time periods in all. Also, you are limited to the buccaneer heroes period of 1660, if you play apprentice.

The design choice of making the lower difficulty less rewarding was to motivate you to try the insanely harder higher levels. While this is good motivation to move up, it restricts the game play for those who may find the dauntingly steep learning curve impossible. Casual gamers need not apply, unless you intend to stay an apprentice. Ultimately, this is a poor game choice, since many casual gamers want to skip the difficult arcade and get on with the story.

Difficulty levels

The original game had four levels: apprentice, journeyman, adventurer, and swashbuckler. The new game has five levels, adding a level called rogue between adventurer and swashbuckler. As in the original game, swashbuckler is difficult. The learning curve of these levels is very steep. Many will find rogue and swashbuckler impossible to play.

Romance and Dancing – Faithful husband by day, 17th century cyber-Don Juan by night

Pirates screenshot - click to enlarge“If your reputation is impeccable (and you’ve bathed within the last month), a governor may introduce you to a beautiful young niece or daughter.” In the original game, the governors’ daughters or nieces were all beautiful and simply sources of information. And should your reputation, rank, and wealth be acceptable, you could marry. While the original game featured the music of JS Bach (an obscure Microprose veteran composer), Jeff Briggs (Microprose and Firaxis closet composer) and Roland Rizzo (1993 “Pirates! Gold”), there was no dancing in the original game, which made the courtship of the governors’ daughter a bit boring.

Dancing is a new sadistic but fun addition to the game. Dancing with the governor's daughter is ridiculously difficult, except on the lowest difficulty level. Firaxis is nice enough to automatically save the game when you enter the city, so that you can reload and play it over as often as you need to.

I find it immensely obnoxious to have to replay arcade sequences ad nauseam. I played the original game and I loved it. I actually like the new game on apprentice level, but dancing on journeyman and above is insanely difficult, and you miss out on many game features if you don't play the higher difficulty levels. This is really sad. I don't have weeks and weeks to practice my dancing. This is a game. Games are supposed to be fun, not a frustratingly tedious repetition of impossibly difficult arcade sequences.

If you tried an arcade sequence five times in a row and failed in, for example, Jeffrey Tunnell’s “Rise of the Dragon” (developed by Dynamix in 1990, published by Sierra), the game asked you if you really wanted to do the arcade sequence and would let you skip it, get on with the story, and optionally do the arcade sequence later. There were times in the dance sequence that I really wished for this innovative “bypass the annoying animation” option.

The dancing keeps you coming back for more and more punishment, because it rewards you with the giggles, laughs, and expressions of the governors’ daughters. Higher difficulty levels bring more music pieces and dance sequences. It appears that the rewards at higher levels increase when you succeed. Apprentice level has only one song that becomes boring very quickly.

The animation goes so far as to add a blush to the cheeks and upper chest of the women should you complete a particularly exciting dance sequence. If you do badly the woman rejects you. If you do ok she permits you to kiss her hand. If you succeed in getting the required number of full or half-turn flourishes, you are rewarded with a dip and a kiss.

All the time you are dancing and responding to hand cues from the daughter, a heart beats above the dance floor. If you don’t miss a step, the beating heart swells gradually to bursting. If you mess up, the heart deflates immediately. So it is critical to be on your toes at the end of the dance. If you perform a flourish, a small heart appears near the large one, and up to eight hearts can appear around the heart – one for each consecutive flourish that you perform. I am convinced that it takes a lot of luck to perform these sequences successfully. After five times through the game at different difficulty levels I am still trying to figure out how to consistently do flourishes.


One of the first things I often do is look in the manual for the controls. Usually games are somewhat obscure as to what the keys do. Pirates was surprisingly transparent in that there was no need to check the buttons - they were obvious, and the game was playable without reading the manual.


Pirates screenshot - click to enlargeDespite the fact that you don’t need the manual to understand the controls, the manual of the original game was a 71-page gem, with wonderful information on the life of pirates between 1560 and 1720 in the Americas.

Several parts of the original book have been repeated verbatim in the new 143-page, spiral-bound manual that came with my PC version of the game. “The City Gazetteer,” from the original manual, is repeated in the new game manual as “Ports of Call.”

Network and Online Play

The game has no network or internet play support. Game designers have learned a lot about games since “Sid Meier’s Pirates!” was released in 1987. We learned that games are enhanced by cooperative or competitive multiplayer play. I would have loved to play over our home network with my son or daughter here in Baltimore, or over the internet with another daughter in Arizona. Alas, this must be the unfulfilled wish of an aging gamer and father.


There are several things that make no sense. There is a character named evil Colonel Mendoza who kidnaps every governor’s daughter you court. (You can only date governor’s daughters.) Mendoza is apparently a Spanish officer because the Spanish governors get upset when you sink or capture his vessel, even if the governor is the same one you fought Mendoza to free his kidnapped daughter.

Every governor’s daughter courtship has a set sequence: first successful dance, give ruby ring or diamond jewelry, duel the fiance, second successful dance, rescue the governor’s daughter from evil Colonel Mendoza. At this point, when you return to port again the daughter will insist that you propose or get offended with you. If you have a ruby ring or diamond necklace, the daughter will insist that you give it to her or become offended with you and the courtship is off. Mess up one dance and the courtship is off. If you fail in the duel with the fiance the courtship is off, but you get a shot at her younger sister upon retuning to port.

Insanely difficult things that take years of game time to do are an impediment to game play. Another insanely difficult thing is the finding of the lost city (You need to find four lost cities in order to get maximum fame) and finding the hideout of Montalban, the pirate who ruined your family in the game introduction. The map for these have no landmarks on them that you can see from your ship except a rough shape of the shore outline, and in many cases the temple is found far inland, forcing you to wander for days, weeks, or months in the wilderness to find them.


Pirates screenshot - click to enlargeI love the game. Perhaps the game player should have been given a game options screen where aging could have been turned off, infinite notorious pirates, relatives and treasure spawns turned on, cooperative and competitive network and internet play, and an easier dancing mode that would let us enjoy all dances and the JS Bach music in the game. I guess we just don’t live in a perfect world.


In spite of all these problems with the game, overall, it is wonderful in all aspects. I loved it. I hope you love it too. However, nothing is perfect - 9 out of 10.

This review is based upon playing the game all the way though about eight times at various difficulty levels, except swashbuckler which I have yet to master. The more time you devote to the game, the easier it gets at higher and higher difficulty levels, and the more you like the game and the less frustration you experience while playing. The learning curve is very steep and there are no cheats so frustration is a part of the learning process.

Many of the quotes are from the original “Pirates! Gold” (1993) manual and packaging written by Paul Murphy and Arnold Hendrick.

Final Grade: A
(find out more about our grading system)

System Requirements:

  • Windows 98, ME, 2000, XP
  • 1.0GHz Pentium or higher
  • 256MB Ram
  • 4x speed
  • DirectX version 9.0b (included) or higher
  • 1.2GB Hard Disk Space
  • Sound Cart