Up the riggings, you monkeys...
Despite more modern attempts to outdo him, Errol Flynn remains the archetypal matinee action idol, immortalised in such classics as Captain Blood and The Sea Hawk. He was, is, and forever will be, the ultimate swashbuckling hero, despite his dubious off-screen behaviour. (He famously once said: "I can't reconcile my gross habits with my net income.")
Likewise, Sid Meier's original 'action sim' Pirates! is a classic from a bygone and simpler age, one that remains as playable today as Flynn's early high seas adventures are watchable. The difference between them (apart from a few lifestyle choices) is that Meier is very much alive, meaning that after much cajoling from fans, an all-new-and-improved Pirates! is setting course for a return to our monitors. And about time too - the last 17 years have seen some depressingly average imitators make sail for glory and sink without trace soon after leaving port.
Lock Up Your Daughter
In this increasingly genre-obsessed world, it's worth noting that Pirates! is something of an anomaly: it's neither straight-up action, nor strategy or RPG, nor, in the traditional sense, an adventure. Rather, it takes elements of them all and is essentially a series of mini-games bound within a plot-your-own storyline. All the action is based in the 17th century Caribbean, where the major colonial powers of England, Holland, Spain and France are vying for a share of the region's wealth.
Rather than going all-out to realistically simulate the sailing ships and strategy of the era (as you might otherwise expect from a Sid Meier game), Pirates! remains in essence much like its ancient arcade-orientated forebear. Apart from the gloriously-staged sword-fights, spirited sea battles, the governor's daughter swooning at your dashing good looks and the odd hornpipe or two. All the basics of a classic Flynn movie in fact, only in videogame form.
Grapeshot Of Wrath
You start the game in a friendly port, with a basic ship and a skeleton crew. What you do next is up to you: stick around and visit the local hostelry and you may hear rumours of passing ships ripe for plunder, or swing by the governor's residence and you may be presented with a mission to ferry goods to a nearby outpost or vanquish an enemy ship sighted offshore. Fulfil the mission and your footing with that faction increases, which if siding with the English, is likely to be to the detriment of your status with the Spanish. Of course, you can betray your allies at any time, switch sides or simply go jolly-rogering and attack everything afloat on the high seas.
Ship-to-ship combat in Pirates! appears rather simplistic at first hand. The wind direction and strength dictates ship speed, leaving you to control the rudder and press the fire button whenever your prey swims into range. Despite such an apparent lack of complexity, watching a ship duel reveals a delicate balancing act of trying to ensure the wind fills your sails to effect the necessary speed, all the while leading your cannons to pound the enemy ship. Problem is, by striking a parallel course, you leave your vessel open to similar volleys. With 27 types of vessel all distinct in speed, crew and firepower, Pirates! may well be an easy game to learn, but it's tricky to master.
However, the biggest change and by some margin the most obvious is the graphical update to the sword-fighting sections which kick in whenever you attempt to board an enemy ship. Here, you take on the enemy captain, and although he may be an excellent swordsman, if you've decimated his crew beforehand, the fight is much easier. Beat him back to the abaft of his poop deck and he keels over into the water, leaving his ship, its crew and cargo yours for the taking.