Pirates! is one of those games I've owned on pretty much any gaming system I've owned, since I first bought the Commodore 64 version back in 1987. Despite some essentially repetitive gameplay, it's a title that I've always found fun to play, and it's probably best not to think of the number of hours I've wasted on it over the years! Which is why it's such a shame that this Wii version lets the side down by being rather average.
Still, let's start with the positives. The basic gameplay of Pirates! has always been appealing. Who hasn't imagined what it would be like to be a pirate, sailing the seas, finding buried treasure and plundering ships? Built around a series of mini-games, this is Pirates! in a nutshell. You create a character and then try to give him as long and successful a career as possible. This is can be done by honest trading (buying goods in one port at a low and selling them elsewhere at a much higher one) or by dishonest means -attacking ships and towns and stealing their gold and goods. The action essentially revolves around six mini games (from sword fighting through to attacking ships; invading ports and even a dance-off to attract a wife!). You will play each of these mini games dozens of times in the course of a single game and whilst they might get a little repetitive sometimes, they remain fun to play.
To help balance the shallowness of the mini games, Pirates has a deeper strategic element. The game features four different nations (French, Spanish, English and Dutch). These are all vying for supremacy on the sea and you need to balance your relations with them carefully. Attacking ships of a particular country results in that nation becoming hostile; their ships might attack you and their ports refuse to trade. On the other hand, enemies of that nation will reward you for such aggressive actions, giving you land and titles that are essential for progression. This means that you have to constantly watch the shift in alliances between countries altering your strategy accordingly to ensure that you are always in favour with at least one country and can use their ports as a safe haven.
All of this is just as it always has been. The balance between the strategic elements and the instant gratification of the mini-games is about right and makes for a game which is fun to play in short bursts, but which also has deeper elements that ensure the game has a longer term appeal.
Sadly, despite the core gameplay remaining the same, there are lots of issues which make this version significantly less fun to play than all the previous iterations. First of all, this version suffers from feeling a little dated. OK, so the basic game was first released 25 years ago, but all the later versions have also introduced new elements or innovations to keep it feeling fresh. The Wii version feels like a lazy port of the 2005 PC game and as a result, appears rather tired.
This tiredness extends to all aspects of the presentation. On one level, the graphics and sound are perfectly fine. The bold cartoon-like graphics give the game a certain visual flair and are ideally suited both to both the game and the graphical capabilities of the Wii. A similarly strong range of suitably jaunty and piratey tunes perfectly capture the sense of period. The game's characters don't actually speak dialogue, but make "blah blah" noises that mimic dialogue. This initially sounds odd, but works really well in establishing an atmosphere in the cut-scenes.
Unfortunately, whilst the graphics and sound are perfectly adequate, they are starting to show their age, since they are essentially identical to the earlier (2005) PC version. Four years is a long time in computer terms and presentation that looked good in 2005 don't look anywhere near as impressive in 2009 (when this game was released)
Sadly, there are further issues. Pirates has always essentially been a series of mini-games - sword fighting, sailing, plundering ships, searching for buried treasure or lost family members and so on - but the idea of taking your character through his career as a pirate, watching him grow in wealth, influence and stature helped it to hang together in a coherent whole. When your Pirate Pal suffered a setback (such as being imprisoned following a failed attack), you felt disappointed and worried about the potential impact on his career and reputation. The Wii version never captures that sense of involvement and I always feel slightly detached from my on-screen avatar - something I have never experienced with the previous versions
Sadly, this raises questions about Pirates' long term appeal. You put so much effort into a single game that when you reach the end of your career, it's difficult to motivate yourself to start again from scratch. In fairness, that's always been a weakness of the game, but because the mini-games and career building aspects have always been fun, it's a title that, after a short break, has always pulled me back again. I could play the PC version for hours at a time without getting bored, but playing those same mini games on this Wii version often seemed more of a chore and I'd find myself getting bored after about an hour.
One of the main culprits for this is the controls. It's not that they are particularly complicated, It's just that there are a lot of them and accessing a specific one can be a bit of a pain. The Wii remote obviously only has a limited number of buttons, so either buttons have several different functions which change depending on what you are currently doing, or certain options have to be accessed via a series of menus and sub-menus. Inevitably, this involves trying to remember which menu various options are hidden under and then waiting whilst the disk whirrs away to access the relevant screen. This pause ever time you access certain options (the map screen is a particular problem) robs the game of its atmosphere, reminding you that you are just playing a computer game and destroying the immersive world that earlier incarnations created.
Where innovations have been introduced to the controls, they are not particularly successful. The most obvious change comes in the sword fighting mini-game, which requires you to swipe and jab your Wii remote like a real sword. Putting aside the fact that you look like a bit of a berk, this is quite good fun to start with. Unfortunately, as opponents get tougher, you start to realise that it's just not responsive enough and there were several times when I lost battles (and so the money and ships I had collected) because the controls didn't respond in time. This seriously impacts on the fun element.
At the end of the day, Pirates is still an OK game, but it's easily the worst iteration I've played to date. Essentially a lazy port of the PC game, it's just not as much fun to play. In fact, there were times when I playing Pirates became something of a chore - and when that happens with a game, you know there's something wrong somewhere.
At its core, Pirates still provides a bit of short term fun, but it's finally starting to show its age. Any future versions need to add something new and provide a genuine update, rather than being a lazy rehash of existing versions.
A new copy of Pirates will cost you about £12 pieces of eight (or pounds as they are more commonly known). I'd suggest you try and get it for less than a tenner, as it's not worth any more than that.
(c) Copyright SWSt 2012