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Because gamers were into pirates before they went mainstream
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Subject: Pirates! on the PSP
The Playstation Portable is like a family sedan with delusions of race car glory. People should really be using it for little short bursts of activity, but we keep being encouraged to take it for long and grueling professional outings. It wants to be much more than the portable system good for a quick go with Lumines, but it's not really up to the challenge of a five-hour Dungeons and Dragons Tactics battle. Very few developers have created games that properly balance both the PSP capabilities and limitations, which is why that platform's version of Sid Meier's Pirates! is such a breath of fresh air.

[Image: http://www.prismnet.com/~kkc/img/smp02.jpg]

Images borrowed from Amazon's sale archive.

[Image: http://www.prismnet.com/~kkc/img/smp01.jpg]

The old game just had you hear rumors in the tavern. In the new game, you flirt with the barmaid to get information.

Pirates! is always properly written out with the exclamation point, like the title of a Broadway musical or counterculture novel. This sturdy game is arguably one of the earliest examples of a sandbox RPG, an open-ended adventure with no particular plot or any linear event structure. The sandbox term is something we use today to describe games like Elite, Grand Theft Auto, Steambot Chronicles, and other fine examples of the genre. Pirates! has been with us for more than twenty years, and you can observe that its evolution over time can be split into three distinct phases:

  • Pirates! - The original 8-bit computer game was a tightly integrated collection of mini-games. Nautical exploration, ship-to-ship battles, treasure hunting and real-time shoreline siege were all held together with vivid text descriptions and one of the earliest mouse-driven menu systems to appear outside of a productivity application.

  • Pirates! Gold - An expanded, improved version of the first game, and it's this second variant which was famously ported to the Sega Genesis/Megadrive. The story is fleshed out to enumerate the eight great accomplishments of a pirate adventurer, real-time land combat is replaced with a turn-based grid, and certain nuances of the game are actually spelled out for the player rather than being communicated only by experience. And that's to say nothing of the technology improvements, like MIDI music and the larger color palette.

  • Sid Meier's Pirates! - The current iteration, available on all the major game consoles and a newly distributed PC version. 3D graphical models, a modern user interface, and an overarching JRPG-styled plot to tie together all the pirate accomplishments. The addition of figures from history and more complex mission types lend it a verisimilitude not present in the earlier games. Even better, each version has features unique to the platform. The Xbox version, in particular, has quick-time events (or QTEs) that confer bonuses on the player when completed successfully. This is the version that's available on the PSP.

Most everything about Pirates! on the PSP is just as good as it was in the original games. Mutiny makes you captain of a pirate ship, and your immediate goal is to amass wealth. How you do that is a completely self-determined affair. Do you complete work for one of the four colonial powers to earn titles and land? Do you buy cheap plentiful goods to resell in ports where they're scarce and expensive? Do you chase after rumors and legend looking for lost treasure? All the while, the list of your enemies grows and your men need to be paid. The structure of the game is so sound that it hardly needs all the bells and whistles of a modern console game. And the whole world is already open to you, without nothing that's locked out based on difficulty or any arbitrary barrier. No other RPG or strategy game before or since has been so free.

It's hard to review any version of this game without viewing it through the historical lens. By that, I mean the history of the game and not the historical era in which it's set. The old game was sparse and bare, but still inspired you to fill in the blanks. Battles would end with only the two captains on the screen, suggesting the fighting crewmen only by way of displaying rising or falling numerals. Treasure hunts were frustrating affairs, as you tried to suss out a geographic location based on a map built from nearly identical graphical tiles. Even the courtship and other negotiation was handled much like a paper RPG, with random numbers and statistical comparisons.

On the PSP, every bit of input is vital and efficient, and it's those subtle differences that make this version of the game uniquely suited to play on a handheld. Ship battles are presented right on the main world map instead of zooming in for a closer view, which reduces loading and time spent just sailing around. Fencing is not as elaborate as it is on the Xbox or PC, but the lack of QTEs and fancy footwork means that fights are over quickly and are just as wonderful to view as on the PC. Even the minutiae of running your fleet is handled well, in that the vital information about ship statistics is always right up front. Constraining the amount of information presented at any one time in the PSP interface means that an experienced player can set sail, plunder two ships and lay siege to a town all in under ten minute's time. Some handheld games won't let you upgrade your equipment without a half hour of button mashing.

All this abbreviation comes at a price, of course. I miss the ability to bombard a town using the ship's cannons, and there's too little on-screen feedback during land sieges to tell how well you're doing. The Metal Gear stealth game of sneaking into a town doesn't make up for that, and neither do the new missions that come from monasteries or the aboriginal settlements. And even the limited power of the PSP still makes it possible to generate more procedural content than a player can handle, which gets frustrating when there are ten ships on the screen that all need your attention. While overall we've gained more than we lost, I do miss a lot of the classic game mechanisms of Pirates! Gold. Even so, judged by its own standards the current Pirates! is a perfectly wonderful alternative.

Something I haven't been able to try myself is the multiplayer function, which is also present on the Xbox version. I'm not completely convinced that the mechanisms of the game stand up to the scrutiny that comes with having all human players, but it's certainly something I'm willing to try.

As a closing thought, there's a persistent rumor that a Nintendo DS version is forthcoming. I can't think of another game where 'more of the same' would apply so well as a compliment.
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