Did you know that to splice the mainbrace means to give sailors an extra ration of rum, usually to mark a special occasion? I figured I'd better provide you with some authentic naval knowledge, because we sure as hell won't be getting any from today's game. Released in 1994 by obscure Spanish developers Nix, it's the arcade yo-ho-ho-em-up Pirates!
Yes, Pirates, although the voice that shouts the game's title at the start seems to have forgotten there's a letter R in the word "pirates" and so that particular snippet of digitised speech sounds more like a very tired person saying "pieaats". That speech also plays every time you deposit a coin, which explains why I ended up with so many credits.
Here are the pirates that you will be controlling during your adventure. The male pirate is player one, and the female pirate is player two. I have no idea what is going on with the male pirate's trousers, but I do know they're making me feel a bit nauseous. Did he dip his hands into a tub of guacamole and then rub them down his thighs? Is he being monitored by a primitive infra-red camera that only works from the waist down? The female pirate looks much better, so it's a shame she's the player two character and I don't have anyone nearby who's willing to play old arcade games with me.
There are more terrible fashion decisions in the intro, as I'm told a tale by a salty sea-dog wearing a skin-tight teal turtleneck and a... thing on his head. I don't know what that thing is, only that I have a strong desire to use it to fake some very unconvincing UFO photographs. The sailor's full of stories of hidden treasure, and using the same sleepy voice as the opening speech he tells you that the map is "in the pirate's power". I think. He doesn't enunciate well.
To find the treasure, you must collect one of the three pieces of the map from each of these islands. Cartography is apparently a very loose discipline in the world of Pirates. I'm no geographer, but I don't think the Shetlands (part of Scoland) are that close to Papeete, which is in Polynesia. If I go through this whole game and end up with a "map" that's just a sheet of otherwise-blank paper with "TRESHUR" written on it in crayon I will be most disappointed.
I'll be heading to Shetland first, because it's the easiest of the three islands. I know this because it said "easy" when I highlighted it. Then it said "Cabin Boy," just in case you want the names of your difficulty levels to have a more nautical theme.
With a name as simple as Pirates, there's a lot of possibilities as to just what kind of game this is going to be. I was expecting some kind of action platformer, with buckles to be swashed and and the usual jumping and stabbing to be enjoyed, but instead I got this:
Unexpectedly, Pirates is a single-screen crosshair shooter! Games like this usually get called "Cabal clones", but I can never think much further than SNES classic Wild Guns when it comes to this genre, so that will remain my reference point.
To play the game, you have to shoot evil pirates and other assorted enemies until the bar at the bottom of the screen empties and you can move on to the next stage. As is almost always the case with games like this, the joystick moves both your pirate and your crosshair, unless you're holding down the fire button, in which case only the crosshair moves. You have a limited number of bombs you can throw, although they're not the usual screen-clearing super attacks but rather a way of quickly dealing big damage to a troublesome target. You can slide left or right using the second button to dodge projectiles... and that's about it. Go forth, young seaman, and blast anyone who dares to pop up in front of you like a target at a carnival shooting range.
Yes, even the witch riding the broomstick and the poor serving girl who has done nothing more hostile than walk around carrying some beer. She didn't offer me any, but that's hardly a reason to shoot at her. No, the 2,000 point bonus you get for shooting her is the real reason. I honestly felt a bit bad about trying to shoot the barmaid, so I stopped. I shot the witch instead, because she's a witch. There's less moral ambiguity there. Also, she drops power-ups when hit, and even if they are tainted by the foul blasphemy of black magic I can't turn them down.
You might have noticed that the house in the background is taking something of a pounding, and from this you can learn two things: yes, my aim is terrible and yes, Pirates has one of my favourite little videogame features: destructible backgrounds. Just how destructible are they?
Pretty goddamn destructible. Nix may have been a minor player in the world of arcade development, but it's not often you get to level an entire village in the first stage of a game, so they get a thumbs up from me. It gets better, though. Once you've dispatched enough enemies, the stage finishes and you're greeted by this:
A talking skull-and-crossbones who says "you got it!" with a literal glint in his eye. I... I think I'm in love. Even if I wasn't going to write about Pirates, I would have no choice other than to complete it, just to win the further acceptance of this talking skull.
The problem with playing a game that's part of such a rigidly structured genre is that once you've played one stage there's little in the following stages that's going to surprise you. That said, I didn't anticipate the appearance of that pirate with the big pink cannon. I know what you're all thinking, and if you'll forgive me for a momentary lapse into crudeness I can confirm that when this pirate first appeared on screen, I thought he was pushing his grossly oversized genitalia around in some sort of wheelbarrow. Now you know why they call him "Long" John Silver.
Well, I can't argue with the piratical theme of the third stage - galleons covered in convenient doors for swabs to appear from and cannons to blast away at our hero with. There are flying fish, too: relatively rare, as fish go, but still more appropriate to the swashbuckling setting than a witch on a broomstick, and just as packed with power-ups. Here, the flying fish I've just shot has dropped a skull icon that changes my weapon slightly, making it do more damage in a slightly wider area for a short period of time. You can also collect an icon that upgrades the rounds-per-second of your flintlock pistols from an already very impressive two or three shots a second to a rate of fire usually only seen in aircraft-mounted miniguns. I'll be honest, I prefer the latter power up as it seems to destroy the scenery faster, and isn't the complete destruction of every place I visit the real treasure that I'm seeking?
Then a boss showed up. It's a flying pirate ship - although it looks more like a kid's toy of Noah's ark - that rains down an endless supply of exploding aniseed balls on the player. After writing that sentence I had to check, and for a mere £15 I can get a three kilogram sack of aniseed balls from Amazon. Three kilograms! That'd last me, ooh, at least a couple of hours.
Right, anyway, back on track. There is a boss that you have to shoot, and it doesn't get more complicated than that aside from the the hitboxes on the exploding aniseed balls being way bigger than their sprites suggest. Just move well out of their way and keep shooting and you'll be fine.
With the flying ship defeated, the first island is clear and our hero can move on to the second island: La Isabela, a Caribbean hideaway packed with charming buildings and more pirates than a BitTorrent convention held off the coast of Somalia.
The jump in difficulty between this island and the previous one is immediately apparent, with projectiles - glowing orange orbs, the videogame standard, naturally - flying at me from all angles and less time to shoot down passing hot-air balloons for power-ups. In fact, I managed to clear the whole first island without losing a life until I underestimated the explosive power of the boss' aniseed balls, but right from the start island two is causing me problems.
I understand that piracy is a life of machismo and railing against authority, but I might be having an easier time if our hero hadn't decided to single-handedly assault this naval fortress. What's worse is that he steadfastly refuses to use the cannon at the bottom of the screen, even though it's pointing right at his target. You're a pirate, man! Load the cannon balls and light the taper and whatever other naval lingo there is for firing a cannon. Powder the mizzenmast? By the way, if you ever hear an English idiom and you don't know how it originated, there's a, like, ninety percent chance it has maritime origins. I suppose there's nothing much to do during a long sea voyage besides making up ever-more bizarre figures of speech until even the most basic tasks have names that sound as though they're straight from a bad Tolkien knock-off.
Behold, the Colosseum of ancient Rome, where the Emperors of that great civilisation gloried in brutal pirate-on-pirate combat! Also, they sometimes threw a few turtles in there for good measure! That's what those green lumps are in the middle distance are - turtles that are (understandably) hiding in their shells. I think they're lost.
Pirates is starting to get tough now, but you have a couple of tricks to help you survive beyond just shooting all the pirates before they shoot you. You can shoot enemy projectiles out of the air, for one thing, and very useful it is too. The other thing is that you're invincible during your sliding dodge. This sounds great, and it certainly has it's uses, but sliding's not as fast as simply walking sideways and I found that fifty percent of my slide-dodges ended with me realising that I had slid directly into the path of another bullet and I could do nothing but watch as my pirate stood up and immediately took a slug in the face. It seems odd to say about a game that's so focussed on gunplay and destruction, but patience is the key to a successful Pirates play session - concentrate on keeping yourself alive by shooting incoming projectiles and don't move your crosshair too far away unless you're sure you're safe, that's the way to make progress.
I this case, "progress" means the chance to do battle with this wonderful wooden tank. I like this tank, it's what I imagine a tank would look like if pirates gained access to tank-building technology - a tiny wooden castle on wheels. Sadly, the fight is almost identical to the previous boss battle, but hey - it's got drills! Drills that don't factor into the fight in any way. Hmm.
Island number three, where the evil pirates show a level of balance that will see them easily get jobs as circus high-wire artists if the piracy work dries up.
As the action becomes ever more hectic, Pirates' most glaring flaw becomes increasingly apparent: there's no point looking at the top half of the screen. As you dodge and shoot all the bullets flying your way, there's almost no chance to get your guns above the mid-way point of the screen, and anything going on up there might as well not exist. As you play, the part of the screen you're actually paying attention to shrinks smaller and smaller, which seems like a bit of a waste.
Overall, though, Pirates comes recommended by me. I'm a fan of the genre, so I'm a little biased, but it's a mostly engaging romp with a good level of challenge and some endearingly wonky presentation, especially that skull and crossbones. Any game that featured him would be worth playing. There are the previously-mentioned issues with the limited scope of your playing area, and your crosshairs could stand to be a little more accurate, but Pirates is definitely something I'm glad I played.
For the final stage, our hero assaults a network of caves which the native peoples are desperately trying to defend. Another pirate waddles onto the screen, probably searching for the same treasure map as me, but having two peglegs proved to be too much of a disadvantage for him and I was able to shoot him so hard he did the splits. For his sake I'm hoping he's wooden all the way up to the waist, because that looks extremely painful otherwise.
No doubt frustrated by my slaughter of their fellow indigenous people, the natives bring out their secret weapon - a giant crab that fires smaller exploding crabs at the player. It's evolution's greatest achievement! It's also a damn sight more difficult to beat than the previous bosses, because those little crabs are very agiles and they can explode. I feel like I should really hammer that point home. Exploding crabs, very dangerous. They go well with a garlic butter sauce, though.
The King Crab is eventually defeated, but the game isn't over! One final island has appeared, and now that I think about it that makes sense - completing the first three islands gave me the map, but now I have to go and get the treasure itself. Personally, I would have sold the map to someone else and let them collect the riches while I enjoy my new wealth in a place that isn't packed with explosive crustaceans, but that wouldn't make for a very exciting videogame finale, so off I go.
Nothing has changed for this final island besides the backgrounds, which have an Incan / Mayan / Generic South America Pre-History feel to them. They're not any more difficult than the previous stages, either, and after I died more times fighting that crab than in the rest of the game put together, it was nice to get back on a smoother section of the difficulty curve.
Something I like about Pirates is that everything is a valid target. If it's not the floor, chances are that shooting it will either reward you with a decrease in the "stage clear" bar or a power-up, and even if it's not a tangible reward then there's still the satisfaction of seeing buildings and weird stone heads crumble beneath the might of your pistols.
Here's the real final stage, and, erm, I don't have anything to say about it. It's the same as the other stages, only with a very distracting arrow in the background. Seriously, it's difficult to concentrate on killing the pirates when that arrow is constantly drawing your eye towards the ceiling, where there are no enemies. Well, that witch flew around in that area for a while, but she's not really an enemy, more a mobile power-up dispenser.
After a while the final boss rolls into view, and I have no idea what it's supposed to be. Apart from really ugly, I mean. I'm not questioning its death-dealing potential: the perpetual stream of swirling, hard-to-track firebombs it launches led to our hero spending the fight in an almost constant state of post-death invincibility, but a five-man Aztec drum kit isn't exactly what I was hoping for to top this game off. Where's my giant robo-Blackbeard, huh? Maybe a golem constructed from gallows, to better represent the worst fear of all pirates? Whatever this thing is, it's standing between me and my treasure and as such it has to go.
You know, when I first saw this shot of the pirates inspecting the hoard, the gold-coloured walls and floor made me think that all the treasure chests were empty. That would have been a much better ending, if you ask me, especially if coupled with a screen that showed the two pirates looking at each other while a semi-intelligible voice-over that sounds like it was recorded during a carbon monoxide leak said "but friendship is the real treasure".
There is treasure in those chests, of course, and so the game ends with our piratical pals sailing into the sunset on a ship they probably stole. And they say Grand Theft Auto glorifies crime, I just killed thousands of people and destroyed an ancient civilisation just to satisfy my greed and I didn't get so much as one Wanted star. Mind you, Niko Bellic never had to deal with a giant crab. Unless there's a mod for that. There's definitely a mod for that, isn't there?
Pirates, then. I really enjoyed it! It's fun, it looks nice enough, it's got a cheerful talking skull, what more could you ask for? It's not quite good enough for me to bestow the hallowed title of "hidden gem" to it, but if you like crosshair shooters then go and play a bunch of Wild Guns. If that's not enough for you, then Pirates is a pretty back-up.