The Swashbuckling Escapism of Sid Meier’s Pirates!

Sid Meier has one of the most recognizable names in the video game industry. But who is he beyond a name on a box, anyway?

A recent thread on Reddit asking the community about the first game they ever played gathered over 45,000 comments, with classic names like Tetris, Super Mario Bros., and Spyro topping the list. It got me thinking about which video games had the biggest impact on me as a kid. These days they’re a major part of my life, but it hasn’t always been that way. I was born in the mid-’90s, so I missed out on the earliest consoles, and after the loss of our beloved Gameboy Color (stolen in the prime of its life), the technological heart of my house became the family’s desktop computer. 

author young in front of computer
Courtesy of M.J. Lewis

It was my dad’s domain, and I would squeeze in next to the dial-up modem to watch him play classic dad games like Football Manager and Airline Tycoon. Generally I was content to spectate, until one game managed to promote me to player: the 2004 release of Sid Meier’s Pirates! 

Looking back on the game now, it’s easy to see why it appealed to me so much. You start out as a buccaneer, steering your ship across an open-world map of the Caribbean in search of fame, fortune, and your lost family. Encounters on the waves lead to real-time naval battles, where players use the number pad to fire their cannons at an enemy vessel while attempting to deftly maneuver through their cannonball onslaught. It’s surprisingly tactical: You can pick the type of cannonball that your ship fires, with different types dealing specific damage to the enemy ship or its crew. Reducing the number of crew makes it easier to win the ensuing sword fight, a tense battle against the enemy captain on the deck of his (hopefully) half-wrecked ship. 

This could feel needlessly bellicose if it weren’t so damn fun—and profitable to boot. Taking an enemy vessel gets you crew, goods, and gold but could harm your reputation with whomever the ship was affiliated with. A good reputation will see you welcomed at the faction’s settlements to sell your goods and, most importantly, dance with the governor’s incredibly buxom daughter. The dancing mini-game plays out on the number pad and is essentially a rhythm game, requiring quick reflexes and an impeccable sense of timing. My dad had neither, and I clearly remember him calling me over to the computer to help him get the full combos he needed to impress the courtiers. 

So far Sid Meier’s Pirates! has open-world exploration, naval battles, trading and reputation systems, and fighting and rhythm mini-games, but I haven’t even touched on the game’s turn-based strategy parts. This game absolutely refuses to be constrained by a single genre and offers players a veritable smorgasbord of game mechanics. For some, it was too much. But why were those choices made?