jolly roger jolly roger

The Video Game Critic's
Pirate Review Special

Updated June 1, 2011
www.videogamecritic.com

Skuljagger (ASC,1992)
System: Super Nintendo
Grade: B+
screenshotThis simple-yet-fun swashbuckling adventure puts you in the role of a clean-cut pirate out to destroy an ugly bastard named Skuljagger. I love the tropical scenery. The first stage offers a scenic view of distant green islands in a shimmering blue sea. It's quite a sight. Even the warehouse stage looks inviting thanks to the vine-covered ruins visible through the windows.

The gameplay is predictable as you leap between ledges, collect floating gems, and slay guards with your sword (after ducking under their shots, of course). You'll fight a lot of bad-ass buccaneers including those swinging skulls at the end of chains. There are only two or three types of enemies per stage, but the fact that they don't regenerate makes it fun to explore alternate routes and search for hidden areas.

Your sword has excellent reach but flying enemies like giant red wasps swoop in from awkward angles, making the jump-slash attack your best friend. Whimsical fruit power-ups include cherry balloons, orange grenades, and grapes that turn you into a big purple bouncy ball. Sometimes you seem expected to perform "leaps of faith" but you can usually spot the very edge of the next platform if you look close enough. Spicing things up are the occasional opportunities to man cannons to sink ships in the distance. Despite a number of indicators along the top of the screen I could never figure out what my health status was.

The excellent soundtrack is more contemporary than you'd expect, and I love the organ music that plays when you die. An 80-page manual (!) includes an extensive, colorfully-illustrated background story. They don't make them like this anymore. Skuljagger may be a conventional platformer at best but its that back-to-basics style which makes it so appealing. I never get tired of playing this.




Pirates: The Legend of Black Kat (Electronic Arts, 2002)
System: Xbox
Grade: A-
screenshot Although widely overlooked, Legend of Black Kat is arguably the best pirate game ever made. It's a potent combination of explosive sea battles, interesting island exploration, and exciting swordplay. The game progresses at a steady clip thanks to its nicely tuned difficulty, responsive controls, and frequent save points.

You assume the role of an attractive female pirate by the name of Kat, who must single-handedly battle famous pirates, giant crabs, gorillas, and skeletons. In addition to wielding a sword, Kat can hurl knives and toss exploding powder kegs. Each island is unique and fun to explore. I especially like the nifty vibration effect that alerts you of nearby buried treasure. Controlling your ship on the high seas is easy thanks to arcade-style controls that even include a turbo boost! Blasting away at other ships is satisfying, especially when they explode into flames.

This Xbox version's graphics are noticeably more polished than the Playstation 2 version, and its crisp audio includes creaking boats hulls, exotic birds, resounding explosions, and a lively musical score. The save and load times are much better in this version as well. Those looking for realism will prefer Sid Meier's Pirates (Xbox, 2005), but gamers looking for non-stop action should check out this underrated adventure.




Lego Pirates of the Caribbean (Disney, 2011)
System: Xbox 360
Grade: B-
screenshot Just when I thought the Lego series had run its course, this new pirate edition reinvigorates the franchise. It may be the most compelling Lego adventure yet, spanning all four of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies! The colorful cast of characters, exotic locations, and swashbuckling musical score are lifted straight from the films.

I was bedazzled by the sunny tropical islands, the shadowy pubs, and the fireworks-lit Singapore village. The amazing water and fire effects made me glad I opted for the high-def 360 version. Each film consists of about five lengthy stages of intricate puzzles and shallow sword fighting. The puzzles require a lot of item manipulation and swapping between characters, and they are satisfying to solve. The fighting is weak and often confusing as you simply pound buttons in a mob of people.

The difficulty is low thanks to constant clues and infinite lives, but some puzzles can be frustrating. Why is that crocodile not taking damage when I toss a bomb into his mouth?! The stages are held together by short cut-scenes which are condensed scenes from the films. Each stage features several characters, and you'll need to strategically switch between them to leverage their special abilities. By the end of each stage you may have six or more characters at your disposal, but it turns into a case of "too many chefs in the kitchen".

The controls could be more intuitive, as holding in a button can have a different result than a simple press. The fixed camera angles can be a problem, and sometimes it's hard to see key items in cluttered areas. The two-player split-screen mode dynamically divides the screen based on the location of the characters, which is an interesting concept. Collecting Lego "cogs" is satisfying thanks to those "click" noises, and there's plenty of wanton destruction to be had as you bash crates and furniture, causing hidden cogs to spring forth. Lego Pirates of the Caribbean feels a little convoluted at times, but it's still good clean summertime fun.




Shipwreckers (Psygnosis, 1997)
System: Playstation
Grade: D+
screenshot As the only pirate game I've seen for the Playstation One, Shipwreckers offers a nice change of pace. Too bad it's mired by a slew of video game cliches. It begins with a wacky animated intro that lets you know right up front that this isn't a serious game. In the one-player mode, you view your vessel from overhead as you battle other ships, collect floating crates, and unlock new areas. Controlling your ship is simple - maybe too simple. Steering it around isn't much different than steering around Pac-Man - you'd think they could have at least incorporated the wind somehow.

There's a nice selection of weapons, and it's cool how you can fire cannons off both sides of your ship. Sinking other ships provides some thrills, as it's quite satisfying to watch them go down. Townships and beaches serve as attractive but unremarkable scenery, and excellent metal-drum music gives the game a tropical flavor. You'll find some cool power-ups, including one that lets you fly in the air like a blimp.

Unfortunately, Shipwrecker's stages tend to be set up like claustrophobic mazes with endless canals, gates, and switches. These confined areas hardly convey the feeling of plundering and pillaging on the high seas, and the multiplayer mode is even more disappointing. You would think that five pirate ships battling in the open water would be an absolute blast, but there's minimal strategy as the ships trade shots back and forth. Making matters worse, when they move apart, the view scales out so far that you can barely see them! Shipwreckers isn't terrible, but it definitely feels like a missed opportunity.




Captain Silver (Sega, 1988)
System: Sega Master System
Grade: B
screenshot Long before Captain Jack Sparrow made pirates fashionable (in more ways than one) Captain Silver ruled the Sega Master System. As one astute reader observed, this is one of the few games not named after its protagonist but instead it's villain! A side-scroller with colorful graphics and simple gameplay, Captain Silver is captivating fun. Assuming the role of an old-world adventurer by the name of Jack Avery, you jump and slash your way through towns, ships, islands, and caves.

Complementing the tropical visuals is a rollicking musical arrangement that embodies the carefree spirit of a swashbuckling adventure. Your sword has terrific range and pixie power-ups enable you to unleash bursts of shooting stars. You can direct these up, down, and even sideways while hanging off masts and ladders. The action is slow and methodical but satisfying.

Defeated enemies leave behind floating letters, and collecting enough to spell "Captain Silver" to earn a free life becomes an obsession. Your first few foes are pretty tame, including giant teddy bears (ahem... "werewolves"), green pumpkins, and Cheshire cats. Later you'll battle bloodthirsty buccaneers, poisonous frogs, and natives with spears. The game doesn't keep score but your gold can be used for this purpose.

Players of the American version may find certain aspects of Captain Silver confusing. Why don't the pirates fire their guns? Why does the instruction booklet show a witch, cyclops, dragon, and banana king? As it turns out, this American version omitted large chunks of the original game to save memory costs. We're talking about enemies, bosses, and entire levels! Fortunately you can still get the full experience by importing the European version. In retrospect, this abbreviated Captain Silver feels like a warm-up to the real thing.




Pirate's Chase (Bally, 1981)
System: Bally Astrocade
Grade: D
screenshot boxIt's hard not to get psyched over a game called Pirate's Chase, and when you fire it up you're greeted with a spirited seafaring refrain. But the graphics? A red screen with rows of black dots is a far cry from the colorful, exotic image depicted on the cover. According to the instruction manual those dots are meant to be doubloons (coins) scattered over a beach! I'm not buying it. How many beaches are blood red?

The object of the game is to move a target-shaped cursor around the screen, gathering coins while avoiding "the spirit of Long John Silver". He resembles a little skull and crossbones randomly wandering around the screen. A treasure item frequently appears near the center, but it's often hard to discern what it's supposed to be (an ice cream sundae? No wait - eggs benedict!) To its credit, the game displays a new bonus item each round of increasing value.

The action is fast but the controls are touchy. After a few rounds I felt like I was playing an overclocked version of the game! Your symbol hops around so quickly that trying to pick up that last dubloon is about as easy as picking up a watermelon seed. If you play long enough the color scheme changes to green, which looks a lot better. The two-player mode supports simultaneous treasure hunting, letting you compete for score. Pirate's Chase is certainly frantic, but the link between this game and pirate lore seems tenuous at best.




Pirates of the Caribbean: The Legend of Jack Sparrow (Bethesda, 2006)
System: Playstation 2
Grade: D
screenshot Video game magazines like every game, and this proves it! How such an unsatisfying, cookie-cutter title like this can earn critical acclaim is beyond comprehension. A bargain-bin title with a license, Legend of Jack Sparrow looks like a first generation PS2 brawler with pirates substituted for ninjas.

Initially I had held out some hope for this game. Unlike the first Pirates of the Caribbean (Xbox, 2003) game, this is easy to play and correctly places the emphasis on action. The problem is, its familiar hack-n-slash gameplay has already been done far better in countless other titles including Onimusha, Lord of the Rings, and Pirates - Legend of Black Kat.

As you hack your way through a series of confined areas, you'll have to deal with hordes of regenerating clones that spawn out of thin air. The controls can be frustratingly unresponsive, and certain stretches of the game are terribly monotonous. The one feature I did enjoy was the ability to break wooden platforms, bringing enemies camped out on top of them tumbling down.

In terms of graphics, there's not much to see and the animation looks choppy. By the time you reach the Shinobi-style Asian stages (not sure why they're even in this game), Legend teeters precariously between boring and unbearable. Instead of following the movie's storyline, the game unwisely follows its own plot, which is all over the place.

Two-player cooperative action is supported, and you can play as Captain Jack Sparrow, Will Turning, or Elizabeth Swan. The main strength of the game is its audio. Johnny Depp lent his voice to Captain Jack, and the musical score is quite good. Bethesda really needs to call in the VGC as a consultant however, because this game is riddled with design flaws. When you open a treasure chest, the loot inside silently fades away, leaving you wondering what the heck just happened. Did I just get something or not?

The "save game" screen offers two options: "continue" and "quit". Huh? Granted, it saves your game in both cases, but that's not intuitive at all. When you load your previous game, it doesn't even take you back to where you left off! Instead you need to navigate a map to locate your previous spot! After a while you get the impression that no one at Bethesda has ever played a video game before; they thought they were inventing the first one! Gamers with super low expectations or clueless magazines might approve of this, but hardcore gamers will see right through it.



Skull and Crossbones (Tengen, 1990)
System: NES
Grade: B+
screenshot If you're in the mood for some swashbuckling action without the tedious strategy, Skull and Crossbones is the game for you. It's kind of a lightweight, arcade-style pirate experience. You're out to rescue a shapely princess from a wizard trying to hypnotize her chest. There are five selectable stages set in various ships and fortresses. Completing each side-scrolling stage requires scouring each deck, mast, scaffolding, and walkway for hidden booty. When a skull and crossbone icon appears, it will materialize into treasure or some other icon after a few seconds. It's a hassle to wait but you need to beware of red "death" icons that will bring your game to an abrupt end.

Skull and Crossbones is easy to play. Your buccaneer's movements are so smooth and responsive the game feels effortless at times. You can tap the button as fast as you want to swing your sword, toss knives, and shoot your gun. It's easy to quickly blow through your ammo but if you can save some for the boss it'll make your life a lot easier. I love how enemies spurt crimson blood! When you fall off the screen, you somehow roll right back on! Is there even a penalty? Likewise using one of your five continues lets you pick up right where you left off.

Enemies include pirates, skeletons, mummies, and ninja, but the worst are the ubiquitous rats because they're always jumping on you. The fact that enemies can shoot through the walls is cheap but at least you can too! Each stage culminates with a frantic boss encounter against a ship captain, ninja master, masked executioner, or Medusa. The game even has a two-player split-screen mode, which is practically unheard of for an NES platformer. At the end of each game you're awarded with a title like a deck swabber, scurvy dog, or cabin boy. Skull and Crossbones is just plain fun. It dispenses with the drudgery and just lets you go buck wild like a real pirate would.



Sid Meier's Pirates (2K Games, 2005)
System: Xbox
Grade: B
screenshot Sid Meier's Pirates delivers everything you'd expect from a pirate simulation including ship battles, sword fights, and the search for buried treasure. It's the Disney attraction come to life, although the lead character looks awfully clean-cut for the role. Pirates begins with a cinematic intro that establishes an actual storyline missing from previous editions.

After snoozing through Pirates of the Caribbean (Xbox, 2003) the brisk pacing here is refreshing. It really caters to those with short attention spans. Navigating the Caribbean is simple thanks to a semi-transparent map that overlays the screen. With the wind at your sails, your ship moves quickly - almost out of control! I love to watch the dolphins leaping from the water but the boats look more like toys.

The ship-to-ship battles are fun but reloading your cannons is time consuming. When ships collide a sword fight ensues, often preceded by some quick-time action sequences. The sword controls feel a little clumsy, which is a shame considering much of your success hinges upon them. The canned animations are amusing at first but soon begin to recycle.

While in town you can sell your loot, upgrade your ship(s), visit the governor, or recruit men at the local tavern. Should you attract the attention of the governor's daughter, you can escort her to the ball and engage in a colonial version of Dance Dance Revolution (PS1, 2001). The audio is fantastic. Realistic sound effects include creaking hulls, booming cannon fire, and crew members whooping it up. An appropriate musical score is played in each town to reflect its nationality. Although most townships look unique from the outside, I was disappointed how all of the taverns (and their patrons) pretty much look the same.

When starting a new game I'd highly recommend picking a challenging skill level, because otherwise the game can be too easy. As you defeat other famous pirates at sea, you ascend a "pirate ranking" chart. There's even multiplayer mode that lets up to four players blast each other out of the water. Sid Meier's Pirates still follows a well-worn formula, but the new 3D visuals, cinematic scenes, and amazing audio effectively breathe new life into the franchise.



Pirates of the Barbary Coast (Starsoft, 1986)
System: Atari XEGS
Grade: B+
screenshot This is my kind of pirate game - a little strategy, a whole lot of action, and plenty of eye candy. Upon starting a game, you're instantly thrust into a one-on-one sea battle. You see the action from a first person viewpoint, looking across the bow of your ship. As a hostile ship sails across the screen, you must ready your cannons, set their trajectories, and time your fire just right. Control is done via an arrow cursor controlled by the joystick.

Loading the cannons seems tedious at first; you must click on the powder, push rod, cannonballs, and brush in a specific order. But once you get the hang of it, it becomes second nature. Enemy ships make several passes at different distances, making precise trajectory targeting a challenge. Once a ship is disabled, you have the option of reading the captain's log (which provides clues about trading and buried treasure) or claiming the ship's bounty.

Although primarily a sea battle game, you also strategically move between ports along the North African coast. You can trade goods and make repairs, but your ultimate goal is to defeat the evil "Bloodthroat", who has kidnapped your daughter. Pirates of the Barbary Coast looks terrific. Although most of its screens are static images, these are nicely illustrated.

The cursor control could use some work (click on the edge of a button and it won't register), but at least the arrow moves at a reasonable speed. I'm not crazy about having to flip the floppy disk between plays, but otherwise there's little to complain about. With good graphics and a nice mix of strategy and action, Pirates of the Barbary Coast is everything a pirate game should be.



Pirates Plundarrr (Majesco, 2010)
System: Wii
Grade: C+
screenshot So who likes pirates around here? I do! I do! As a rabid fan of both the side-scrolling beat-em-up and pirate genres, this game really hit the VGC's sweet spot. Pirates Plundarrr is almost identical to the popular download-only game Castle Crashers - except this one sports a tropical pirate motif. The cartoon scenery looks sweet, and the small pirates are rendered with personality and humor.

Up to four people can hack their way through side-scrolling islands, pirate ships, and murky swamps. You'll battle pirates, tiki men, and lots and lots of skeletons. Your buccaneer (or wench) can toggle between two weapons, and there's a wide range of swords, axes, clubs, guns, and unconventional weapons like hams and mops. The game employs an NES control scheme, with motion only used to unleash special attacks. There's no shortage of button-mashing as you hop around and slash like mad, causing damage points to rise up all over the place. You can stab an enemy while he's down, and the rolling attack is effective for plowing through a gang.

Power-ups and health abound in barrels and chests. Pirates Plundarrr has the right ingredients, but its sum is less than its parts. Wiping out a gang of skeletons would be more satisfying if another identical gang didn't suddenly materialize in their place. Certain foes have the annoying ability to teleport around the screen or wield electricity. The multi-player co-op looks fun on paper but in practice it's hard to tell what's going on. When things heat up the frame-rate becomes herky-jerky, and it's not a pretty sight. I actually prefer to play the game solo.

Pirate Plundarrr has no score - it's just one continuous romp as you attempt to unlock all of the stages. It's extremely hard in the early-going, but once your pirate attains a high level the game becomes too easy. The electronic soundtrack is catchy, even if it doesn't sound very piratey. Pirates Plundarrr is amusing but less fun than I expected. I love the whimsical style and vivid graphics, but its repetitive gameplay is only enjoyable in small doses.



Hook (Sony, 1992)
System: Super Nintendo
Grade: D
screenshot Based on the critically-disparaged film starring Robin Williams and Dustin Hoffman, Hook offers beautiful graphics but exasperating gameplay. You play the role of Peter Pan in this side-scrolling, hack-n-slash platform game. You'll sword-fight your way through scenic mountains, forests, and pirate ships. You can even fly for short distances.

Hook's production values are beyond reproach. Its bright graphics are bursting with color, and the detail in the scenery is amazing. As Peter leaps into the air his sleeves actually flutter in the wind. The outstanding visuals are paired with a rollicking musical score that really whets your appetite for adventure. My enthusiasm was dampened however when I realized how frustrating and unforgiving Hook is to play.

The controls are responsive enough, but you move slowly, so although the stages are modest in size, traversing them is time-consuming. Worse yet, losing a life forces you to restart the stage all the way from the beginning, and you'll be losing your share of lives thanks to the unavoidable projectiles that appear without warning as you navigate tight spaces. Also annoying is how you can "overlap" an enemy - an unfortunate predicament that usually spells instant death.

In some sections of the game you'll execute a jump that appears perfectly safe, only to watch Peter plummet to his death. Hook offers unlimited continues, and I think I went through about half of them trying to review this [expletive] game. The lack of a password feature was the final straw. I really wanted to like Hook, but a strong presentation amounts to very little without solid gameplay to back it up.



Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End (Disney, 2007)
System: Xbox 360
Grade: C+
screenshot Most games based on the Pirates franchise have been complete duds, so I was pleasantly surprised with the rich graphics, intuitive controls, and varied gameplay of At World's End. The awe-inspiring tutorial level is set on a stormy night in the towering sea fortress seen at the beginning of the second movie. You'll creep along soaring cliffs in the pouring rain, revealing some absolutely breathtaking views. Subsequent stages are less spectacular but still impressive, with exotic locations including the town of Tortuga, Port Royal, and the Davy Jone's haunted ship.

Enemy pirates are rendered so meticulously that you can actually see the hair on their backs! This attention to detail extends to the fantastic water effects and tiny flies buzzing around lanterns. When the scenery is this rich, exploring your surroundings and hunting for items is a lot of fun. Villages are bustling with activity, but if you look closely you'll see townsfolk disappear as they approach doors - a bit of lazy programming there.

You'll control a number of characters on your quest including Jack Sparrow, William Turner, and Elizabeth Swan. Not only are these dead-ringers for the real actors, but they mirror their subtle mannerisms as well. Intuitive controls make it easy to jump, climb, and battle multiple foes at a time. Spicing up the action are advanced techniques that let you toss buccaneers off platforms, roll exploding barrels, and perform well-timed counter attacks.

At World's End is gangbusters for its first few stages, but then I hit a few bumps in the road. The occasional one-on-one swordfights slow the pace considerably and control poorly. Several stages require you to control two characters by switching between them on the fly, and this is a colossal pain in the ass. You'll be having a great time swashbuckling as Jack Sparrow, only to be informed that your mission failed because Will Turner (who you forgot about) just got his ass kicked in another part of the tavern!

Other stages feature annoying bad guys that continuously respawn until you defeat one specific (and often elusive) foe. Flaws like that tempered my enthusiasm for World's End, but the game does do a lot of things right. The stages are short, and your progress is saved automatically and frequently. Most enemies don't require an inordinate number of hits to defeat.

The game features its own original storyline, although it does borrow elements from the films. Its rousing musical score is very cinematic, and the surround-sound effects are sensational. Should you get lost or confused, you can just press the select button to view your objectives or review the controls. At World's End falters at times, but it's still a respectable effort that stays true to the movies it's based upon.



Pirates (Ultra, 1991)
System: NES
Grade: C
screenshot Pirates was originally released in 1987 as an historical simulation for the Commodore 64. The game places you in the role of a young pirate captain in the Caribbean during the mid-1500s. I love how this shoehorned NES version makes it easy to get a ship with a full crew up and running. You'll sail your tiny ship around a huge map of the "new world", frequently encountering foreign vessels.

I like the look of those shimmering blue waters. While engaged in a sea battle you must carefully maneuver your ship to avoid incoming cannonballs while launching your own. Invading an unfriendly town involves exchanging fire with forts. Interior land battles require you to strategically position groups of your men, although the actual fighting seems mostly automatic.

Many battles culminate with a sword fight between you and the opposition's leader. The duels aren't much to look at, and like the sea battles they tend to drag on for too long. The graphic depictions of towns and taverns are well done, but the images appear in small windows that leave little room for detail. I was disappointed that when I visited the tavern in the Spanish city of Santiago I talked to the same blonde bartender I met in Fort Royale.

The game is text-heavy and sometimes you're presented with an entire screen of text to read. Patient gamers will savor the layers of strategy which provide ample opportunity to spread influence, betray treaties, marry a wench, and discover buried treasure. Less patient gamers however are likely to lose interest due to the sluggish sea battles and repetitive nature of it all. Fighting the wind at sea or moving men across land can be painfully slow.

The cartridge offers eight slots of saves, and wouldn't you know, mine are full from the adventures of previous owners! How long do these batteries last anyway? Pirates has remarkable depth for an NES title, but I'd advise pirate lovers to pursue subsequent versions of the game with faster gameplay and better eye candy.



Pirates of the Caribbean (Bethesda, 2003)
System: Xbox
Grade: D-
screenshot When I first started playing Pirates of the Caribbean, I could tell that something wasn't right, but I couldn't put my finger on it. After a few minutes, I finally figured it out - this is a PC game! You can tell by the awkward user interface, unresponsive control, and the tedious nature of the game in general. And get this - it isn't even based on the movie! It's just a third-person pirate RPG with a Disney license slapped on it.

Granted, the graphics are terrific - especially the picturesque colonial townships, finely detailed tall ships, and gorgeous sunsets on the water. But the game itself is a real drag, and most console gamers won't tolerate its sluggish controls and slow pace. Sure there's sword fighting and sea battles, but you'll spend most of your time wandering around, bartering with merchants, and having pointless conversations with the locals.

I love the subject matter, but I didn't have the patience for this game. And except for a brief sword fighting tutorial in the beginning, you have to figure out everything yourself, which is terribly frustrating. The "user-hostile" interface doesn't help matters. You walk up to a chest and a hand appears in the corner, but no matter what button you hit, nothing happens! The sword fighting moves lag behind your commands, and the framerate stutters on a regular basis.

The strength of the game lies in your freedom to roam as you please. It won't advance the story, but you can sail to different islands and visit many scenic locations. The music is also pleasant and appropriate for the time period. If you're looking for a slow-paced adventure with a strong storyline, maybe Pirates of the Caribbean will appeal to you. But for action-minded gamers, I'd recommend Pirates: Legend of Black Kat (PS2, Xbox) instead.



Pirates: Legend of the Black Buccaneer (Valcom Games, 2006)
System: Playstation 2
Grade: F
screenshot I gave this bargain bin adventure a fighting chance, but after a while I just got fed up with it. Legend of Black Buccaneer places you on a monkey-infested tropical island in search of some legendary treasure. I tend to enjoy pirate-themed games, but Black Buccaneer's horribly dense stage designs are the stuff of a reviewer's nightmare.

Not only is each area multi-level and mazelike, but the 2D map is worthless, and you're often forced to backtrack extensively. Attempts to move blocks or open doors trigger messages like "You are unable to move this at the moment" or "This seems protected by some mysterious force". Equally irritating is the manner in which enemies tend to constantly regenerate out of thin air.

Black Buccaneer's graphics aren't bad, but they aren't great either. The lush jungle scenery looks inviting from a distance, but is claustrophobic and fake up close. Decent music and exotic sound effects make up the audio track. Buccaneer's gameplay involves a good deal of boss and monkey fighting, but it's primarily about platform jumping and puzzle solving of the hackneyed switch-pulling/block-pushing variety. The jumping controls are forgiving, but your pirate tends to hang onto every ledge, which is irritating when you just want him to drop down! I like the idea of using cannons to blast open doors, but this concept is overused in the game.

The ability to transform into the hulk-like Black Buccaneer doesn't add much either. And just when you think you're starting to make progress in the game, you'll encounter an invincible monkey or fall through an unseen trapdoor onto a bed of spikes. Legend of Black Buccaneer doesn't make much sense, and its arbitrary rules and frustrating stages are enough to make you celebrate a quick death!



Zack and Wiki: Quest for Barbaros' Treasure (Capcom, 2007)
System: Wii
Grade: C+
screenshot Most gamers don't know about Zack and Wiki, but those who do tend to crow about it. The star of this "point and click" adventure is a boy pirate named Zack, and Wiki is his obligatory cute animal sidekick (like we haven't seen that before!) Although rendered in a kiddie style, the colorful visuals are a lot of fun. I especially love the lush, overgrown Indiana Jones-style ruins. The musical score is also impressive, effectively adding a layer of drama and suspense.

Each of the small, self-contained stages contains a treasure chest which can only be reached by solving a series of interlocking puzzles. Normal objects like umbrellas are used in ingenious ways, and animals can be magically transformed into other useful tools like a saw or flute. A star-shaped pointer is used to move Zack to a spot or interact with an object. It's fun to grab items this way, but guiding Zack up steps and around obstacles can be pretty tedious.

Wii-mote motions are used to make the action more immersive. You'll shake the Wii-mote to ring a bell, make sawing movements to cut down a tree, and carefully rotate the controller to insert a puzzle piece into place. Zack and Wiki is at its best when the action is slow and deliberate, but when required to react quickly, the controls seem to lag a bit.

The cleverly-designed stages incorporate some ingenious concepts. For example, in one snow stage you shake a tree to dump snow and cover your tracks to keep the "Ice Keeper" off your tail. Sometimes you can trigger elaborate chain reactions that are fun to watch. Each stage is satisfying to complete, but the challenge ramps sharply, and the potential for frustration is high. Cerebral gamers will become obsessed with this game, but others will find themselves hitting brick walls. Trial and error is necessary at times, forcing you to repeat tedious tasks.

Another turn-off is the extended intro. Not only do you have to page through endless text, but there's usually only three or four words on the screen at a time! "No! [A button]They're shooting us! [A button] Uh-oh! [A button]" etc. It doesn't help that the high-pitched Japanese dialogue sounds like baby talk! The game has an auto-save feature, but I wish there was some kind of visible indicator on the screen. Zack and Wiki is a unique title for patient gamers looking for a thought-provoking challenge. If that describes you, bump up the score by one letter. Others should proceed with caution.



Pirates Gold (Microprose, 1993)
System: Genesis
Grade: B-
screenshot Compared to the sluggish, text-heavy Pirates (NES, 1991), this 16-bit incarnation looks amazing. It really raises the bar with bigger graphics, crisp controls, and added elements like "10 great pirate quests" to complete. You can battle other notable pirates and even recreate famous expeditions. At its core Pirates Gold follows a familiar formula.

You sail around the Caribbean fighting towns and vessels not affiliated with your flag. While visiting friendly ports you trade supplies, upgrade your ships, get news at the tavern, or visit the governor. Unfortunately all the ports look pretty much the same and appear to have the same people working in them!

Still, the game offers some beautiful graphic interfaces to replace a lot of old text menus. I like the use of icons to convey the status of your crew and your ship. Sharp-looking ships cut swiftly through the sea and the sword fighting characters are huge (although their animation is quite choppy).

The rollicking musical score is first rate and the voice samples are clear ("land ho!"). You can save your progress to battery when in a town. Despite it's visual overhaul, Pirates Gold is really the same old game with the same flaws. Action-oriented gamers may find it slow and repetitive, but those willing to immerse themselves in this swashbuckling adventure will be rewarded for their efforts.



Time Crisis: Razing Storm (Namco, 2010)
System: Playstation 3
Grade: C
screenshot The early Time Crisis games set the standard for light-gun shooting action, but the franchise has been in decline. This disk actually contains three individual games, making it quite a value (or so it would seem). You get Time Crisis: Razing Storm, the arcade mode of Time Crisis 4, and Deadstorm Pirates. Each requires a separate installation process, and they can chew up about 10 GB of space when all is said and done! I used my Guncon 3 light gun to play, but the new Move controllers are also supported.

The headliner, Time Crisis: Razing Storm, is pure adrenaline pumping action from start to finish. You and your squad have been dropped into an urban warzone in the Middle East where you're attacked by enemy soldiers backed up by some menacing mechanical monstrosities. The "Kraken" is an enormous metal octopus outfitted with missile launchers, and the "Raptors" look like something out of Robocop.

This game is a little crazy. Instead of watching enemies slowly filter in, the camera will swing around to reveal 20 terrorists in your face about to pull the trigger. The destruction quotient is off the charts, and it's often necessary to level nearby buildings in order to reveal hidden enemies. The machine gun is your primary weapon, and while you can spray bullets liberally, you'll want to give priority to the big red circles which indicate someone is about to fire. Like most light gun games, you're not in control of your movements, so you can just sit back and blast away. In addition to machine guns, the game will put other weapons in your hands at strategic moments, including a missile launcher, cluster gun, and sniper rifle.

Razing Storm offers solid arcade action but Namco managed to totally ruin it. First, there's the business of unlimited continues. Since you can't adjust these, there's no challenge. Playing for score would have been a viable option, but there are no local rankings, so your scores are not saved. You need to be on-line to access the bulk of the features, which is preposterous for a light gun title. The story mode lets you move freely instead of "on rails", but like the one in Time Crisis 4, it's an uncontrollable mess.

What saves the entire package is the inclusion of Deadstorm Pirates, which puts you in the role of a pirate at sea armed with magical golden pistols that fire like machine guns. It's like Pirates of the Caribbean meets Rambo! The exhilarating stages let you fight off skeletons boarding your ship, blast your way through caves stocked with gunpowder, careen down wild river rapids, and fight a Kraken in a whirlpool. The tropical scenery is gorgeous and the brisk pacing makes the game feel like a high-speed thrill ride. It's also the only game of the bunch to feature limited continues (not adjustable though) and local high scores.

Razing Storm is a hard package to grade. Each game is a first-rate shooter at its core, but Namco mishandled them badly by limiting your options and shamelessly forcing the on-line issue. Whether by laziness or incompetence, Namco really dropped the ball.



Galleon (SCI Games, 2004)
System: Xbox
Grade: D-
screenshot I had heard that Galleon was a real turkey, but being a fan of pirate games, I couldn't resist. This was meant to be a revolutionary new adventure from the creator of Tomb Raider, but instead it's a minor disaster. Not only does its gameplay reek, but it even looks rough. You play the role of a dashing swashbuckler in search of a mysterious ship, and as you explore various islands you face all sorts of villains and monsters.

The first thing that struck me about Galleon is its unique visual style, with oddly proportioned, lanky bodies and angular facial features. These people look downright freaky! The island scenery looks great from a distance, but up close there's very little to see. But the game's main undoing is its unorthodox controls.

Apparently the developers were trying to be creative, but this control scheme is anything but intuitive. Just completing an early "fight training" sequence is a colossal exercise in frustration. The controls are not only confusing, but unresponsive to boot! Performing simple actions like picking a mushroom requires you to carefully position your character, press the B button, and then press up on the directional pad! What the hell?!

At the other extreme, climbing on stuff is too easy! In fact, it's hard to walk around a simple room without having your pirate climb over every piece of furniture in sight! Simply turning your character's body is so slow that I couldn't believe my eyes! Adding insult to injury, the game's camera seems to have a mind of its own. While climbing rock walls or swimming underwater (which you're required to do far too often), you're guaranteed to be disoriented most of the time.

The save points are poorly spaced. During one infuriating incident, I painstakingly defeated a giant crab monster, then immediately slid through an "exit" chute, only to fly into a torch and die instantly! Speaking of bosses, your combat strategy against them is predictable - jump on their backs and attack their heads. Galleon contains some nice sound effects and music, but otherwise the game is a mess. With lousy controls, freaky graphics, and innumerable glitches, this one should be marooned on a desert island.



Swashbucklers: Blue Vs. Grey (Atari, 2007)
System: Playstation 2
Grade: B-
screenshot I was pretty lukewarm about this game, so it took me by surprise when friends on three separate occasions asked, "What's this game? Can we play this?" Weird! Swashbucklers adopts the same formula used by Sid Meier's Pirates (Xbox, 2005), but adds its own historical twist by using the time period of the Civil War.

As explained in the introduction, the Confederacy has been recruiting "privateers" to disrupt the blockades the North has put into place to choke the trade routes. Those looking for something like Pirates of the Caribbean are in for disappointment because Swashbucklers looks more like a Wild West title.

The action begins slowly as you hire a crew, outfit a ship, and carry out missions both on land and at sea. In ports you'll hang out in taverns, trade goods, and challenge locals to boxing matches to earn extra cash. Everywhere you go there's always a shady fellow offering to pay big bucks if you do things like transport cargo, steal a valuable item, or attack a ship.

Sea battles are fun, just as long as you change the control scheme to "relative" via the options menu. Positioning is key and I like how ships catch fire and their masts collapse as they incur damage. The Howitzer cannon is an excellent investment because a single close-range hit can cripple a vessel. Once a ship has been sufficiently damaged you have the option to board it, which initiates a series of sword fights with the crew.

This is the weakest aspect of the game because the combat is mindless button-mashing and the battles drag on for far too long. Your final opponent is the ship's captain, and fortunately this encounter employs excellent "duel" controls. Captured ships can be raided for goods and then auctioned for money. The interface used to manage your inventory is well designed and a pleasure to use.

Swashbuckler's graphics are exceptionally good. Every aspect of the scenery is meticulously detailed and the game employs an old-fashioned, hand-drawn look. The bustling towns have cobblestone streets, reflective windows, and elegant wood furniture. This might be a better game than Sid Meier's Pirates, considering each town is unique and the game doesn't tend to re-use scenery. When characters speak they basically mumble gibberish over the subtitles, and it's kind of comical.

Swashbucklers has an edgy sense of humor and the "inner voice" guy who helps you through the early going is hilarious. The game also has a lot of profanity which totally caught me off-guard and is likely to piss off some parents. Load screens are short but they are frequent. Swashbucklers is not for gamers looking for a quick romp, but if you're willing to set aside some time, you're likely to gain an appreciation for this historical adventure.