A PIRATE’S LIFE FOR ME! UNCHARTED WATERS FOR THE NES

UNCHARTED WATERS for the Nintendo Entertainment System

Pros: Complex, open-ended gameplay and lots of small detail

Cons: Man, does this game get tedious in its middle section….

Taking place during the Age of Discovery shortly after Columbus’ journey to the New World, Koei’s 1991 Uncharted Waters stands as one of the most unique titles in the Japanese publisher’s already intriguing lineup of historical simulations and hard-core strategy games. A player in this game takes command of a young Portuguese sailor named Leon Franco whose noble family has fallen on hard times. Choosing a life of adventure on the high seas the player guides Franco as he sails between various cities trading goods, hunting for treasure, and eventually fighting pirates and rival fleets. During the course of the game, Franco is entrusted with various tasks by merchants, barkeeps, treasure hunters and even the Portuguese king, accumulating wealth and royal titles in the process. Royal titles help enhance the player’s fame, which eventually leads to him having a chance to woo Princess Christiana, who resides at the Portuguese castle in Lisbon. Ultimately, the storyline here sees Franco having to rescue the princess from kidnappers, leading to a predictable storybook conclusion of the game.

ARGH! Surrounded by enemy ships on the open sea!
Graphics are definitely not this game’s strong suit – I’d go so far as to say that they’re ugly.

Perhaps the best thing about the game is the fact that its very open-ended with regard to how a player completes it. Initially, the storyline of Uncharted Waters is focused more on the player trading goods from far away lands for profit, but as it goes along, there’s more emphasis placed on engaging in sea battles with pirates and enemy fleets. Conversely, a player can simply become a pirate right from the start and make a living off the spoils of battle (in its operation, I’d declare that Uncharted Waters plays like a more complex, all-encompassing version of Sid Meier’s Pirates! which also was ported for the NES in 1991). Piracy has ramifications of course, since simply going against all flags (i.e. the foreign powers of Spain and Turkey) will cause those countries to act aggressively and hostilely towards the player and his fleet. Though not entirely accurate, the world map the player and his fleet sail around and in which most of the game’s action takes place is relatively true to life, and more exotic goods can certainly be found by exploring the far-away lands of the Americas, the Arab countries, and the Far East. Sailing to these areas is dangerous however, as storms will ravage the player’s fleet and enemy pirates will show up to pillage his gold.

pirate!
Them’s fightin’ words! Challenging a pirate to battle…

Another positive element in the game is the sense of complexity present. Even if this game is quite obviously limited by the 8-bit technology and data storage capability of the NES, there are a ton of intricate details in the game which would be nearly impossible to cover in the context of this review. Various ships can be purchased, with the top-end models being both better at navigating the high seas and more well-equipped for battle. Additionally, there are many things a player can do in the various towns he comes across: most every town has a shipyard, marketplace, tavern, and many also have an exotic item/weapon shop. Investing in the marketplace allows the player to purchase more items as well as receive higher profit margins for the goods he sells, while investment in the shipyard is the only way elusive and powerful ships like the war galleon (which, with its capacity for up to 500 crew and 150 cannons, is essentially invincible during battle) can be purchased. The tavern not only provides for the recruitment of additional skilled sailors and crew members into the player’s party, but also acts as a sort of information exchange due to the fact that waitresses and bar patrons can provide important information and clues for the player about the tasks he undertakes during the course of the game. Some of the most fun and challenging portions of the game involve finding hidden treasure that’s unanimously situated in the most remote, borderline inaccessible portions of the globe – managing food and water resources on these voyages requires some skill.

town
Most every town has various shops and buildings to explore and people to interact with.

Despite the fact that the game lets the player choose how to go about playing it, there are some glaring problems with Uncharted Waters. First, like many Koei games which focused much more on gameplay than any technical aspects, this game is plain ugly to look at from a graphical standpoint and has repetitive music that will likely drive most players bonkers. Even if the character portraits and cut scenes are colorful and generally attractive, much of the game takes place on the entirely blue background of the open sea. It’s easy to be hypnotized by the dull backgrounds in this game which grate on the eyes after a relatively short time, and though the looped music written by Yoko Kanno of Cowboy Bebop fame does capture the mood of the game well (the music around the polar regions sounds very foreboding for instance, while the music heard when sailing around Europe feels very comfortable), it quickly becomes monotonous. The entire middle portion of this game, in which a player completes rather mundane tasks for merchants and the king while in the process of building his reputation is mind-bogglingly tedious and seems utterly pointless. This game takes an unnecessarily long time to complete (I try and play all the way through the games I review, but came very close to just calling it a day on this one), and I’m not at all sure that the ultimate payoff (which features a sequence of graphics that would have looked downright pathetic even in 1991) makes it entirely worthwhile to get through. A player almost has to invent fun things to do during this middle stretch of game, since simply completing the genuinely unrewarding tasks required in the story not only doesn’t achieve fame fast enough to really seem adequate, but also because these tasks are excruciatingly repetitive. How many times can one sail from the Caribbean to the Middle East around the coast of Africa in search of one spice or another?

trade
Though trading takes priority early on, it’s necessary to focus more on piracy later in the game.

While it’s almost imperative that a player simply become a pirate at some point in order to both spice up the gameplay and further the storyline, the sea battle interface present here is fairly clunky. When engaging in battle, the viewpoint switches from a macroscopic view of the open ocean to a closer-range perspective showing the relative positions of the player’s fleet and that of the enemy. At this point, one must carefully maneuver his ships in order to either open up with long-range weapons (i.e. cannons or their less-powerful cousins) or storm enemy ships in hand-to-hand combat. Maneuvering ships is both difficult and frustrating, since the bigger vessels have extremely limited mobility and can only attack enemies who fall within a very specific range of their cannons. Each ship has both a finite number of crew and a strength index which gradually diminish as cannon-fire is absorbed or enemy attacks are repelled, and if either number reaches zero, the ship is destroyed. Winning sea battles eventually becomes quite easy since all a player has to do is destroy the enemy flagship: once this fact is realized, the sea battles don’t especially offer up any level of challenge either, adding yet another level of “blah” to this game.

battle interface
The battle interface – and yes, it’s about as clunky as it looks.

In the end, I’d call Uncharted Waters an interesting failure as a game. Taken on its own merits, it’s a title that (like Koei’s Aerobiz, a Super NES title that operated as an airline business simulator and is a much better game than that concept suggests) suffers considerably because its sequel is just so damn good. The outstanding Uncharted Waters II: New Horizons, released for the Super NES in 1994, improves on every aspect of the original game to the point of nearly rendering the original unplayable. In a way, this is unfortunate because Uncharted Waters is a genuinely well-designed thinking man’s game possessing a very cool concept that’s pulled off about as well as could be expected considering the limitations of the NES. Like most of Koei’s extremely complicated strategy titles though, this game would only appeal to a select crowd willing to devote time and energy to a game that offers only a moderate payoff. While Uncharted Waters would have been something special and truly unique in 1991, it hasn’t held up well over time – this in my mind is largely due to the fact that New Horizons perfected the formula that originated here. If the game at all sounds interesting, I’d recommend that players try and hunt down that second game in the Uncharted Waters series rather than waste effort on the fruitless original.

lost at sea...
LOST AT SEA…

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