- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 27, 2005

In a world of ultraviolent video games, where dexterity of the thumb and index finger is infinitely more important than the flexing of the cerebrum, there must be a place for children and their parents to interact and actually learn something from that overpriced multimedia computer/gaming system. Take a deep breath and enter the ROMper Room, where learning is a four-letter word cool.

Teenagers with an Xbox will get a history lesson as they sail their way across the Caribbean in Sid Meier’s Pirates. This award-winning PC role-playing strategy game, in which a player assumes the role of a 17th-century pirate captain, has been ported to Microsoft’s entertainment console.

As an open-ended simulation filled with exploration, resource management and action, the game puts the new captain in the middle of battles with the French, Dutch, English and Spanish as they colonize islands. Players also visit known towns and encounter famous pirates, missionaries and local tribes.

The story begins as a youth escapes the grip of the evil Count Montalban, who has kidnapped the boy’s family and hidden family members in various tropical locales. Ten years pass, and the 18-year-old sets sail on a mission of rescue, revenge and the conquering of the high seas.

The player takes control of the brash buccaneer and aligns himself with one of the countries, which will give him various advantages during the action as he explores and pillages using 27 upgradeable ships.

Players are multitasked to addictive exhaustion as they maneuver ships and unleash cannons in battle, duel scalawags on land and sea, use troops (via a Risk-type challenge) to secure ports, and even woo governors’ daughters with dancing and gifts.

One of many adventures found my character plundering a series of Spanish trade galleons on his way to the Dutch port of Trinidad. Ships can be rammed for a quick sword fight between captains or shot at and damaged until they surrender. Then the ship is plundered as the player collects food and spices along with any worthy crew from the defeated vessel, which is then sunk or kept to sell at the next port.

Once I was in Trinidad, accomplished by maneuvering a ship into port, I sold my plunder for cash (making sure I kept enough food for my crew), repaired my fleet, stopped by the tavern to get tips from the bartender and valuable information from a mysterious stranger, and captured a wanted fugitive for 3,000 pieces of gold.

I then visited the town’s governor and was promoted to lieutenant for sinking an enemy ship, was admonished for being a pirate and had a chance to escort the governor’s plain-looking daughter to the ball. This courtship ritual allows players to enter a mini dancing game in which button sequences are used to mimic tripping the light fantastic and the girl’s heart-shaped excitement meter beats quicker and grows larger.

A successful hoofer will be told tips or given a valuable gift that could help during his quests.

The game even ages the player’s pirate, and when the character is about 40 years old — after about 10 to 15 hours of playing time — he must retire.

Although the levels of decision making, logic and paths to success are time-consuming fun, a quick education has been inserted into the methodical action. First, players learn about real pirates, including Blackbeard, Henry Morgan and L’Olonnais, through a text biography linked to a tally board showing how much plunder a player is amassing compared to the famed characters.

Next the voluminous Pirate-O-Pedia acts as a deep, dictionarylike resource containing nautical terms, histories of the battling countries, types of ships, responsibilities of crew members, and the meanings of such words as chain shot, scurvy and lubber.

Sid Meier’s Pirates from 2K Games, $39.99, for Xbox.

ROMper Room is a column devoted to finding the best of multimedia “edutainment.” Write to Joseph Szadkowski, The Washington Times, 3600 New York Ave. NE, Washington, DC 20002; call 202/636-3016; or send e-mail (jszadkowski@ washingtontimes.com).

Land lovers need not apply

Younger children unable to play the sometimes-complicated Sid Meier’s Pirates still can take part in a swashbuckling multimedia adventure in the imaginative world of Mega Bloks Pyrates.

The simple-to-construct line of role-playing toys incorporates miniature action figures, ships and environments that are embellished via incredibly creative design. An interactive Web site melds with some of the treasure.

Skeletons, privateers and sea marauders can do battle — each 1.75-inch character has its own name, weapons and recognizable features.

The Skull Cave assortment ($8.99 each) offers bone heads that open, and the Treasure Packs ($5.99 each) arrive as faux-leather pouches. Both selections include at least a couple of scalawags and extras such as a hostile sea creature, rowboats, a working cannon, hut material, palm trees, flags and, of course, treasure.

The crown jewel of the collection is the Dread Eye’s Phantom Ship ($49.99), which, legend has it, is carved from the rib cage of a whale. The 100-piece kit can be built in less than an hour and becomes a 30-inch multitextured vessel adorned in rotting planks and the bones of multiple creatures.

Its underbelly boasts a glowing blue membrane and light-up effects when a trio of cannons is fired or when unfortunate prisoners are dumped into the brig. The ship also comes with tattered cloth sails, a flip-out deck for extra storage, a collapsing mast, four-skeleton crew, a privateer, an octopus, a miniature map, a treasure chest and even tiny spiders and gold coins.

Any chest or large coin found within the sets harbors a special code that, when entered into the Pyrates Web site (www.megabloks.com/pyrates), can be used to amass virtual merits within an online game. Registered players trade, battle and collect more of the special items that can be turned into chances to win more Pyrates stuff.

Those not in the mood to challenge buccaneers around the world still can find a fine selection of games, a stop-motion animated movie and downloadable content to continue the high-seas action.

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