Having indulged myself in some Tom Clancy recently, the floodgates are now open. I decided to also dig into some Michael Crichton novels. Crichton died in 2008 after a fairly short battle with cancer. It seemed to me at the time that, even after I read of his death, his novels kept coming out. Part of it was probably just the delay between the hardcover publishing date, the paperback publishing date, and the point where I happen to be browsing paperback racks and would notice a new-to-me Crichton title. However, another factor is that (so far) three of his works have been published after his death. I’m not sure that even makes him particularly prolific, as far as writing from beyond the grave goes – Jules Verne, for example, has eleven posthumous works. Even Tom Clancy has one.
One notable feature of Pirate Latitudes is that the manuscript was discovered on his computer in nearly its final form. I am often wary of reading posthumous publications from my favorite authors based on their “notes” as it is hard to tell how much the deceased really wrote. In this case I can hope that the words I am reading are pretty close to what the author actually wrote and the story is much as he had intended it to be published.
Michael Crichton is know for his science fiction. He leans toward the hard science fiction, that being my preference. The core theme of a story may be fantastical (dinosaurs, alien life, time travel, or what have you) but there is usually some strong scientific basis for the technological leap. In fact, moralizing aside, a major point of his writing seems to be scientific commentary on scientific ideas. On top of that, however, he was capable of writing some interesting historical fiction. For example, The Thirteenth Warrior/Eaters of the Dead is (and I hope I’m not ruining this one for you) at retelling of the Beowulf story, but as seen through the eyes of an Arab traveler, an actual historical personage. Like the best historical fiction, he worked to ground the contrived parts of the story in some actual historical documents.
Pirate Latitudes is another mix of fact and fiction. The story takes place after the restoration of King Charles II and within a period when England was no longer at war with Spain. That being the case, plausibly-deniable piracy was still tolerated as a form of economic warfare. The novel follows a number of characters but primarily focuses on one ship’s captain, a privateer, who decides to attempt a particularly daring and lucrative raid upon the Spanish. The story is a good one and, in typical Crichton style, it is a fast and addicting read. Absent the big “reveal” of his science-fiction stories, the ending is less of a let-down than what can happen with some of this other books*. The historical exploration of this particular place in time is also illuminating and enjoyable.
It also reminded me of the pirate games I used to enjoy. The process of identifying a target, assembling the crew, mounting the attack, and then cashing in on the rewards; this was what the classic pirate games invoked when they were at their best. Better yet, reading it all in book form is a good way to go straight to the payoff without the tedious “grind” that finds its way into so many computer games. Reading this today evoked a strong sense of nostalgia.
My own pirate game of choice was Cutthroats: Terror on the High Seas, a 1999 title. I probably didn’t pick it up right when it was new but more likely played it some time in the early aughts. As I searched the internet for this game in its context, I realized that the likely reason I was playing Cutthroats was that it was the only game in town.
Before Cutthroats, the gold standard was Sid Meier’s Pirates, remarkable not just as a strategy game but also for its combination of role-playing, hand-to-hand combat, and dancing(!). The Sid Meier game was enough before my prime game-purchasing time that I never tried it. Cutthroats, however, enhanced and expanded the game premise of for the new world of 1999 – at least sort of. The game wasn’t exactly pushing any boundaries, either in graphics or gameplay, but it was a Windows game. It combined a strategic-level trading game with tactical level ship and land battles in a way that made it special in its day.
As technology improved, a new round of pirate games came with it. It didn’t hurt that 2003 saw the mega-success of Johnny Depp and Pirates of the Caribbean (the film). A rather poorly-received movie tie-in game competed with several hybrid economic/battle games in the spirit of Cutthroats. Port Royale: Gold, Power and Pirates moved the successful Patrician game formula from Northern Europe to the Caribbean. Tropico was recreated in a pirate-themed guise. Given the amount of time I had spent on Cutthroats, I was tempted by this new round but, for whatever reason, never took the bait.
Skip ahead a few years and I was eagerly following the development effort at what is now known as MicaBytes. The developer was in the process of developing a Roman Empire themed game for the PC. Eventually that went by the wayside and he created a free-to-play, Android game rather similar to ye olde Cutthroats and those pirate titles that were to follow. Out now for some time, this is a game that is supported in a free, ad-supported and paid version. There is also a new version, currently in development.
I included a pair of snapshots from Pirates and Traders as I’ve spent a little time playing this mobile game when I have my tablet handy and nothing much else to do. I’ve never really become engaged with this game. I think a large part of its appeal to me is that I remember my long nights with Cutthroats way back when. I’m also quite sure that I wouldn’t find Cutthroats all that engaging any more. I seem to remember the tactical battles being kind of fiddly and frustrating and, as I tried to advance my “career”, I usually ending up in a place where being able to pull off a key sea battle or fortress assault was necessary to make all of that buying low and selling high worth something. I’m so sure I’d be disappointed, in fact, I’m not even considering trying to get the old game to play on a current PC. I think its best just to let my fond memories live on.
*Not to get into details here, but in many of his science fiction works, I find the build-up to promise more than the reveal delivers. Perhaps some other time I’ll explain.