Trade various types of wool! Engage in highly abstracted battles!
Reading the manual (Yes, I read game manuals and even derive enjoyment from said activity. I'm well aware that this makes me the hardcore 0.01% of Old School gamers) suggests that you're getting into a very demanding and gritty historical RPG. It's somewhat jarring when you actually start playing and are faced with various cartoony nonsense. You can choose from six different characters who each have their own storyline and goals, usually wacky stuff like finding lost continents, repaying tea debts and bloody vengeance against the murderers of your lover. All right, maybe that last one is a little less goofy. Either way, the colorful 16-bit presentation lends a certain whimsy to your floating rob/murder/exploit natives operation.
Let's be very clear: they are two different men.
Depending on your character choice you'll be pushed toward either exploration, trade or piracy and the game keeps track of your success in all three of these areas. This means you can treat the game as a sand box and just ignore whatever quest you're supposed to be doing, although it's definitely easier to just do what the game wants you to do. Exploration was my favorite type of game. The combat just didn't seem very engaging and trade is just mind numbing once you figure out a few good routes and have to repeat them over and over to gain gold. Adding insult to injury the character that's supposed to trade takes a bunch of loans where he promises to pay back 1000% returns on the initial investments. Maybe business isn't really his thing after all. Or totally is, if he pulls an ENRON.
Take one lousy galleon and everyone gets all pissy.
Exploring earns money either by discovering monuments, cultural items and exotic animals and returning the finds to a wealthy patron or mapping the world for a cartographer. There's a large and reasonably accurate map of the world to explore and it's fun to see what you'll uncover next. Once you get back home you can wow local cocktail waitresses with your amazing tales of adventure. Sadly, these women are firmly from the four magic phrases school of communication and also think it's socially acceptable to respond to a story of a penguin encounter with "Did it bite you?" No, but you can.
Wait until you see some of the "interesting plants" I've got back at my place.
Various storyline elements trigger as you gain fame and open up more opportunities. You might even get to meet with a ruler (they're all autocratic jerks, even the ones from Republics) and earn a royal title by appeasing the whims of inbred European nobility. The game keeps track of your "friendship" with the major nations and even let's you defect to another unlikable crowned head, an act that will probably make the game unwinnable for most characters.
That's another somewhat surprising game element: some choices can totally ruin things. For example, I tried to low ball the price of a ship and the merchant was so offended he wouldn't deal with me again. On the plus side, you can invest in ports and grow their industry, even winning neutrals over to your nation. Money talks, let me put this Spanish flag up, etc.
Sounds awfully familiar.
The game had some "controversial" elements that, in typical wussy Nintendo fashion, were toned down (Gray blood, yay!). The churches were changed into the bizarre "Round Earth Society" and taverns are "cafes" where you might eat too much food and get a belly ache. It's gutless, but hardly surprising. We don't want completely marginal groups getting offended and creating massive free publicity, after all.
Charging backward with its brightly colored rear...so much like a human.
I still haven't beaten this game, although I'm pretty far into it. After I finish the exploration character I've been playing as I might try some piracy one more time, but selecting a ship and watching numbers go down isn't as awesome as it sounds. Don't even get me started on the dueling card game. It makes one long for the massive strategic depth of "War."
Graphics: Pretty standard 16 bit stuff, not even any token Mode Seven effects. A lot of the characters look like elves for some reason. The ships look like ships. Probably a bit below average, over all.
Control: Sailing the ship is easy and you can even use "auto sail" to cut out the tedium that even the game manual admits can easily crop up. The menus are a little confusing at first, but for the most part are decent. Combat is a turn-based abstraction, so nothing to say about that.
Depth: There's a lot of opportunities to dig deep into the game's economic engine, but that basic game play is actually pretty shallow, relatively speaking. It can really turn into a grind, although you're free to try something new at any time. Things like national loyalties and the individual wealth of ports are a lot less pressing when you're just playing an individual instead of running a country.
Overall: I didn't fall off the edge of the world.
...who are two different people.