Review – Uncharted Waters: New Horizons

Ahh, the Virtual Console. A wonderful vault of games long forgotten, chock full of titles from a simpler time. We didn’t have to manage inventory, talk to the right townspeople to progress, perform stupid fetch quests or deal with purposefully vague objectives. Back in those days, men were real men, women were real women, and games were all about jumping from platform to platform. Or so you might believe.

A few Mondays ago, the only Virtual Console release (a thought that saddens me; even three would be too few) was one Uncharted Waters: New Horizons. This led to mass disappointment, as everyone was hoping we’d get some stupid Zelda game (please don’t kill me) that everyone has already played before. On the other hand, I was ecstatic because I got a menu-filled, exploration-heavy Age of Exploration sim with multiple interweaving plot lines and tons of freedom. Better yet, it was relatively obscure and rather expensive until this release, so I can pretend to have gamer cred by having played it before.

New Horizons is all about doing what you want. Early on you pick a character of your preferred archetype. Do you want to wage an initially hopeless war against the unstoppable Spanish Armada, or would you rather be one of the first explorers to discover the far-off ports of India? Make a fortune via trading or track down those who wronged your family and seek revenge? There is a story line for each character, but there’s no reason you couldn’t drop everything and try to switch roles, aside from the expenses of remodeling your ship, having to purchase a new set of items to deal with more exploration or dueling, possibly hiring and re-assigning crew, finding new sub-captains better suited to the work…

You can tell it’s a realistic simulation because the HUD uses parchment.

The goals are simple, but the devil is in the details, and you must constantly wrestle the details-devil in this game. You could ignore a lot of it; only hire crew and mates when you absolutely need to, play a character who avoids combat, and try to make money without trading more than a few goods. But you’d be missing out on the meat of the game. Though Uncharted Waters may not quite match Dwarf Fortress, its learning curve is considerable. It is, thankfully, presented in small chunks; for example, you don’t need to worry much about the parameters of a ship until you need to buy one. Specialty trading goods are mentioned at each port, so you know you can buy that sort of item and wander around until you find a better price to sell it at. Items are largely unimportant until you deal with special events (duels, storms, rat infestations, scurvy, etc), and so on.

That said, getting started is still a bit rough. If you decide to make a run for the New World straight off, you will encounted a tropical storm and your pathetically tiny starting ship will capsize, taking you with it. You have pretty much no warning that this will happen, so if you try this game, be sure to save often. You are usually safe in the Mediterranean and around continental Europe, but who knows – sometimes pirates lurk in the safest-looking waters.

There is a good deal of hidden complexity in the game, as well. Each nation has an economy rating that goes up as it acquires ports. Investing in a port will make it tend to ally with your nation – so if you make a ton of money, you can effectively conquer the world for your home country. This makes the waters safer for you (fewer enemy fleets) and your country might give you a tax-free permit if you ask nicely – making you even more ridiculous loads of money.

Perhaps better yet, Koei is not teasing us with this release. The first Uncharted Waters is good, but New Horizons is better. It adds a more cohesive and directed storyline, evens out the learning curve, and adds several features (auto-sail, for example, which is a life saver). My only complaint is that the music is slightly worse, which is hardly a deal-breaker. For fans of open-ended trading/exploration sims, I know of no better games that will come out on Virtual Console. Nintendo may be tossing a lot of mediocre games onto VC, but they did all right by me with New Horizons.

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15 years ago

Why can’t they just remake games like this for the DS? I want a goddamn trading sim I can play on the go!