Ranking in Sega Genesis Top 50: 19th
I hate to admit it, but Uncharted Waters: New Horizons has been one of the tougher games for us to write about. It’s not that this isn’t a great game, because it absolutely is It’s just that while we love New Horizons, it’s not that gushing, romantic infatuation we have for many of the other games on this list. It’s more like the quiet, respect-borne kind of love you might feel for your favorite author or a really talented monster truck driver.
Still, we’ll do what we can here, because damn it, this game deserves some praise.
Yes, please. Teach us to make fun of you.
Uncharted Waters: New Horizons is kind of like a sea-based Grand Theft Auto game – there’s a story, and you’ll have to complete certain missions to advance the narrative, but in between doing that, you’re pretty much free to do whatever you want. There a whole world to explore (literally), and plenty of side missions to keep you busy. Or you can just fool around – if you want to take an unsatisfying, pixelated version of that Mediterranean cruise you’ve always dreamed about, go ahead. Or if you prefer to go to a tropical area, buy a bunch of bananas, and then visit every town in Europe giving them away and declaring yourself the Banana Emperor, you can do that too. For those of you of a more serious mind, the most important thing to do in your free time is to make some money, because although the various kings and nobles seem to have no problem tasking you with carrying out important duties, they are a bit reluctant to actually fund these missions.
Go out and explore unknown areas for the glory of England! Just be sure to stop by Denmark first and do some wool-trading. Ships are expensive after all, and we’re running a kingdom here, not a charity.
Luckily, there are lots of ways to earn an income, such as trading commodities, delivering messages for guilds, and investing in businesses. Or, since those ideas are all kind of lame, you can just do them for a little while to make some money, then strap a bunch of guns to your ship and start raiding other ships to steal their cargo. I’m assuming that’s sort of the unspoken expectation a king has when he just hands a ship to some captain he barely knows without bothering to check if he’s, you know, actually from that country, and then gives him a dangerous task to do without any funding or guidelines.
Or, if high seas villainy isn’t you’re thing, you can gamble. Oh sure, you might lose everything in a hand of blackjack, but at least if nothing else, your king will learn a valuable lesson about trusting his navy and the fate of an entire nation to the whims of a gambling degenerate.
Perhaps the coolest thing about New Horizons is that the game world is a reasonable approximation of the Earth, you can sail just anywhere you want, except for the poles. Or places that are landlocked, obviously. Still, if there’s a coastline or a big river near it, you can sail there. It’s hard to convey just how much bigger of a world this is compared to what we’re accustomed to seeing in games, including modern ones. It actually came as a bit of a surprise the first time we left the Mediterranean Sea to sail up the Northern European coast and the game actually let us. Then we started sailing down the coast of Africa, the whole time thinking that sooner or later, the game would run out of room. Next thing we knew, we were rounding the southern tip of the continent, yelling at Bartholomew Diaz to suck it, and making our way to China to load up on bootleg DVDs which we planned to sell back in Europe to fund our next expedition.
It probably says a lot about how conditioned we’ve been by other games that even after this much exploring, the first time we attempted to cross the Atlantic, we still fully expected to hit an invisible wall at the edge of the screen. I mean, there’s no way they put the Americas in the game, right? In fact, we were so sure of it that we didn’t stock up on nearly enough water, and everyone died on the voyage. But on our second attempt, we managed to sail across the ocean, and before we knew it, we were cruising up and down the coastline of the future United States.
Of course, being a Koei game, the attention to detail is just insane. Forget about just managing inventory, the game actually lets you decide exactly which cargo you want on each individual ship (and knowing Koei, this probably has subtle effects on the ship’s behavior). You also assign your crew to various duties, splitting them between lookout, navigation, and combat. That might be a little bit of overkill on the game’s part, though, as I imagine being boarded by an enemy ship would be sort of a “everybody grab a sword and start stabbing” situation. Still, the game leaves no minor detail untouched – you can even adjust the crew’s wages, which goes a long way toward recruiting the best officers for your ship. Never, ever underestimate the importance of offering a good heath plan when trying to convince people to take on the Spanish Armada with you.
New Horizons gives you six different characters to choose from, and each one has a completely unique story, objective, and circumstances. That’s pretty impressive when you think about it. In most games, different characters may offer various strengths and weaknesses, and maybe a few unique special moves, but that’s it. Even in games where the characters have drastically different play styles, they generally still have those characters playing through the same levels, progressing through the same narrative, and striving toward the same ultimate goal. Not so in New Horizons – every character has a unique story, circumstances, and objective. It might be a stretch to say that this game is six games in one, but it’s definitely like getting one really good game with 6 full-length campaigns.
32 members of your crew saw this town had a zebra and decided that they wanted to spend the rest of their lives there.
Of course, having all these characters is almost a moot point, because of those six characters, one of them is a superhot Spanish redhead named Catalina. Oh, and she’s a pirate. Let’s not kid ourselves here, when a game gives you a choice of characters – and really, it doesn’t matter if that choice is six, or two, or one hundred – and one of them is a sexy female buccaneer with flame-orange hair, that choice has already been made for you. It doesn’t really matter what the other characters are – you could have a choice between Catalina, Blackbeard, Batman, Macho Man Randy Savage, President Reagan, and a T-Rex, and you’d still have to be crazy not to pick Catalina. Remember all that stuff I said earlier about not feeling a romantic love for this game? That line of thought doesn’t apply to Catalina. It was all I could do to keep this review from turning into an incoherent 7 page love letter to an imaginary video game character.
I know what you’re thinking – sure, but once you beat the game with Catalina, then you could play as one of the other five characters. Yes, you could. And about 5 minutes in, you’ll remember that you could instead be playing again as a superhot redhead pirate. At which point any sane person will be reaching for the reset button.
…and that’s kind of the thing about New Horizons in general – you get lots of great options throughout the game, but all too often one choice is so ridiculously awesome (piracy, redheads, not running out of water while crossing the Atlantic) that you’ll almost always take it. On one hand, it seems like kind of a waste, because a lot of pretty good options are being passed over. But on the other hand, those best options are so good you won’t even mind. Or to put it another way – superhot redhead pirate.
Did we mention that her chair is a puma?
Availability: Like just about all of Koei’s games from this era, New Horizons is pretty rare, and it’s unusual to see a copy selling online for less than $30. To be honest, we sometimes wonder if Koei’s entire business model isn’t based on releasing games that they know people won’t be interested in at first, then hoarding all the unsold copies in a warehouse, and selling them on eBay 15 years later when they finally become popular. There’s a slight chance of coming across one at a really good used game store, but don’t expect to pay any less than you would online.
Fortunately, there are a couple of alternatives here. New Horizons is a sequel, and the original in the series, simply called Uncharted Waters, typically sells for about half as much. New Horizons is the better game of the two (hence it’s the one that made our Top 50), but Uncharted Waters is almost as good as it’s sequel, with the exception of one glaring flaw – no Catalina. That’s a sacrifice you’re going to have to think long and hard about before making. Unless you’re a Wii owner, in which case you can spare yourself the dilemma and just snag the nearly identical SNES version of the game on the virtual console, thereby saving some money and still getting all the sexy pirate action your little heart desires.