Developed by Koei and released on a number of different platforms between 1994 through 1996, Uncharted Waters: New Horizons is a cult favorite; a casual glance around informational websites will assure the reader that the game was a huge success and very popular in Japan. One would likely need assurance of this overseas popularity, as the game’s notoriety outside the borders of its homeland falls squarely in the “slim-to-none” range.
Straddling the nebulous boundary lines between console RPGs, strategy war games, trading simulators, and personnel managers, New Horizons understandably has a steep learning curve. Within that complexity, however, is wrapped the most rare and beautiful of gaming gems: freedom. If there is a reason that New Horizons and its excessively long name will be remembered in the future, it will be for the liberty afforded to the player in crafting an adventure of his or her choosing.
Though skinned in the pixely sheen of the age of 16-bit JRPGs, New Horizons foregoes the linear adventure one may expect upon first seeing the game. The bones of something not unlike Sid Meier’s famous Pirates! series lurk just beneath the surface here. The harsh reality of life on the open sea is an almost insidious feature when compared to the colorful, cartoonish graphics they’re presented with. Cecil and the Red Wings were never in danger of starvation as they jetted around the world, but without proper planning, your crew may very well face such a fate.
Before the player can cast off, however, they must choose from one of six heroes to serve as their fleet’s captain. Each of these six characters has their own unique background and storyline, which can be completed at the player’s leisure while jaunting around the world. In fact, it is quite possible to ignore their stories to a large degree and simply explore as one likes.
Plying the seven seas for adventure is not as easy as it may sound, though. As commodore, the player is responsible for all manner of life in the fleet, including managing rations, assigning captains to ancillary ships, bartering for trade goods and outfitting the ship. Though higher profits may be had by filling the hold with commodities, a wise captain will remember to stock up on food and water to keep his crew healthy and non-mutinous.
To acclimate players to all its various and seemingly incongruous systems, New Horizons believes in the “sink or swim” school of tutorials. After a brief introduction scene around town, the breadth of customization and management options open to the players will very little warning.
The unprepared player can easily find himself hungry and adrift in a very short time. Though, it must be said, such an event is unlikely to be repeated the next go ’round. The game’s harshness is inelegant, but it cannot be said the player does not learn.
John Masefield once wrote, “And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by,” and indeed that may well have been enough for a man of his class and refinement. Koei, however, understands that when a modern audience is given a tall ship and a star, they also require a cannon and a fat merchant vessel to fire it at. New Horizons obliges the pirating itch quite well, with plenty of fleets to raid and plunder.
Ship combat takes place with a combat system that feels familiar to those who have played a strategy RPG in the past. Despite that passing familiarity, it is an obtuse exercise for a beginning player to enter into. Luckily for those anxious to get to their spoils, there is a way to speed this combat along. The daring captain may dispense with the roaring cannons and careful maneuvering of naval combat and merely hop aboard the opposing commander’s vessel to cross swords, with the winner taking all.
Starting a game of New Horizon may leave a novice player feeling like they’ve bitten off more than they can chew. Yet, if that player manages to stick it out to become familiar with its many nuances, a game of huge possibilities is revealed. For all the challenges this game throws at a player, bridging that gulf of understanding may be the hardest one of all.