Uncharted Waters

 Find the recurring theme in this picture.
A mighty captain needs a mighty fleet.

   Imagine a time when the world was still largely unexplored, when anyone could sail off into the unknown with nothing more than a ship underneath your feet, a good crew, and an experienced first mate. It was a time when an old age of superstition and ignorance began to give way to the beginnings of a scientific revolution and new, strange, and amazing cultures are revealed to lie beyond the reaches of the known world. This was the time known as the Age of Exploration, and it is also the setting for Uncharted Waters, the first in a line of innovative sailing RPGs from the masters of historical simulation, Koei. While improved upon in virtually every respect by its exceptional sequel, New Horizons, Uncharted Waters still has a certain charm and engaging non-linear gameplay that remains as entertaining today as it did when it first came out. If you were only to play one of the two installments in the series to reach the U.S., it should be New Horizons - but you'd be best served playing both.

Mei Ling in a previous career.
Be sure to contct her by codec if you need to save.

   Given the absence of narrative beyond becoming a successful mariner and gaining royal rank, the innovative gameplay is the focus, and it does a fine job of making you feel like a true man of the sea. After a little practice you’ll grow comfortable sailing anywhere from the Mediterranean to the Baltic, but you’ll grow to dread the occasions when you’re forced to sail past the Equator, or even across the Atlantic. Frequent storms and strong tropical winds can destroy even the strongest fleets, and without nearby ports to escape to, you may easily fall prey to pirates.

Kelvin is simply irresistible.

   Nothing prevents you from making your living by piracy as well, so long as you stay on the good side of your sovereign, the king of Portugal. However, it’s substantially harder to survive this way than in New Horizons. Since there is no way to temporarily moor your battle fleet, once you build a fleet and recruit a crew you’re faced with the unattractive and very expensive problem of keeping it afloat. You need a large cash flow to feed over a thousand sailors daily, and the only way to sustain an income that large is regularly raid fleets. Things get even more difficult when you are asked to hunt down a specific captain, forcing you to sail halfway around the globe with a fleet of high-maintenance galleons only to find that your target has moved elsewhere.

Shakespeare has nothing on this.
A true tragedy.

   Thus, the recommended career path for new commodores is that of trading, unless forced to do otherwise. At its most basic, it consists of “buy low, sell high,” but other factors also play a role. Most of the goods in high demand in Europe come from exotic ports, such as gold from the new world, ivory from Africa, and spices from the Far East, while European goods will find the most receptive buyers abroad. This adds the considerations of distance and time, as well as price of travel. Although you may make a nice markup trading between Lisbon and Pernambuco, when you factor in the cost of an intercontinental voyage and the fact that you could complete a shorter route several times over in the same duration, it may not be worth it. There’s also the unusual problem of getting too much money. When you’ve amassed the substantial amount of 60,000 gold pieces, you can’t make any more money until you’ve gotten rid of some of your fortune by depositing it at the royal vault in Portugal. Since this keeps you tied to Europe, an extended stay away from home is impractical.

Is that before or after they smell your breath?
Everyone flees before the mighty Kelvin.

   With all this headache to make a living, one might ask “What’s my motivation?” Ah, and what motivation there is. As with every ambitious courtier, your ultimate goal is to win the good favor of the princess. As soon as you rise from commoner to squire, you can try to sneak visits with the princess to profess your love and give tokens of your affection. You’ll frequently be tossed out into the streets as a squire or knight trying to meet the princess, but the guards become less suspicious as you become more successful. Although you initially get little for your efforts, it all pays off in the surprisingly good (and surprisingly interactive) ending where you finally the beat the bad guys and get the girl -- along with a few more surprises.

   All of these romantic and nautical conquests are accompanied by an excellent score, and while it can be a bit repetitive, it is much embellished in the arranged version. With most of your time being spent either in Mediterranean ports or Mediterranean waters, you may grow tired of the main sailing and port themes, but they are thankfully spiced up by different motifs for the various regions around the world. You'll often sigh in relief as you return from a long trip away from home and the fast-tempo tropical theme gives way to the more relaxed and reassuringly familiar piece you've come to know.

Hail to the king, baby.

   The graphics also suffer from some repetition, but as with the music, it’s a forgivable offense. The ports are lively and colorful, and each region has a unique tile set for some variety, but it could have been much improved with a few changes. Ports are always one screen and one screen only, and thus necessarily lack the variety of the ports in New Horizons, and entering a building merely brings up a portrait of whomever is inside with their dialog and an options menu. Given the simplicity of the ports and the fact that there are distinct graphics for different areas, one would expect that the shopkeepers would not look amazingly alike. Sadly, this is indeed the case. The battle engine also suffers from a lack of attention to detail. Rather than having varying sprites for each ship, every ship looks the same except for the flagships. These are shown as having four-point sails, even if this isn't true. Though this isn't a big deal, it contrubtes to the overall unpolished look of the game's graphics which frequently reminds you that you're playing a first-generation game.

    Regardless of these few flaws, Uncharted Waters remains an enjoyable game well worth playing, especially for the unique sailing and merchant gameplay. It's a shame that only one of the excellent sequels made it to America, but the series that originated with this game is definitely one worth experiencing.

Retrospective by Arpad Korossy, GIA.
Uncharted Waters
Developer Koei
Publisher Koei
Genre Simulation
Medium Cartridge
Platform Super NES
Release Date

Walkthrough, interesting facts
38 intro screenshots, 134 port screenshots, 20 gambling screenshots, 42 sailing screenshots, 30 battle screenshots, 20 secret visit screenshots, 15 death screenshots, 150 ending screenshots
3 main character portraits, 10 landlubber portraits, 16 waitress portraits, 35 sailor portraits
24 manual scans, Before and After - Uncharted Waters/New Horizons