Retro Game Of The Week: Pirate Ship Higemaru (PlayStation One)

Pirate Ship Higemaru (Screenshot: Alex Kidman)

Pirate Ship Higemaru might be a title you’d never heard of before. I can’t entirely say I blame you — it’s a bit of a hidden gem.

In Retro Game Of The Week I pull a game from my collection and write about why it’s important or interesting. Or in some cases, badly dated and rubbish.

Back in the early 1980s, one of the local pizza places in the town I grew up had arcade machines. It very much was the style at the time, and I can recall the lineup changing over time between a number of classic titles, including Sega’s Pengo, first released in 1982.

As kids we never really had the money to play, but like all kids of the era, we’d watch the attract routine and pretend we were playing, because that was free. I played a lot of “fake” Pengo back in the day (and then, later, a reasonable amount of actual Pengo with my pocket money.)

Penguins are surprisingly violent creatures, given the quantity of ice crushing going on here.

No, you haven’t clicked on the wrong article, and I’m not going senile (yet).

The reason I bring up Pengo when talking about Capcom’s Pirate Ship Higemaru… is that they’re basically the same game.

Pirate Ship Higemaru (Screenshot: Alex Kidman)

Penguins, Pirates, they both start with P…

You’re in a small maze with moveable blocks and enemies that are out to get you. Crush the enemies before they hit you and you survive to go on to the next level. Lather, rinse, repeat.

Pirate Ship Higemaru: Where could the pirates be? It's a mystery for the ages...

Where could the pirates be? It’s a mystery for the ages…

The reality here is that I didn’t even know Pirate Ship Higemaru existed before the late 1990s, when I picked it up as part of the Capcom Generations Collection for the PS1.

I didn’t buy those discs for Pirate Ship Higemaru — it was mostly because I’m a huge fan of the Ghosts N’ Goblins games — but for the European version, you got 4 of the 5 Capcom Generations discs in the one bundle. In their native Japan, each disc was and is its own game, with Pirate Ship Higemaru sitting on Volume 3, “The First Generation”.

Pirate Ship Higemaru (image: Alex Kidman)

The concept might not be original, but the art style and animation are downright charming.

That’s fitting, because Pirate Ship Higemaru was only the third game Capcom ever released. Like so many of its contemporaries it’s primarily a high score chase game, and it’s one that — I feel — does stand up pretty well as long as you view in within that frame.

You’re not looking for some deep narrative hook; you’re just looking to survive as long as possible and get as good a score as possible.

Pirate Ship HIgemaru (Screenshot: Alex Kidman)

What narrative there could be is all kinds of messed up. It’s Pirate Ship Higemaru, but you’re NOT Higemaru. That translates to “Round Beard”, the main pirate enemies in the game. You’re Momotaru, invading the pirate ship. In many ways YOU ARE THE BAD GUY.

This is where Pirate Ship Higemaru offers just a few more hooks than Pengo. Because you can lift and move the barrels around, rather than just shoving them, the optimal strategy changes to getting as many pirates as you can in a row, or finding the bonus items to maximise your score.

This is why, while I didn’t buy the collection for Pirate Ship Higemaru, I quickly fell in love with it. It’s an ideal pick-up-and-play game, good for a few minutes of score chasing between tasks.

Pirate Ship Higemaru High Score Table (Screenshot: Alex Kidman)

Unusual for its time, Pirate Ship Higemaru supports long high score names, instead of just three letters, which was absolutely the dominant style back then.

I’m not a great player of it — it would appear that the arcade world record for it sits at about 1.3 million points, so I’ve got work to do — but it’s always nice to have a target to reach for.

How to play Pirate Ship Higemaru today

Pirate Ship Higemaru (One of the games on Capcom Generations 1-4, pictured) (Photo: Alex Kidman)

Yep, that’s my copy of Capcom Generations 1-4 above. It’s even still got the price sticker on it, which reminds me that I purchased it from a now-long-defunct games store in West Ryde, Sydney for the grand price of $39.95.

Now, here’s the thing. There’s no doubting that Capcom Generations is emulating arcade code for these early titles; Capcom’s only “work” here was more to do with interstitial splash screens and emulator writing rather than rewriting the game as such.

Pirate Ship Higemaru is on Capcom Generations, but it’s also on later Capcom collections for the PS2, Xbox, PSP and later Capcom Arcade titles as well.

Honestly, I got reminded of it this week because at the time of writing, there’s a decent value Humble Bundle that includes the Capcom Arcade Stadium titles for PC… including Pirate Ship Higemaru.

Even if you’re reading this after that deal’s expired, you can pick up Pirate Ship Higemaru for just a couple of dollars, and it’s well worth that.

So it’s not a hard title to legitimately play, but what if you’re keen on the PS1 version I’ve been playing all these years?

Bad news: You probably won’t find one at the $39.95 AUD I paid all those years ago. Complete copies run around $70-$100 on eBay for the Generations 1-4 pack. While it had a seperate Japanese release just as volume 3, I couldn’t find much pricing info for just that disc.

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Pirate Ship Higemaru: An octopus tells you that it's game over. (Screenshot: Alex Kidman)When the Octopus tells you it’s time to go home,
go home (but maybe drop a donation in the tip jar?)

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