Sid Meier holds the distinction of being the second person inducted into the Hall of Fame at the Academy of Interactive Arts & Sciences, following only Mario mastermind Shigeru Miyamoto. His name carries enough marketing pull that it precedes the titles of his critically-celebrated games. He may be best known for the 1991 empire-building epic Civilization, and the series that it spawned, but four years earlier, he tapped into an open world of another kind: buccaneering.

What child has not fantasized about donning an eye patch and sailing off? I spent my youthful summers setting out on swashbuckling expeditions in a small island town called Brigantine, a quiet seaside resort across the water from Atlantic City, named after the same type of ships that pirates favored, where the infamous Captain Kidd is said to have haunted.

One legend has it that Kidd grew romantically involved with a local woman known as Amanda, who desperately pleaded with him to give up his ruthless pirating ways to settle down and start a family there in South Jersey. Touched by her outpouring of love, he divided the plunder among his mutinous crew and buried the rest under the sands of Brigantine’s beaches. However, one pirate, dissatisfied with his share, soon betrayed Kidd, reporting him to authorities as his anchored ship rested at the mouth of the Mullica River. Kidd cast off to flee, but the law soon caught up. He was placed in shackles and transported back to England to be hanged, leaving his true love and treasure forever behind.

British-born Philadelphia artist Peter Caledon Cameron captured the ever-shifting sandy landscapes of Absecon Island in this 1894 watercolor study, which served the basis for a subsequent oil painting entitled “Captain Kidd burying his treasure.” The waterway between Absecon Island and Brigantine was nicknamed “Graveyard Inlet” due to its dangerous underwater shoals, which claimed the lives of many ships and sailors. The area’s notorious reputation steered many captains away, proving the perfect hiding place for Kidd’s captured loot.  (Image source: Schwarz Gallery)

Another story paints Kidd in a far more sinister light. Concerned over beach erosion and fellow thieving mariners, the captain and his first mate, Timothy Jones, slithered back to the site of the riches to exhume them and move them farther onto land, away from the grasping waves. In the process, an argument broke out between the men, which ended with Kidd burying two things that fateful moonless night: a sea chest and a first mate. According to folklore, the apparition of Jones stands guard at the spot, where his remains lie entombed over the trove, waiting forlornly for Kidd’s return to exact his centuries-long revenge.

Every flip-flop step I took through the dunes, clam shells lining my path, I imagined retracing the footprints of the privateer. Every little scoop of my fire-engine red plastic shovel brought me that much closer to glittery gold, still unclaimed to this day.

The high, wind-dancing beach grass off the trail sometimes concealed some of the debauched pleasures of the outlaw underworld: deserted kegs of booze, spent illegal fireworks, the scattered piece of intimate clothing.

When not adventuring, I stood at the end of the inlet’s rock jetty, gazing into the blue beyond, seeing my ship’s great sails fluttering in the clouds above the ocean’s spray.

Sid Meier’s Pirates! allowed afternoon daydreamers like me to live out their fantasies of decadence and disorder without the threat of dysentery and court-ordered decapitation. This freedom meant recruiting shady sailors from darkened Caribbean taverns, hobnobbing with politicking governors, attacking coastal town ports for plunder by land or by sea, overtaking merchant sloops brimming with booty, and sword dueling with enemy ship captains. The deeply explorational experience proved revolutionary for its time, seamlessly combining elements of strategy, simulation, role-playing, action, and adventure.

After leaving MicroProse, where Pirates! was developed, Meier founded another studio in Maryland called Firaxis Games.

Atari eventually acquired MicroProse, and in May 2003, the company announced a new partnership with Firaxis, which necessitated the transfer of its classic properties back to Meier and a long-term publishing deal for his future games, including a remake of Pirates! in 2004.

“We’re inundated with requests from fans asking us to bring back some of my classic games,” Meier said in a press release, “and I’m excited that we now have that opportunity.”

This new version released first on the PC and then voyaged to nearly every other modern device, from cellphones to the Wii. The follow-up contained much of what made the original 1987 game and its 1993 remaster, Pirates! Gold, so richly compelling, only with more advanced graphics and a few additional play components like a story-driven quest, new factions such as Native Americans and Jesuit missionaries, and ballroom dancing to assist in courting a lovely maiden.

This 8 x 20-inch concept artwork for the 2004 Pirates! came from an online art vendor located in Santa Monica. Simply called “Two Pirates in a Dungeon,” the composition, which was accomplished using mixed media, evokes masterful illustrator Howard Pyle’s expressive work depicting the Golden Age of Piracy, albeit with a fancifully genteel gloss of pastel aqua-blue. A haggard, bearded pirate’s lantern shines the way through the subterranean darkness, his sword leading his younger, armed accomplice onward.

The artist, Steven Chorney, was born in Washington, D.C. but was raised in Buffalo. Not formally trained, but creatively inclined, thanks to growing up with a professional illustrator father, he took odd jobs like doing the lettering for restaurant signs (link). In search of bigger dreams, he left behind the small-town life in the early 1970s to pursue the bright lights of Hollywood. There, he entered the animation field as an apprentice at an independent studio, making a commercial for Raid, which won at The Chicago International Film Festival Television Awards.

His career ascended when he transitioned to the entertainment industry, contributing more than 50 TV Guide advertisements for some of the hottest network television shows at the time, like Miami Vice, which prepared him to then tackle conceptual one-sheet poster designs for major motion pictures such as Big Trouble in Little China, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, and Who Framed Roger Rabbit, in addition to the final poster art for The Distinguished Gentleman, Funny Farm, and Labyrinth. To date, he has worked on over 120 film campaigns.

His vibrantly retro, strikingly-composed creations have also appeared in several books and magazines (MAD, Reader’s Digest, and Stars Wars: Galaxy of Fear), on consumer products (Parker Brothers Risk, Wham-O toys, and The Franklin Mint), on promotional flyers (Universal Studios theme park, and Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey Circus), and, of course, on computer and video game packaging (The DigDungeons & Dragons: Dragonshard, and Demon Stone).

I reached out to Chorney to learn more about this illustration and his involvement with the game’s production.

“Yes, that particular piece was created, along with three others, for Atari’s Pirates!,” he told me. “The concept was to combine all four artworks to create a montage Pirates! illustration for the game cover.”

The dungeon vignette appears on the right-hand side of the Xbox edition’s front slipcase cover. (Image source:

Chorney added, “The Pirates! artworks, however, were done as preliminary art for client presentation by Atari art directors. And although they were met with favor, the end product was a Photoshop version done by in-house artists to mimic the look.”

Atari made the same decision on another game cover that Chorney submitted, the 2004 first-person shooter Dead Man’s Hand.

Pirates! was not the first Sid Meier title that he had worked on.

“I had already done others for them, such as Sid Meier’s Civilization III cover art. The original of that one was hung in his [Meier’s] office.”

More examples from Chorney’s vast portfolio are available for viewing in his online gallery at