Look, I can't quote Mommie Dearest and I've never owned a Kylie Minogue album, but I know a sexy blacksmith when I see one. They're everywhere in videogames, especially MMOs, where they serve as crucial financial drains on players, who, by and large, like to hoard things. And right now, this particular sexy blacksmith - the local anvil-and-forge man in Raza, a small village somewhere in the world of Meridian 59 - and I are at an impasse.
I've been standing here for three minutes, trying to decide on whether I'm going to be sensible and buy the cheapo leather armour, or splurge on the scale-mail. My unyielding desire to prove to my parents that I'm more than a high-school dropout with a plasma tan compels me towards financial discretion, but still: it's hard to say what I'll need when I head down into the mausoleum over yonder.
He's so keen to sell it to me, too. Or is there something other than salesmanship lurking in that solicitous gaze? I can't read his eyes, but his titanium biceps speak - or, rather, whisper - volumes: "I'll hold you," they purr. "I'll keep you safe, my sweet little avocado." Suddenly, my wife walks in, and I shake myself out of it. Leather armour it is.
It's the sprites, I swear. When you think about it, Meridian 59's artists had but a few 2D images to work with to convey their characters, as opposed to the endlessly rotatable, but fundamentally soulless and boxy, 3D models EverQuest would show off a few years later. So they had to really imbue each pixel with personality. It's compelling.
Playing Meridian 59 is a strange undertaking these days, though. If you're unaware, a little history: Ultima Online is commonly accepted as the first modern-day MMO, but this is something of a misnomer, Meridian 59 having appeared in 1996, a full year before UO's release. Despite this, it failed to garner nearly as much publicity as Origin's effort, primarily, one suspects, because it wasn't tied to a blockbuster franchise
There are several other possible reasons: for one, it has an odd name, suggesting an old, expensive club coupé rather than a fantasy videogame. There was also the fact that the games press was still making jokes about choking on the words "massively multiplayer" and the whole idea seemed rather quaint, until Ultima Online started drawing crowds. Finally, of course, Meridian 59 was unavoidably associated with the comedy of errors that was Trip Hawkins' 3DO venture in the mid-nineties. (It's likely Hawkins who came up with the term MMORPG in the first place, but I don't know whether that redeems or utterly condemns him.)
Since then, Meridian 59 has, somewhat inexplicably, survived. 3DO tried to kill it off in 2000, but it was bagged by Near Death Studios - a group of former Meridian 59 developers - and relaunched commercially two years later. Near Death revamped the old warhorse in 2004 with a new, Direct3D-compatible rendering engine which enabled dynamic lighting, anti-aliasing and so forth, but it, too, failed to attract the number of subscribers needed to keep the project profitable. After five years of the company being on "life support", as Near Death founder Brian Green put it, they cut Meridian 59 loose and closed shop.
Were it any other MMO, Meridian 59 would be pushing daisies by now, but a fiercely loyal following has ensured that the game is not only still running, but now completely free-to-play. This degree of passion, I decided, merited investigation.
I was sceptical at first, I must confess: the Meridian 59 website is a total shambles, festooned with dead links and apologetic placeholders that, I guessed, had been gathering dust for a while now. Surprisingly, though, the email sign-up process was remarkably efficient. From there, the process was simple: fire up the free client, choose from a selection of faces and hairstyles, and adjust my stats and abilities on percentage sliders.
Like Ultima Online, Meridian 59 is skill- rather than class-based, so you're given relative freedom to create, say, a mace-wielding fog-spawner, or a monk-like brawler with an aptitude for transforming elderberries into hearty dinners. The level of choice on offer was a little daunting, so I rolled my default: your basic meat-and-potatoes warrior. Then it was an unceremonious dump into a Raza tavern, where I was immediately compelled to go and visit the local blacksmith. Leather armour purchased and equipped, I breezed through the empty town and ventured into the tomb that was, so I've heard, infested with undead.
Meridian 59, it must be said, looks a lot like Doom - or Heretic, if you prefer, which used the Doom engine in a fantasy setting. Certain characters, like the blacksmith, are static sprites; others, like myself, other players, and monsters, can be viewed from six different perspectives, giving the whole thing a kind of pseudo-3D mien. Despite the 2004 botox jab, the game obviously hasn't aged well, and I must confess to being a little put off by this. It's not so much of a problem in cities or even dungeons, but the wilderness zones, which are essentially corridor mazes with tree textures on the walls, are immensely frustrating to navigate, and I frequently found myself submitting to the moist, pungent maw of a giant groundworm just so I could respawn somewhere more interesting.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. The mausoleum is my first experience of Meridian 59's combat system, and as far as combat systems in MMOs go, it's not too heinous. I hammer the E key whenever I enter a mummy's vicinity - no zombies here, Chop Chop - and my little animated arm swings its little animated sword. The zo... mummy fires off its repartee, and we continue in this fashion until one of us is dead.
I'm not too concerned about the outcome, because as a resident of the newbie village, I'm able to revive myself with minimal repercussions. In addition, I'm also unwilling to judge Meridian 59's battle mechanics based on these soporific early encounters - PvP, apparently, is where they really shine. Having had my fill of Meridian 59's tutorial content, I make my way to the portal which will deliver me into the game proper.
Another day, another tavern, but this time in a larger village - Marion - and with a few real people milling about. Helpfully, some kind souls have deposited a few of the basic adventurer amenities (weapons, food, and so on) of which I was cruelly stripped upon leaving the tutorial. I'm not sure who I should be thanking, though, so I just take what I want and furtively walk outside. Marion has a decent roster of NPCs and accompanying quests, which range from chicken soup delivery to rat extermination. I tool around with this for a while, but I can't escape the sensation that I'm rather missing the point of Meridian 59 as it stands today.
Developers will often say that these games live and die by their communities, but never has this been truer than with what is, unquestionably, the oldest running MMO in existence. And now that Meridian 59 is totally free, surely it's absolutely bustling with jaded MMO veterans looking for a verdant little Portland, Oregon in which to settle down and compose idylls about the unmitigated beauty of raid parsers or whatever?
I disturb the carnal bliss of two copulating flies on my keyboard to type in "who", and get a sense of exactly how many players one can expect to find in Meridian 59 at any given time. 36 names are beamed back to me. It's not really peak hour in the land of milk and honey and adolescent angina, so I try again a few times later on, and get 100 people at the most. It's quiet, too, because Meridian 59's developers wisely made it such that the global chat command consumes half your available mana whenever you use it, effectively preventing the spam and obnoxious debates that seem to plague chat channels in every other MMO.
At the risk of wasting mana I'll never use, I broadcast a question: why keep coming back to Meridian 59? "It's different to anything else out there" is the common consensus, and there's also an undercurrent of relief that Near Death Studios is no longer in control. I get the sense that there isn't much turnover in Meridian 59's core user-base, and the obviously tight-knit community is well-acquainted with the game's various quirks and charms. It's a small club, to be sure, but it's not a rude or unwelcoming one: quite the opposite, and I suspect that were you to take the plunge into this ancient virtual world, you'd have to be a complete Gordon Ramsay to have trouble finding someone to guide you along.
Of course, the accumulated experience of Meridian 59's player-base is also going to prevent you from accessing one of the game's key attractions - PvP - until you're heavily entrenched. I discovered this the hard, albeit quick, way. But there are other unique aspects to explore. For example, Meridian 59 features a dynamic NPC faction system, which players can become involved in and manipulate so as to secure dominance for their chosen leader.
A similar system reportedly applies to player-run guilds, so it's theoretically feasible for your guild to take over the entire sever, tiny as it is. It would be difficult to give you a sense of how these mechanics affect the grand scheme of things in Meridian 59 these days, though, without spending months as an embedded reporter in this tiny community.
That shouldn't stop you from giving it a swing, though. You could easily do worse than to engross yourself into such a well-worn and detailed virtual world, and even if it ultimately leaves you jonesing for Naxxramas, at least you've spent a few hours perusing what's arguably an extremely important historical document in the history of (online) videogames. Steel yourself, though: them blacksmiths have it going on.