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Meridian 59

Revisiting the oldest running MMO.

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.