If you feel that modern MMOs are too casual, that gamers these days have it too easy, that back in my day we did 40-man raids 24/7 without voice chat and we liked it... then you're a big softie. It's time to hop into the MMO wayback machine, and I really mean “wayback” – all the way back to the game that started it all, Meridian 59. After nearly 20 years in release, it's making a comeback.
If you're not aware, Meridian is considered by many to be the first true 3D MMORPG. Four years before EverQuest debuted, an early form of M59 went online in December 1995. Clients running the original version can still be found, but there wasn't much being done in the form of active development until recently. In 2013, the original developers, Andrew and Chris Kirmse, released the source code, and shortly thereafter, two fans decided to take up the monumental task of rebuilding and modernizing the ancient MMO. The Open Meridian Project was born.
I spoke with Daniel “Daenks” Stone and Matt “Gar” Dymerski at PAX South about the game and their version of it – which, at first glance, might not seem all that “modern.” Admittedly, nobody will confuse it with Guild Wars 2, but they did have a version of the original client on hand, and the changes were subtle but noticeable. It now runs on Linux and runs “70 to 80 percent” better than the original version, with plenty of bugs squashed and cheats patched up. Also, you can now jump. Yes, that was something you couldn't do in the original game.
“Meridian 59 is like the wheel,” Stone told me, comparing it to another seminal invention that's seen a fair share of innovation through the ages, “but it's got a unique flair and flavor.” It's the hardest of hardcore games, the oldest of the old-school. There's no trinity, no classes or levels, plenty of PvP and corpse-looting, all meant to appeal to, as Stone put it, people who are “fed up” with modern MMOs. Virtually everything is controlled by players. As the introduction on the Open Meridian website puts it, the game appeals to “nineties-era sensibilities.”
I tooled around the build they had at the convention and... yeah, despite the changes they've made, it still feels sufficiently ancient. My character had lots of abilities on tiny hotkeys with no numbers, so Stone had to tell me which abilities were locked to each number. (Maybe there's a way to change UI settings, but I didn't dig that deep.) As Stone and I beat on each other a little bit, there weren't even damage numbers popping up over our heads, something that you just take for granted these days. My only indicator that I was dying were some bars in the upper-left part of the screen. They were the same rainbow of colors and labeled only with symbols, so I had to guess which one was health. Like I said, ancient.
It's still going to have its fans, though. As we were talking, someone else showed up at the booth and said he'd played M59 in its original state, back in 1995, even before Stone and Dymerski got into it. (It officially launched in September 1996.) The newcomer engaged the pair and excitedly vowed to check out the Open Meridian Project when he got home. The two are optimistic it can appeal to both old and new players, though I'll admit to having a little doubt on that front. From a historical perspective, it's neat, and I'll admit to even having a little bit of a yearning to see what it plays like, just for the sake of education. But if I was really into that sort of thing, I think there are enough “hardcore” games out or coming out – with at least some modernity in controls or graphics – that something like Meridian wouldn't hold my attention for too long, not without some previous connection to the game.
At least the guys are staying realistic, with no expectation of profit. Stone said that the entire game is free, and there's no plan to charge for microtransactions; it's purely a passion project, and one that they update frequently. Patch notes – here's the most recent batch – are as extensive as you'd expect for any current MMO. There's currently a tutorial in the works (pfft, hand-holding carebears!), as well as a new desert zone that will double the land mass of the game.
In the meantime, they're hoping to get the game Greenlit on Steam, to achieve an even wider audience and help people a game that has a unique place in MMO history. You can download the installer and check it out yourself on the Open Meridian website.