the game archaeologist

Justin Olivetti is Massively Overpowered’s resident Game Archaeologist; he never lets a good old game stay buried. [Follow this column’s RSS feed]

The Game Archaeologist: The Island of Kesmai

It was the mid-’80s, and I was just a kid in love with his family’s IBM PC. Not having a wealth of capital at the time, I relied on hand-me-down copies of software that rolled in from friends and family and probably the Cyber-Mafia. Practically none of the disks came with instructions (or even labels, sometimes), and as such I felt like an explorer uncovering hidden gems as I shoved in 5 1/4″ floppy after 5 1/4″ floppy. Some titles were great fun, some were so obtuse I couldn’t get into them, and some were obviously meant for those older and wiser than I.

One game that fell into the latter category was a brutally difficult RPG that smelt of Dungeons & Dragons — a forbidden experience for me at the time. It was just a field of ASCII characters, jumbled statistics, and instant death awaiting me around every corner. I gave it a few tries but could never progress past the first level, especially when I’d keep running out of arrows, so I gave up.

Then I had my first brush with Rogue, an enormously popular dungeon crawler that straddled the line between the description-heavy RPGs and arcade titles like Gauntlet. Rogue defined the genre when it came out in 1980, spawning dozens of “Roguelikes” that sought to cash in on the craze. Not five years after its release, Rogue got a worthy successor that decided it could bring this addicting style of gameplay to the larval form of the Internet. It was called Island of Kesmai, but you may call it “Sir, yes sir!”

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The Game Archaeologist: The silent world of Tibia

If I were to tell you that there’s a Western MMO out there that’s as old as Ultima Online and yet still has a half-million players, would you believe me? Heck, I wouldn’t believe me even if I came back from the future of having written this article to talk to the past version of me who had yet to start it! But that’s Tibia for you: a weird underdog of an MMO that’s cruised underneath most players’ radars for over a decade and a half.

From its origins as a student project, Tibia jumped in the unexplored waters of the early MMO era and dog paddled for all its worth. This 19-year-old title remains one of the very few active MMOs from the ’90s and one of only a handful that stubbornly stuck to a 2-D graphics format even as 3-D swept the gaming genre. And trust me, those aren’t even the most interesting facts about it!

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The Game Archaeologist: Highlander Online

One of the things that I love about Massively Overpowered’s readership is how fans often bring games to my attention that I never knew even existed. This is particularly true in the case of older MMOs that died in early development.

Last week in the comments, reader Celestial linked to a trailer of Highlander Online, which has to be the very first time I heard of this game. A Highlander MMO? I thought that was just a thought exercise that players like to bandy about from time to time: “Wouldn’t a Highlander online game be cool? How would it work?”

But believe it or not, one was actually in the making for a while. While it obviously never released, Highlander Online deserves a bit of investigation to see how far it came and what it was aiming for in its design.

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The Game Archaeologist: Six videos from MMOs that never launched

Whenever I compile lists or run articles on MMOs that never made it out of the gate, it seems as though talking about it puts people in one of two moods. Either they’re keenly interested (as I am) into these fascinating glimpses of what-could-have-been, or they become depressed and a little sore that I reminded them of the toy they’ll never have.

I don’t mean to prod sore spots with these, I hope you understand. It’s just that part of my job as a game archaeologist is to uncover and document all of these older MMOs, even if they come with a lot of emotional baggage (say, from being killed in development). To the sore folks, I apologize in advance, because this week we’re going to take another video tour, this time to look at MMOs that never launched.

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The Game Archaeologist: Middle-earth Online

I suppose there will always be a special place in my heart for Lord of the Rings Online. Not only is it one of my most-played MMOs, but covering Turbine’s title was my first task when I landed a position at Massively-that-was. For years I played, loved, and wrote about this incredible vision for Middle-earth, and even today I sporadically return to see how the journey to the heart of Mordor is progressing.

So it’s with keen interest this week that I turn my attention to LOTRO’s lesser-known predecessor: Middle-earth Online. Known to some but not to all, Turbine wasn’t the first MMO studio to take a crack at Tolkien’s license — no, for that we have to travel back to 1998 and revisit Sierra On-Line. It was this company that had a brief but memorable run designing Middle-earth Online, also known as “What if LOTRO had permadeath?”

It’s a fascinating glimpse into an entirely different approach to the IP, and even though it died a fairly early death, it’s important to be remembered. Frodo lives!

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The Game Archaeologist: True Fantasy Live Online

As an extremely amateur historian — and an extremely attractive archaeologist — I’ve always been fascinated with the “what ifs” of gaming’s timeline. What if Blizzard had pulled the plug on World of Warcraft during development as it did for Warcraft Adventures? What if Hellgate: London had a lot more time and resources before it launched? What if North America had embraced the free-to-play model much earlier instead of the subscription model? What if Massively was shut down by AOL and reborn as Massively Overpowered thanks to a lot of late nights and a crazy Kickstarter campaign?

Life would’ve been a lot better. Or worse. That’s the problem with counterfactual history: We can make educated guesses, but we’ll never really know. While it’s sad to see MMOs shut down due to underperformance, it’s especially maddening to contemplate MMOs canceled before they even made it to the starting gate.

Today I’m tackling probably one of the most frustrating, painful subjects that still linger amongst potential fans. I’m talking, of course, of True Fantasy Live Online, the game that could’ve shown the true potential of console MMOs. Or, y’know, not.

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The Game Archaeologist: Sega’s 10six MMO

If you were to think of Sega and MMOs, chances are the only thing that would come to mind is the Phantasy Star Online franchise. While those are great games (even though we’ll probably never see PSO2 in the west!), there was another MMO that Sega dabbled in during the boom years of the online gaming industry.

This game was 10six: a hybrid of real-time strategy and sci-fi shooter, played out over a persistent multiplayer world. While 10six had a very short run initially, it still lives on for the fans who find this mix of gameplay compelling and unique.

Base building and blasting, doesn’t that sound fun? Let’s go back in time to the late ’90s and early 2000s to see what 10six was all about.

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The Game Archaeologist: Eight launch trailers from classic MMOs

When YouTube first became a thing, I dismissed it as a site that was mostly preoccupied with people talking into cameras in an attempt to stoke the fires of their narcissism. And while that certainly still exists, I’ve gradually come around to the sheer usefulness of this video sharing site, particularly for its purpose in archiving historical videos.

And by “historical videos” I mean “game trailers from about 20 years ago that have me wasting hours of my life watching and going, ‘Oh man, I remember that!'” So what does one do when one has blown three hours flipping through MMORPG launch trailers? One justifies that time by organizing some of these into a column. If I’m going to get sucked down into that YouTube rabbit hole, you’re coming with me!

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The Game Archaeologist: Dark Age of Camelot

Today, we take a trip to England, but not the England of our timeline. No, this is the England-That-Could-Have-Been, the England of King Arthur, Excalibur and pointy-hatted Vikings. This is the England of fairy tales and legends and blocky 2001-era polygon models. It is the England of three realms constantly jockeying for supremacy and power. It is the England of Dark Age of Camelot.

This country is a pretty awesome place to live, even though the property values are way, way down after the last 18 marauding hordes trampled through the neighborhood. It doesn’t matter if it’s only a model — it still inspires us to break out into song anyway.

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The Game Archaeologist talks to the Asheron’s Call super-fan

A little while back, I received a rather passionate email from Massively OP reader Diego regarding Asheron’s Call. He had quite a lot to say about the game’s current and troubled state, and he was hoping that I would write up a piece on it as a result.

Instead, I invited him to sit down and talk about the game, especially considering that he was a long-time player of Asheron’s Call, a beta tester for both AC titles, and involved in the fan site community. At the core of the discussion was his opinion that Asheron’s Call was Turbine’s greatest creation and the studio’s hope for a return to MMO excellence.

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The Game Archaeologist: The Shadow of Yserbius

Really, I blame my parents for not being filthy rich.

If they had been, we could’ve afforded the $130/month unlimited subscription fee to the ImagiNation Network (INN) back in the early ’90s. Just think! All of the gaming, the socializing, and the roleplaying that I could handle — for such a low price! I mean, sure, there were hourly options, but who’d want to play for a mere five hours a month?

So instead of becoming part of a growing online community, I had to be content with my SNES and copy of Chrono Trigger — hard times, indeed. Sometimes I think how my life would’ve been different if we had subscribed to Sierra’s colorful online world because I would’ve had a chance to get in on one of the first graphical MMOs: The Shadow of Yserbius.

It was a step forward in graphic quality from the text-only MUDs of the day but perhaps a step backward from the complexity that many MUDs brought to the table. Still, for a few shining years, it entranced thousands who lined up to delve dungeons deeply alongside their friends (and a couple of complete strangers with odor disorders).

Today we’re going to take a quick peek at one of the first MMOs that stepped into the realm of lush color and animations and see what made The Shadow of Yserbius so endearing.

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The Game Archaeologist: Five eye-opening videos about the MMORPG genre

When it comes to tracking down history for MMOs, I’ve found that there are an array of sources at hand that have preserved (unwittingly or not) the past for us to discover today. It might be the news articles from long-running game sites, scans of magazine articles, old Usenet files, and especially interviews from those involved in the making and running of early titles.

Another great source, of course, is YouTube. If you’re ever curious about how a long-dead MMORPG looked and played while it was operational, you need only pull up archived videos to see them in action. Once in a while I’ll stumble over interesting videos that reshape how I’ve envisioned the decades during which developers and gaming pioneers formed what we now enjoy, and today I want to share five of those videos with you.

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The Game Archaeologist: Puzzle Pirates

Up until this point in my life, Puzzle Pirates has always been that “Oh yeah, that actually exists!” game to me. Even when I do lists of pirates in MMOs, this title slips right off of my radar. Maybe it’s because Puzzle Pirates doesn’t make waves (har!) these days, or maybe it’s been around for so very long.

I think that part of Puzzle Pirates’ forgettable nature is that it doesn’t exactly scream “MMO.” I mean, its combat is more cerebral than anything else, it’s all cutesy and stuff, and even its name suggests a casual flash title than anything deep and substantive.

Yet I have friends with a long and abiding love for this game, people who always chide me when I forget it. So to peer pressure I bow: It’s high past time that we gave Puzzle Pirates its due as part of the MMO genre. Avast, ye landlubbers, and swab those peepers: We be goin’ to sea!

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