Play Meridian 59, the Oldest Graphical Fantasy MMO Still in Existence
Meridian 59 may or may not be the first commercial, graphical, online multiplayer RPG, depending on how you want to define it--both Neverwinter Nights and Shadow of Yserbius predate it--but it's the only one that's been running continuously since its inception in 1996, despite going through multiple owners and business models.
Meridian 59's setting is archetypal fantasy, complete with armored warriors, wizards, undead, and so on. The name comes from the backstory; it is set in the 59th of an ancient empire. Unlike most later games, only humans are available as PCs.
Meridian 59 it shows its age. Lest I be accused of being aware of only recent games, let me show my age. My first online RPG was Isle of Kesmai, and my first computer game was the ASCII Star Trek, played over an acoustic coupler to a mainframe in 1976. Time moves on, standards change, and while older games like Everquest and Ultima Online keep evolving with new expansions and upgrades, Meridian 59 is very much mired in mid-90s technology and game design. It's very, very, interesting as a portal into that older world and a chance to experience the Precambrian era of MMOs, but it's hard for me to recommend it as a game to play for its own sake, something which isn't the case for the pre-millenial games noted above.
Even the basic user interface shows the signs of an older era. Although Meridian 59 has a 3-D first-person window, there's no full-screen interface, and most of the dialogs and menus use standard Windows GUI elements, instead of more stylized graphics. There's nothing wrong with this—for most kinds of software, it's desirable--but it's unusual to see a game that relies on generic controls these days. Movement defaults to standard keyboard controls, and right-clicking things brings up dialogs, options, or more information. There is no "jump" key, a fact noted in the tutorial when it teaches you how to jump--you run forward over an edge and hope you land where you want, basically. Another interesting point about the graphics is that 2-D sprites drawn at various angles are used instead of 3-D models. At the time, 3-D graphics required custom video cards game, such as Doom and Wing Commander, simulated 3-D in this manner to get much better performance. Many predicted the failure of "Everquest" because it required an advanced graphics card to run; when it rather spectacularly didn't fail, that was more-or-less the end of pseudo-3D in major products.
There are no classes per se in Meridian 59.You allocate points to various abilities, which increase with practice, as do your skills. You can visit NPC trainers to purchase new spells or abilities as they become available. While in-game help is minimal, there's a friendly community. Accessing these forums requires operator approval, and it took several days in my case.
Meridian 59's initial tutorial gives you a small town to run around in and learn the interface basics, and a catacomb full of mummies to kill. To complete the quest, though, you need a second player, and I did not see a single other person in the tutorial zone. So I killed a lot of mummies. If there were any other types of monsters down there, I didn't see them. Combat is simple at this stage: Click the monster until it's dead, then pick up what it drops.
The primary focus of Meridian 59 nowadays is PVP, and the PVP game appears (based on comments on the message boards) heavily weighted towards veterans who have multiple accounts and maxed-out characters. While this is always a problem in long-running games, it's especially pronounced in Meridian 59 due to the sheer age of the game and the limited character slots, which means there are few "alts" being played in the game's starting and mid-level areas.
The combination of nostalgia appeal and brutal PVP could give a Meridian a solid niche to fill, but with only a trickle of donations to fund it, it's caught in a brutal Catch-22: It can't become appealing to new players without a fairly major overhaul, and it can't do that without the funds that new players would bring. Maybe a Kickstarter project is called for? It worked for Shadowrun.
Note: The Download button takes you to the vendor's site, where you can download the latest version of the software.