Playing elderly games is a great way to experience what it was like "back then." Of course, I was around back then, and "back then" was only slightly over a decade ago. Still, things have changed a lot. Even in all of my history, I missed some titles or didn't experience them until much later. This is the case with The Realm Online, one of the oldest bits of MMO goodness. I heard about it and have even looked at the site once or twice before -- it just never occurred to me to actually try it.
To keep up with my tradition of trying anything that is put before me, I decided to download it. I have to admit being a little shocked to see a seven-day trial on the homepage. Not only do I rarely see seven-day trials anymore, but why on Earth is this game not free-to-play at least? It's $7.95 a month, as well? I was flabbergasted. Still, I signed up and downloaded the game.
What did I find? Well, some good and some bad. Click past the cut and let me tell you all about it.
The first thing I noticed was how charming the graphics were. You might think I am crazy once you see the screenshots and streaming video in this article, but let me explain. The thing about many older games is that their graphics can be considered frozen in time. Yes, many older games receive graphics updates or engine tweaks, but some of them stay wonderfully the same. I am not sure what The Realm looked like when it first opened its virtual doors, but I can tell you that the graphics, as they are now, are just perfect.
I use the word "charming" a lot because there is no better way to describe how a game that looks like The Realm makes me feel. It is compact, first of all. The entire thing fits within a tiny window on your desktop (although I would like to see some resize options). It's solid and feels like every corner is contained. The fonts and sounds all feel like they came from the same era that the graphics did. The character animations, as rough as they can be, are consistent across all of the character races. Spell effects are cute, but not as in "aw, look at that puppy" cute. They are cute in the way a Warhammer 40K space marine's tiny grenades or bolt pistols are cute -- detailed but itty bitty. All of this adds up to a game that makes me feel like I am dealing with a toy. This is good, but it does not detract from the depth of the game.
You can play one of many races and many classes. Frankly I just randomly picked a character and logged in. That brings me to the point in this article that I try to explain why we should forgive older games and their sometimes frustrating design, but at the same time, why the designers should consider updating things a bit. This shouldn't be a surprise, but The Realm does very little hand-holding with players. As many of us know, games from a decade or more in the past basically dropped you off in a world and let you figure it out. Of course, this made many of us look for some random guide or website that would explain the whole thing to us; others of us would find some high-level player who was nice enough to explain the details. This make us wonder: Why didn't the game just do it for us?
The idea is that developers can simulate the rough landscape or challenge of a fantasy world by having stupid NPCs standing around, lifeless, who give out barely any information. That way, players are forced to explore, find their own way, and work it all out. Sure, this can be fun sometimes and can provide players with a sense of accomplishment. Let's be honest, though: If the idea is to simulate a fantasy world, then why on Earth would NPCs just stand in one spot, never eating or sleeping, hardly saying anything? I am not claiming to be a fan of the ridiculous, giant yellow question marks floating over NPC's heads in more modern games, either, but there has to be a middle-ground.
Granted, the developers' programming abilities might have prevented them from making NPCs who dynamically spoke to us and gave us proper directions, but this is now. These days I do not care to have to go to a website or forum post just to figure out how to live through the first 10 minutes of gameplay. Luckily, the community of The Realm Online is fantastic. I literally did not meet one player who was a smart-alec or mean to me. No one called me a "noob." Instead, the players I met gave me items, showed me around (when there were players on), and were generally very sweet to me. They seemed very excited to see a new player, so they helped me when I needed it.
Of course they knew how to get around, and of course they knew how spells worked and where to find combat. While I like the idea of having to use the community as a source of information, especially since that helps with a feeling of camaraderie, I cannot help but think that development back in the day is now seen with such thick rose-colored glasses that we forget how much it could suck.
In other words, a lot of my time in The Realm Online was spent killing random mobs in turn-based combat, walking around lost, and sitting in my empty house. Back in the day, it was also very normal to encounter a game with almost no quests in it, making players once again create their own goals. Again, I have no issues with this "sandbox" style of gameplay, but I do have issues with sandbox gameplay mixed with a tiny community and a non-existent new player tutorial.
All of this is not to say that The Realm Online is bad. It's not. If you give it way more than the hours I spent in the game, you might find a very good game. Once you learn some of the basics, you might just have the time of your life. It will run on anything and is even "dial-up-friendly." If you do not give it more time than that, though, and find yourself wanting to call it a "piece of junk" or something else, consider when it was made and how long it has lasted. I'm sure that the game's current players are as passionate about their game as you are about yours, and that's all that matters.
In the end, I found a game in desperate need of three things: some very basic newbie help tips and a guide, a client that can be resized to larger than 800x600, and a free-to-play payment option of some kind. Of course, it is very possible that the developers are keeping the door open out of some kind of nostalgia or sense of duty, and in that case, I wish them all the luck in the world. Here's hoping that The Realm Online can go on forever.
Next week I will be touring through some Allods Online. Yep, the game that everyone says he does not play, yet so many players do. I am on the Tensess server, and my orc character's name is Beauturkey. Come join me!
Each week, Rise and Shiny asks you to download and try a different free-to-play, indie or unusual game, chosen by me, Beau Hindman. I welcome any suggestions for games -- drop me a note in the comments or email! You can also follow me on Twitter, Facebook, or Raptr!