Travel Down that Ol’ Town Road

Everquest isn’t the only old school MMO in town with an emulator scene. Asheron’s Call does too. Until recently I’d resisted making any attempt to return. I was alright with just leaving my memories as they were and in the past. To be occasionally plucked to the fore and examined kindly before being put away again for another day.

Until that was, WoW Classic blasted onto the scene. One thing in particular that WoW Classic demonstrated was that sometimes there is value in revisiting what came before. And that the old game worlds can still be played for enjoyment quite successfully.

That in mind, along with the longer-running thread through the community of enjoying Project 99 in all it’s glory, I set out to get myself up and running in AC again.

Getting setup was not too much of an ordeal, I just followed the instructions found here on the GDLEnhanced page. Despite what the instructions say, you can change the paths as you go. Just so long as you take account of the changed paths in subsequent steps. Otherwise though, pay heed to the details in each step as some of them are critical to success!

GDLEnhanced is one of the two major AC Server emulator projects at the moment. The other being ACEmulator — fortunately regardless of which server type you end up on, the instructions on the GDLE page work just fine.

And just like that, I was ready to go on to the character creation screen. (On the Coldeve server, incidentally. It seems the most populated — and I’m not ready for the PvP experience just yet anyway.)

Whoa — where did all the extra playable races come from??? How on earth is THIS explained by lore?

This was the first sign that something was awry.

Now — truth be told, I do have dim memory of this (and the subsequent horror of the changes to the skills on the next page) — being something brought into the ‘real’ AC nearer the end of its life. But I didn’t play very much during this era, and when I did I essentially buried my head in the sand and played existing characters.

But starting fresh I had no choice now but to look at it.

It didn’t feel like my Asheron’s Call any more. It was some undead beast lurching about in AC’s skin. And I already didn’t like it.

Even so — I persisted. I created an approximation of my old Sho Unarmed (now ‘Light Weapons’) build and logged in.

I was greeted with a familiar introductory sequence. It wasn’t there at launch but had nonetheless been a part of the AC I knew and recognised and therefore it was OK. The New Player Onboarding sequence sees you run through a few quick tasks to familiarise you with the systems and how XP is earnt and spent.

One of the last trials of the introductory experience sees you descend into a Young Olthoi hive, to recover an orb of protection.

But all too soon it was over, and I was thrust back into the world.

A sidebar:

Holtburg has ever been my ‘home’ in Asheron’s Call. I’ve bound and lived at other places, possibly for longer times all up than I ever spent at Holtburg. But it doesn’t matter. Holtburg (West, in particular) was where I very first started in Asheron’s Call.

The place I took my first timid steps out into the world around, my awe constantly growing at the realisation there were no ‘levels’ or loading screens.

I never ranged far afield at first, as I ever wanted to be certain I could get back home. Holtburg was safe, and had everything I ever needed as a young player.

Of course eventually, confidence grew — at least sufficiently that I was willing to travel by road to some of the nearby towns I’d heard of. Apparently people were selling elemental weapons in Cragstone, a little to the South.

/ End Sidebar

Right. So here I was, thrust into the world on my new character — and into Holtburg.

But… It was so different. There were too many NPCs. Additional buildings. New adjoining structures. And there was a town portal network, just… there? What happened to having to know your way around the world and where the portal loops of old could take you?

Character creation had been taken from me. Now it appeared Holtburg had too.

Asheron’s Call needed its own ‘Project 99’ it seemed, I was despairing of finding any common ground with this iteration of the game.

Still, not quite ready to logout yet, I ran from town in a southerly direction and soon found myself trotting the well-worn path to Cragstone.

Coming around one corner of no particular note, I was presented with the following sight and my breath caught.

South Holtburg Valley

Now if you’d simply asked me, ‘Do you remember the valley south of Holtburg, toward Cragstone bordering the river and the road?’ I would have said ‘No, not at all.’

You could have further prompted me, ‘It has a hut in it, with a peddler inside’ and I still wouldn’t have been likely to recall it

But seeing it… Oh boy, seeing it.

When you die in Asheron’s Call, there is no map marker or anything else to tell you where your body is. You have to just know, or else be able to find it again. This is a skill you learn over time, especially if you’re hunting in an area you’re familiar with.

But for characters starting out — the best advice I ever received and could hand out in turn was to hunt around a landmark.

This valley? It was a spot my friends and I often guided young players to, and suggested they keep within the bounds of the valley until they were a little more confident. Behind me in the screenshot is a Lifestone — so should they perish, the valley is right there and is a confined space to search.

Across the river in the old spawning rules of the world was slightly higher level creatures than what was in the valley itself, so it offered a natural progression as well.

To see it again, after the despair just moments before, was quite a stab to the feels. And it gave me some hope that maybe I can adjust to the changes made — that the core of the game I loved so much in some fairly fundamental ways is still here.

Still… I’d really love for at least one of the emulator projects to go down the P99 route. Or at LEAST consider stopping before the race and skill change were made. :P

Nostalgia and Moving On

Sometimes I feel a bit… Old. Especially when I make realisations like this one: I could probably wax nostalgic about waxing nostalgic. Not quite what we’re here for today though. Isey started a conversation, wondering why nostalgia works. He reaches a conclusion in his post that it might be to do with taking a snapshot in time and freezing it as a memento of the surrounding life conditions and the feelings they evoke.

There is a recognition that we can’t — in most respects — freeze time. But in the context of games and the likes of Project 99 to a greater or lesser extent, you actually can. Here, we might be able to take some control. It’s worth taking a look at the Isey’s whole post for additional context, too.

Asheron’s Call. My own usual trip down MMO-memory lane. (Image Source: Asheron’s Call Archive)

I’m not entirely sure Isey’s conclusion holds true for me. At first, I was sure it didn’t actually. But upon further reflection, there might be an element of this.

Sure, I can recall aspects of my life from the times spent gaming. With some very vivid snapshots in time recalled in short-form but otherwise very complete narrative form even. I remember well my room, it’s layout and contents, the anticipation of the loading/patching ‘tubes’ of loading up Asheron’s Call.

I remember when I had moved out into my first flat and was downloading the Shadowbane beta client (All 600+MB of it) on 28.8k dial-up. And then having it not work. (The Shadowbane beta was very rough.)

These experiences were objectively bad. Long waits. Things not working. Yet even though this is something I recognise looking back at those times now? Yeah, I remember them fondly. In a sort of, ‘I was there’ and ‘Look how far we’ve come’ type way. More about the ‘cred’ of being there ‘back in the day’ than anything else, I think.

But that’s the experiences surrounding the games.

What About the Nostalgia in Actually Playing?

One principle of nostalgia that typically holds true for me is that I need to have experienced the specific ‘thing’ (TV show, game, movie, whatever it is) when it was current.

I get essentially nil nostalgic value out of experiencing something from the same timeframe, even if it is almost identical in look, execution and general approach to something else I did experience at the time.

A good example of this is the ol’ Sierra adventure games. I played and loved the ever-loving heck out of the Quest for Glory series.1 There was a time when I was playing through these every year or two. Yet I never played the King’s Quest or Space Quest games when they were current. I once thought to try them out but I bounced off them almost immediately. My love for QFG remained untarnished, but there was no getting on board with KQ and SQ.

The same holds true of MMOs. You couldn’t pay me enough to spend any serious time in Project 99 from all I’ve heard. Two weeks on a single camp? Level percentages in measured in turn by their own percentages? *Gack*

In an alternate timeline where I played EQ instead of Asheron’s Call though I could imagine being all over it. Or at least… I would love to have the option to be all over it. To know it still existed and that I could jump in at any time and revisit the world I’d known.

“…a stroll around the old neighborhood is plenty. It’s like stopping off in the village where I grew up. Sometimes I do that, when I pass by on my way to somewhere else. Take a wander round, see what’s changed. What hasn’t. Yet. Then back in the car and move on.”

Bhagpuss (2019), Two Weeks in Another Camp: Everquest (Inventory Full)

Bhagpuss nailed it for me with this. Although the gaming equivalent might be weeks or a month — this was how I was treating Asheron’s Call before it’s shut down at the start of 2017. It was a place to visit, look around, remember the history fondly. Play a little. Smile. Move on.