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Games That Changed Our Lives: ‘The Matrix Online’

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Not many people can say that a game they never played changed their life, but I can. I’m sure that might seem counter-intuitive, but from the time The Matrix Online was in beta through about a year after launch, I was completely immersed in the game. It was 2004, sometime during my junior year of high school, when I typed “Matrix Online guilds” into Bing before it was Bing. I had heard about an MMORPG version of one of my favorite movies and wanted to play it. The problem was I didn’t have any friends that played video games, so I had to go make new ones. On the internet. Which was a dark and scary place as far as my parents were concerned, but I was fearless. I had no idea what an online guild was or what they did exactly, but I wanted to find out.

What I found—or who I found—was the Illuminati (no, not THAT Illuminati), an incredibly well-structured guild with a hardcore emphasis on roleplaying. It was intimidating as all-heck. As I wrote out my application to join, I worried that I wasn’t enough of a gamer because I had never played an MMO before, and the closest I ever came to roleplaying was the one time I auditioned to be Rizzo from Grease in the 8th grade. Up until that point, my gaming experience had been a few Nintendo 64 games and computer games like Duke Nukem 3D and Catz 4. But I was welcomed with open arms, assigned to a ship—the HvCRT Gungnir—and let loose on the forums. Aside from how welcoming everyone was, I was surprised that I wasn’t the only girl. There was a small number of us, but we were there and respected members of the guild; our code of conduct was taken seriously, and it was a huge reason why our community was so tight-knit. There was a time when another guild infiltrated our forums with spies, spilling over our in-game Zionist verses Zionist faction rivalry into our home-space. Unfortunately for them, we discovered who they were and permabanned them from the forums—and targeted them in-game whenever we got a chance. No one messed with us.

thematrixonline

Targeting the rival.

As The Matrix Online was well-known for the online communities it fostered all over the world, it was equally well-known for its mind-numbing repetition, terrible interface design, unbalanced combat, and other gameplay ickyness—but what it managed to do was bring something new to the MMO scene, and fill it with artists, great roleplaying, and live community events unlike anything at the time. Players could directly communicate with storyline characters in scripted interactions created by the game’s live events team. Everything anyone did in The Matrix Online became canon to what the trilogy had already created. So, when Morpheus addressed the entire community during an important event, everyone stood around and listened… except for one member of the Illuminati who stripped to nothing but a hat and boots and somehow managed to “hyper-hump” Morpheus. (Rumor has it that during that event, Laurence Fishburne was in the studio watching it all happen. Sorry you had to witness that, Mr. Fishburne.) That’s canon. Forever.

15-plus years of friendships, across state lines and oceans, all made possible by The Matrix Online.

Every story event written by the live events team has been thoroughly archived on the game’s wiki page (and I highly recommend reading it), but just to give you an idea about how much these live events made the game, The Matrix Online might be one of the rare games in history where story made up for the flaws in gameplay. It all started with the guilds, across all factions, racing to collect Neo’s RSI fragments and transmit them to Shapers, the only entities that could put Neo’s fragments together again. Red-eyed Agents were hell-bent on preventing that from happening, though, but eventually Morpheus threw himself into the mix and said he would stop at nothing to get the Machines to return Neo’s body. It was his tunnel-vision determination that eventually caused inter-faction rifts between various Zionist guilds, but when Morpheus unexpectedly died, everyone came together in grief.

thematrixonline

What sort of tomfoolery is this?

But above all else, knowledge was power in the game. Knowing specific events ahead of time meant guild-firsts for many players. Some players were lucky enough to be pulled into secret rooms in-game by developers and receive information in advance of future live events; one former guildmate of mine met The Oracle. Many players didn’t stick around for the combat per-say, but they stuck around for the opportunity to influence the trajectory of The Matrix’s story—and there I was, not able to play the game but living vicariously through my guildmates’ screenshots and stories. I read enough and saw enough to understand what was going on and know that I wanted so badly to hyper-jump between rooftops with the rest of my guild, but my poor little Gateway computer wasn’t up to the task.

What I had instead was a place to geek out about the Matrix, a place to share my creative writing in the form of roleplaying, and a place that gave me a much-needed reprieve from my turbulent high school days. Not too long after the official launch I felt a distinctive shift in the guild dynamics, and I’m not talking about tension that every guild has between several players at one point or another; I’m talking about the point where our guild became more than the game itself. As time went on, we spent more time hanging out in TeamSpeak or IRC just chatting. By 2005, our guild had grown disenchanted with the game, largely due to the changes SOE made after they purchased the rights to The Matrix Online.

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More than just a faction.

We were in a weird state a flux because of all those changes. On one hand, not many Illuminati members wanted to play The Matrix Online anymore, but no one wanted to stop gaming together. So, the Illuminati turned into The Illuminati Gaming Society, TIGS for short, and we expanded our forums to include games like Star Wars: Galaxies, the one game I was able to play with my guild. But after the “New Game Experience” hit, the guild quickly fell apart and we scattered, sporadically communicating via AIM and MySpace. I lost touch with one of the most influential people in my life at the time, a guy who was like an older brother to me, who mailed me a copy of Star Wars: Galaxies so I could play it with everyone. (Cirga, if you’re reading this, I miss you, and I hope all is well.)

But even though we were no longer a formal group and went years without speaking and gaming together, our camaraderie didn’t die. Throughout my travels I made it a point to meet in-person as many of my guildmates as I could, whether that was sitting down to dinner at a PF Chang’s in Nashville, navigating Camden Street in London, or getting absolutely hammered off Chimay in New Orleans. The time I spent as part of the Illuminati, pre and post-MxO, are the happiest times of my life. And thanks to Rajko’s MxO emulator, I finally got to experience a piece of the game with some of the people I’ve known for all these years. So, I guess I technically can’t say I’ve never played The Matrix Online anymore.

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I’m Ice. Nice to meet you.

When I reached out to my former guildmates before I started writing this article, I expected to hear back from maybe two or three people and get a few grainy, low-resolution screenshots. What I received was much more than that. It had been a long time since all of us chatted together in the same online space, only this time it was Facebook Messenger instead of IRC or TeamSpeak. The memories of being teenagers (or younger adults for some) floated back effortlessly: all our shenanigans, rival factions, our guildnames. We reached deep into long forgotten Photobucket accounts and shared everything we could find from forum signatures to screenshots of us playing other games together. (And a huge thank you for letting me use some of those screenshots in this article.) It was as if no time had passed at all, regardless if some of us had remained in contact or not. 15-plus years of friendships, across state lines and oceans, all made possible by The Matrix Online.

Joanna Nelius is a Southern California native who was raised on age-inappropriate games, yet somehow turned out alright. She has been an editor and contributor for several small gaming publications, as well as speculative fiction and academic magazines, for the last few years. When she has some free time, she usually spends it exploring abandoned buildings or watching Unsolved Mysteries—and finding good homes for her twisted horror and sci-fi stories.

5 Comments

5 Comments

  1. NeoHD

    August 28, 2018 at 9:47 am

    Hi,
    i am “HD_Neo” one of the project owners of hardline dreams – a Matrix Online Server Emulator.
    It is so great to read this and totally confirmed.

    The community is still there and this is great – show me an mmorpg where you have still a community after the developer shut it down 9 years ago.

    Well you had some exception before playing a game and mostly there a disapoint you.
    Like Watchdogs where it looks really cool in the trailers but the game is not as good as you expected.

    But MxO was what i expected and much more – it was the first time where i really thought “whoa they did it – a big world which you can explore in the matrix universe where you can enter every rooms”.
    Btw. show me a Open World Game where this is possible (i mean in GTA or Watchdogs it is more that you can enter “some” buildings but in MxO you can nearly enter every building).

    This is still in 2018 something that is really new and unique.
    But it was so much fun playing the game (ok CR2 destroyed many things about the gameplay and that was a reason why many players left the game).

    Still today we try to develop a Server which is playable. Also others like Rajko did some good progress there (you can even hyperjump which is pretty cool).

    But i am not sure if we will have a nearly full working server emulator or a “remastered” game. As the UE4 Version from rajko seems to be stuck (as there are no big news about that) – what would be cool if it would be ported to UE4 but i think it is reaaaly much work to do it by a one-man army.

    However – still after 13 years after the release there is still a community and this community is great.

    • Joanna Nelius

      August 29, 2018 at 1:23 pm

      Hi! Thanks for reading and I’m glad you enjoyed it.

      I agree—it really does say something great about the game when there’s still a community that supports it over a decade later. I know hoping in the emulator with some of my old guildmates was a surreal experience. We still have hopes that we’ll see a full working emulator in the future, but understand how time consuming that whole process is.

  2. david grimes

    August 29, 2018 at 11:56 pm

    just wanted to thank your editor for his response over the whole detroit ‘kerfuffle’ had no way to reach him but i think he was the editor and he left me a very reasonable and fair response so if you could pass on your thanks to him for that i would be greatful Julia. I know heres not really the place but i wanted to reply in public for fear of being accused again of harrassment by that complete idiot who i hopes been fired from this website now,and who took it upon himself to speak for yoy and try to impress you during the afforementioned detroit ‘kerfuffle’. Anyway while im here int tut comments section(north of england accent)i may as well comment on this article too;well written piece,never played matrix online but it sounds interesting. My next games gonna be shadow of the tomb raider. more of the same by looks of it but i love uncharted or all naughty dog really so tomby will bide some time till last of us 2. Any idea when thats out by the way?maybe as an industry insider so to speak you could te?l me when you think its gonna come out. anyway,iv waffled long enough,glad we could put all the detroit ‘kerfuffle’behind us and have a great day!

    • Ricky D Fernandes

      August 30, 2018 at 12:46 am

      No worries. Also, it is worth noting that we had a small website crash that week and lost many comments posted on our site. So if you see some missing, that is the reason why.

      • Harry Morris

        September 3, 2018 at 4:01 pm

        Sorry if I upset you David, no hard feelings. 🙂

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‘Tecmo Bowl, the Godfather of NFL Games

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Tecmo Bowl Retrospective

Tecmo Bowl was a big deal back in 1989!

With Madden growing more popular and even more complex every year, we sometimes forget about the game that started it all.

I cannot stress the importance of Tecmo Bowl twenty-nine years after its release. Originally an arcade game, Tecmo Bowl was ported to the Nintendo Entertainment System by the makers of such classics as Ninja Gaiden, Mighty Bomb Jack, and Solomon’s Key, and it took everyone by surprise by just how good it was. Nobody expected the Japanese developers of puzzle games and 2D platformers to succeed in creating a sports game, much less an American sports game, but they did. Named NES Sports Game of the Year, Tecmo Bowl provided players with the best football experience found on the NES console back in 1989 and it paved the way for what became the biggest trend in sports games to this day.

Although Tecmo didn’t have the official NFL license to use the actual team names and logos (the teams in the game are identified by their home city or state), the game features players from 12 NFL franchises due to being licensed by the NFLPA (National Football League Players Association). Nowadays this doesn’t seem like a big deal but back in 1989 it was huge! Tecmo Bowl features some of football’s greatest players including John Elway, Bo Jackson, Marcus Allen, Mike Singletary, Joe Montana, Ronnie Lott, Walter Payton, and Dan Marino, and when it shipped 29 years ago, it changed everything for sports video games.

Long before football video games became just as complex as real-life football, Tecmo Bowl laid the groundwork for what would be the standard moving forward. There aren’t many plays to choose from but you’re given the choice of 4 plays while on offense and another 4 while on defense. In addition, the game features three different modes: Single Player, Two Player, and Coaching mode which allows you to call plays while letting the CPU control the players on the field. The simple and responsive controls work perfectly within the framework of the game, and it is this simplicity that makes the game fun to play to this day. And regardless if you know don’t know much about the sport, anyone can easily follow along thanks to the broadcast camera view and two-button controls.

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Tecmo Bowl is a seemingly effortless game in which everything falls neatly into place. It stripped football down to its basic elements and created a fun arcade experience anyone can enjoy. Tecmo Bowl was Madden before Madden was a household name. It’s the game that started the football franchise craze in video games and laid the groundwork for the even better, Tecmo Super Bowl. American football games have come a long way over the years, but what hasn’t changed is the sheer enjoyment any football fan can have when playing Tecmo Bowl.

Tecmo Bowl is without a doubt the granddaddy of football games, and there’s something to be said for the back-to-basics formula that Tecmo Bowl employed. With technological enhancements in gameplay, graphics, power, and speed, the original Tecmo Bowl seems incredibly dated in 2016, but surprisingly the game holds up nearly three decades later.

Side Note: There were two NES versions of the game released in the U.S. The first release is easily identified by its black and gold seal of quality and the second version by its white and gold seal. It should also be noted that the names of players were removed on the virtual console release.

Tecmo Bowl
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Game Reviews

‘Coffee Talk’ Review: The Best Brew in Town

Coffee Talk is as quaint as your local coffee shop. It’s relatively short, wonderfully sweet, and absolutely committed to the art form of telling a story through a video game screen.

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It’s 9:00pm. The rain just started coming down softly a few minutes ago, and the street outside is reflecting the lights above it. Neon signs shine brightly in the distance, although it’s hard to make out the words. You unlock the doors to the coffee shop and wipe down the counters in order to get them clean for the customers. The rain makes a soft sound as it hits the glass and passerby speed up their walking pace to avoid it. The bells chime as a tall, green orc walks in and sits down at your table in silence. You wonder what their story is…

I wanted to set the tone for this review because of how important atmosphere and audio/visual design is in the world of Coffee Talk. While it’s easy to boil the game down as a visual novel-type experience, it’s honestly so much more than that. A unique cast of characters, incredible user interface, and a mysterious protagonist combine to form the most enjoyable experience I’ve had this year on Switch.

Coffee Talk
Some of the subject matter can be pretty serious in nature…

Coffee Talk is beautiful because of how simple it is. The entire game takes place within a single coffee shop. As the barista, you’re tasked with making drinks for the patrons of the shop as well as making conversations with them. The twist is that earth is populated with creatures like orcs, werewolves, and succubi. The relationship between the various races is handled very well throughout the story, and some interesting parallels are made to the real world.

Making drinks is as simple as putting together a combination of three ingredients and hitting the ‘Serve’ button. If a unique drink is made, it will be added to a recipe list that can be referenced on the barista’s cell phone. This is where the awesome user interface comes in, as the phone has a series of apps that can be accessed at any moment in the game. One app houses your recipe list, another acts as a facebook for the characters in the game, one allows you to switch between songs, and the other houses a series of short stories that one of the characters in the game writes as it progresses. It’s one of the coolest parts of the whole experience and helps it stand out from other games in the genre.

Coffee Talk is as quaint as your local coffee shop. It’s relatively short, wonderfully sweet, and absolutely committed to the art form of telling a story through a video game screen.

Coffee Talk cycles between talking with customers and making drinks for them. In the beginning, they will ask for basic beverages that can be brewed on the fly. Later on however, they may ask for a specific type of drink that has a unique title. These drinks often have certain descriptive features that hint at other possibilities in terms of unique dialogue. If the wrong drink is made, you’ll have five chances to trash it and make a new one. If the wrong drink is made, don’t expect the customer to be pleased about it.

The gameplay really is not the focus here though; it’s the characters and their stories that take center stage. An elf with relationship issues, a writer that can’t seem to pin down her next story, and an alien whose sole goal is to mate with an earthling are just a few of the examples of the characters you’ll meet during the story. There are tons of memorable moments throughout Coffee Talk, with every character bringing something unique to the table. The barista develops an interesting relationship with many of these characters as well.

Coffee Talk
Appearances can often be deceiving in this game.

Even though serving the wrong drinks can change some of the dialogue, don’t expect any sort of options or branching paths in terms of the story. It’s not that kind of experience; the story should simply be enjoyed for what it is. I found myself glued to the screen at the end of each of the in-game days, waiting to see what would happen in the morning. The first playthrough also doesn’t answer all of the game’s questions, as the second one is filled with all kinds of surprises that I won’t spoil here.


Coffee Talk is as quaint as your local coffee shop. It’s relatively short, wonderfully sweet, and absolutely committed to the art form of telling a story through a video game screen. It’s an easy recommendation for anyone who loves video games, not just visual novel fans. There are characters in the game that I’ll certainly be thinking about for a long time, especially when the setting brings out the best in them. Don’t pass this one up.

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The Magic of Nintendo: How Mario and Zelda Connect us to Our Inner Child

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Magic of Nintendo

Nintendo is special. Many excellent developers depend upon story or progression systems to entice engagement, but not Nintendo. Nintendo games captivate because of their immediate charm. There is no need for a payoff. The games, themselves, are enough: they elicit feelings, hard to find in adulthood. Through intrepid discovery, playful presentation, and unfiltered whimsy, the best of Nintendo connects gamers to their childlike selves.

The heart of any great Nintendo game is discovery and no encounter encapsulates this better than Breath of the Wild’s Eventide Island. First, finding the island requires genuine gumption. Found far from Hyrule’s shore, the island is only clearly visible from other islands, and even then, it’s only a speck in the distance. Reaching the island requires players to brave the open ocean and head towards something … that could be nothing. Then, upon arriving on the beach, a spirit takes all the player’s gear, including clothes and food. Link, literally, is left in his underwear. From there, players must make clever use of Link’s base skills in order to steal enemy weapons and make traps. The scenario creates a marvelous sense of self-sufficiency brought on by one’s own desire to discover. The player comes to the island purely of their own choosing, tackles the sea, and then overcomes obstacles without the aid of their strongest tools. The game turns players into plucky children who are discovering they can take care of themselves.

The intrepidity of Breath of the Wild and other Nintendo greats mirrors the feelings Shigeru Miyamoto, the father of many Nintendo franchises, experienced as a child. “I can still recall the kind of sensation I had when I was in a small river, and I was searching with my hands beneath a rock, and something hit my finger, and I noticed it was a fish,” Miyamoto told the New Yorker. “That’s something that I just can’t express in words. It’s such an unusual situation.” In sequences like Eventide Island, players don’t just understand what Miyamoto describes, they feel it: Apprehension gives way to exhilaration as the unknown becomes a place of play.

 Nintendo’s intrepid gameplay is often amplified by playful presentation with Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island being the quintessential example. The game’s visuals, defined by pastel colors and simple hand-drawings, appear crayoned by a child while the celestial chimes that punctuate the jubilant soundtrack evoke shooting stars. The overall effect cannot be understated. It takes the surreal and turns it real, allowing players to interact, tangibly, with imagination.

Super Mario Odyssey Wooden Kingdom

Even if one removes the presentation and gameplay from Nintendo’s masterpieces, an unabashed creativity remains that bucks norm and convention. The arbiter is fun; reason and logic have no say. For instance, Super Mario Odyssey’s Wooded Kingdom, takes place in a post-apocalyptic setting akin to Nier Automata. Players explore the metal remnants of a civilization that has become a lush home to robotic beings. However, unlike Nier, the dark undertones of the past have no bearing on the game or those who inhabit its universe. The post-apocalyptic setting is just a fun backdrop. It’s as though a bunch of children got together, began playing with toys, and one of the kids brought along his sibling’s adult action figures. There is no attention paid to the context, only unfiltered imagination.

When they’re at their best the creators at Nintendo invite gamers to come and play, like a parent arranging a play date. Pulled along by joyful gameplay that expands in unforeseen ways, players desire to play for the sake of play. It’s a halcyon state of being: No messy thoughts or contradiction, just joy.

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