Retro Review: Maplestory

2007.

I’ve conditioned my body to wake up at 4:00am to play games before school. Do I need to do this? Yes. I have three younger siblings, all of whom want the computer. They don’t yet know how to maximize the secret extra time baked into the early morning, special time reserved for unscrupulous things and copying math homework to or from friends.

“Oh come on. You’re the oldest. You’ll get more time than anyone anyway.” Yeah, okay sounds like something a not-oldest sibling would say.

Somehow my grades have not started slipping yet. I’m your average high school freshperson.

I run downstairs, climb into a leather chair that wants to be put out of its misery, and hoist myself over a godless computer. My dad scrapped it together out of donated parts from his fellow library volunteers. As far as computers go, it is horror incarnate. There’s dust everywhere. The panels are falling off. The ports die and come back to life so often you’d think they were made by David Benioff and D. B. Weiss. It is awesome.

“Can it run Crysis?” It would make Crysis’ dick shrivel into a cold raisin at the threat of even installing on it, forget running. I’m pretty sure it would randomly turn off at least once a day. But it was still dependable where it counted. It never failed me for Runescape, Neopets, talking to my friends on AIM, other necessities.

This would’ve been the year my parents started separating. Not like the last however many times. No, this was the real one. The one where you don’t just go over to your dad’s house anymore on weekends to binge Lord of the Rings and junk food. My siblings are all too young to know, but they know.

So this computer is my escape. And in 2007 to me and my friends and at least a dozen other kids around North America, one glorious game was the escape.

Maplestory.

Picture yourself as an early high schooler, maybe you even still are one. Imagine the single most inexplicable thing that brought you the most happiness. Got it? Good. Now add some early 2000s Korean inspiration, some high quality shrooms, the best soundtrack you’ve ever heard, and mix it all together with that token, not-quite full chibi Anime style and you’ve got Maplestory:

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(Miss Miss Miss Miss)

Not sure what you’re looking at? Me neither, and I played this game for years. It was like one of those dreams where you wake up and aren’t sure if it was a nightmare or awesome. Also it lasted like 4 years, you think you fucked something slimy, and you might’ve even liked it.

Okay, I admit I do recognize quite a bit of what’s going on in this photo. I played Maplestory as soon as it was available in North America. I don’t remember how I found it. Maybe it was installed on one of the library computers, and I just went for it (shout out to whoever installed games on computer 4 against the library policy). The giant tomato above is new to me, though not at all surprising. But the rest of it hits like that first step on the beach after a 5 hour road trip with your family. I can hear the music of Ellinia (the OG forest area), the sounds of noobs whacking away at whatever that tomato is. You can tell they’re noobs because look at them. Is this the guy you want in your party?

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Look at that noob ass wizard hat. He’s even in his fucking chair. Come on my guy.

There’s so much to remember about this game. In fact, all of the 7 people who played this routinely feel pangs of nostalgia over the smallest hints at this masterpiece.

And it was a masterpiece.

Maplestory was/is an MMORPG, AKA a “MM Online Role Playing Game.” No one knows what the first two ‘M’s stand for so never ask. Everyone just calls them ‘MMO’s. Not only is Maplestory an MMO, but it came about during the golden age of MMOs, a time when titans like World of Warcraft, Everquest, and Guild Wars united gamers by the truckload in their fantasy worlds. Unlike other multiplayer games, MMOs brought gamers old and new to a place of community, a place where you could learn friendship, commitment, even loss.

(I distinctly remember attending funerals for players who actually died IRL and thus never logged into games again. Or if they did it was terrifying and we collectively never spoke of it.)

The point is, MMOs were doing something different. Each one had a different flavor, and also a different price. That’s part of why Maplestory was so attractive. At first, the game was completely free. I say at first because, even though the game is technically still free to play, this is the game that (arguably) invented micro-transactions. You could customize your character with all kinds of adorable clothes, hair, and makeup. You could buy pets. You could get a competitive advantage. All of this sounds pretty standard today, but back then it was revolutionary. Maplestory became a popularity contest to some, and garnering fame (there was a literal fame mechanic where you could “upvote” or “downvote” players) meant outclassing your pleb friends who didn’t spend the money or time. There was a free market, auction house, economy, the whole shebang.

Regardless of this, the game was effectively free. This opened the door to MMOs for many young gamers, like my friends and me who, as penniless teenagers, could not yet afford to slap $15 a month for WoW. What I’m saying is it was accessible. For many it popped their MMO cherry.

Going back to the micro-transactions — they were all somewhat secondary to the actual game, which was around long before the micro-transactions came about.

The game itself revolved around what every other MMO did: role playing as whoever you wanted to be in a fantasy world with your friends/frenemies. There was a loose, convoluted story that no one paid attention to. There was progression, if you can call it that. Leveling up was, for lack of a better phrase, the worst most grindy shit I have ever done in any game ever. In order to gain experience (to level up and get stronger) you had to spend hours, sometimes days killing the same enemies over and over. It was a mindless, uphill slog that require passive attention. Worse, you often had to compete for the best training areas with other players. Phrases like “CC PLS” were common, which translates to “GTFO I’m training here.” I could write entire papers just on the progression system in early Maple, but that’s not what this article is about.

However tedious and repetitive the “core” of the game was, it paved way for something miraculous and altogether presumably unintended. The mindlessness of the gameplay became a channel for actually engaging with your friends. You would slap slimes for 3 hours straight for little gain, but between every slime killed you typed away to guildmates, party members, or people trying to steal your slimes.

Maplestory was a lot of things. It ran the gambit of beauty simulator, ARPG, Weeb escapism, and so much more. Every hand drawn map was a breath of 2D-sidescrolling, pseudo-platforming fresh air. As in many MMOs, many areas hold special memories even now. I can still throw on a song from Ellinia or Henesys and almost come to tears. Even the little login screen is almost too much.

I said I wouldn’t cry writing this, but that stupid giant glove cursor hits.

While plenty of games are nostalgic, I think in my conversations with former players, they almost always agree Maplestory had a special draw to it. Something intangible. A simplistic innocence. That feeling of sneaking onto the computer early in the morning. That one nice Aunt wrapping you in a warm blanket at the family picnic, though you didn’t know you needed one.

After I found other games later in high school, notably World of Warcraft, Maplestory was an on and off fling for me and my friends. Honestly, as they continued to add more to the game, it lost its purity. Maybe I got jaded, but all of the extra flashy new skills and items they added felt shallow and overdone compared to the OG game. The updates were understandable, of course. The game had to grow once people realized there wasn’t much more to do than slap slimes and earn social cred. I’m sure it’s still fun, but nothing will ever be quite like those first couple years though when everything was fresh.

The updates continued for years, and it still retains a mostly hardcore playerbase of old veterans. There’s even a Maplestory 2.0, released recently to North American players.

At this point, there are two groups of readers. Either you played this game at one point, and the waterworks are on because you are one of those dozen kids who remember. Or you are thoroughly confused, and I appreciate you reading this far. All I can say for sure is that Maplestory, from its wacky grindfest gameplay to its art and vibe, remains a cornerstone in the early MMO landscape, and a dear old friend.

They/Them | Software Dev | Chronically seeking orange juice | devon.wellsa@gmail.com

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