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Graal Online is (or was) a free online sprite-based MMORPG, much resembling The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past in function and design. It even used the ripped sprite sets directly from the Zelda game in question in the earlier (0.xx) versions (IIRC), but due to obvious copyright issues it eventually dumped the material in exchange for an original, yet unmistakably Zelda-esque tileset, which endured for some time into version 2.

Graal is the brainchild of Stefan Knorr (known simply as Stefan) and Stéphane Portha (aka Unixmad). Stefan was the man behind the code, and to the best of my knowledge created the sprite and tile sets for the game. Unixmad was responsible for hosting the game server (On a Unix machine, fittingly) as well as doing all those wonderful things that server administrators like to do.

Graal is fairly simple to play. The directional keys are used to move your player around on the map. Over on the other side of the keyboard, three main keys are utilized - A, S, and D. A is primarily used to pick things up or pull objects; S is always there for you when you want to swing your trusty sword; and D is the auxilary key, to fire or otherwise use your boomerang, bow, stash of bombs, magic whistle, teleportation ring, death ray, safety net, green eggs and ham, pocket ninja, scroll of genocide, functionless NPC weapon that kind of looks like a rock or something, or whatever else you happen to have on you. You can select the auxilary weapon you want to use with the Q key. You can press TAB to switch to the chatbox to talk to other people nearby, and TAB to switch back to the game.

The player has a health bar (measured in little red and white yin yang things) and occasionally a magic meter, too. On the top of the screen is also a current count of how many bombs, arrows, and gelat (money) you have. Down in the lower-left corner is a map of the current area. Much of the game has to do with finishing quests to increase your heart count, as well as receiving other various power-ups, like the power gloves and lizard shield. There are mindless baddies who will regularly attack you, as well as deadlier, but just as mindless, PKs. Despite how bland it sounds, Graal has (or used to have, at least) a surprising amount of depth to it, mostly coming around through player-to-player interaction. Yes, Graal certainly had it good.

Or so it seemed…

The population stayed relatively small in the days of Old Graal (most often related to as being roughly before version 1.27, or, alternately, before the Big Player Boom that flooded the server with mindless hordes of puerile, drooling PKs). Most people who were fortunate enough to participate in the game during those early stages will be more than willing to refer to it as the "Golden Age" of Graal. Despite the crudeness of its design and controls and the abundance of bugs, user interaction involved more than slinging epithets at and killing each other, which made the game a rare find back in the day. People would actually have civil conversations, friendly sparring matches, and even roleplay every now and then, not to mention explore the great world that was Graal. The name Graal itself came from the frail pseudo-storyline constructed within the game, involving a quest to retrieve four "graals" (grails) to open up a gateway to a realm made completely of gold, or some crackpot story like that.

Perhaps the biggest reason to like Graal was the player contributions. Players could submit custom sword, shield, and head sprites for use in the online world, and the truly adventurous could create entire levels or even quests (with rewards, often player-made NPC Weapons) using the fairly intuitive, if rather tedious, levelmaking toolset. Graal had its own scripting language based off of C++, free for use by anyone who cared to learn it. As a matter of fact, most of Graal was developed and maintained by players; even the 'police' (GPs) and admins of the Graal World were simply enthusiastic players wishing to contribute more to the game.

But alas, such times could never last. Graal quickly lost its edge as its popularity swelled, and IMHO the great mortal blow that crippled Graal's appeal came when 1.27 came out. Nobody knows the true reason (perhaps it had been /.ed), but the amount of people quite literally exploded all at once: Overnight the Main Area (level13.graal and its surrounding extremities) transformed from a friendly meeting area to a festering hole of depravity and mindless killing. It was near impossible to make it past Azrael's Nightclub and Taylor Richard's house without getting the dreaded “Dweedoo dweedoo dweedoo doooooo-wopsound effect of death at least once or twice.

Graal never really recovered from the blow. The quality of submitted work declined, and along with the PKs came the skript kiddiez who hex edited everything from fraudulous player reputations (0-100, a general scale of how nice a guy you are, based mostly on how often you kill people) to uberbombs that wiped everyone in a level out with one blow. Admins and the GPs maintained a little order, but the sheer banality of the game (kill, respawn, repeat ad nauseum) after The Explosion caused most of the players from the Days of Olde to leave, which just left more room for the scum of the earth to occupy.

A joint project between Stefan and Vangel (leader of the Jesus Freaks guild and all-around Decent Guy) was launched, known only as the enigmatic New World Project, generally regarded as a valiant attempt to reconstruct Graal from scratch and get everything right this time. Only the Best of the Best were admitted to the NW Team, which was seen as an elitist move by most people, but was necessary to ensure top-notch quality in the end-product.

The end-product never came around, though, due to a lack of participating members (The NW Project relied entirely on volunteer work) and an impatient administrator. New World had been planned to be a Pay-to-Play deal upon completion; Unixmad couldn't wait for an end product, though, and released all of the New World material to the public in an unprecedented act of uncalled-for backstabbery. Most of the original coordinators of the project have disappeared or stopped caring, and although the New World project still exists, it is not active.

This public release heralded the era of cheap new Graal spinoffs, some of which became P2P deals. One of these was, of course, a thoroughly botched version of NW using the sprite and tile sets that the volunteers had worked so hard to make. Pay-to-play, of course. Along with this, though, were attempts to "modernize" the game, such as dynamic user-made tilesets and many different attempts at a 3D Graal. Not only was the quality of Graal in the pits, but now the funky-retro 2D graphics (which had been the major factor for Graal's appeal in the first place) had been shafted too.

Of course, you can still play Graal Classic, as they call it these days, for free, but there's just no point anymore. The life has been sucked out of the Graal I and others used to love and pumped into new half-assed versions with awkward controls and graphics that have no substance at all. The only way to experience the old-time Graal magic these days is to find someplace that still has the original (1.xx, or 0.xx if you’re lucky) levels up for download, and play them offline.

Graal Website: www.graalonline.com

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