Next year will mark 20 years since Neopets materialised on the World Wide Web, and with most of its former user base now in their 20s and 30s, it seems the time is ripe for a nostalgic resurgence. We remember the glory days of this internet phenomenon, but also: the hacking, the gambling, and the ‘Wall of Shame’.
Before Club Penguin, before Runescape, before Habbo Hotel and all those other simulated worlds of internet folklore, there was Neopets – a colourful universe full of animated creatures whose heyday harks back to the turn of the century. Neopets was a virtual safe haven for much of the site’s prepubescent user base who, if they were anything like me, would rush home after school, power up the family computer, connect to the dial-up internet, and get as much done as possible before getting kicked off because someone needed to use the landline phone. This blissful routine went on for the next how many years before other adolescent interests (MSN, Bebo) entered the scene. Over time, I started to log in less and less until one day, I just never went back, relegating my Kacheek (or was it a Lupe?) to the Neopets graveyard of time. Gone, but not forgotten, and probably cannibals by now.
Wading back into Neopia more than a decade on since quitting the game, nothing seems to have really changed, at least on the face of it. The website’s canary yellow banner with decorative stars still graces the homepage, while its array of pets (Jub Jub the pom pom, Bruce the penguin, Chia the anthropomorphic eggplant) remain quaintly two dimensional. Games like Turmac Roll and Hasee Chase are still popular as ever, and freebie dispensaries like the Money Tree and the Giant Omelette continue to satisfy the scroungers among all of us.
I sign up for a new account just for the sake of it (and because I can’t log into my old one – I lied about my birth year to get onto the forums and now I can’t remember the date) and end up adopting a llama-like Gnorbu. After consulting my work peers on what to call my new plaything, I name him Mingus. He’s rude, annoying, and lives in the city. I soon forget I ever adopted him and neglect to check in on him for about three weeks. I guess Neopets isn’t quite as addictive as I once found it after all.
At its height, however, Neopets was an entertainment empire, helped by the fact that it was one of the ‘stickiest’ websites at the time. In 2005, Neopets reached a whole new level of money-making ambition when Viacom bought the site for a $160 million, an acquisition which – even among its juvenile demographic – hardly went unnoticed. There were the banner ads, the immersive advertising, the PlayStation games and the Happy Meal toys. Most notably, there was the merch: pocket-sized consoles touting an offline version of the game which were like a cross between Tamagotchi and Polly Pocket. In fact, on my tenth birthday, my parents bought me a supersized version of one of these plastic consoles – the Meridell version of the Neopets Deluxe – which, in hindsight, had nothing pocket-sized about it. In the shape of a smooth pebble and probably about the size of a chicken (with an inexplicably tiny screen that was smaller than my thumb), it was sort of thing that could have only been possible in a pre-smartphone, pre-app world.
That world, as we all know, has long since gone. Now we all have smartphones, we all have apps, and we all have better things to do than to take care of virtual pets (well, not entirely true). Still, last month, Neopets announced that it would be launching its very first mobile game. It’s one that doesn’t connect up to your existing Neopets account, but perhaps it’ll be enough to whet your appetite to jump back onto the site. After all, Neopets seems to know how to make one hell of an addictive game. Mashable writer Chloe Ryan still likes to swing the baguette on a regular basis with Whack-a-Kass (now called Kass Basher), while I personally found myself falling down the Faerie Bubbles hole on my brief return back to the site.
One former Kiwi Neopets user, Josephine Adams, tells me she has fond memories of the game Ultimate Bullseye, probably because it netted her a decent amount of pocket money at the time. “In 2006/2007, I was paid real money by schoolmates to play Neopets games (and earn them Neopoints). It was like $5 per day, per account, which is pretty good when you’re 14-years-old. To this day, when I need to focus, I imagine the Ultimate Bullseye power bar loading up to the perfect level.”
Adams also remembers using the age old trick of using secondary accounts to get rich faster, albeit in a more sophisticated way than the average user. “I had several accounts that I used bots on to earn Neopoints and transfer to my main account. But Neopets was really good at catching bot users, so if someone pissed me off, I’d send a large deposit of Neopoints to their account from my latest bot account and they’d be frozen forever. Banned. Sent to Iceland. Ruined.” Although bot usage seemed to have eventually caught up with Adams herself, adding that she switched to playing Runescape in 2007. “They never caught my bots there,” she says.
“My main account was blocked because I had secondary account to help the process,” says Katie Sutton, another ardent Neopets fan back in its heyday. “Our dial-up was so bad I couldn’t play the flash games so I had to rely on random events or getting stuff from The Money Tree to sell. I struggled to keep my Neopets alive on my tiny income.”
Games were the main source for earning Neopoints for most users which, like how real money works in our real world, was the only way you could really thrive in Neopia. In fact, not only could you buy and sell these items in a free-trade marketplace, but you could then invest that in-game revenue in virtual stocks of 30 Neopian companies. The site was basically shaping us to become the capitalists we are today, even openly dabbling in some of the darker sides of consumer culture. “It’s funny how much gambling there was in Neopets,” recalls Scott Moyes, another former Neopets user. “You play scratch cards, spin the wheel of fortune, risk it all with double or nothing, get dealt a few hands of poker and take money out of the bank to do it all. I’m pretty sure Neopets was trying to make gamblers out of kids the same way Space Man lollies tried to turn us into smokers.”
But other than the serious business of actually taking care of our Neopets, the website’s ‘Neoboards’ was one of the main attractions – a place where users from all around the world fostered an internet community among like-minded strangers. Bar that one time the forums went into complete meltdown when the moderators went AWOL (and the occasional predatory weirdos that frequented the place), the Neoboards was quite an amiable community. “I remember frequenting some of the message boards there. It was a simpler time on the internet back then. No one called anyone else a cuck,” recalls Matt Wilshere, an ardent player of Neopets back in the day before getting ‘hacked’. “Long story short, someone ended up private messaging me on the website, pressuring me to give him my account details. The real kicker is that I just straight up gave the dude my password from peer pressure. It’s pretty bizarre now that I think of it and it was pretty devastating at the time.”
Another former user, Ana Davies, remembers another crazy quirk of Neopets called the Wall of Shame, “I decided to Google my old username and ‘Neopets’ to see if I could find anything, and I found this website called the Wall of Shame. They’d published an exchange I had with them in 2006. For reference, I’m 20 now so I would’ve been 8 years old.”
“I’d struggle to explain the exchange to anyone who didn’t use Neopets, but I guess I was going around talking as if I had ‘created’ this font format? But really I took it off someone else’s page and just changed it a bit. And this person got really annoyed. Shame on me! I was just a confused little 8-year-old girl.”
Today, Neopets exists as a smaller, more niche corner of the internet, with most of its current (and former) user base now well into their 20s and 30s. But with next year marking 20 years since Neopets’ inception, the time seems ripe for the game’s nostalgic resurgence. It’s certainly hadn’t had a problem getting into the headlines this year, some good (‘Two people who met as kids on Neopets are married now’), some not so good (‘Neopets was run by Scientologists’). But if you were still keen on getting back into the game, there are a few things you should know. “Go on thedailyneopets.com and get all your free stuff first,” says Sutton, who you’d be surprised to know still plays Neopets to this day. “Work the stock market; find a friend that you can privately play key quest with, take turns winning and get awesome prizes you can sell to make bank.”
“I’m rich as hell now, you know. Now that I’m older, I know how to get that shit done.”
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