Earlier this week, my nostalgic, 30-year-old brain lit up with joy at the news of a Neopets revival. The commendably transparent statement explained that “corporate baggage” has stopped the cutesy, world-building site –– my earliest introduction to online gaming –– from evolving over the last decade, with the statement alleging a lack of resources led to “bugs, unconverted pages, broken games, and a lack of new content.”
That’s all about to change. The old-school site is finally in the process of receiving a much-needed glow-up, the games are all set to be updated and there’s a whole host of intriguing new features on the way. Better still, the relaunch is being helmed by a brand new leadership team, one seemingly driven by passion and a love for what continues to make Neopets so special.
To understand why Neopets has survived for an impressive 25 years — albeit running at a loss for the last decade — it’s worth travelling back to 1999, the year of the site’s launch. Despite Y2K panic and fears of a tech-led apocalypse, game developers were trialling ways of tugging on the heartstrings of impressionable kids like myself. Their solution was to make everything cute: we had tail-wagging robot dogs capable of backflips, adorable Pokémon with fleshed-out personalities, as well as an influx of virtual pet games, some more successful than others.
Neopets built on these winning formulas, adapting and improving them. The pets themselves are close enough to real-life animals to be recognisable, but each species has a mythical touch and a distinct personality. There are adorably goofy frogs, grinning dinosaurs and powerful dragons, each of which can be customised. These options are still pretty limited –– at least until you earn cash to spend at the Neopian Bazaar –– but there’s enough choice to make choosing (or adopting) a Neopet feel like creating an extension of your own personality, or an aspirational character.
Peophin has always been my MVP. She’s an elegant horse with a mermaid tail, a glossy red mane, gold-plated hooves and a chic, jewel-encrusted crest. Is she relatable? No. Is she anything like me? Again, no. Is she fabulous? Yes.
The early days
The first time I logged onto Neopets, I was an impressionable pre-teen discovering the joys of the internet. I had heard about the site from a school-friend, but money was tight and we had no computer at home. Instead, I started looking forward to my fortnightly pilgrimage to the local library, where I would excitedly dive into the world of Neopia. Following the early-noughties trend of cringeworthy screen names, I excitedly designed my very first Neopet and gave her what I thought was an appropriate nickname: cutie_patootie.
Creating a pet is only the beginning; once you’ve designed your virtual pal, you step into the mythical world of Neopia. Put simply, it blew my tech-starved mind. There were –– and still are –– towering castles, magical forests, spooky fairgrounds and rainbow fountains. Virtual bookstores, hotels and clothes shops are full of weird and wonderful treats, but they have to be earned. If you feel inclined, you can create your own business and buy up stocks at the Neopian stock market.
Personally, I couldn’t be bothered; rather than actually working for Neocash, I racked up currency through gaming, button-bashing my way through arcades to keep cutie_patootie decked out in “ultra fashionable potato sacks.” If you get really hard up, you can head to the Tyrannian Plateau to grab a daily chunk of a giant, tasty omelette free of charge, or you can hop to over to the money tree –– Freecycle for Neopets, basically –– and snap up a stinking old boot.
Neopia might be a virtual marketplace, a simulated world of fantasy capitalism, but the Neopets themselves are reassuringly hardy. They’re literally unkillable. You get all the cuteness of a virtual pet, without the worry that you’ll one day log on and realise you killed it through neglect. This was ideal for a ten-year-old me, as I had no home computer and zero caretaking skills. Neopets was the perfect, low-pressure creative outlet, a fantasy world which allowed me to dress up my Peophin (in my head, she’s a drag queen) and liaise with feline witches in the haunted woods.
Returning to a simpler time
As I grew up and eventually got my own home computer, my love for Neopets blossomed. I met fellow Neopians, exchanging cute outfits and messages through Neomail (it was a more innocent time). I delved deep into online origin stories of my favorite Neopets, spending hours on basic online games, which basically involve shuffling coloured boulders and popping bubbles.
I spent way too much time dressing tigers in crop tops on Fashion Fever, and gathering life-threatening speed on the Turmac Roll. The games are all simplistic and arcade-like in style, but they’re charming and compulsively playable, likely to be even more so after the upcoming HTML5 integration. Better yet, they’re easy and accessible, to the extent that even novice gamers can get stuck in.
It’s apt that the Neopets relaunch is arriving within a wider wave of nostalgia gaming, as well as a broader Y2K revival. TikTok teens sport low-rise jeans and diamanté vests, whereas those of us who actually came of age in the early 2000s can still snap up new releases from our childhood favourite franchises, like Crash Bandicoot, Call of Duty and Super Mario. Gaming fandoms are clearly devoted; even as tech improves and new releases get flashier and more advanced, plenty of us still long for the comfort of old-school arcade games and straightforward playability.
Healing the inner-child
The rise of mobile gaming has tapped into this desire, too. In a shrewd business move, the new leadership team is launching World of Neopets, a “social-life simulation game” with new possibilities for home decoration, treasure-hunting and exploration. Games like Animal Crossing, The Sims and, Nintendogs have shown there’s solace to be found in simulating everyday life. When done in a virtual world, even the most mundane of tasks –– going for a walk, feeding an adorable dog –– can be cathartic.
As I grow older, I’m longing once again for this simplicity. Free mobile games require watching ads and buying add-ons with actual cash; with every new app launch the world of social media grows more and more overwhelming.
Arguably, Neopets is well-placed to capitalise on this digital fatigue by tugging on the heartstrings of nostalgic gamers like myself. There’s a lot of work to be done –– the website and games are still pretty bare-bones and basic –– but the promise of long-awaited tweaks, fixes and upgrades is making me hold out a glimmer of hope that Neopia can be magical again. Finally, the Neopets Renaissance is upon –– and at least for now, I couldn’t be more thrilled.
For more nostalgia, why not check out our list of the best Game Boy Advance games?
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Jake Hall is a freelance journalist and contributor to TechRadar.