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May 23, 2011 | by  | in Features |
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Neopets: A nostalgic journey

Ah, Neopets, the great juvenile timewaster. If you’re between the ages of 17 and 25, the odds are that you remember the site, as hard as you try not to. Restrain the inevitable embarrassed wince for now – we were young, foolish, and hadn’t yet learned how not to have fun. If you’ve never heard of it or have managed to successfully repress your youth, Neopets is the world’s most popular virtual pet site, known for its simple, fun flash games, active community, and fascist moderating staff. It was launched in 1999 and was an immediate success, offering early-teenagers worldwide a way to play games while convincing their parents they were learning valuable real-world bargaining skills. In 2005, after you quit playing and got a social life, it was sold to Viacom for $160 million (USD) and was placed under the ‘Nickelodeon’ brand, while in 2007 a partnership was formed with Nexon Corporation, the company responsible for MapleStory. The combined effect of these changes was to raise the amount of advertising on the website from merely intolerable to quite insane, but we’ll come back to this issue later.

All right – with nostalgia goggles firmly strapped on, we’re ready to go. Flush with enthusiasm, excited to once again experience the cut and thrust of the market, the heated, visceral combat of the Battledome and above all, the endless, fruitless clicking of the refresh button. The first problem is, you won’t be able to access your account. Assuming you can remember your account name (a wince is appropriate here – ye gods, you thought you were so cool) and password, you’ll be stopped short by the new date of birth security measure. Remember how you entered a fake date of birth to access the inexplicably R13 forums? Here, it comes back to bite you. Luckily, this obstacle can be surmounted by sending an impassioned email to the support staff (something along the lines of “Remember the good times we shared? The fun we had? All I wanted was to relive those giddy days just one more time…” is a sure winner) and within two to four weeks you will once again be able to find comfort in the embrace of those buttercup-yellow borders.

The first thing you’ll notice is that nearly everything is the same. There are some minor visual enhancements (things that never used to spin now spin, and occasionally glitter!), and many of the games are on their second or third iterations, some with slight graphical touch-ups, and some, like the famous Meerca Chase, have been updated with additional game modes that nobody ever plays. Speaking of games, there are currently approximately 412 games on the site, some of them actually quite fun. The best thing about them is that now, with the shaky motor-skills of adolescence banished by age, they are all exceptionally easy. The site layout is unchanged, and all the charming little neologisms (if you’ll excuse the pun) are still in place. Everything is neo!

The second thing you’ll become aware of is the advertising. There is a quite absurd amount of advertising on the site – banners, headers, lengthy, boring ads that you must sit through before playing a game, sponsored games and even a few games that consist of nothing but one long advertisement. It’s incredibly irritating how commercialised it’s become, although it’s also entirely possible that nostalgia and the passage of time have washed away the hours spent blinking fruitlessly at products nobody wants or needs. It’s a perfect set up – kids are both impressionable and far more willing to sit through a barrage of advertising than you or I – and one gets the impression that somewhere, someone is making a lot of money out of this fact. Another addition, the fruit of the Nexon partnership, is the Neocash shop. Neocash is a virtual currency that can only be purchased with real-life money, and is exchangeable for a huge array of cosmetic and time-saving items. It costs about $40 USD to fully kit out a pet with sparkly, animated backgrounds and hats and other twinkly accessories, and is proving highly lucrative for Neopets/Nexon, for just like Phineas Barnum said, “There’s a sucker born every minute”. It is highly recommended to use a decent (anything but Internet Explorer) browser, with an ad-blocking feature like AdBlock Plus. This will have the dual benefit of saving you time, and denying Neopets potential revenue!

That may have come off as overly harsh. There is still much fun to be had on the site, if you know where to look. If you’re the type who likes to revel in other people’s embarrassments, it’s definitely worth visiting the Neoboards, especially the role-playing one, which contains hundreds of early-teenagers spilling their innermost hearts in a torrent of bad characterisation. The most common theme by far for imaginative outpouring is Harry Potter (No Death Eaters allowed!), followed by supernatural ‘gifted high schools’, royalty, and wolves. Some threads have literacy requirements, which it cannot be said are strictly followed. It’s probably a little distasteful to poke fun at these earnest kidlets, but it’s simply difficult to suppress a laugh when confronted with the title ‘Wolf RP – semi lit and up!!!!’.

So, little has changed. It’s still chugging along merrily, thriving on the fertile soil of tweenage punters. Content continues to be added daily, and there are yearly worldwide events simple enough to cater to the young majority while still interesting enough to not be a complete waste of time for everyone else. Neomail remains in beta, even though it’s a rudimentary email system and has been in existence for over ten years. They’ve held off introducing more than one or two new pets, probably because of the massive workload associated with making a model for each of the myriad variations of colour. In addition to pets, there are the well established petpets, and at some point even petpetpets were introduced (presumably even further miniaturization is somewhere in the pipeline). For those of you hopelessly addicted to Zynga’s sweet nectar, there is even a Neopets-themed Farmville clone, complete with ‘limited edition’ items that people inexplicably purchase with real money. In other words, Neopets as a whole has modernised, adapted to respond to a market that rewards microtransactions – but it still provides a potent nostalgic kick. Give it another try, you’ll have potential hours of fun ripping off young children, making your poor little pets fight monsters that hit them for twenty times their maximum health, and being unable to cure their illnesses due to demand massively outstripping supply. If nothing else, it’s cute. Will you be my neofriend?

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  1. Marlboro Man says:

    Chris deserves a column every week. Brilliant stuff.

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