I recently logged into my old Neopets account for the first time in over a decade. It required the recovery of my username, my password, my old email account and my old email account's password.
It was a lot of work.
This story has been edited since it was originally published in October 2016.
My Christmas JubJub was over 5500 days old and "dying". There were 1090 Neopoints in my shop till, but no record of anybody having bought anything. Upon visiting the Battledome I was given 10,000 Neopoints and dubbed a Veteran, yet all records of my past battles had been wiped.
I felt as though I had entered the remnants of a city after a zombie apocalypse.
My journey to the graveyard of my misspent youth began as an attempt at being security-conscious. Every other week a new report comes in of a database hacked, passwords released into the internet ether and privacy once more exposed as a flimsy illusion. So, in an effort to be a responsible adult, I decided to do a little spring-cleaning. Changing the passwords to all my accounts, I started with those that I use every day and worked backwards, through university forums, through my high school LiveJournal days, past Gaia Online.
Then I hit Neopets.
My account was locked down like The Neopets Team knew how embarrassing my old profile was and wanted to spare me the shame. Upon attempting to log in I was asked for my date of birth, which I distinctly remembered lying about to avoid faxing in a permission slip. "It will probably be fine if I leave it," I thought to myself after having spent 10 minutes on fruitless guessing. "Who's going to bother hacking Neopets in this year of our Lord 2016?" A quick Google search then informed me that while internet relevance may come and go, hackers are forever.
Upon finally gaining access, the first thing that struck me were the ads.
Did Neopets have banner ads? I don't think it did. But then again I couldn't remember my own birthday. I knew there were integrated ads, but they were sponsored games for things like the Cartoon Network. Today's ads seemed strange for a website about playing with cartoon pets. "Ford: Go further." "Contiki: Why do you travel?" "Dell: Up to $400 off selected XPS laptops." When I still used the site regularly, the biggest purchase I had made was a $80 Barbie pet shop with little plastic rabbits. It was like seeing an insurance salesman in a preschool.
After the strangely dissonant ads, I noticed a message awaiting at the top of the page. "Trudy's Surprise has reset and is waiting for you!"
"Who's Trudy?" I thought to myself. "I don't remember a Trudy's Surprise when I was last on."
I can only assume Trudy is a casino owner. To be fair, I didn't have to pay anything to give it a spin, but the slot machine imagery is undeniable. And even though I didn't win, I was given a "Terrifyingly Bad Luck Bonus" of 2000NP. If I got bad luck like that in real life I'd play the slots all the time. I'd move to Vegas. I'd buy a casino. I'd rob a casino.
Maybe Neopet's demographics have changed since I was last here. Just last month, Jumpstart, the current owners of Neopets, released a statement saying Neopets is "the only JumpStart game that is not marketed to kids, and as such, only a very small percentage of Neopets' registered users are under the age of 13".
This was in response to being fined $US85,000 for tracking the online activity of children under 13 on Neopets, and sending data about visitors to Facebook. But even before the site was acquired, The Neopets Team maintained it is not a kids' site and was originally intended for people aged 17 to 25, despite 39 per cent of users being younger than 13 in 2005.
Not for kids.
The site was clearly popular with children - why not embrace it? I thought this insistence strange, until my archaeological exploration made me realise that a whole butt-ton of the site is built around gambling.
Pay 500NP to spin the Wheel of Excitement, 400NP to spin the Wheel of Knowledge, 100NP to spin the Wheel of Monotony. Five hundred NP for a scratchcard, 5NP per spin of the Scorchy Slots and you can bet on Poogle Racing. There was a lot more gambling in Neopets than I had remembered. Most of these features were there when I was 10 years old, but in my wide-eyed innocent youth I hadn't realised what it was. It was just a thing I did. Every day. Then I'd go and play games to earn enough money to do it again while letting my pets waste away.
The chase of that high seemed dimmed now. The Wheel of Monotony was even less enthralling than advertised. I spun it, watching it tumble endlessly. It kept spinning. I muted it. It kept spinning. I left, took a shower and returned.
It kept spinning.
Finally giving in to the accusatory red text beneath my pet's portrait, I dragged my starved yet "delighted!" companions to the Neolodge and dumped them in Cockroach Towers for one night, where they gorged themselves, going from "dying" to "bloated" in the time it took for the next page to load. Bad Neopet Owner Tip: You can feed your pet for 5NP per night at Cockroach Towers. Roach infested food is still food. Worse Neopet Owner Tip: Starvation doesn't appear to have any impact upon a pet's happiness, and they can't die, so you don't really need to feed them at all. I nearly never bothered back when I was 10 - I'd rather sell my food and put my Neopoints toward my PetPet collection.
My pets' hunger having been satisfied, I ventured into the Map of Neopia. New lands populated the planet (which can now be rotated, because we live in the future).
I used to be so excited by new lands. Now, jumping from prehistoric-themed Tyrannia to pirate-themed Krawk Island, every land felt like the same thing with a different skin. The same games of chance, the same overpriced stores. It was like a pack of M&Ms, except instead of a metaphor for racism, it's a metaphor for how - deep down - everything is boring.
Giving up on my globetrotting, I returned to Neopia Central to visit The Money Tree, because everyone loves free stuff.
The Money Tree is where users abandon items they no longer want for other players to pick up. It's usually junk, but it's free junk. Back in 2001, it was nigh impossible to grab anything. All items were gone before the page loaded - even junk like an Old Rotten Left Sandal or an Old Boot. I would have rejoiced over an Old Boot from the Money Tree. But now in 2016, I was able to thoughtfully select the items I wanted.
Some of the items now had a little coathanger icon on them. This, I soon discovered, meant that the item was wearable. Like Gaia Online or any one of those pixelated dollmakers that were big in the '90s, you could now dress up your Neopet in a little outfit - because why restrict the humiliation to small dogs?
I found that I could now take the star, baubles and tinsel off my Christmas JubJub. Considering these were previously permanent fixtures, it was much like peeling off his skin or removing an ear. Many wearables are styled for a humanoid-type pet, so I tried a few on my JubJub - essentially a big fuzzy ball with feet. It turns out JubJubs treat pants and shirts alike. They shove what appendages are available to them into arm and leg holes and hope for the best. JubJubs and I have that in common.
Supplementing this new twist on dress-up, a new element had been introduced. Neocash.
Neocash is an in-game currency bought with real-world money. Now, I will not pretend that I have never indulged in a microtransaction. Aesthetic microtransactions can sometimes be a fun addition to a game, particularly when they come as a marker of skill. The day an opponent in Dota 2 told me that I should get the Crystal Maiden Arcana is a day that lives on, bright and warm in my heart.
But microtransactions in Neopets feel wrong - because there's no skill element at all. It feels like being in preschool and receiving your carton of milk before naptime, then discovering that little Thomas gets chocolate milk because his mother paid extra.
You can also now buy a membership to Neopets. "Who would want that?" I hear you ask.
I don't have answers for you, my friend. I am but a traveller in this distant land.
After gambling away the few Neopoints I had left in my pocket, I headed to the Neoboards. If I was to find signs of life anywhere, I would expect it to be here.
First, the Role Playing boards. The most common type of post: Neopians seeking "1X1 private" role plays.
One on one role playing isn't new, exactly, but it was nowhere near as prevalent 16 years ago. In my mind, the joy of role playing was that you could create a character, jump in and weave your own narrative in a world populated by other characters. The number of requests did make me wonder if older Neopian role players are now seeking more mature, 17-and-over conversations.
The more grown-up bent was more prevalent in the Guild forum. The landscape had changed. In my halcyon days of youth, my guild had pixel art clouds and MIDI music, which was how you knew it was top tier. I had been drawn by the light, fluffy imagery and promise of bottled faeries. Now the Guilds forum featured advertisements for more adult-only guilds that I recalled there being before.
"ADULT (18+)," read one advertisement. "21+, private," read another. I couldn't figure out why the restriction, particularly because, as far as I could tell, any 18+ type talk would get accounts frozen. Though there is certainly an audience for it - one that you'd think The Neopets Team would at least permit, if not encourage. A quick Google search of "Neopets furry" (I now have that in my search history) brings up a plethora of sexy Gelert art. And a few years ago, when moderation went down, the forums descended into the kind of R18+ cesspool of debauchery that would have been destroyed by a rain of fire in biblical times.
However, upon doing a search of the guilds themselves, I could find nothing untoward. Maybe the guild is only the initial point of contact, and activities are then moved off-site. Maybe there is nothing to find, and players who are over 18 really just want to hang out with other adults on this website about cute cartoon tigers. Maybe it's a mix of both. The largest adult guild I found had 988 members and no messages. The guild leader’s profile only said "Stealth!" where it should have said when they’d last logged in, but all four of their bedazzled Neopets were crying.
I checked the Newbie board, to so if anyone new was signing up to the site. Unfortunately - but not surprisingly - the Newbie board was devoid of newbies.
The forums hadn't evolved since the '90s. The garish text formatting and overwrought, emotional forum signatures - popular back then - are still popular now. Green Day lyrics still have their place. My own embarrassing signature was still intact, confirming that the older you get, the more you want to punch your past self.
Scattered amongst the glacial forum were posts like bottled messages thrown hopefully out to sea.
"Anybody still here?" "Is Neopets dead?" "Any other grown-up kids in here?"
Finally, I headed to the official Neopets Team message board to check for signs of life. It was empty.
As I poked around the ghost town that was once a bustling Neotropolis, I couldn't find anything that would bring me back. I was astounded that anybody stuck around. Games have evolved, entertainment has evolved. Playing Flash shooters and buying weird food for your mutant dog simply isn't fun any more.
I can't imagine children of today would be interested, when they can carry around a virtual pet on their phone, or drown entire virtual families on their computers.
Before I logged off I checked my inventory. "Maybe some of my items have become rarer in the time I've been away," I thought.
What was I going to do if I found rarer items? Say, "aw yeah, rare items," then stare blankly because I had absolutely no use for them.
I needn't have worried. It was like a mildly disappointing time capsule. Many of the items in my inventory had been retired and what hadn't had already been valueless when I left, and I didn't -
I had thought I had left this game from my childhood behind. How could the game, which captured so much of my time and attention as a 10-year-old child, form any sort of connection with the mid-20s working woman that I am today? How could this game of gambling, neglectful parenting and lack of consequences have any sort of appeal?
But it had one final gift to impart. A remnant from my childhood, flung forward to my adult life. A small nugget of joy.