Enjoy this digital stroll down memory lane.
Besides watching Pokemon AMVs on YouTube and messing with Kid Pix, the majority of my childhood Internet days were spent on one virtual pet website or another.
Back in the day there were so many options, from Webkinz to Neopets. Free time during computer labs in elementary school was often spent playing Webkinz when we weren't supposed to.
Looking back I can say that these websites were cultural events that were formative to my Internet experience. Lots of people feel this way, especially considering the widespread sorrow that came from Club Penguin shutting down in 2017.
It's about time we look back on the virtual pet sites that defined our childhoods.
This article was originally going to rank these sites from best to worst, but upon further inspection it seems clear that a lot of these websites stick to same template of giving the player a cute pet within an equally cute interactive world. Most of these games had minimal plot, save for the occasional in game events that would incentivize people to play. So instead, we will be examining these sites based on a set of criteria ranging from accessibility (based on how easy it was to pick up the game and how much money it cost to play) to the character designs, to the interactivity. Enjoy this digital stroll down memory lane.
Accessibility: Webkinz was designed to sell toys, so buying a Webkinz plush was the price of admission to the website. I had quite the plush collection because I was obsessed with the game, but imagine how much money that cost.
Character Designs: Most of the original Webkinz designs are based on real life animals, which—while cute—do lack some inspiration. One exception to this is the Google, which was a fluffy armless goose that I always thought looked hilarious.
But since Webkinz' premise was to sell toys, they came out with a ton of other designs over the years. Webkinz's later designs are probably the most unique out of all these games.
Some of my personal favorites are the purple Raccutie and the coveted Strawberry Cow.
Interactivity: To many, Webkinz is the standard in terms of interactivity. As a baseline, it let you dress up, feed, and play with your pet. It also gave you a room to decorate and mini-games that let you earn game currency. Other unique features include the opportunity to take your pet to the doctor (who perpetually told you that they needed more rest) and trying to get your pet into the Kinzville Academy (which I never managed to do).
Longevity: The Webkinz website is still active, and you can now create an account for free without purchasing a toy. Webkinz also branched out to create a mobile app under the same name.
Accessibility: Neopets is absolutely the capitalist hellscape I remember it being. Even as a child I thought it was really difficult to make progress in this game because of Neopets' inflated economy. While there are many stories of people flourishing and even taking advantage of Neopet's capitalist system, I lived in squalor, which is probably why I found the game somewhat inaccessible. You can, of course, purchase a paid Neopets membership to receive monthly gifts, and there's a microtransaction currency called Neocash.
One upside to Neopets, on the other hand, is that unlike Webkinz you could adopt new pets for free. But for me keeping all my Neopets fed was difficult with my minuscule savings. We were frequent visitors to the soup kitchen.
Character Designs: The Neopets character designs are iconic. Who doesn't remember adopting a Grundo from the Virtupets Space Station or dressing up your Bruce? Looking at Neopets characters unlocked hidden memories that I hadn't thought of since the fourth grade. The characters are distinctly stuck in the 2000s, and that's exactly why they're still so lovable.
Interactivity: Neopets is very interactive. It has standard features like feeding and clothing your pet, plus several worlds filled with mini-games, lotteries, and more. One of my favorite features was collecting Petpets (pets for your Neopet) as an added layer of the virtual pet reality. As a kid I definitely sunk some major hours into Neopets just playing the minigames like Brucey B Slots or Fashion Fever and haggling at shops all over Neopia.
Neopets distinguishes itself from other virtual pets games by actually having plot-based events. It was standard for these games to have events that rewarded players who completed specific tasks with prizes. But the events in Neopets all came with their own plots that fleshed out the world around them and told stories of what was happening in Neopia (Usually a scheme by the evil Dr. Sloth). Neopets definitely gets bonus points for having the most complex world and lore.
Longevity: The original Neopets website is still up, and according to the brief time I spent playing recently, there still appear to be active players in 2020, since people are still keeping their shops updated and participating in art contests. You have to activate Flash Player for the website to function, and it seems firmly stuck in 2008, but I take comfort in knowing that even as the world changes Neopets remains constant and unchanging. Neopets also plans to convert to HTML so it can run after Adobe Flash stops running in December.
While you do get your own customizable penguin avatar in Club Penguin, it's not exactly a virtual pet game—until you factor in Puffles, the fluffy friends your penguin can adopt.
Accessibility: All the puffles besides the blue and red ones were locked if you didn't have a Club Penguin membership. The membership also unlocked different outfits and furniture, in general customization options in Club Penguin were pretty sparse if you didn't pay for a membership. Taking care of the Puffles themselves, however, was very easy, as pet store spelled it all out for you.
Character Designs: Puffles probably have the least variety in terms of all these games' pet character designs, but I appreciated that each differently colored Puffle had a somewhat distinctive personality, though it didn't really affect gameplay.
Interactivity: Club Penguin has probably the lowest level of interactivity for its virtual pets out of any of the games on this list. You can walk, feed, bathe, and use them to play mini games, but Puffles aren't quite as interactive as the pets in the other games. To be fair, Club Penguin isn't a dedicated virtual pet site so that's to be expected, but the Puffles themselves often felt more like props than pets.
Longevity: Club Penguin famously shut down in 2017. Within the same year, Club Penguin Island was released as a similar game that ran on Unity instead of Flash and served as the successor to the original website until it also shut down in 2018.
Moshi Monsters was a late comer to the virtual pet scene, but that doesn't mean it didn't have its impact. It was a big fifth grade hit for me and the millions of other users who played it during its heyday.
Accessibility: Moshi Monsters was free to play but had options for monthly memberships that unlocked member-only content like new items, locations, missions, and Moshlings.
Character Designs: There were only five Moshi Monster designs, giving it the least variety out of the above sites. The most variety in designs comes from the Moshlings, collectible pets you could put in the Moshling zoo.
Interactivity: Moshi Monsters was similar to Webkinz and Neopets in that it let you dress up, feed, and play with your pet while decorating their rooms. Unlike the previous games, you could only have one Moshi Monster, so I couldn't make a big pet family like I usually wanted to. I remember combatting this limitation by collecting Moshlings for the Moshling Zoo but most were locked behind a membership.
Longevity: Moshi Monsters shut down in 2019 due to Adobe Flash Player planning to shut down in December 2020. A children's app for mindful meditation called Moshi still exists and uses the same IP.
Pet Society is probably the most niche of these games, as it was a Facebook browser game developed by Playfish which was later bought by EA. I didn't have a Facebook because I was a child during this game's heyday, but if your mom was cool then she'd let you play this game on her account.
Accessibility: As mentioned, the game was free to play if you had a Facebook account, but it did have microtransactions. It was easy to play, but it operated a lot like Farmville, in which you could ask your friends to send you items. I'm sure it was very annoying when I constantly asked my aunts to help me make Pet Society Cash.
Character Designs: Pet Society is the only one of these games that doesn't have unique character designs. Instead, it provided you with a customizable template that allowed users to create their own pets. Mine was purple because children keep making everything their favorite color.
Interactivity: Users could focus on decorating their pets' rooms and dressing their pets up, though they could also play mini games and participate in seasonal events. But compared to the other games on this list, the world was small and somewhat limiting. I did find myself getting bored of this one simply because of the limited minigames and narrow world. Since it was on Facebook, it was designed to let you socialize with your friends through the game, but if you weren't interested (or too young) to talk to Facebook friends, then the point was moot.
Longevity: EA, which had acquired the licensing rights to Pet Society, shut it down in 2013, much to the chagrin of its active users.
It's unfortunate that a lot of these memorable games are now defunct; in a way, they're pieces of childhood innocence lost to the whims of Adobe Flash Player or companies who deemed them not profitable. But our old virtual pets live on—if not digitally within the servers of these games, then in our early memories of becoming addicted to the Internet.
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