Third Thursday Throwback – Neopets nostalgia is alive and well, with a Neopian renaissance visible on the horizon

This month’s Third Thursday Throwback revisits the Neopets craze of the early 2000s, from daily treks across Neopia to finding plushies in the real world, and then checks in with JumpStart Games CEO Jim Czulewicz to find out how he’s breathing new life into the brand. Are your Neopets dying? You better check on them!

Welcome to Subjectify Media’s Third Thursday Throwbacks. This monthly column offers our team a doorway into the past. Whether it’s a movie, TV show, book, album, or a nostalgic website from the early 2000s, you can expect an article to go up on the third Thursday of each month that will cover something that is by no means current, but is still worth talking about.

For me, the story of Neopets goes back 19 years, to July 10, 2003. I’ll admit I don’t remember how I initially found out about the site, but I do remember how it completely took over my life. Ask any one of my friends from when I was a kid—I convinced them all to make accounts and join my guild. We became obsessed with doing our dailies and collecting items for our shops and—most importantly—getting those ever-elusive avatars.

The day I became our Guild Leader was a very proud one indeed. I had worked my way up the ranks of the council to finally snag the top spot. I had a lot of responsibility, and I took it very seriously. I remember putting together weekly and monthly events and giveaways. I built an entire website dedicated to the guild! It acted as a reminder of our rules and a guide to the most important dailies, plus tips and tricks for how to get avatars.

If it wasn’t already obvious, I was seriously obsessed with this website. And it extended to the real world, too. I would drag my mom to Target or McDonald’s or Claire’s as often as I could and make her buy me those cute little plushies with the merch codes attached. And it didn’t stop there. Stickers? You bet. School supplies? I just HAD to have them. Trading cards? There was no way I would ever trade them, but you know I was going to stick them in a binder and stare at them in maniacal glee. I remember simply begging my dad to buy me the Official Neopets Magazine and him balking at the $10 price tag. I even have stacks—stacks, I tell you—of unused temporary tattoos. I didn’t buy every single thing Neopets ever put out, but I certainly tried.

Unfortunately, this story has a bittersweet ending. I graduated high school in 2006 and entered college alongside my best friend. I remember still being on Neopets in our dorm room, but at some point over the next few years, I logged on less and less. Maybe it was every other day. Then every couple days. I’d remember my pets were dying and feel guilty, jumping on for a week-long streak, only to get distracted and forget again. I’d come back to it every once in a while, but eventually, I lost track of time, and years would go by in a flash.

But I never forgot about Neopets. The account was attached to my very first email address—which was on AOL, so if I haven’t already dated myself, there you go—and I made sure I always had access to it so I’d never lose my Neopets account. There were a few harrowing moments where I thought I wouldn’t be able to get in again (mostly due to forgotten passwords), but eventually, I moved it to a better email and wrote down the password. I wasn’t going to let all my hard work go down the drain, even if I never played another day in my life.

It’s been 19 years, and I still think about Neopets quite often. Looking back at my account, a shadow of that excitement still courses through me. I’m proud of how old my account is, and proud that I still have my original pet, a red gelert. I found out today that one of my other original pets, a grey ixi, now belongs to someone else. I have no idea how that happened, and I’m genuinely upset about it. There are a lot of feelings tied to this website, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t occasionally have the urge to get back into it.

The thing is, this wasn’t just a game for me. Neopets had a major influence on my life, and I can draw a direct line from my current interests back to my time spent playing on the website. Remember how I was obsessed with collecting avatars? I loved getting that little reward after completing a task, and that same feeling fuels my interest in video games. Sure, the game itself is fun, but achievement hunting? That’s where it’s at. In fact, I’ve always loved collecting things—skeleton keys and coins were the big ones for a while—and Neopets nurtured that enthusiasm. I don’t think I’ve felt anything so thrilling since hunting down those plushies in Target—finding out when new stock would drop, making a beeline for the shelf, searching through the box to get the rarest ones, begging my mom to let me buy way more than was necessary. I liked Beanie Babies, sure, but nothing compared to what getting a new Neopet plushie felt like. It was never enough, and I’ve been chasing that high since.

In fact, Neopets might’ve been the number one influence on my childhood—more than Pokémon or Charmed or even Harry Potter. I was not an online fandom kid until I joined Hypable as an editor and writer in 2012, so I never got that sense of community from Harry Potter. I wasn’t on Mugglenet, listening to MuggleCast. I never got around to LiveJournal, and I took no part in any kind of message boards. But I was on Neopets every day, talking to complete strangers and obsessing over pixels on the screen. And I was living my best life! Later, I even became Facebook friends with a few of them. There’s one who I still talk to, even to this day. She lives in India, and I’ve had the privilege to watch her grow professionally over the years. What an incredibly weird and amazing world we live in. It can be a dumpster fire most of the time, but it also gives us gifts like this. Gifts like Neopets.

I taught myself basic code because of Neopets, and it formed the foundation of the skills I have now to format my articles. (And my mom said it was a waste of time! Actually, she never said that. She’s always been very supportive of my creative endeavors. I love you, Mom.) It honestly taught me the value of working hard and saving up for what I wanted—both in the game and in the real world. And to this day, I struggle to remember the American way of spelling omelette.

But maybe not all is lost. Neopets has been on my mind more than ever before, partially because of a very surprising and exciting email I got a couple weeks before heading out to San Diego Comic-Con 2022. A few of us from Subjectify decided to go on a whim for a handful of properties—Teen Wolf, The Sandman, The Wheel of Time, and Mythic Quest, to name a few—and I never could’ve imagined that I’d come face to face with my childhood in such a startling and euphoric way.

The email was an opportunity to talk to the CEO of JumpStart Games, Jim Czulewicz, about Neopets and the exciting direction the brand is moving in. If you read the last thousand words and don’t understand why I was vibrating in my seat, then why are you even still here? For those of you who get it, just know that I felt like I was brushing up against royalty. Sure, the Neopets website has changed hands over the years, but JumpStart has been involved since 2014, and they still hold the keys to a kingdom that has held a place in my heart for two decades.

As you can imagine, one of the first things out of my mouth is the humblebrag that my account had just turned 19 years old earlier that month. Upon hearing this, Czulewicz is understandably impressed. “So, pet wasn’t dead, which is good,” he says. “And you remembered your password and everything?” I did, I assure him, and then gushed about how much the site meant to me, even to this day. “Big fan,” I say, trying to hold it together.

“We hear it all the time!” He smiles, and I don’t feel so self-conscious. I’m not the only one who feels this way, after all.

“I swung by [the booth] earlier,” I say, “and even when I was just up there [a few minutes ago], I heard people being like, ‘Oh my gosh, I remember this when I was a kid. It was so fun!’ And I think there’s still just a lot of people out there, even if they aren’t active users, who still feel a connection to that. So, I guess that’s a good place to start. For the people who haven’t been on in a long time, what’s changed and what’s stayed the same?”

“You know, ironically, I think that the beauty of the site and the game is that it’s stayed the same,” Czulewicz says. “I mean, you know, we still have the stock market and we still have items to collect and sell and trade. We’re trying to keep it—obviously, with Flash shutting down, it caused some problems. We’ve slowly been trying to convert parts of the site, but we’re trying to keep it all almost the same. We still run the events. You know, the Altador Cup, the Advent Calendar, the Festival of Neggs. Those are all still the events that we run. We change the story up and try to add a new story here and there, but I think the average tenure of employees at Neopets right now is probably about 14 and a half years.”

Hearing those words—Altador and neggs—immediately brings back memories for me. Suddenly, it doesn’t feel like it was 19 years ago. Even visiting the site—which I admit I’ve done half a dozen times since coming back from SDCC—feels like hopping on a bike after several years. A few things feel different, but ultimately I remember how to do this without crashing and burning.

But the takeaway here is that Neopets employees are as invested as the fans. If the average length of stay at the site is 14 years, you can imagine there’s a lot of history there. “It’s a testament to both the users and the [employees],” Czulewicz continues. “They love the site themselves, and you talk to anybody in the booth right now, I guarantee you they’ll talk about how they’re fans as well.”

Czulewicz’s energy is palpable. He’s wearing a bright Hawaiian shirt that screams Neopets (think island paintbrush meets faerie paintbrush). Throughout the interview, it became increasingly obvious that he’s not only invested in this brand and website, but in the community and the fans. He understands the Neopets legacy and is working to preserve it as much as he is driving it toward its new evolution.

“Like you said, people come down here and say, ‘Oh my God, Neopets is still around?’ First of all, yeah, that’s why we’re here, because a bunch of people still remember. We’re still around, and we’re doing some new stuff,” he says. When I ask if he can give me an overview of what’s going on with Neopets at the moment, the first thing he mentions is the website itself. “Neopets Classic, as we call it, the website, will always be there,” Czulewicz assures me. “We’re gonna keep that. That’s gonna be maintained and managed by a separate team, which is what it is right now.”

It’s a relief, of course. That’s what built Neopets into what it is today, and I’m not sure how I—or anyone else—would feel if that was made unrecognizable in an attempt to keep the brand alive. Thankfully, the nostalgia factor—or neostalgia, as TNT has so cleverly dubbed it—is a powerful determining factor. You’d have to be off your rocker to want to change that, and lucky for us, Czulewicz has his feet firmly planted on the ground.

But as thankful as I am that Neopets Classic will stay the same, I am champing at the bit to discover what could be next. If Neopets could expand into different mediums and on different platforms, there’s a much higher chance that I’d jump back into this world. I’m not sure I can commit to spending hours on the website anymore, but I’d definitely work my way through a video game, either on mobile or the Switch or something else.

It turns out JumpStart had the exact same idea. They’ll be hitting the mobile market with a new match-three game. “It’s a matching game with a story based around it, all based on the Neopets lore,” Czulewicz explains. “It’s called Faerie’s Hope, which is based on the faeries, which are our most popular characters.” This is currently still in Beta, but Czulewicz hopes to have the official launch soon.

“And then we are launching a crypto-based game with our parent company,” Czulewicz continues. “So, that one will be a free-play game. It’s in 3D, which will be the first time for us doing something in 3D. The characters are adorable.” If you, like me, immediately worry about such phrases like crypto-based, all hope is not lost! “It’s going to be NFT-based, but not required, so you won’t have to have a wallet. And you can go in and play,” he says. “It’s going to be based on some of the same games that we have. We’re going to bring back some of the old popular games.” That’s certainly promising, especially because Czulewicz says the game (Neopets Metaverse) will be on PC at the beginning of 2023, but will hopefully go mobile by the end of next year.

And I know you’re wondering as much as I am—what about that rumored Switch game? “We’re still looking into it,” he confirms. “Yeah, we actually probably announced that a little prematurely. We had a contract in place, but that fell through.” With games like Animal Crossing already on the roster, Neopets seems like it would be a perfect fit, doesn’t it? “It does,” Czulewicz agrees. “We actually had somebody come by today asking about the Playstation Portable game that was done in 2006. And I do believe it—I mean, we’re looking at a couple other things like small little handheld games that are just individual one-off games. Because there were some great games on Neopets back in the day. You know, we talked to a company about that today. But certainly Switch would be… For me, it’d be the Holy Grail. Just because I think its userbase would be perfect. It would help us expand, too.”

All of this is great, of course, and I’m super excited to check out these two games when they launch. However, I’d be lying if I didn’t say that I’m more interested in the Neopets merch. I always got such a thrill from tracking it down and collecting it, that I have to admit I wouldn’t mind dipping my toes back into that world. I have adult money now, after all. I won’t need to beg my mom for rides or ask her if she’ll buy me a plushie because I definitely did all my homework and my chores and I’m such a good daughter, I totally deserve one.

“We’re here with [What’s Your Passion (WYP)], which does jewelry for us,” Czulewicz continues. I warn anyone who clicks on that link that you better be prepared to spend some money because WYP makes beautiful enamel pins and pieces of jewelry for the Neopets brand. This was definitely a major draw, and every time I walked by the booth, it was crowded with people. I managed to get my hands on a couple (Illusen and a Halloween gelert, if you must know), and guess what? They came with merch codes.

“We announced earlier this year an Upper Deck trading card game that we’re working on,” he says, making all of my dreams come true. “As far as the card game goes, we’re still in production, still in design. So, not much I can tell you yet.” But that’s okay, because it sounds like the TCG could be coming in summer 2023, according to the initial announcement. It promises to give old fans something different while also providing new fans with a piece of that Neopets legacy.

“We’re coming out with a cookbook in Q1 [early 2023], based on Neopets’ [food and recipes],” he continues. “This one is gonna be really cool. We actually have one of our most notable users who is writing the forward for us.” In case you’re not familiar, Subjectify Media is a huge advocate for fandom-based cookbooks. We’ve done one for Harry Potter, The Nightmare Before Christmas, and even one for Disney villains. I absolutely cannot wait to add a Neopets cookbook to the list.

“And then let’s see, what else do we have?” Czulewicz says, as though that’s not an embarrassment of riches already. “Cakeworthy‘s doing some clothes for us. Hopefully we’ll be in all the major retailers soon. We got the plush, obviously.” He seems unfazed by all of this. Meanwhile, I’m trying to decide how much money I can allocate to my quickly resurfacing obsession and still make rent. “We’re trying to build it back,” he finishes.

Does this mean I can live out my dream of running through stores, looking for the rare plushies and hoping I can find the last one I need to add to my collection? “We’re working on it,” he says, with regard to finding a retail partner. “Right now, we’re doing them on our own. But really, it’s just to see the market a little bit. We talked to a couple people and we’re seeing what we can do.”

He says the original strategy was to do a little bit of everything and see what stuck. “And then we kind of walked it back a little bit, and said, ‘Okay, let’s look at our user base.’ Like you,” he says. And, dear reader, I promise I did not feel old at all. Not one little bit. “They’re all older than they were when they started, right? I mean, it’s nostalgic-based, it’s true. And the merchandise around it is what we’re looking at, right? So the pins, even these lanyards. You know, WYP is going to start making these for us. These are beautiful.” And they really are. I switched my plain Amazon Prime lanyard out for my rainbow Neopets one, and I caught a ton of people staring at it throughout the con.

Neopets is also going to make sure they keep producing “things that the userbase actually has asked for, like the plush, right?” Czulewicz adds. “People like the plush.” Yes, they absolutely do. They also like that they’re limited edition and that you can get items on the Neopets website from them. It was about this point in the conversation that I started to have serious flashbacks. Czulewicz seems to understand what I’m going through. “Even when we talk to merchandise companies or publishers and developers,” he says, “that’s exactly what they talk about. Like, ‘Oh my God, I remember this.’ I’m like, ‘Yeah, we’re still around.’ We got a million and a half users or so per month, so I mean, it’s still a busy site, still active. A very empowered community, very active community, very vocal community. Which is good.”

There’s a hint of something to his voice which makes me realize Czulewicz has heard the Neopets community loud and clear, for better or worse. I ask him as much. “I love them. I really do. I got a hug from someone today that saw me three years ago. No, I actually do. I love the community. I love the energy from it, and I think our employees take from that when developing stuff. So, we actually try to make sure that we listen more to them, which is hard to do.” I chime in—because you can’t make everybody happy? “Correct,” he says. “And we can’t do things as quick as people want, right? There’s only so many hours in the day, so many employees. And it’s still a 20- almost 25-year-old site.”

Czulewicz says Classic Neopets is home to about 25 employees between customer service, marketing, development, and design, a far cry from when Viacom owned it and employed around 130 people. And before that? The original founders had a couple hundred employees. When I ask what his role is in all of this, Czulewicz says, “I’m the CEO of Jumpstart Games. We own Neopets. And School of Dragons is another game we publish for Universal. So yeah, no design. Last thing anybody wants me doing is designing a game. You know, this team is incredible. They do a lot of work. I don’t do anything. I wear Hawaiian shirts.” It’s an excellent shirt, though. Very bright. “Yes, it is,” he says, laughing. “It’s very bright. But no, it’s really all about the team. I was a fan, sort of. But, you know, I actually wanted Neopets because I liked the userbase at the time. I really do. I still do. I love the userbase.”

It’s the perfect opportunity to ask Czulewicz what he would like to say directly to the Neopets community. “I think what I would want to say to them is what I’ve tried to say and what the team tries to say all the time,” he says. “That Neopets Classic, the website, is gonna be here. It’s gonna be around for a while. I mean, it sounds funny, but I mean, it’s one of our biggest complaints, that people think we’re not going to keep it going because we’re watching these other projects, we’re doing these other things. This team is [dedicated] to just Classic. We’re just doing that. And we’re going to be around. We’re going to try to do what we can to keep the fans happy, and do everything we can to not go anywhere. That’s why we’re here [at Comic-Con] really, is just making sure that people know that we’re still around.”

If you’re wondering what you can do to help keep the neostalgia alive, Czulewicz has an answer for that, too. “Keep on being vocal,” he says. “Honestly? I think it helps. I mean, good and bad. I think the bad helps just as much as the good.” Passion, I say, that’s what it comes down to. “It really is,” he agrees. “I mean, it’s all about that. And I believe that a lot of this is about comfort, beyond nostalgia. I think people come back to the site for nostalgia, and you know, we still get a lot of people coming back to the site to play, just like you, to check it out. My pet! Where is it?” Definitely dying, I add. “I definitely think that for the core userbase that we have, the million to million and a half [users], I think for those players, this really still means something to them. And I appreciate that, and I want to make them happy. That’s why we’re gonna keep on going.”

It’s a relief to hear that, to say the least. Sure, I might not hop on Neopets much anymore, but I would still be devastated to learn that the site shut down. At least it’s an option, you know? Purusing the site and looking at all of my merch still brings me so much joy, and with everything Neopets has on the horizon, I have a feeling it won’t take much to pull me back into the world of Neopia.