Everyone's favorite penguin game (unless you were the sole purchaser of Happy Feet for the Wii), Club Penguin has had its plug pulled. The game's been slipping for a few years—28 employees were made redundant in 2015 and its UK office got shut down, and further lay-offs hit its teams in 2016. But confirming suspicions that something fishy was going on, Disney officially announced, at the end of January, that its game would be discontinued on March 29th 2017, 12 years after it came online.
And just like that, my first-ever MMO has been melted away by Disney's virtual grit truck, reduced to old accounts and blurry screenshots.
The announcement probably shouldn't have made me as low as it has. I mean, I haven't played the game for about ten years, and it's only really been on my digital radar in recent times through the "throw one more snowball at me" fake ban memes. The truth is that Club Penguin shutting down has given me the same kind of aching sadness, the same loss of innocence, as watching your prize snowman melt on a sunny morning as a kid.
As tragic as it may seem, it defined part of my childhood and basically introduced me to online gaming. It was such a craze when I nine or ten that my teachers would dedicate the final five minutes of the school day to letting the class work out what server we were logging onto, and at what time (before mum made tea, obviously).
Club Penguin really put the massive into MMO—by 2013 it had over 200 million registered accounts. Sure, I had some great times playing other MMOs at that age, initiating serious PvPs on RuneScape and working my way through some really obscure fantasy MMORPGs on Miniclip. But it's Club Penguin that stands out. I don't care that it's fundamentally a child-friendly sandbox game where you waddle around doing fuck-all, it was hours of fun.
The developers—New Horizon Interactive way back when, now Walt Disney Online Studios Canada—weren't lazy with features, either. The recurring character of Rockhopper created an avalanche of hype, and got pretty neat backstory to boot. I legitimately cannot remember a more exciting video game experience in my childhood than when Rockhopper would turn up a few times a year on a random island space and give out Puffle bandanas and other swag.
The world was so infectiously cartoonish and perfectly sized that by the time you'd played for a few months you knew every secret entrance and hidden item.
Even the standard days on the island were heaps of fun. Making sweet pizzas on the Candytron 3000, chucking snowballs at other penguins, getting your Puffle some accessories at the pet shop. (Puffles, FYI, were small furry things that you could adopt as in-game pets.) The world was so infectiously cartoonish and perfectly sized that by the time you'd played for a few months you knew every secret entrance, every hidden catalog item, and every bit of aquatic gossip.
There was always a fair bit of criticism about Club Penguin. In 2008, one journalist called it "reminiscent of an Orwellian dystopia" for its security features, arguing that it encouraged consumerism and cheating. But to be honest, it was a good idea to have strong security, considering it's a kid's game. Plus, every December it had a fund-raising event that saw players able to donate virtual coins that translated into real-world money, with up to two million dollars being given to charities every year. If you can't concede that kids from 191 countries learning, in some capacity at least, to donate to charity is an objectively good thing, then you're one rock short of a hopper.
Club Penguin isn't actually completely over. Disney's shutting it down so Club Penguin Island can take its place, a mobile-only game that's sure to go after big-name mobile successes like like Pokémon Go and Super Mario Run. Maybe I'm just an old-timer, but the graphics of its trailer look a bit too polished, a bit too 3D, almost garish compared to the pastel simplicity of the original game's visuals.
I guess it's a testament to our times that Island's target market—kids six and up—now has phones of their own. But it feels wrong that to be playing this on a small screen and not logging onto your family PC and getting an innocent, exciting introduction to the internet.
I'm not too optimistic about Island's success, considering that interest in the Club Penguin brand has been waning in recent years, and that Disney has to attract the attention of a generation used to playing games that are more grown-up and less restricted. For now, I'll take comfort in my white blanket of nostalgia, and reminisce about how tasty those dessert pizzas looked.