On September 19, 2013, a little bit of my childhood died when Disney's Toontown Online closed down. It was a bizarre concept for a game: An MMO for children, where cartoon animals pranced around vaguely Disney-themed zones taking down big corporations with water guns and anvils summoned from the sky.
Toontown's inception can actually be traced all the way back to 1988's Who Framed Roger Rabbit, in which the town was a place where the animated folk lived separately from humans. The creation was also brought to real life in Disneyland around the same time, before the concept was brought to videogame format in 2003.
There's perhaps an irony to be found in a Disney creation focusing on the struggle against immoral corporate suits—aptly named Cogs and all of whom are named after corpo-jargon like Big Wig, Ambulance Chaser and Legal Eagle—who take over colourful small businesses by squashing them down with their grey, mass-market towers. It's an irony I obviously never cared for as a child, instead consuming the prismatic, old-school Disney vibes and having a little giggle to myself everytime I threw a pie gag straight in a robot's face.
Gags were Toontown's way of integrating combat without giving kids crap like guns and knives. There were no sharp tools to be found here (unless you count being able to drop an entire safe or boat on someone) but classic Looney Tunes-esque equipment instead.
Combat was turn-based too, something which deeply appealed to my Final Fantasy sensibilities. Some gags would have high damage but low accuracy, while others relied on setting a trap with one gag type before luring a Cog into it with another. It was never anything that became too overly-complicated—it being a game for children, of course—but it was just enticing enough to keep me grinding to get more powerful gags and unlock new types.
Growing up with Toontown Online was an incredibly endearing experience, one I fondly remember being hyper focused on cooperation and doing your best to make friends with others through a selection of pre-determined phrases. I don't recall specifically how much time I spent with the game, but it's one of the few games from my youth that continues to resonate and was a huge catalyst in forming my love for this hobby.
Cog in the machine
It wasn't meant to last forever, though. As Toontown was quietly chugging along, the age of mobile gaming had begun to blow up. Disney was also finding a significant amount of success with Club Penguin, which it had acquired in 2007 and had managed to rack up 200 million registered accounts by July 2013. It was a deadly combo that would not only prove fatal for Toontown, but for Pixie Hollow and Pirates of the Caribbean Online, the other two MMOs Disney was juggling.
All three games were killed off as the House of Mouse shifted its focus to mobile gaming and its golden child MMO. While I had fallen off Toontown by the time its demise came around, I remember the distinct upset I felt about losing a little piece of my youth. But not all was lost.
You see, Toontown Online may have closed its doors a decade ago, but the game never really went away. Within hours of its death, Toontown Rewritten's announcement emerged from the ashes. An entirely faithful recreation that would be totally unmonetised, a way to keep the community alive and thriving. It was a reveal that was met with mixed responses: Some were happy to see their favourite game continuing to live on, while others were more apprehensive about whether such a thing could exist. Even if it could, would it last?
Surprisingly, the answer is yes. Toontown Rewritten launched a few weeks after its official counterpart bit the dust, and has continued to live on in the decade since. It largely remains an accurate rendition, though the community has since implemented updates like additional animals for the character creation, new boss buildings and an upcoming expansion to the map with a brand-new zone.
I actually played Toontown Rewritten back in 2016 after getting hit with a wave of nostalgia while having a college-related crisis. My attempt to latch onto a small piece of childhood happiness was met with success, finding the same game I knew and loved albeit significantly less populated. I haven't played it for the last few years, but its looming anniversary gave me a real hankering to return.
Turns out I wasn't the only one on a little decade of death nostalgia trip. Every year Toontown Rewritten throws Cartoonival, an event that begins on September 19 and celebrates the life of the original game. Was I expecting a couple hundred people? Sure! Was I expecting around 1700 cartoon animals slowing down my 2023 rig to a slideshow and servers buckling because of how many people were swarming to a single zone? Absolutely not.
I know 1700 players is hardly a feat these days, but for a game that has technically been dead since 2013, it's a heaving crowd. It's one that's split up across around four servers, with each one only able to house around 500 toons. Usually they'd be spread across the entire world, but this time almost everyone was situated inside the event area.
Seeing so many people gathered at once was exactly how I remembered the game. It was a strange feeling, like seeing a small fragment of my life frozen in time for the last 15 years. Are my rose-tinted glasses clouding my vision right now? Perhaps, but I couldn't help but feel a spark of joy in seeing something so dead feel so alive.
I've been playing several hours over the last week—somehow completely ignoring all the juggernaut RPGs that have been looming behind me this month—and while it's a total jankfest and a grind that is designed entirely around a feeble child's mind, I'm enjoying it just as much as I remember. I've even roped in a few pals who weren't privy to the game at the time, which has afforded me a whole new way to play.
Toontown Rewritten isn't the only fan server that's chugging along, either. Corporate Clash has taken the Toontown formula and evolved it significantly, changing up Cog designs, adding new zones and gags with a less Disneyfied vibe. It's not quite at the popularity of Rewritten, but it offers a totally fresh way to play the game. Operation Dessert Storm is another to have taken a wealth of creative liberty, while Toontown Realms allows for a customisable experience, operating more like a Minecraft server than a traditional MMO.
So while Toontown Online may be a decade gone, I've never truly had to say goodbye. I'm eternally grateful to dedicated fans who help to keep these games and their communities alive, even after their creator has doomed them to death. There's a magic to be found in these private servers, and I hope it's one I can continue to revisit in the years to come.