The virtual pet that turned ‘90s kids into round-the-clock caretakers turned 25 this year
December 22, 2021
Dani Bunda vividly remembers when she and her older sister bought their Tamagotchis at the mall. “We sat in the dressing room and pretended we were alien catchers—and we’d just found these eggs,” Bunda, now 27, recalls.
In the weeks that followed, Bunda says her mother became the “ultimate Tamagotchi grandparent,” tending the needy, beeping virtual pets during tennis lessons and school days. With proper feeding, attention and discipline, Tamagotchis grow through unique life cycles, developing personalities that reflect the care they receive.
The palm-sized, egg-shaped toys, with black and white pixelated screens and a handy keychain, were a self-contained universe—one that included happy moments and melancholy ones alike.“I remember, very clearly, standing in the kitchen when my sister found out that her Tamagotchi died, and just how traumatic that was for her,” Bunda says. Players quickly learned to modify their games, extending their virtual pets’ lives by removing the toy’s batteries or using pencil graphite to trigger a debugging signal.
When Tamagotchi—which turned 25 this November—first launched in the U.S., Wired dismissed the toy, claiming it “borrowed all the gimmickry of 1970s' Pet Rock kitsch and gave it a digital facelift.” Yet within a year of its release, the toy became a billion-dollar global sensation. At the peak of the Tamagotchi craze, stores sold out in hours and scammers preyed on shoppers’ desperation, charging marked-up prices for coupons that could never be redeemed.
Today, many of the ‘90s kids who were once scolded for surreptitiously tending their Tamagotchi during class are rediscovering their nostalgia for the toy’s unique gameplay and endlessly collectible variations. To date, Japanese toy company Bandai has released more than 60 additional Tamagotchi toys, games and apps, including collaborations with franchises such as Pac-Man, Pokémon and Godzilla. In 2017, the original Tamagotchi was relaunched on the 20th anniversary of its original U.S. release. And 2021 has seen multiple new Tamagotchi drops, including a Tamagotchi smartwatch that launched in Japan in June and the Tamagotchi Pix, a camera-equipped handheld device with a color screen that arrived in North America in July.
Most toys experience ebbs and flows of popularity, and Tamagotchi is no different. But online, a dedicated fan base has remained steadily devoted. Bunda is an active member of Tamagotchi Facebook groups, where she helps fellow fans price their collections and spot scams. Sometimes, players start “group hatches,” meaning they start a new Tamagotchi at the same time and share updates of their progress. “It’s so fun,” she says. She also regularly posts videos to her YouTube channel, where she helps thousands of subscribers translate Japanese Tamagotchis.
The story of Tamagotchi began in the Toshima City ward of northwest Tokyo, when toy executive Akihiro Yokoi was struck by inspiration. As Yokoi explained to the New York Times, the jolt came from an advertisement in which a boy wasn’t allowed to bring his pet turtle on vacation. An owner of “a dog, three cats, two parrots, and several beetles and other insects,” Yokoi identified with the boy’s longing. If it wasn’t always possible to take living pets along, he reasoned, why not bring a virtual one?
The origin story has an apocryphal quality. Was the advertisement selling turtles? Vacations? Did it exist at all? “No matter where I look I cannot find what the TV commercial was about or even if there was such [a] commercial in the first place,” one Redditor complained just a year ago.
Regardless, Yokoi was president of Wiz Co., Ltd., a creative firm where 42 employees, most in their early 20s, designed and pitched toy concepts to larger companies. Handheld games had been around since Mattel launched single-game consoles in 1977—but early portable consoles were too expensive for most players, says cultural historian Carly Kocurek, who specializes in new media technologies and video gaming at the Illinois Institute of Technology. “It had gotten a lot more affordable to make inexpensive, small electronics,” Kocurek explains.
In 1977, the Atari 2600 was a major purchase at $199.99—the equivalent of $917.21 today. By 1989, Nintendo’s Game Boy retailed for $89.99, or $201.71 when adjusted for inflation. A major element of Tamagotchis’ popularity was the fact that at $15 to $17 apiece practically anyone could afford to purchase one. Coupled with the success of the single-player Petz video games in 1995, Tamagotchi’s simple technology—a black and white LCD screen, a tiny battery and a few rudimentary buttons—was designed for mass production, laying the groundwork for what would become a golden age of virtual pets.
Yokoi contacted Aki Maita, who worked on marketing at Bandai, next. Though it was well-established as Japan’s leading toy company, Bandai had struggled to gain a foothold in American toy stores until 1993, when its Mighty Morphin Power Rangers became a surprise hit at the North American International Toy Fair, a major trade show held annually in New York since 1903. Working with Maita and Wiz Co.’s staff, Yokoi initially envisioned the toy as a wearable wristwatch and dubbed it Tamagotchi—a mash-up of tamago (egg) and uotchi (watch)—but later switched to a keychain design. During one memorable meeting, a designer quickly sketched a blobby character, and it stuck.
Then came the gameplay. Tamagotchi was programmed to evolve in response to the player’s caretaking decisions. The device would beep at real-time intervals, demanding that the player feed, clean up and even discipline the pet. Proper parenting would result in a well-mannered adult Tamagotchi, while inattention would result in a delinquent. And just like a real animal, if ignored, a Tamagotchi would die—triggering a tombstone in Japanese versions of the game, or a euphemism about returning to its home planet for Americans.
Within weeks of Tamagotchi’s U.S. release—enough time for players to experience the game’s love and loss—some parents became unsettled by their children’s hysterical tears or sudden depression upon their virtual pets’ deaths. "The toy creates a real sense of loss and a mourning process," Andrew Cohen, a psychologist at the Dalton School in Manhattan, told the New York Times in 1997. "Kids want to nurture and take care of pets—it gives them a feeling of empowerment and self-importance—but here the consequences are too high. It's out of control."
But to Kocurek, there’s no reason that play can’t include elements of grief, loss or other complicated emotions. “Children experience a huge range of human emotions,” Kocurek points out. “I think sometimes we forget that they're people, and they're not just simple and happy all the time. They actually have complex emotional lives, just like everyone else.”
Maita championed the toy to Bandai’s skeptical salespeople. “Their reaction was dull, like, 'What's so fun about this?'” Maita later told the New York Times. “In fact, we had difficulty marketing it to toy shops. Not all of them placed orders with us.” But in focus groups, Japanese teen girls—“the marketing pulse of the nation”—loved it.
The girls’ taste proved right. In less than six months, Bandai sold 5 million Tamagotchi in Japan. The toy sold out so quickly that Japanese shoppers began camping outside toy stores or shelling out hundreds on the resale market. In March 1997, Bandai announced that it would gift a Tamagotchi to anyone who owned 1,000 shares of its stock—and the price leapt by 60 yen the next day.
In the U.S., Tamagotchi was an instant hit. On the first day of sales, May 1, 1997, San Francisco’s F.A.O. Schwartz sold its entire stock of 3,000 by 3:00 p.m. By noon the next day, the department store’s New York flagship had sold its initial 10,000 Tamagotchi, too. Tamagotchi quickly became a hot toy around the globe, with sales increasing to more than 70 million by September across Japan, China, Europe and the United States. Yokoi and Maita were awarded the satirical Ig Nobel Prize that year, “for turning millions of work hours into lost time taking care of virtual pets.”
Tamagotchi’s universal popularity occurred in spite of the way the toy was marketed to consumers. “When Tamagotchi was first released, it was marketed to girls—really aggressively,” Kocurek says. “There’s all kinds of assumptions about who wants to do caretaking play that aren’t necessarily born out.” Though children of all genders clamored for Tamagotchi, these same stereotypes persist today. Kocurek cites Diner Dash as a classic example of a game that, like Tamagotchi, focused on intense time and resource management—and was primarily marketed to women.
Beyond its marketing, Tamagotchi was also relentlessly present, building a fear of missing out directly into the gameplay. “Tamagotchi is premised on you being available in an ongoing way—which is really different from a lot of other types of games and play,” Kocurek says.
The average lifespan of a well-cared for Tamagotchi is about 12 days—and like the virtual pet itself, the Tamagotchi was a relatively short-lived fad among American shoppers. Furbies, the fuzzy bird-like robot toys supposedly capable of learning human speech, overtook Tamagotchi by the following holiday season.
Though the toy industry continued to churn out other trends, some players never stopped paying attention to Tamagotchi. To outsiders, caring for a virtual pet might seem like a lonely endeavor—but for collectors and fans, it’s easy to find community online. On TamaTalk, for example, approximately 96,000 members gather online to trade gameplay tips and commemorate past pets through obituaries.
Jordan, who streams on Twitch under the handle Rozoken and asked to go by first name only, has been following Tamagotchi’s new releases since 1997. “I started collecting a lot more as an adult, because I got involved in the community and I would learn about all of the special Japanese releases,” he says. Today, his collection has grown to include more than 200 Tamagotchis, including rarities that were never released in the U.S. He’s even tracked down Japanese wall-mounted store models that once dispensed exclusive digital downloads. “Usually, those wouldn't end up in the public's hands, but quite a few times, they do,” he says. “Those are really cool collection pieces.”
On eBay, vintage Tamagotchi prices vary wildly, from $1.50 for an original Tamagotchi to a $5,000 Mobile Kaitsu! Tamagotchi Plus that ships from Tokyo. But Bunda says the barrier to entry is surprisingly low for collectors—especially among collectors in Facebook communities. “Genuine Tamagotchi are usually $20 to maybe upwards of $150, depending on the shell,” she says. “Some people might pay more, if it's new in the box.”
That may change as Bandai continues to cash in on ‘90s nostalgia. Bunda has noticed new members joining her Facebook groups in droves, and Jordan says he’s seen a spike in interest, too. “It was pretty shocking, actually,” he says. He had recently completed a major milestone of his collection—owning one of every specific version of Tamagotchi, in Japanese and English—when “everything at least doubled in price.”
The pandemic may be behind some of this, as people seek comfort in nostalgia and find ways to occupy themselves at home. But Bunda and Jordan also point out that Tamagotchi’s steady drip of new releases and relaunches renews its popularity. Though vintage Tamagotchis grow scarcer each year, it’s still easy to walk into any box store with a toy aisle and discover a brand-new Tamagotchi for around $20. In this way, Tamagotchi has achieved the kind of immortality awarded to toys that transcend their one big moment.
“Life isn't as magical as it was when I was a kid,” Bunda says. “But playing Tamagotchi—and buying more Tamagotchi—brings that magic into my life.”
Very interesting, I never heard of this before!