Few phrases strike more fear in the hearts of parents than, “Can I have a puppy/kitty/bunny/parakeet/lizard?” (for the record, those are separate pet options, not one horrible, genetically-engineered super pet). And with good reason. Mom and Dad knew that the minute we got bored with feeding, grooming, poop-scooping, and such, either they’d end up taking over the pet care duties or the puppy was going to the pound.
For decades, the solution was a starter pet: “If you can learn to take care of this ant farm or this gerbil, then maybe we’ll talk about kitty cats.” But why make innocent insects and rodents suffer at the hands of neglectful pre-schoolers? Was there no better way? Maybe not in your mother’s day, but if we learned anything from the cyber years, it’s that superior technology is the solution to every problem that ever plagued man or beast.
Introduced in the late 1990s, the “cyber-pet” Tamagotchi taught kids the responsibilities of pet ownership without any of the messy consequences. Japanese housewife Aki Maita got the idea for what would become Tamagotchi as she watched several bored children on a lengthy train journey. Maita decided to develop a tiny electronic device, small enough to fit in the palm of the hand, which would create a virtual reality version of a pet.
Maita presented her finished creation to Japan’s Bandai Toy Company, makers of the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers toy line. Bandai eagerly snapped up the license for the toy, dubbing it “Tamagotchi” (Japanese for “lovable egg”).
The finished toy was housed in a colorful plastic shell. With a pull of a plastic tab on the side of the shell, a virtual pet was “hatched,” bringing a small, bird-like creature onto the tiny machine’s digital display screen. Depending on the care the pet received from its owner, it could either become an attractive, well-behaved animal or a mutated, ill-mannered monster.
Like its real-life pet counterparts, Tamagotchi needed plenty of attention. It made its needs known by a beeping sound, which grew louder if the Tamagotchi was ignored. If the sound was off, Tamagotchi got your attention with a flashing light. Whatever the pet’s needs, a series of buttons took care of everything – feeding, playtime, and discipline. It sounds simple, but Tamagotchi had its own schedule, and it didn’t really care about yours. School time, dinnertime, sleep time… nothing was off-limits if Tamagotchi had an itch that needed scratching.
Ignore Tamagotchi’s demands, and it would either become mischievous or ill. If the pet was neglected for too long, it would ‘die,’ making loud squawking noises before going silent. But unlike your flesh-and-blood animals, Tamagotchi rebooted pretty easily–just press a button on the back, and a brand-new pet was hatched. The average lifespan was 10 to 18 days, depending on the care your pet received.
Tamagotchi first went on sale in Japan in November 1996, creating an instant consumer craze. Everyone from businessmen to celebrities began lining up alongside children to get their own. Within four months, Bandai had completely sold out of its original stock. People began paying up to ten times the original price for remaining stock, and thieves began stealing the tiny devices to sell on the black market. Soon, Bandai had ten factories cranking out the toy full-time to keep up with demand.
In the spring of 1997, Bandai introduced Tamagotchi in the U.S. Once again, it was a smash hit as children and adults alike became obsessed with the tiny cyber-pet. The toy chain FAO Schwarz alone sold Tamagotchi at a rate of 80,000 a week. The pets’ beeping could get irritating, especially to teachers tired of having class interrupted by Tamagotchi’s 11 am feeding, but despite outright Tamagotchi bans in some schools, the little digital playmates were everywhere.
Tamagotchi’s incredible success inspired a variety of imitators, including Gigapets by Tiger Electronics and Nanos by Playmates Toys. Even licensed characters got into the act, including a tiny digital Yoda. In Japan, Tamagotchi inspired a variety of offshoots: Tamapitchi, a mobile phone-styled version that allowed its owners to share its pet with other owners by “phoning” them; and Tenshitchi, an “angel” pet that could not die.
Like all crazes, the pandemonium surrounding Tamagotchi eventually died down. Just the same, virtual pets continue to be popular around the world, especially in their native Japan. The concept has been adapted to everything from tiny cyber-gladiators to Hasbro’s POX, which swapped adorable pets for infectious alien viruses. Tamagotchi made a bundle for Bandai, but no one was more grateful for the dawn of the cyber-pet era than a relieved Mom & Dad… except maybe the ants and gerbils.