The Life and Times of the Greatest 90s Toy

Celebrating the 20th Anniversary with special edition Tamagotchis

The Tamagotchi has returned to Japan in celebration of its 20th anniversary. First produced in 1996, the Tamagotchi is the product of Akihiro Yokoi and Aki Maita (the latter won the 1997 Ig Nobel Prize for economics). It is a combination of the words tamago (egg) and the English word “watch.”

It’s hard to say the true influence of the Tamagotchi, but to put it into perspective it caused Bandai to cancel its plans to merge with Sega Entertainment. The game became a hit in America just five months after it hit Japan shelves. The same day it crossed continents it was released as a Gameboy game. Within its first year the toy had sold 70 million units. Since then it has spawned games for the Nintendo 64, Nintendo DS, and Wii. In Japan it became a brief anime that ran for seven months mid-1997. From there multiple tv shows and films have been produced as well as other anime shows.

The brainstorming first started in 1994 when Yokoi watched a commercial in which wanted to leave the house with his pet turtle and was denied by his parents. During this time, an aquarium fish simulation was a popular software on personal computers. Yokoi wanted to mimic the nature of the software outside of the not so popular personal computer and merge it with a more interactive nature. Tamagotchis exist in real time and have real time consequences — a way to make the game seem more real for the player. Thus, the Tamagotchi was born.

The Tamagotchi as a concept is an egg from space which features an alien to be cared for by its human companion. The casing for the toy is the alien shell that both protects and harbors the alien baby. It must be fed, washed, and played with — a simplistic version of caring for an actual autonomous animal.

Despite its simple but lovable gameplay it was quickly labelled a nuisance by adults. In fact, Time labelled it one of the worst inventions on May 27th 2010 despite its roaring success. Time listed the quick to die nature of Tamagotchis as a point of contempt for parents. Yokoi built the toy not to intentionally be annoying but certainly to be challenging. His reasoning was that “pets are only cute 20 to 30 percent of the time, and the rest is a lot of trouble, a lot of work.” But as the owner rises to the challenge Yokoi said that they too would “start to love them.”

Photo via Flickr

It wasn’t an easy sell for Bandai. Initially, the Tamagotchi had lukewarm reception from store owners. Aki Maita, a Bandai marketer once said the response to the Tamagotchi was “dull,” the general question was “What’s so fun about this?” Despite the criticism, Bandai moved forward with testing and produced 200 prototypes for junior high school girls in Shibuya. The students adored it.

The social constructs of the 90s was the best breeding ground for Tamagotchis. It was during this time technology was beginning to evolve from impersonal data to interpersonal relationships. Tamagotchis were unique in that they existed for everyone. They were gender neutral in a way other toys were not. The game itself was not split between a female alien bit or a male alien bit — it was simply a Tamagotchi. The outer shell, although in different colors, was designed strictly to replicate the shape of an egg rather than some of the more gender intuitive designs such as military or beauty as was rampant in gender split toys such as GI Joe or Barbie. It was the game that fit into anyone and everyone’s pocket.

Photo via Flickr

Of course the game wasn’t without its faults. Yokoi was right in that caring for the toy created a deep bond. People were enamoured by the simple yet relatable aspects of the Tamagotchi. It shared stress and needs in the same way people do but in a much more simplistic form as is the nature of such a toy. The same things that made it great made it bad. Yokoi was concerned that players would spend too much time in the virtual world, caring too much for something that wasn’t real. The first generation Tamagotchi didn’t have pause options so if a player was invested they had to care for the pet or it would die.

Yokoi became concerned with the fact that engaging in a virtual world for too long made its players become nonchalant to things such as death. It seems like an absurd connection but one has to remember these are children who are now learning short lived relationships can simply be restarted by hitting the reset button. Yokoi wasn’t the only person to share these concerns. Tamagotchis eventually became blessed with wings in the American version — flying off to a different world instead of dying as one’s pet would after a time of neglect. This idea was adopted for future Tamagotchis in America and Japan.

The banning of Tamagotchis and the concerns of many parents meant a quick decline for the beloved pet at the turn of the century. Bandai created subsequent similar toys with corrections and upgrades but nothing touched the prowess of the Tamagotchi. Bandai never stopped selling the toys, however. In 2004 the Tamagotchi Plus was released in stores. Although the original audience may have moved on, new generations were quick to pick up on the toy. In Japan, the Tamagotchi Mini was released but it was treated more like an accessory than a game. The interest for Tamagotchis continued to build after the release of the Plus until its decline in 2006.

Brief spikes are multiple game releases for the Wii and Nintendo DS

In Japan, Tamagotchis continuously evolved into new platforms. In 2007, the TamagoChu was released. This version was geared towards older audiences and relied more heavily on adult stages of life as its evolution chain. In 2008, the Tamagotchi Plus Color was released in Japan. It featured a full-color LCD screen and a larger shell. The cracked shell designed was reserved to the battery plate rather than on its forefront like in earlier generations.

The spike in 2013 was caused by the release of Tamagotchi L.i.f.e. on iOS and Android — a replication of the Classic Tamagotchi. Tamagotchi L.i.f.e. has been downloaded over 3 million times on both Apple and Android devices and carry high positive ratings. It was initially received poorly as it was marketed for older women instead of its predecessor which was genderless and targeted for children. Bandai chose to appeal to novelty rather than a new audience.

The Tamagotchi has resurged again with the announcement of its 20th anniversary. Bandai has rereleased the toy in Japan with a special edition Tamagotchi — no word on whether it will be available overseas.