It’s time to get nostalgic as take a look at one of the most iconic toys of the 90s and delve into the wild and wonderful history of Tamagotchi!
Despite Tamagotchi-mania first exploding in the 90s, these little pocket pets have recently seen a bit of a resurgence due to 90s kids now being hungry for trinkets bringing back their childhood nostalgia.
Bandai, the company behind the Tamagotchi, are well aware of this and started reprinting the original devices specifically to cater to this audience.
However, the brand goes way further than these original keychain devices, and there’s a whole new generation of Tamagotchi lovers out there reliving the magic all over again.
So, join me as we celebrate the legacy of these amazing virtual pets because this, is The History of Tamagotchi.
Table of Contents
The Birth Of Tamagotchi
Like many of our childhood favourite trends, Tamagotchi was born in Japan. Akihiro Yokoi was a toy manufacturing executive at a small company called Wiz Co. and supposedly came across an advert involving a boy who wasn’t allowed to bring his pet turtle on holiday.
Exactly what this advert was for is unknown, but the important detail is that Yokoi was inspired to create a pet that you could take anywhere you want, regardless of what your parents might say.
The issue was working out how to make a portable virtual pet that was not only fun but also cost efficient.
At this point it was 1996 and the Game Boy had cemented itself as the most popular portable video game console ever made, but it was quite expensive, costing $90 on it’s release in 1989. Later revisions such as the Game Boy Pocket came in a bit cheaper, costing $50 in 1997, but Yokoi wanted his creation to cost even less than that.
Bringing An Idea To Life
The idea was that practically anybody would be able to get their hands on these, but in order to do that he had several hurdles.
Firstly, he needed to somehow make the devices incredibly cheaply, and secondly, he needed to be able to make them on such a massive scale that he could keep up with the potential demand from customers.
The solution to this problem actually mimics exactly what Gunpei Yokoi had previously achieved with Nintendo’s Game & Watch devices which we covered in the last entry in our ‘History of’ video and article series ‘The History of Nintendo’s Game & Watch Handhelds‘.
Despite this strange coincidence and the fact that Gunpei Yokoi and Akihiro Yokoi share their last names, they aren’t actually related, so maybe it’s just that everyone with the name Yokoi has the potential to be an amazing hardware designer?
Either way the decision was made to create these virtual pet devices using extremely cheap components that were considered massively outdated, but repurpose them into something new, bringing down the cost to mass manufacture and the cost for consumers too. As such the first Tamagotchi designs would use a black and white LCD screen, small batteries and minimal buttons.
However, Yokoi was still missing a vital element to bring his vision to life. He needed a company with a lot of money who was willing to take a risk and bring his idea to fruition using their marketing power, hardware manufacturing processes and global reach.
Bandai Joins The Party
Aki Maita was a member of Bandai’s marketing team and was concerned that they were falling behind with the American market. After getting wind of Akihiro Yokoi’s concept, the duo teamed up and initially had a hard time getting Bandai on board.
After conducting surveys with groups of high school girls and seeing the positive response from these test audiences though, they finally were given the go ahead to enter development.
It was around this time that the name Tamagotchi was given to these virtual pets, with the word coming from the words ‘tamago’ and ‘uotchi’ which translates to egg-watch.
The original concept for the devices were going to be watches that you would wear on your wrist, which is where the Tamagotchi name stemmed from, but this design was later reworked into a key chain, which of course is the design we’re all familiar with today.
The characters featured in the Tamagotchi devices were created by the design team at Bandai and the gameplay was also handled by Bandai, with the main feature being the passage of real world time affecting the creature.
The device would beep when the creature needed attention and you would cater to it’s needs, cleaning it, feeding it, and otherwise interacting with it and the sense of reward comes from the way that the creature will change appearance and develop personality traits based on how attentive or inattentive you are.
The Very Tough Reality Of A Tamagotchi Dying
Of course one of the most infamous elements of the gameplay is the fact that your Tamagotchi will die if you leave it alone for too long, incentivising you to keep coming back to care for your pet.
This is a part of the history of Tamagotchi that we’d all like to forget!
The Japanese version of the Tamagotchi devices were a little bit less subtle with it’s death sequences, showing a tombstone on screen as opposed to the slightly happier tone in the Western versions which show your Tamagotchi turning into an angel.
This led to a little bit of a moral panic among certain groups, stating that their kids were bursting into tears and showing signs of depression upon their virtual pet dying. In order to avoid this tragic fate, kids would bring their devices to school and inevitably become distracted by them, likely causing Tamagotchis to get banned during lessons.
While kids were obviously trying to look after their pets as much as possible, in the original Tamagotchi devices, death was actually an inevitable part of the gameplay loop. It was impossible to keep your critter alive forever, and even with perfect care it would eventually pass away due to old age.
How’s this for a marketing slogan – ‘Tamagotchi, the only toy guaranteed to traumatise your child. Buy it today!’
The True Genius Of Tamagotchi
The genius of Tamagotchi is that it’s a game which literally forces constant interaction. You want your creature to like you and turn out the best it can be, and of course you definitely want to avoid the looming threat of death at all costs.
And the only way to do that is to constantly interact with it.
The interaction becomes a part of your every day life and as such is pretty addictive; it’s like Animal Crossing on steroids!
Not only is the gameplay enticing, but the fact that the devices were comparatively cheap and came in multiple differently designed shells added in a collectible element too.
If you were invested in Tamagotchi, the odds are you probably ended up buying more than one just so you could mix up the designs and maybe even raise multiple different creatures all at once.
Needless to say, Tamagotchi was an unprecedented success. Six months after releasing in Japan, it had sold over 5 million units, with the main audience being young girls which early marketing targeted heavily.
The release in America was similarly successful, releasing a year later in 1997 with worldwide sales exceeding 70 million dollars just a few months later.
Hitting A Peak In Sales
While Tamagotchi would remain popular throughout the 90s, it would never quite reach these astronomical numbers again which is probably partially due to a lot of somewhat similar competition releasing soon after.
In 1998 the world was introduced to the Furby and while this was less of a video game and more of a straight up toy it did feature similar design elements, with the elements of interactivity and raising your pet creature just like we saw with the Tamagotchi.
But we’re not done with the history of Tamagotchi just yet, because it turns out that these little devices inspired the creation of another massive and still ongoing franchise.
Tamagotchi’s Influence On The ‘Digital World’
Remember how Tamagotchi was primarily marketed towards girls, especially in the earlier promotional material? This led to Bandai spotting a pretty obvious gap in the market and creating a similar line of toys that would appeal more to boys which culminated in an entire new franchise being born.
That’s right, Digimon started out as something of a Tamagotchi spin-off, but separated itself by featuring combat mechanics and even allowing you to connect two devices to battle other Digimon owners.
The original Digimon devices were popular but had nowhere near the same level of success as Tamagotchi, however, Digimon proved significantly more successful with their multimedia efforts spawning an incredibly popular TV series which is still ongoing to this very day, loads of films, console video games, manga, a trading card game and countless other merchandise.
But while Digimon was exploding onto the scene, what happened to Tamagotchi? Is this history of Tamagotchi article about to say that Tamagotchi literally became history?
A New Dawn For Tamagotchi
Well, various new models were released through the years, all featuring new gimmicks to keep the gameplay loop fresh. One of the most prominent new models was the Tamagotchi Connection released in 2004 and this allowed players to exchange gifts, play games together and even have Tamagochi babies! (*5) Great, even more responsibility…
We’ve been getting new Tamagotchi models as recently as 2021 which is when Tamagotchi Pix released. This one has a full colour screen and even has a camera to take pictures for your Tamagotchi to interact with.
There’s actually been a recent resurgence in the popularity of Tamagotchi most likely spurred on by a few factors, one of which being that Bandai re-released the original version of the Tamagotchi in 2017. It proved pretty successful at the time but really took off during the Coronavirus lockdowns…and nobody had anything better to do but get reinvested in looking after a virtual pet from the 90s!
Tamagotchi Uni, The Newest Tamagotchi Model
Then we also had the newest version of Tamagotchi release earlier this year with Tamagotchi Uni which brings things back full circle with this variant offering a watch strap to attach to your wrist, just like Akihiro Yokoi originally wanted!
Tamagotchi Uni can even connect to the internet and access the Tamaverse where you can play games with other people, go on dates, go on a tour, or get fashion advice.
It’s just like real life!
When a Tamagotchi approaches adulthood in this version, it will ask you if it can move out and see the world for itself, leaving an egg behind if you say yes. Tamagotchi really like pulling on your heart strings don’t they.
Of course though the story of Tamagotchi doesn’t really end there, the legacy of the devices were absolutely undeniable which is proved by how they’re still alive and kicking today. However, with this consistent popularity came a lot of imitators…
Meet The Competition Created By Tamagotchi’s Success
One of the craziest Tamagotchi inspired devices came from Nintendo who brought out Pokemon Pikachu in 1998. To the game’s credit, this worked quite dramatically differently from Tamagotchi, not requiring constant care but instead interacting with you based on how many steps you take using the built in pedometer.
This device eventually led to the creation of the Pokewalker which was bundled with Pokemon HeartGold and SoulSilver and allowed you to gain experience points by walking. This was actually considered one of the most accurate pedometers available at the time and the technology was later repurposed for Wii Fit U.
The whole walking around to interact with your Pokemon concept was probably the inspiration for Pokemon Go too, so if you trace everything back, it all leads to Tamagotchi. Funnily enough in 2019 there would be an official collaboration between Tamagotchi and Pokemon with the release of the Eevee X Tamagotchi device so clearly there’s no bad blood between the two companies.
But while Pokemon Pikachu can’t really be considered a straight up knock off, the same can’t really be said for other popular devices such as the Tiger Electronics Giga Pets line and the Nano Pet which was created by Playmates.
I guess the difference with these devices is that they mostly consisted of real world animals to look after rather than the otherworldly Tamagotchi creatures. But even so, the similarities are undeniable.
Giga Pets even tried to copy the success of Digimon with their Nano Fighter variants but clearly it didn’t quite work out all that well for them.
But while all of these pretenders to the throne are long forgotten, the true champion of the virtual pet remains strong and Tamagotchi is still king.
You can’t help though but analyse the Tamagotchi craze as a sort of forbearer to today’s society. Just as we used to be locked to our Tamagotchi devices tending to it’s every beep and boop are we now doing the exact same thing but with our constantly online mobile devices?
Instead of a digital creature to nourish, maybe it’s own own online personas we’re catering to, feeding it social engagement with our status updates and holiday snaps which gives us validation through likes and follows in the same way our Tamagotchi would tell us it’s happy and content.
Did Tamagotchi predict our technology obsessed future or was it a means to ease us into our always online way of life?
And that is the history of Tamagotchi!
As always, like the video at the top of this article, then let you enjoyed it and let me know in the comments if you ever had a Tamagotchi and what your favourite memories with them are.
If you enjoyed this history of Tamagotchi article, then why not keep the learning going with our The History Of The Gameboy article.
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Seb Santabarbara has bought every Nintendo console that has ever been released in his 33 years on Planet Earth. His favourite game franchise is Zelda, and he’s patiently waiting for Banjo-Kazooie to come back to the fold. When he’s not playing games, he’s travelling the world in his self-converted camper van.