If you were around in the latter part of the 1990s, you haven’t forgotten Beanie Babies, Furbies and Tickle Me Elmo — or the ways they spawned Black Friday-worthy crowds outside toy stores across the country. But one quintessentially ’90s toy proved to endure the shifting sands of pop culture and our increasingly digitized society — not to mention those stampedes of eager shoppers. We’re talking about the curious and kaleidoscopic Tamagotchi, those bright, egg-shaped digital pals that taught us everything we needed to know about rearing alien lifeforms via LCD screen.
Aside from making waves in the world of pop culture, Tamagotchis were surprisingly prescient: Before kids were keeping their heads tilted downward, eyes fixated on their smartphones, we were doing the same — but our gazes were locked on the games, feedings and bathroom breaks necessary to help our digital eggchildren thrive. And the way this transition happened so seamlessly may have something to do with why Tamagotchis never really disappeared from our cultural consciousness like other toys of yore. It may not come as too much of a surprise, but these virtual pets even experienced an unexpected resurgence during the pandemic — a time when we needed a feeling of friendship and an escape from isolation more than ever.
And the legacy is only poised to continue. On July 1, the new Tamagotchi Pix landed in American toy stores, fueling a fresh wave of nostalgia for us ’90s kids and introducing a new generation to the imaginative joys of toting alien fledglings around in their pockets. To celebrate, we’re taking a look back at the history of the Tamagotchi’s appeal — and some exciting developments the future may hold.
The Early Days: A Look Back in Tamagotchi Time
According to creators Akihiro Yokoi and Aki Maita, “Tamagotchi” is a portmanteau of the Japanese words “tamago” (egg) and “uotchi” (watch). The premise behind the toys is that a tiny and inquisitive alien species leaves an egg on our planet to experience life — and ostensibly return home with an assessment about Earth-children’s caretaking abilities.
The egg-shaped virtual pet simulation allowed users to hatch a mysterious egg, feed the creature that emerged onto the miniature LCD screen, and see its development through into adulthood by playing games with it and cleaning up after it. After guiding the pixel pet through several stages of growth, Tama-parents (hopefully) raised a Tamagotchi that was happy, smart and self-sufficient. It’s simple, of course, but that’s partly what’s kept the charming digital aliens so enthralling — it was wonderfully easy for people of all ages to get attached.
Famed Japanese toy company Bandai released the original Tamagotchis globally on May 1, 1997. The handheld digital pet became an instant sensation, with its popularity initially peaking in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Parents queued outside toy shops (remember Toys”R”Us?), lines snaking around blocks, for a chance to get their hands on the keychain-sized pets. Classrooms across the country banned the noisy and needy digital creatures — how were we supposed to learn long division when the eggs were desperate for our attention?
And those same parents inadvertently even found themselves egg-sitting the creatures to avoid their kids’ wrath — and tears — by preventing untold numbers of Tama-deaths during school hours. Tamagotchis zipped to the upper echelon of our pop-culture awareness faster than their alien spaceships could land on Earth — but what exactly hooked us so deeply?
Just What Made (and Still Makes) Tamagotchis So Appealing?
Bandai initially marketed the toys to young kids, but they quickly caught on with people of all ages. How did that work? As it turns out, a variety of Tama-specific elements coalesced into the perfect formula for capturing our attention — and hearts.
One of the most engaging aspects — at least for kids — was that Tamagotchis inspired some pretty deep emotions in our young minds. For many of us, having the creatures in our custody was likely our first experience with responsibility. The more we cared for the adorable aliens and saw how our actions directly affected their wellbeing, the more attached to them we grew.
And we weren’t just attached to them emotionally. It also helped that, as Duke University anthropology professor Anne Allison
, the Tamagotchi “had ‘a prosthetic of presence’ that made it less of a toy” and more of “an extension of self.” This helped us foster “intimate connection[s]” with the devices, which were small enough that we could tote them everywhere — something we weren’t able to do with our living cats and ferrets and turtles.
Tamagotchis also had another ultimate-’90s-kid form of appeal: They were toys that came to life, realizing a long-held dream of children who grew weary of having to pour their imaginations into every interaction they had with their stuffed animals. Using our imaginations was never a bad thing — psychologists are well aware of the importance of pretend play — but the fact that we were never quite sure what our Tamagotchis would do next imbued them with a distinct element of realism.
The different caretaking decisions we made on-screen resulted in new outcomes that shaped our Tamagotchi pets into unique beings. Feeding them more or less often, winning (or losing) at games, scolding them, and even forgetting to flush away their Tama-waste all impacted the creatures’ ability to thrive. They weren’t like static levels of a video game whose pitfalls we could learn to anticipate…and quickly get tired of. They were much more lifelike than anyone would’ve thought — and we grew to love them for it.
The Tamagotchi Becomes a Welcome Distraction During Pandemic Lockdowns
Considering just how easy it is to get attached to them, it’s not that shocking Tamagotchis never really went anywhere. Their universal appeal roped in new generations as others aged out — and as some exciting innovations in Tama-technology emerged. Updated versions of the toy have been released over the years, bringing along fresh features like color screens, characters that sing us birthday songs and in-game alien weddings that lead the characters to hatch babies of their own.
It’s a good thing they stuck around, too, because it turns out many of us ’90s kids who first bonded with Tamagotchis on a mid-spring day in 1997 were going to need them again in a big way. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the comforting nostalgia of interacting with these digital pets served as the perfect coping mechanism for beating shelter-in-place blues.
As we searched for new ways to fill our time — and feel any sense of accomplishment, no matter how small — the Tamagotchi experienced a strong resurgence. Danielle Page, a 32-year-old writer in New York City, purchased a Tamagotchi off eBay after spending six weeks in quarantine. “I bought one thinking it’d simply make me happy, but it also surprisingly made me more productive, and helped me get my sleep schedule back on track,” Page told Business Insider.
Taking care of her virtual pet allowed Page to turn away from mindless hours spent doomscrolling late at night. Raising a hatchling also improved her quality of life in some measurable ways: “Approximately every hour, my Tamagotchi needs something. Instead of just…continuing with my day, I started making it a point to get up, stretch, and do a lap around my apartment. It was such a small change, but it did wonders to help refocus my attention on the tasks at hand.” Tamagotchis became nostalgically novel all over again — and who would’ve thought they’d be able to help adults have a deeper sense of purpose, too?
Where Will Tamagotchi Head Next?
It’s become pretty clear that Tamagotchi isn’t going anywhere — except maybe to new technological heights. Even before the pandemic, Bandai claimed sales were exceeding all expectations; more than 82 million digital eggs have been shipped around the world since 1997. In the time since, they’ve shaped our habits with and willingness to use technology in interesting ways: “Tamagotchis helped to lay the groundwork for artificial beings which are viewed as pets — or even friends,” explains Luke Dormehl of Digital Trends. Our early interactions with the digital aliens potentially influenced our eagerness to embrace robotic vacuums, smart-home speakers and other tech we perceive to have personalities.
And Bandai intends to embrace our enduring love of Tamagotchis, too. Its recent release, the Tamagotchi Pix, is the most advanced version of the toy yet — the screen is in full color, and the Pix features a built-in camera so you can take photos with your virtual pets. Instead of offering up some stale bread, you can now cook for your Tamagotchi, and it can visit friends on their own devices to enjoy playdates.
These virtual alien companions have come a long way since 1997. But one thing that’s remained consistent is the Tamagotchi’s ability to connect with us on a surprisingly deep level. Fortunately, Bandai has plans to continue introducing new products to the American market over the next few years — and we can’t wait to see what hatches next.