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Tamagotchi たまごっち translates to Egg Watch in English and was the first product to start the handheld digital pet craze in the mid to late 90s. It became so popular due to its novelty as the first digital pet designed for kids and the sincere attachment they formed with their virtual pets.
Developed in Japan and later sold world wide, the Tamagotchi is the quintessential 90s toy phenomenon. By 1997 it seemed like every kid had one, and if you didn’t, you were probably playing with its chief competitor Giga Pets (check out our article on Giga Pet vs. Tamagotchi).
But what exactly is a Tamagotchi? What does the name mean? And why did it become such a memorable toy?
Let’s dive into what a Tamagotchi is and why it became so popular with 90s kids.
A Tamagotchi is a 2″ small egg-shaped computer (really more of a tiny handheld game console like a game boy) that can fit into your pocket. It has a small LCD screen just 32 pixels wide by 16 inches tall and three buttons used to navigate the menu and make selections.
What seemed like a game was really more of a test – a test of your ability to take care of a small alien pet. No matter what Tamagotchi you had, it was a needy little critter and required almost constant attention to keep it in good health.
Every Tamagotchi needed to be fed, played with, nurtured, and disciplined, just like a real pet. And here’s the stinger – if you failed to take care of your Tamagotchi, it would keel over and die before you could say “parental neglect.”
The Tamagotchis are actually aliens that hail from the creatively named Tamagotchi Planet. The background lore for the game explains that the Tamagotchi race has sent eggs to Earth to test how well humans can take care of their babies (an act that already proves us humans are better parents).
There’s actually an in-universe explanation for the toys themselves. The egg-shaped containers kids are playing with were designed by a scientist to make caring for the Tamagotchi easier, so kids could suspend disbelief and imagine that the collection of pixels on their screen was actually a tiny alien creature.
A ghost of your Tamagotchi manifests on the screen next to a little gravestone – cute, right? There’s no secret ritual to resurrect your dead Tamagotchi. The only option is to reset your game and try again.
The original Tamagotchi would eventually die of old age after 1-2 weeks no matter how well you took care of it, with the longest living Tamagotchis living around 25 days total. This limit has been removed with modern Tamagotchis, who can now live forever as long as you keep up with their needs.
Tamagotchi definition: Tamagotchi たまごっち is a portmanteau combining the Japanese word tamago (which means “egg” in Japanese) and uocchi (Japanese translation of the English word “watch”)
The name makes sense since the Tamagotchi toy is shaped like an egg, and the lifecycle of the creature you’re caring for starts after you set the device’s time like you would with a watch.
As computer memory became smaller and more efficient in the 1990s, plenty of toys had computerized elements – so what made the Tamagotchi such a runaway success?
Quite simply, Tamagotchi was like nothing any kid had seen before. While Tamagotchi didn’t invent the virtual pet (Dogz: Your Computer Pet had come out a year before for personal computers), it was the first product to translate the concept into a toy marketed at children.
As the tale goes, Japanese toy designers Akihiro Yokoi and Aki Maita were inspired by a commercial where a boy couldn’t take his pet turtle on a trip. This got their creative juices flowing, and in 1995 the idea for the Tamagotchi was conceived.
The genius behind the Tamagotchi isn’t hard to comprehend – every kid wants a pet, but taking care of a real living animal isn’t always convenient. With the Tamagotchi, kids could own a virtual, portable pet with the same basic needs as a real animal, but none of the real-world consequences (other than emotional damage when the Tamagotchi died).
90s kids were attached to their Tamagotchi (literally, they wore them on a chain). They were more than just a toy; they represented a commitment, they were your best friend, and it was up to you to keep them alive.
When kids realized the consequences of neglecting to take care of their virtual pets, they were devastated. For many children, losing their Tamagotchi was their first real experience of grief and the finality of death. And while you could always reset your device and start again, you would never love another Tamagotchi as dearly as you loved your first.
Witnessing your classmates have such a bond with their virtual pet would make you want your own. In many ways, getting a Tamagotchi and keeping it alive was a status symbol, proving that you had what it takes and deserved the love of your virtual pet.
People’s love for their Tamagotchis was so deep that some even went about giving them formal burials. In 1998, a pet cemetery in the UK famously started offering funeral services for dead Tamagotchis, placing them in a miniature wooden casket and burying them 6″ deep.
The 1990s was a defining decade for video games, but they were still primarily marketed to boys. The Tamagotchi was unique in that it was primarily marketed towards young girls. Although it leveraged gender role stereotypes around motherhood like many 90s toys for girls, at the time, it was an overall positive step for inclusivity in gaming.
While your Tamagotchi could die, the game didn’t feature any violence in the way that similar creature-based games like Pokémon or Digimon did. Tamagotchi appealed to many parents concerned with the violence in video games and the apparent effect it would have on their children.
Like Pokémon and Power Rangers, Tamagotchi was a product of Japanese culture that fascinated Americans with its unique concepts and aesthetics. Specifically, however, Tamagotchi is significant because it was one of the first prominent examples of Americans consuming a product of Japanese Kawaii culture.
Kawaii かわいい is a Japanese word for “loveable,” “adorable” or “cute” (words you could certainly use to describe any Tamagotchi). The term has transcended its literal meaning to encompass the entire culture of cuteness across Japan and can be seen everywhere, from advertising media to fashion.
In the same way that Westerners have Goth or Punk culture, the Japanese have Kawaii. The Tamagotchi characters were specifically designed to appeal to Japanese children who loved Kawaii culture, and little did the creators realize that western kids would eat it up also.
The success of the Tamagotchi is both beautifully simple and fascinatingly complex on various levels, and the influence the Tamagotchi fad had on 90s kids is arguably more impactful than any other of the decade.
And before you go, spare a thought for all the Tamagotchis we lost along the way.
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