For nineties children, the Tamagotchi is a little slice of nostalgic heaven. As iconic as Pokémon and as ubiquitous as the legendary hairstyle “The Rachel,” this humble digital pet found itself a special place in the hearts of a generation.
While its egg-shaped case may not have been as heavy-duty as the powerhouse that was the original Game Boy, the Tamagotchi’s legacy has proven just as unshakable. Introduced on November 23, 1996, the device’s 25th anniversary has arrived. Here’s a closer look at its fascinating rise to toy stardom.
What’s In a Name?
As is often the case with electronic gadgets, the Tamagotchi began life in Japan. The name itself is said to be derived from two Japanese words, tamago and tomodachi, essentially meaning egg friend. What was the purpose of this amiable little egg? To serve as a pet for children; one that wouldn’t be problematic or require care that youngsters weren’t yet equipped to provide.
This was the concept behind Bandai’s soon-to-be sensation prior to launch, though anyone familiar with the incessant beeping they emit will know that they can be just as demanding as real-life pets. The first Tamagotchi model needed to be fed, have their droppings picked up, have medicine administered to them when sick, be kept entertained, and more. The truly incredible thing about them, though, is that they were marketed as tiny little space aliens!
Bandai’s original concept for these cute little creatures was that each one was “a cyber creature who has traveled millions of miles from its home planet to learn what life is like on earth.” Their plastic cases, meanwhile, were supposedly protection from Earth’s unfamiliar atmosphere!
Tamagotchi may not have really originated from outer space, but they certainly took the world by storm: 10 million of them had made their way around the world by June of 1997. The Japanese sensation soon became a global sensation.
Its Creators Won a Nobel Prize (Kind Of)
That same year, the enterprising duo who were most responsible for the toy’s creation, Akihiro Yokoi and Aki Maita at Bandai, won a Nobel Prize for its creation! This was no ordinary Nobel Prize, though: it was Harvard’s Ig Nobel Prize in Economics, which was awarded for wasting “millions of person-hours of work” by distracting people around the globe with “the husbandry of virtual pets.”
The Ig Nobel Prize is a strictly sarcastic ceremony dedicated to rewarding more bizarre and dubious scientific achievements, but the 1997 Ig Nobel for Economics made a serious point: the Tamagotchi creatures had succeeded in taking over the planet, in ways that the Martians of War of the Worlds never did. There’d be no getting rid of these little critters with a few Earth microbes, that was for sure.
The original model of the Tamagotchi was a remarkable success, but like most legendary toys, it didn’t stop there. The brand remains as popular as ever, with a string of new models and imitators having been released in the 25 years since Tamagotchi was first released in Japan. The virtual pet craze has encompassed various animals (from make-believe creatures to dogs, cats, and other “conventional” critters) and even humans, with toys such as the Nano Baby enabling users to care for a tiny, digital human baby!
The Tamagotchi Today
Today’s Tamagotchis come equipped with connectivity options and other features that their forebears couldn’t offer. Cashing in on the power of nostalgia, though, they look very similar to their ’90s counterparts. Most importantly (and probably inevitably), they continue to sell like hotcakes.
In a press release to announce the Tamagotchi 20th Anniversary Project in 2017, Bandai released a model that was a perfect replica of the first wave of Tamagotchi. They proudly proclaimed that they had sold an absurd 82 million virtual pets (in all of Tamagotchi’s forms) since the device was first released!
With the advent of tablets, smartphones, games consoles, and an array of other technology, a Tamagotchi is far from the most high-tech form of entertainment today. For some, though, they’re far more than toys. Dedicated collectors pay large amounts for some of the rarer models in the line. The Devil Deviltchi Devilgotchi, for instance, is a rarity that fetches around $400 on auction sites, while one of the most elusive models ever, a less-than-impressive-looking white and red Tamagotchi, sold for a staggering $2,999!
It’s been a wild ride for the Tamagotchi brand. From the second-generation models that could be paused (long-suffering teachers rejoice) to the ones that featured rudimentary communication features such as infrared, online functionality (which allowed a Tamagotchi to visit others in “TamaTown” at the website of the same name), these devices went through quite an evolution.
Today’s Tamagotchi may be able to marry, have “children,” take part-time jobs, and everything in between, but at its heart, the toy has always revolved around the concept of adorable extraterrestrials from the planet Tama. This 82 million-strong invasion has the potential to grow for another 25 years. Even if the devices themselves fail to keep pace with technology, their kitsch value will probably continue to skyrocket.
By Chris Littlechild, contributor for Ripleys.com