In the mid-‘90s, Bandai pioneered the handheld digital pet. Tamagotchi, tiny keychain toys, started as virtual eggs that players hatched and nurtured into adulthood by offering food and care. The toy spawned its share of competitor knockoffs, like the Gigapet, before fading into the memories of those who grew up with them. They’ve resurfaced throughout the years as fashion accessories and even an app, but never quite like the widespread phenomenon they once were.
Now, Bandai America is bringing the Tamagotchi back, sort of. A miniature version was released in Japan as a limited run, with its North American release incoming. The company is banking on millennials to revive the toy back here in the States. "We're going after that nostalgia,” says director of brand management Tara Badie.
In other words: no iPhone app or digital connectivity. The toy exists only as a tiny keychain equipped with three buttons that will help you care for and clean up after your pixelated pet. Bandai America provided The Verge with a Tamagotchi ahead of its release on November 5th — a tiny, pink and blue egg that we spent almost a week with.
The first thing I noticed about the Tamagotchi is how small it is. The screen is roughly half the size of the original, which — as someone who spends a great deal of my life staring at handheld screens — is immediately jarring. In bright lights, it can be hard to tell what my Tamagotchi is doing. Because the options for play are so limited, however, I hardly ever have to guess. A Tamagotchi will eat, sleep, and poop, with some growth in between if you’re able to keep it alive long enough.
The device doesn’t have a main menu to control things like, say, the sound. Instead, you flip it on or off through a combination of holding and pressing buttons. The process isn’t an intuitive one or even a quiet one. As I fervently tapped around in search of menu options, a co-worker a few desks away gently informed me that the device’s incessant beeping was loud — really loud. I realized there was no obvious button to silence my Tamagotchi; we spent the next five minutes scanning the internet for directions before I remembered my new pet came with specific instructions for logistics and care.
During my conversation with Badie, she leaned hard into the idea that users will grow to love their digital pets. “I’m not going to pretend it’s the best, latest, greatest everything, and it’s going to compete with your constant social medias and all that that's constantly changing and everything,” she says. “But when you take care of something, you start to love it and want to take care of it. You want it to grow. You have that connection with it, so you want to have it succeed and survive.”
I named my pet Eggbert — a moniker that added some semblance of a personality for my pet, but was just generic enough to help me move on when it surely died.
The Tamagotchi offers at least one very realistic feature when it comes to pet ownership: it screams for attention. A little past 10AM, my digital baby began beeping like a time bomb about to detonate. His screen was filled with digital dung. He was in a very poor mood. I clicked through a few times to clear the stink lines out and provide Eggbert with treats until he refused to eat. He returned, placated, to silently bouncing off the walls of his screen like a bouncy ball trapped in a tiny box.
There’s very little for me to do with Eggbert when he gets like this. Our relationship is highly dependent, with him relying on me to feed and clean up after him. I can’t play games with him. There’s no menu for me to check on him, not that he has any real stats to show, outside of an occasional symbol to indicate annoyance or sickness in the right-hand corner. I can go for hours without thinking about him, especially when I silence his yelling.
Badie says that the play options here are simple for a reason. “We thought if we added too much depth of play, it would be a little hard for people to do work and take care of it at the same time,” she says. “That's why we decided to do a simpler and a smaller version also.” In my experience, the only challenge of keeping Eggbert alive was remembering that he existed at all. With so few ways to spend time with him, I found myself getting bored rather quickly.
Over the next few days, I found that checking in with Eggbert awarded me a similar satisfaction to checking in on mobile games like cat sim Neko Atsume. A Tamagotchi is, in essence, a glorified push notification. You can only interact with it when it needs something, which it signals by beeping loudly. It would be perfectly suited for checking in between tweeting or sending a text, except that it’s not on your phone.
Despite approaching the topic several times, however, Badie didn’t have a satisfying answer for why this particular physical version is preferable to a Tamagotchi app (which do exist). Her answers were all various forms of “nostalgia.” Curiously enough, Badie says Bandai doesn’t consider other virtual pets its competition — rather, it’s mobile gaming and the iPhone itself. “Apps, technology as a whole,” she says, “in reality, that's also traditional toys, but even more so when you've got something that's digital.”
Nostalgia is a powerful draw for the first few days, when the novelty is still fresh and the excitement is new. Yet, less than a week into becoming a proud Tamagotchi owner, I found myself forgetting about Eggbert entirely. I was afraid to toss the device onto my keys or leave it to battle with whatever else was rolling around in my purse. I abandoned it at home more often than not, and when I did interact with it, I put it back down after I’d clicked through a few obligatory feedings.
Holding the Tamgotchi in my palm for the first time, watching my brand-new pixelated blob deedledoo around his tiny screen, did stir something wistful in me. But the feeling was soon overturned by frustration due to its lack of features. It turns out there’s no surer way to confirm the loss of your childhood innocence than to check it against your technological annoyance.