Let me tell you why I thought I was the coolest kid in sixth grade. Was it the Calvin Klein T-shirt I begged my mom to buy me even though I owned? nothing different by the designer? Was it the string of tiny butterfly clips sticking out of my head like immature Medusa snakes? No, it was because I didn’t have one, not two, but… three digital pets hanging from the belt loops of my low-slung skater jeans. I felt jealous of my whole high school, I owned a Tamagotchi, a GigaPet and a Nano Baby, all of which beeping plaintively at all hours of the day. Their survival depended on me, and as the beleaguered mother of this needy trio, I spent more time taking care of my pixelated family members than finishing my pre-algebra homework.
I wasn’t the only one. For a while, the whole world was on fire in a digital pet mania, especially during the holidays when it was nearly impossible to find the pet of your choice. In my mind, the type of digital pet you owned said something about you. The cute, Kawaii-loving preteens were drawn to the animalistic GigaPets, and traditional types loved the baby-like Nano Baby. And Tamagotchi lovers? Those kids were the sharpest of the bunch, drawn to aliens that seemed alien and, frankly, a little unnerving.
And the kids are lucky to have everything three pets? Like I said, coolest in sixth grade.
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The original: Tamagotchi
The originator of this digital pet wave was the Tamagotchi, which was first released in Japan in November 1996, just before Christmas shopping. The name comes from a portmanteau of the Japanese words for « egg » and « to watch, » which is apt given that you have to wait for an egg to hatch before you can interact with your pet. After hatching, you can feed your Tamagotchi, clean up his poop, or turn off the lights in his room. (As a mom, I can finally confirm that this is all you need to do with a human baby too.)
A digital pet seems like a simple concept, but it felt revolutionary to have in the palm of your hands. Unsurprisingly, these toys were heavily marketed to young girls, who were expected to have innate nurturing genes. Despite its regressive marketing strategy, it worked. Tamagotchi was a resounding success and has since sold more than 85 million units.
Part of what makes these pets so popular is the idea of play continuously, where interactions continue whether you’re actively playing or not. At the time, the innovation created a simple simulacrum that paralleled the lives of human pet owners. Furthermore, the compact size of the pets made it something you could keep close, both on a metaphoric and physiological level. While this made for a compelling premise, it was not without its backlash. Kids started taking their highly distracting pets to school (ahem), leading many administrators to ban virtual pets.
Tiger Electronics jumped on the bandwagon in 1997 with their GigaPets, colorful hand toys with all kinds of characters and even more buttons (four, versus Tamagotchi’s two). Sweeter the deal for many: GigaPets were priced $5-$10 less than Tamagotchis and American-made (if you were someone who loved their pets the way you loved your cars). While kittens and puppies are the most common, you can also get an egg hatched dino or even licensed characters from franchises like Star Wars. In 1998, Playmates Toys went head to head with their humanoid Nano Babies, but they never got the same level of cult fandom. Charming (or terrifying, depending on your personality), these digital babies crawled across the screen, rendered in lifelike physiology. Of course, Nano Babies also had diapers that needed changing (always go back to cleaning the feces).
One of the more disturbing aspects of these pets is that they can « die » from neglect, prompting young people to face mortality, perhaps for the first time. In such cases, an actual representation of a tombstone with a gloomy little cross on top is displayed on the screen. I know this pain because I experienced it once when I accidentally left a Nano Baby in my tech-averse grandmother’s house. Despite my careful instructions, she threw the Nano Baby in a drawer, where it died and was left alone. This sense of belonging and subsequent loss to digital pets may have been helpful in cultivating empathy, but some parents reported that the deaths resulted in actual bereavement, with an older report their child became « extremely sad and depressed. » In news stories of the virtual pet HeydeyParents agreed on the stress associated with nurturing these creatures, both for children and for the parents who took on part-time caring responsibilities at the behest of their child.
Kids today are clearly used to more technologically advanced toys than the virtual pets of my childhood, so it goes without saying that they might not be as interested in the virtual pets of yesteryear. However, virtual pets have also come of age. Today’s digital pet toys offer hi-res graphics and more interactive games. With Tamagotchis, there are settings that allow you to play with friends and move your pets into beautiful new apartments. You can even force your Tamagotchi to « marry » another Tamagotchi and have virtual babies. We really do live in the metaverse, my friends. These more immersive versions will run you over $100, although you can get updated originals for much less. While there are now apps that offer similar gameplay, there’s just something about holding one of these digital pets in the palm of your hands. The simplicity of the design may remain a hallmark of its appeal.
If you’re looking to introduce the magic of digital pets to a little one in your life – or if you just want to relive some of that nostalgia for yourself – here are a few recommendations to get you started. (Most of these are recommended for ages 5 and up.)
Looking for the crème de la crème of the virtual pet experience? Try this handheld Pix version, featuring a never-before-seen camera and touch controls that make raising pets even easier. Kids can sync with friends to play together, and there are 17 games to keep them entertained.
For about half the price of the Pix, the original still allows you to raise your young from egg to adult while feeding and caring for them with food and regular health checks. These come in dozens of different housing designs.
If you’re going retro, why not go all in with a PAC-Man version? In this one, PAC-Man helps raise your little one by feeding him cherries or rice. But beware: the gnawing ghouls have no good intentions, so PAC-Man will have to step in to save the day when they join the chase.
This upgraded version comes with better graphics and better animations, but retains the old world charm and functionality. You can teach this unicorn tricks, feed it and even take it to the vet.
If you have a kid in your life who loves magic, these elves will give them a fun new spin on the digital pets of yesteryear. The focus here is less on nurturing a creature than on taking them on adventures where they can collect ingredients that are then combined into magical spells.
This is as OG as it gets. While there are updated features like longer battery life and a glossy semi-translucent case, the aesthetics are similar to the 90s version. Play with your pup, reward him with bones, and don’t forget to pick up the ever-inevitable poop .