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Video gaming

New Tamagotchi released for digital pet’s 20th anniversary

The original toy was a hit, selling 82 million units in the 1990s. Now Bandai have released a smaller version of the high-maintenance digital pet, hoping to cash in on nostalgia, while trying to attract a new generation of fans

PUBLISHED : Monday, 23 October, 2017, 1:30pm
UPDATED : Monday, 23 October, 2017, 1:30pm

Before fads such as the fidget spinner and Furby, when the world was just getting acquainted with the Backstreet Boys and clamouring to watch Titanic in cinemas, there was the Tamagotchi.

The Japanese digital pet on a key chain was a sensation, racking up sales of 82 million units since its release in 1997. It was a precursor to mobile gaming, a pocket-sized electronic device that taught legions of children to feed a pixelated critter and pick up after its business.

It was also controversial, as fads tend to be, having been blamed for being too morbid (the pet died if you didn’t feed it) and its screen too addictive (you had to tend to it every 15 minutes). If they only knew.

Now, the company behind the gizmo has announced plans to re-release the Tamagotchi to mark its 20th anniversary (the device has remained available in Japan). Bandai America, a subsidiary of the Tokyo-based Bandai Namco, hopes children of the iPhone generation will embrace the retro gadget while also banking on ’90s nostalgia to drive sales.

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The decade that gave us grunge, Tommy Hilfiger jeans and the Game Boy is cool again. It’s perhaps why Nintendo has quickly sold out of its relaunched retro consoles and pop star Katy Perry dangled a white Tamagotchi from her Prada gown at last year’s Met Gala.

So confident in the gadget’s appeal was Bandai America, the Texas company best known for making Power Rangers toys, that it didn’t even conduct market research or focus groups before deciding to re-release the toy, an executive says.

“For many Generation X kids, the Tamagotchi device can be considered America’s first and favourite digital pet,” says Tara Badie, marketing director for Bandai America. “The enduring power of Tamagotchi is its clear expression that nurturing and love never goes out of style.”

Nintendo has miniaturised its classic NES and SNES consoles to great applause. My Little Pony has enjoyed a massive resurgence. And even Teddy Ruxpin, the wide-eyed bear from the 1980s that will either delight or terrify you depending on where you stand on animatronics, has made a comeback.

“Nostalgia works in the toy industry,” says Juli Lennett, a toy industry analyst for NDP Group. “Just look at Barbie and Hot Wheels. They appeal to kids the same way they did 30 years ago.”

To be fair, the aforementioned comebacks have been tweaked for today’s audience – and they haven’t always been as successful as their earlier iterations. Nintendo’s retro consoles come with a slew of preloaded games – but counts adults as a big market, not just youngsters. The latest Barbies smash tired gender roles, but they haven’t reversed declining revenues at Mattel.

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There’s only one major change between the original Tamagotchi and its reboot: the new one is 20 per cent smaller. The egg-shaped toy comes in the same six original styles and colours. The gameplay features the same colourless blob that hatches, requires feeding and cleaning – chores that, if not undertaken, lead to its death.

“The creature isn’t particularly cute, but it is demanding,” a highly sceptical Patricia Ward Biederman wrote in a column for the Los Angeles Times in 1997. “What it lacks in charm, it makes up for by beeping needfully every few minutes. It wants to be fed. It wants to be played with. It needs light. It needs medicine. It even produces digital dung that has to be cleaned up.”

But fans say that is what makes it fun. Nurturing transcends generations, although the toy industry has traditionally directed this at girls. A nurturing toy that appeals to both sexes, as the Tamagotchi did, is usually a hit and spawns numerous imitators. For the Tamagotchi, rivals included the Giga Pet and the Nano Pet.

“The Tamagotchi took kids into a different world. They were in that screen taking care of that pet. It wasn’t the key chain or the colour of the toy they cared about. It was the fact they could take it anywhere and it would still provide a form of escape,” says toy inventor and toy historian Tim Walsh, who could have just as well been describing the role the US$46 billion mobile game industry plays today.

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Walsh was specialising in board games at a toy company called Patch, now called PlayMonster, when the Tamagotchi was released.

“I remember panic among the traditional game makers at the time,” Walsh says. “We thought electronic games would wipe us out. But we realised the two would always coexist.”

Indeed, the threat of technology has often been overstated in the industry. Board games aren’t going away. And one need only look at the pandemonium surrounding fidget spinners to remain bullish on simple baubles. Other hot toys of the moment, such as L.O.L. Surprise dolls, also demonstrate that not everything requires a computer chip.

Still, Walsh wonders if children today, raised on apps and touch screens, will be wowed by a Tamagotchi reboot.

“It would kind of be like getting kids to watch films from the 1970s, which are edited so much slower,” he says. “But I’ve been wrong before. The hardest thing in this business is trying to predict the fickleness of kids.”