Why the Digital Pet Craze Never Really Died

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The Virtual Pet Craze
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Digital pets are back, there is no denying that. Be it a stylishly retro Tamagotchi or an app on your phone, chances are you are currently nurturing your pocket pet as we speak. But, what’s the magic behind virtual animals and why do they keep luring as in?

We (try) to keep them alive and watch them thrive as we pet them and feed them, we check on them multiple times a day, and cherish their evolution…And all for what? Is it the magic of not having to scoop poop or suffer allergies? I happen to have two cats and two dogs, so I do feel the allure of that, believe me!

So, why is it that we as consumers keep cycling back to digital pets again and again? Read on to find out the truth behind the allure of digital pets, plus a little history lesson about how it all began back in the 90s!

What Does a Virtual Pet Do?

What Does a Virtual Pet Do?

They don’t really do much of anything except exist and demand your care, be that exercising, petting, acquiring special food via in-game activities, or something of the sort. Depending on the type of virtual pet, the shared basic trait seems to be that they require feeding and caring of some sort. Some grow up, some don’t. Some play with you and reward you with cure animations, but others do not. 

Tamagotchi is a tiny pet from cyberspace who needs your love to survive and grow. If you take good care of your Tamagotchi pet, it will slowly grow bigger, healthier, and more beautiful every day. But if you neglect your little cyber creature your Tamagotchi may grow up to be mean or ugly. How old will your Tamagotchi be when it returns to its home planet? What kind of virtual caretaker will you be?Tamagotchi Packaging

So, why do people decide to invest their time in a virtual pet? Some may not be able to get a real-life pet, some simply like pets in general, others see it as a way to transport their real-life pets to their in-game life, and for others it as a way to reconnect with their dearly departed. Whatever the case is, the appeal lies in taking care of your virtual friend and ensuring its growth (or at least keeping it alive). 

History and Culture of Digital Pets

History and Culture of Digital Pets

So, let’s get this out of the way first…I confess. I killed my first and only Tamagotchi a week after I got it (which is not such a rare occurrence!). I don’t quite remember if I forgot to feed it or what happened. I do remember its final “Bye” and me staring at the screen like wtf just happened. Is that all? A simple bye and that’s it? Oh, well…Needless to say, I never jumped on the wagon again.

But, how did that Tamagotchi end in my power? (And suffered an early demise…) 

The start: PF Magic’s Dogz

It all began in 1995 with a small company called PF Magic. They created Dogz, the first computer program designed for Windows that could be considered a virtual pet. As with other games of the Petz family (Catz, Horsez, and Hamsterz), you could adopt, care and breed your pet. The graphics were…basic.

The interactive screensaver scampered around your desktop and gave everyone a taste of the infinite possibilities of the virtual pet market. I mean, this is before the snake game was a real thing, so things were rudimentary. It was still a genius idea, it made the most of the elements at its disposal.

Digital Pets go mainstream: Tamagotchi

Around 1996, Tamagotchi took the market by storm with the first-ever digital keychain. The egg-shaped, pocket-sized pet by Bandai conquered the world at light speed. It was also the first toy to come in its own hardware, which ended up being a genius move.

The Tamagotchi mania spread like wildfire, they were so distracting that stories of Tamagotchis being confiscated at school in an effort to keep students focused abounded. Same for parents being tasked with the chore of keeping their children’s nano pet alive during summer camp. Guess that theory about teaching kids responsibility flew out the window when you got saddled with Tamagotchi rearing… 

Still, it was a sensation and everyone wanted in on the action. Bandai had a ton of rivals to contend with, but at the peak of their popularity they managed to sell 15 Tamagotchi devices every minute in the United States. Not bad going!

Graphics improvement: Nintendogs

Still, Nintendo was eager to jump on the wagon, and that’s how Nintendogs, and later cats, came to be. It came out in 2005 for the Nintendo DS handheld system and it showed a definite improvement in graphics. It was much more realistic, with real breeds and particular characteristics that made each experience unique.

Although your pet never actually grew, it was a definite step into the future. You could actually talk and touch your pet, thanks to the microphone and touch screen of the dual-screen set-up. If you had trained your pup accordingly, it would sit and do other tricks when told so.

Mobile Phone fun begins: Neko Atsume

Things would escalate in 2014 when Neko Atsume came out as a mobile phone app available both on iPhone and Android. I actually got pretty far along on this one (probably since you didn’t have to keep them alive!). I collected a ton of cats, moved things around according to the season, changed the background, and placed their favorite toys around.

The goal, so to speak, was to lure new cats to your house by placing special stuff that you bought with in-game currency that you earned by doing other in-game activities. I mean, the fact that they were cats and they looked so cute and fluffy won me over without much issue. I think I stopped playing when I had everything unlocked and had managed to gather all of the cats. A total success!

In that same vein, there was that Cthulhu virtual pet. It never really hooked me, but I got regular updates from a friend that was a die-hard fan and showed me how his Chtulhu went from a cute squiggly thing to looking quite horrifying!

The ability to pet dogs and cats, and pets in general, was something I treasured about games like Final Fantasy XIV. This was an MMO and RPG game that had absolutely nothing to do with virtual pets, but that understood the need of their players to interact with their in-game virtual mascots. Speaking of which, this is one of my biggest pet peeves with Genshin Impact. Why won’t they let me pet my cats and dogs?! Really, is it too much to ask? But, anyhow, I digress… 

Digital pets become virtual reality: Bogo

It was only a matter of time for other developers to focus on developing their own virtual pet games, like the Oculus-based Bogo that offers cuddly pets-to-be in a full-sensory interactive experience. 

Anyhow, virtual pets have taken very different shapes and forms, but their appeal is very real. There are many more apps and virtual pet games out there to explore, from fish-rearing aquariums to racing horses that cost real money and anything in between. It is clear that the appeal that virtual pets represent has not lost its luster and will keep on evolving and taking new shape as the technology available continues to change. 

Popular Digital Pets of the 90s

Without a doubt, the most popular digital pet of the 90s was the Tamagotchi. It was the first Japanese electronic pet and it spawned so many imitations that it defined what we understand today as a virtual pet. 

The original was first conceived by Aki Maita, who came up with the idea for Bandai. The name was a combination of Tama, the Japanese word for egg, and the Japanese sound of the English word “watch”. Its hardware was very basic. It was comprised of a 4-Bit CPU, a clock speed of 32.768 kHz, and a tiny memory. The screen showed two colors, black and a muddy green that was the color of the LCD panel. It had three buttons on the front to control it, and that was it. 

The secret of its popularity lay in how it managed to connect with the user as soon as the egg hatched. According to the Tamagotchi lore, an alien species had left the eggs on Earth and so it was now the responsibility of the user to raise the poor abandoned baby. Mostly no one knew about the backstory though, they just felt compelled to care for their hatchling. 

There weren’t many options to interact with your pet. Each of the controls represented an action: feed, pet, and discipline. You also had to clean up their mess now and then. Supposedly, the more you looked after it, the best it behaved. If you failed, it would demand attention and beep constantly like a crying infant. It was an evil genius, playing on the user’s guilt and caregiving impulses to react to the demanding chirps. 

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Giga Pet vs Nano vs Tamagotchi

Giga Pet vs Nano vs Tamagotchi

The decade after the release of Tamagotchis, Bandai released a ton of different nano pets with bigger screens, varied colors, new pets, and better hardware. However, the recipe to success remained the same: users need to care for their pet. 

Tiger Giga Pets

Tiger Giga Pets were the first imitator. Tiger Electronics was Bandai’s direct competitor and they released their own virtual pet around 1997. They featured real-life animals, like dogs and cats, and later expanded onto dinosaurs and even Sabrina the Teenage Witch’s cat, Salem. They were successful in the United States, mainly because everyone thought they were just another Tamagotchi pocket pet.

Playmates Nano Pets

The same was true of Playmates Nano Pets. They came around the same time and included three virtual “animals”: a cat, a dog, and a human baby (with the same three options for all of them!) They sold quite well but weren’t highly regarded by hardcore digital pet fans. 

Digimon Digital Pets

The Digimon digital pets were another try by Bandai to tap into the same market for boys. Digimon’s virtual experience was quite different from its predecessor. It involved battling creatures instead of just caring for them, kind of like an RPG, with skills leveling up according to the attention and care you provided for your Digimon.

Another important difference was that two devices could be linked together to battle it out and figure out who was stronger. The idea was such a sensation that it gave birth to a whole new line of video games, anime, apparel, and more. 

Lots of brands wanted in on the pie, and among them one of the biggest was Disney. So they got their own pet keychain in the Think Way Virtual Friends: Disney. The Little Mermaid and Toy Story were some of the tie-in titles used. 

Nintendo Pikachu

Last, but not least, was the Nintendo Pikachu. It came before Nintendogs and was dedicated to Pikachu, the hugely popular character from the Pokémon games. It functioned in a very similar way as the app that we all came to know, you had to catch, raise and care for your Pokémon.

It was yellow, matching with Pikachu himself, and it had a built-in pedometer that allowed you to rack up points by walking around with your device, which could later be used to buy presents for your Pikachu. A year after its release, due to its amazing success, Nintendo launched the Colour version.

It used those walking points (“watts”)  to help your progress on the later games by exchanging information through an infra-red sensor on the Game Boy color. It came a bit too late though since interest in the virtual pet world was already waning. 

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Do They Still Make Tamagotchi’s? 

Do They Still Make Tamagotchis?

Indeed they do! You can still acquire your favorite virtual pets from the 90s. They function as they have always done so there is not much to add on that front. It is, to all intents and purposes, a trip down memory lane. 

In July 2019, a new generation of Tamagotchis made their debut, priced at $59.99. Their target? A new generation of digital natives known as the “iGen”. 

According to CNN Business, in July 2020 a new edition of Tamagotchis was released with that same price tag but with better graphics in color, and being able to connect to a mobile app. This new pet can go outside its house, celebrate your birthday, and travel abroad. It can also connect to other Tamagotchis, get married, and have kids, which will later grow themselves and continue the lineage. To avoid death by abandonment, you can also send your pet to daycare hotels. Other than that, the game remains the same. 

My Favorite Tamagotchis You Can Still Buy Now

Top Tamagotchis You Can Still Buy Now

Original Paradise Tamagotchi

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The Original Paradise Tamagotchi is the one that comes closest to the original virtual pet from the 90s. It is a very budget option that makes for a great gift for kids and nostalgic adults alike. 

Star Wars R2D2

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A great option for Star Wars fans where your pet is R2D2 himself! The popular franchise follows in the steps of the Little Mermaid and Toy Story as a great tie-in toy.

Tamagotchi Hello Kitty

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Like all things Japanese, Hello Kitty couldn’t be amiss. This cute pet keychain is white and sports the cute ribbon typical of the kitty character, as well as the whiskers making it look like the keychain itself is Kitty. 

PAC man Tamagotchi Deluxe

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Other classics like PAC Man also have their Tamagotchi counterparts. This deluxe yellow edition looks beyond cute!

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Lorena Lombardo is a fashion designer specialized in trend forecasting and fashion journalism. She studied at the UAL (University of London), ORT (Universidad ORT Uruguay), and taken various courses about traditional craftsmanship while living in Tokyo. Some of her favorite memories during the 90s include wearing bucket hats and trying to copy Rachel’s hairstyle. Her absolute favorite show was Buffy: the Vampire Slayer but she was also a huge fan of Clueless because of its amazing fashion choices. Her top track of the decade is currently disputed between How soon is Now? by the Smiths and Here with me by Dido. Both also happen to be the opening songs for two great 90s shows: Charmed and Roswell. Coincidence? I think not!