Back in June 1997, the cover of Computer & Video Games – then one of the UK's biggest-selling specialist gaming magazines – was packed with the most popular titles of the time, as well as some familiar faces. Sega's Sonic the Hedgehog took center stage, with news from the '97 Tokyo Game Show regarding the company's latest drive to promote the character, dubbed "Project Sonic" – an initiative which would ultimately give us Sonic Jam and Sonic R on the Saturn but little else of note. PlayStation classics Rage Racer and Final Fantasy VII also get a mention, while Blast Corps and Star Fox 64 fight in Nintendo's corner. However, the reason this particular issue sticks out in my mind is the fact that it was my first exposure to Bandai's Tamagotchi, the original virtual pet which, back in '97, had just taken its homeland Japan by a storm.
Ever on the pulse of all things gaming in the days before the internet took over, CVG devoted two full pages to these bizarre-looking keyrings from Japan, explaining how they came to be, their success in the Far East ("3 million already sold!") and – perhaps most importantly of all – exactly how they worked. It was the kind of in-depth, passionate coverage that the magazine was famous for at that point in time, and it had the desired effect on me, your humble scribe – at the earliest opportunity I was down my local Toys R Us attempting to ascertain exactly when stock would arrive, only to be told they'd all sold out.
This began what was to become a rather depressing pattern for the next few months, as stores all over the UK were promptly relieved of Tamagotchis the very moment they hit the shelves. I was therefore forced to watch on enviously as one of my close friends – the only person I knew who had somehow been able to secure one – prodded and poked this strange beeping pebble. Tamagotchi ownership eluded me, at least for a short while.
Thankfully, in an event which perhaps says more of my friend's attention span than the appeal of the gadget itself, I was able to buy his Tamagotchi from him. It was the transparent blue model, with fetching yellow buttons, and for the next few weeks it became the center of my teenage world. I cared dutifully for it, feeding it when necessary, cleaning up its mess and playing games to keep it happy and content. Then (and this is predictably where my recollection becomes hazy) it drifted into the mists of time, lost at the back of a drawer with its battery exhausted.
I'll be honest, since that fateful day when I cast aside my once-beloved virtual pet, I've given very little thought to Tamagotchi. I've been aware that the series continued beyond 1997, has sold over 82 million units worldwide and has even found its way onto consoles like the Nintendo DS. However, I've never really given any deeper thought to these digital creatures, until very recently when it was confirmed that Bandai would be bringing back Tamagotchi to mark the 20th anniversary of the brand in the west. And that's why, sat here in 2017 – older but most certainly not much wiser – I find myself once again cradling a small plastic lump with a crude LCD screen which periodically beeps at me when it craves my attention.
Rather than simply recycle the original Tamagotchi design, Bandai has delivered a tinier, streamlined version of the pet. It's around 20 percent smaller than the original version, and lacks some of the functionality you may remember from 1997. Back then, you could give your creature medication, punish it for bad behaviour and play games with it. Bandai has pared back these features and now you simply press a button to deal with whatever your virtual pet needs. Has it pooped? Press the left-hand button to clean it up. Want to feed it? Press the left-hand button again, and select either a large meal or a treat. What this ultimately means is that dealing with your pet's needs is easier than ever, but you don't feel quite as involved as before; it's possible that Bandai has simply reasoned that with so many other mobile devices fighting for our attention, Tamagotchi in 2017 needs to be a little easier to manage.
That's ultimately the biggest difference here, at least from my perspective. Back in 1997 I didn't have a mobile phone, my most advanced handheld was a monochrome Game Boy and we had no internet access at home, so the idea of pouring days or even weeks of effort into a small beeping trinket seemed like a pretty swell idea, thanks very much. Fast forward to the present day, and Tamagotchi is almost like a relic; Bandai has already done console games and you can download the official smartphone app for less cash, so the idea of carrying around a keyring to look after seems positively archaic. Still, we all know that Bandai is peddling nostalgia here, just like Nintendo is with the NES Mini and SNES Mini. These toys aren't designed to capture the hearts and minds of kids in 2017; instead, they are aimed at adults who were kids in 1997.
As was the case back then, I can't see Tamagotchi in 2017 being more than a passing novelty, at least to me personally – perhaps even more so, given how many other devices we have jostling for our attention on a daily basis. Still, there's something unique about raising and caring for something so small, and because it's a reassuringly round physical object it's arguably more tangible than running an app on your phone. Interestingly, I've noticed that my 9-year-old son, against all odds, has really taken to the Tamagotchi – although it remains to be seen if his patience lasts beyond the first unfortunate death. For me, becoming acquainted with Tamagotchi in 2017 is bittersweet, like meeting a beloved childhood friend who you discover has refused to grow up and still lives with their parents. I'm happy for the chance meeting to reminisce about old times, though I'm not sure I'm leaving it any wiser or more enriched. But will I do it again in 2037? Of course I bloody will.
Tamagotchi is available this November in North America and Europe, priced $14.99 / £9.99.
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