Did your Tamagotchi die of neglect in the late 1990s? Now’s your chance to take another shot

Inside the El Segundo, Calif., headquarters of Bandai America, a variety of a 20th anniversary edition of the Tamagotchi, “the original virtual reality pet.”
Inside the El Segundo, Calif., headquarters of Bandai America, a variety of a 20th anniversary edition of the Tamagotchi, “the original virtual reality pet.” Los Angeles Times

Before the fidget spinner and Furby, when the world was just getting acquainted with the Backstreet Boys and clamoring to watch “Titanic” in movie theaters, there was the Tamagotchi.

The Japanese digital pet on a keychain 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 also was controversial, 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.

On Tuesday, the company behind the gizmo announced plans to re-release the Tamagotchi in the United States to mark the toy’s 20th anniversary (the device had remained available in Japan). Buyers can order the toy online before it is made available in stores nationwide Nov. 5.

Bandai America Inc., a subsidiary of Tokyo-based Bandai Namco Holdings Inc., hopes children of the iPhone generation will embrace the retro gadget, and it’s banking on ’90s nostalgia to drive sales.

The decade that gave us grunge, Tommy Hilfiger jeans and Game Boy is cool again. Nintendo has quickly sold out of its relaunched retro consoles, and 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 that it didn’t even conduct market research or focus groups before deciding to re-release the toy, an executive said.

“For many Generation X kids, the Tamagotchi device can be considered America’s first and favorite digital pet,” said 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.”

The Tamagotchi returns when toymakers have looked to the past for inspiration. Nintendo miniaturized its classic NES and SNES consoles to great applause. My Little Pony has enjoyed a resurgence. Teddy Ruxpin, the wide-eyed bear from the 1980s, has made a comeback.

To be fair, the 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 Nintendo counts adults as a big market, not just youngsters. The newest Barbies smash tired gender roles, but they haven’t reversed declining revenues at Mattel.

There’s only one major change between the original Tamagotchi and its reboot: the new one is 20 percent smaller.

The suggested retail price of $14.99 remains about the same as when it was introduced.

The egg-shaped toy comes in the same six original styles and colors. The game play features the same colorless blob that hatches, requires feeding and cleanup — chores that, if not undertaken, are penalized by death.

“The creature isn’t particularly cute, but it is demanding,” a highly skeptical 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 nurture is one of a handful of play patterns that transcends generations that the toy industry has traditionally directed at girls. When a nurturing toy appeals to both genders, as the Tamagotchi did, it usually signals a hit, and then 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 keychain or the color of the toy they cared about. It was the fact they could take it anywhere and it would still provide a form of escape,” said toy inventor and toy historian Tim Walsh, who could have just as well been describing the role that the $46 billion mobile game industry plays today.

Walsh was specializing in board games at a toy company called Patch, now called Play Monster, when the Tamagotchi was released.

“I remember panic among the traditional game makers at the time,” Walsh said. “We thought electronic games would wipe us out. But we realized the two would always co-exist.”

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 whether 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 movies from the 1970s, which are edited so much slower,” he said. “But I’ve been wrong before. The hardest thing in this business is trying to predict the fickleness of kids.”