In 1996, Bandai rocked the toy world with the introduction of the Tamagotchi virtual pet, a pocket-sized electronic keychain toy that required constant care and attention from its owner.
If you fed and attended to the virtual creature represented on a tiny LCD screen via the few buttons on the device, it thrived. Neglect it, and it would die—a surprisingly painful early lesson in loss for kids gripped with virtual pet mania around the world.
Over the next decade, both Bandai and other companies released dozens (if not hundreds) of variations on the pocket virtual pet formula. These devices featured animals, monsters, and creatures of all kinds, including domestic pets, dragons, and even a baby. Of course, licensed characters also got into the act, with several Disney characters and even Godzilla gracing the tiny pocket screens.
Along the way, these keychain buddies taught a generation of 1990s kids about responsibility and/or how difficult it can be to take care of a helpess creature. They were a cultural touchstone for a generation.
Considering the stunning breadth in variety of virtual pets released through the years, it would be impossible to go through them all here. Instead, I think it would be fun to look through a small sample of some of the more popular virtual pet brands and devices of the 1990s.
1 Bandai Tamagotchi (1996)
Here is the pet that started them all: Tamagotchi. Bandai struck gold when it launched this brand in Japan and the US, selling millions of spin-offs over the years. Originally launched in a palm-sized translucent egg shape, Tamagotchi shipped in several different color variations. The formula is basic: you must care for your baby alien Tamagotchi by feeding it when the unit beeps (its way of asking for attention). If you neglect it, well… it dies. Before long, kids were staging their own funerals for their beloved Tamagotchi.
2 Bandai Digimon (1997)
In 1997, Bandai extended the Tamagotchi concept to a toy aimed more at boys, Digimon, a more edgy-monster-battle-RPG device. Like the Tamagotchi, you cared for your Digimon regularly throughout the day, but unlike its predecessor, you leveled up your Digimon's power and then could link two Digimon units together to battle your monster against someone else's. The Digimon brand soon spread far beyond just keychain gadgets; today it is the anchor of a huge multimedia IP empire.
3 Tiger Giga Pets (1997)
Not to be outdone by Bandai, well-known LCD game maker Tiger Electronics created its own line of virtual pets called Giga Pets in 1997. The Giga Pets toy line initially included representations of real-life animals such as a dog (seen here), a cat, and a monkey, but it later expanded into other creatures such a popular T-Rex model and several licensed character units, including Salem the cat from Sabrina the Teenage Witch. These units were particularly popular in the US, although they never held the same mystique as the original Tamagotchi units.
(Photo: Stephanie Peters)
4 Playmates Nano Kitty (1997)
Toymaker Playmates also created a virtual pet keychain toy not long after Tamagotchi proved to be a huge success. The firm called its line Nano Pets, and it initially included a cat ("Nano Kitty," seen here), a dog, and even a human baby that pooped on the tiny LCD screen. I have never used any of the Nano Pets line, but I hear from virtual pet fans that these units are some of least satisfying to take care of.
5 Think Ways Virtual Friends: Disney Little Mermaid (1997)
In 1997, Think Way toys created several lesser-known virtual pet keychains based on licensed properties, including The Little Mermaid (seen here) and Toy Story. In this Little Mermaid virtual pet, you take care of a fish in an aquarium, which is probably for the best because I would hate it if I were responsible for the death of Ariel from neglect.
(Photo: Stacy Walker)
6 Nintendo Pokemon Pikachu (1998)
In 1998, video game giant Nintendo decided to enter the virtual pet market with a small yellow unit based on its star Pokémon, Pikachu. Like other virtual pets, the owner was tasked with showering Pikachu with attention. But in a twist, this care didn't include feeding; you had to take your tiny beast on real-life exercise outings (tracked by a built-in pedometer as you walked with the unit clipped to your belt). The farther you walked, the more "watts" you would earn, which served as an in-game currency for buying Pikachu presents.
7 Nintendo Pokemon Pikachu Color (1999)
In 1999, Nintendo upped the ante in the virtual pet tech race with a new version of Pikachu that featured a color LCD screen. In this version, not only could you dote on Pikachu as usual (and take him on exercise walks), you could trade saved-up "watts" with the Game Boy Color versions of Pokémon Gold or Silver via the unit's built-in infrared port.
By the dawning of the 21st century, the virtual pet craze had waned considerably in North America (although many successors remain on the market until this day), so their time in hit toy spotlight has largely passed. But for the generation who grew up with these virtual creatures, the memories of time spent taking care of them (or, sadly, burying them) will last a lifetime.