Before your Pokemons and your Yu-Gi-Ohs, there was something else. Something simpler. Something streamlined. Something deeply irritating. It was, of course, the Tamagotchi.
We remember ours distinctly, if not exactly fondly. The year was 1996 and the news was awash with reports of this latest craze sweeping the impressionable youth of Britain – tiny plastic eggs that contained miniature digital creatures which you had to feed and care for just like a real pet, but with none of that bothersome hair, waste, feeding bills or three-dimensionality.
Here's one, alongside some other old stuff. Ours looked remarkably similar to it. Photo by Steve Greer
As Japan is such a populous country, the tiny egg pets seemed a perfect solution to the problem of not having enough space to store animals, and after the failure of Bonsai Kittens to take hold on the Eastern marketplace, the Tamagotchi went down a storm.
We got ours late, because we were terrible at saving pocket money and our parents were notoriously tight, but one fateful day in October 1997 we trekked down to the local Toys R Us and picked up both a discount Tamagotchi and a set of Monsters and Legends Top Trumps.1
We'd seen the other kids at school – before tamas were banned, anyway – fiddling with their garish eggs and getting completely enthralled in their care. Occasionally they would beep forlornly and the owner would have to clear away a pixelated turd on the screen or dole out some pretend food, which didn't sound like a lot of fun to us, but the looks on their faces as their creatures cavorted onscreen sealed the deal. Clearly these things are awesome.
This person has three tamagotchis. That's three too many, we reckon. Photo by xmacex
Sat in the back of the car, we unwrapped the lime green egg from the shrink wrap with tiny, shivering hands. The slim plastic strip in the rear of the tama, when pulled, would connect the battery to the processors and begin the whole process. The unit couldn't be turned off once this was done. It was, in a very real way, like giving birth. We pulled. The miracle of birth happened right there in the retail centre car park, right outside Dixons.
A tiny blob appeared on screen. We fed it. Nothing happened. We stared at it for a while. What else can you do with this? Does it do tricks? No. It is a blob. The trick it is apparently mastering is Remaining Motionless with a side order of Doing Digital Turds everywhere.
There were, we were assured, ways in which you could level up your tiny beast to get different outcomes in evolution – but we were having problems just getting it to have legs. It seemed to be developing an illness, too, and we soon realised that we'd paid money – and were continuing to pay our valuable ten-year-old time – to take care of a sick animal that didn't even exist.
Soon. we grew tired of it. We'd had no time to grow attached to it before we started caring for it, so it was the computerised equivalent of finding an old, diseased pigeon and immediately carrying it around in your pocket. It bleeped, all the time, and no matter how often we fed it and cleaned it, it wouldn't stay quiet. Many children would have destroyed the unit – put the thing out of its misery - but we were cowards. Instead, we resorted to animal cruelty.
WHAT EVEN IS THIS. Photo by Stefan
“Shh, now,” we said, as we put the Tamagotchi inside one of our football socks. “Shh. It's all over now.” We wrapped the sock around it tight, and put another over the top, and wedged them into a cardboard tube for reasons we can't quite remember. Maybe we were trying to suffocate it. But we could still hear it bleeping, through the padding, like the telltale heart in that story about The Telltale Heart. It was too much. We couldn't live with ourselves.
We left it in a draw in the spare room.
As we pushed it to the back, behind the spare linen, it bleeped once more at us. It was begging to be saved. “Don't leave me here,” it seemed to say, weeping digital tears. We paused for a second, but... no. We weren't cut out for pet ownership, especially not like this. We shut the draw, and waited for half an hour to make sure that it wasn't making any noise which might disturb any guests we had. That's definitely the reason. No beeps could be heard. It was over, aside from inside the warm darkness of that linen draw, where it cried out in vain and no-one could hear.
It died, eventually. The batteries ran out.
It also comes in a more manly purple, if you're concerned about the colour
Moving on, though, Tamagotchi are definitely 15 years old NOW and Bandai are launching a fancy new edition with a colour screen, loads of different kids of miniature beasts, and plenty of furniture for them to defecate and, eventually, die on. Cracking!
If you're keen for a nostalgic trip or want to confuse a nephew, cousin or other young relative then you can mail order one from Japan, where they're a bit expensive to be honest. Maybe they'll release them over here soon. We're not really bothered. We just had to share our story with someone, you understand?
1 The Trumps were significantly better, and we'd still play with them today if we hadn't foolishly traded them to a kid in the year below us for a fiver back in 2002 – a fiver which you STILL OWE US, SAM WEEMES, WE HAVEN'T FORGOTTEN