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The Underground World of Tamagotchi Collectors

You thought they were gone? You were wrong.

(Ringer illustration)
(Ringer illustration)

On October 26 of last year, a user named “psychotama” made his first entry in what would become a detailed online diary, otherwise known as a “Tama log.”

“I’m not quite sure how to begin,” he wrote in purple Comic Sans. “My journey with Tamagotchi began about 13 years ago.”

Psychotama, who’s in his 20s and a senior oboe student at a Cleveland music conservatory, went on to explain his rich history with the egg-shaped digital pets that became wildly popular in the ’90s. After seeing other kids with them at school, he begged his parents to buy him one. When he was finally gifted a translucent orange “V1” — a version of the device released in 2004 — he was hooked. Within six months, he had about six running at the same time. His collection ballooned to 36 Tamas (short for Tamagotchi) with the aid of his mom, who helped him bid on eBay auctions of Japanese Tamagotchis not available in America. At the most intense point of his hobby, he cared for 20 all at once. But his obsession eventually faded, and, like so many Beanie Babies, Furbys, and Pogs of the past, his Tamagotchi collection was placed in a box and put aside.

Four years later, the day of first entry, psychotama decided to restart his old hobby. One day after school, he picked up two of his little friends: an original 1997 Tamagotchi device (known colloquially among collectors as a “P1”), and a later Tamagotchi Connection Version 2 (known as a “V2”).

“It made me smile to look at them all again,” he wrote. “Tamagotchis were never just a casual toy for me, I was very into them and got attached to each individual tama I raised … So here I am, 21 years old and raising tamagotchis.”

In the coming months, his collection would grow, and he began toting around a rotating set of pets during nearly every moment of his day. He photographed them on an IHOP tabletop as he ate strawberry-banana pancakes, propped up on his sheet-music stand during recitals for West Side Story, in his palm as he walked in the park, and on a flight to New York for a graduate school audition. Other times, they simply kept him company as he drank gin and tonics and sang “Fergalicious” at a karaoke bar, or when he met his boyfriend’s family for the first time.

Psychotama is one of approximately 94,300 members who share tips, fan fiction, anecdotes, and pet obituaries on a little-known online fan site named TamaTalk. Launched in June of 2004, the forum has become a life raft for Tamagotchi collectors and enthusiasts who remain attached to the candy-colored keychain ornaments, despite the fact that their manufacturer, Bandai, hasn’t sold an English version of the product for the past two years. As the most popular forum for fans of the toy, TamaTalk receives an average of 3.3 million page views a month, according to Tamagotchi Topsites, a website that ranks the popularity and quality of online Tamagotchi fan groups.

Before the internet — and its help in building a global economy — discontinuing a cheap plastic toy in an entire country would’ve likely been its death knell. Interest would wane, hobbyists would have a harder time finding people to connect with, and the momentum behind a nostalgia-laced fad would slowly dissipate. But today, with the help of online international marketplaces like eBay and a stream of content catering to ’90s nostalgia, discontinuations are a minor hurdle for dedicated collectors. Alongside TamaTalk, communities on Facebook, Instagram, Discord, and Tumblr have formed an unofficial support system for what appears to be a dying product in the U.S., writing detailed user guides, tracking product announcements abroad, lobbying moderators of the brand’s social media channels to release new products, selling homemade accessories for their pets, and even writing code to translate more recent versions of Japanese Tamagotchi to English. These fans have managed to establish their own folksy Tama-economy, filling in the gaps where the product’s parent company, Bandai, is absent.

Just like the online bodies that worship Beyoncé or obsess over a specific game in the Zelda franchise, the Tamagotchi collectors’ community has its own way of organizing and functioning. To better understand what drives people, from Australia to Minnesota, to convene at one web address in the name of pixilated amorphous monsters, however, it’s helpful to know the Tamagotchi origin story.

Before the Tamagotchi, there was the pet rock. The iconic ’90s invention took the concept of a nonliving companion one step further by adding an element of mortality.

“What makes the Tamagotchi unique is that if you don’t take care of your pet, they die,” Akihiro Yokoi, who helped create the device, told a Santa Cruz city guide in 2010. “When I am raising my own pet, I often think they are adorable, but that only counts for 20 percent of time; for the rest of the time, I do feel troublesome looking after them. However, the time you spent, the effort you put into your pet turn(s) into love, which is the most important part in the process. I realized this is a ‘must have’ element in a virtual pet game. Death was never a good thing to put into the spec back in the old days, but by adding this into the gameplay, Tamagotchi is one step closer to reality.”

The first batch of the gadgets was introduced in Japan in 1996, their name a screwy portmanteau of the Japanese words “tamago,” which means “egg,” and the English word “watch.” The toy’s dim, square-dot screens came in colorful plastic shells decorated with three buttons. When your digital pet needed something — food, attention, shit-shoveling — it emanated a shrill, sing-songy jingle until it was satiated. In less than a year, Bandai sold 5 million of them. They were so loved that people camped out overnight outside shops that sold them and even held impromptu mini-funerals for their deceased companions.

North America mirrored Japanese enthusiasm when Tamagotchis arrived in Canada and the U.S. the following year. The portable eggs came Han Solo’d in translucent plastic packaging, and went for between $15 and $18. F.A.O. Schwarz’s Manhattan store sold its first shipment of 10,000 in a day. Tiger Electronics put out a competitor called the Giga Pet. The CEO of Toys “R” Us at the time declared virtual pets the “toy of the year.” During the gadget’s peak, 15 Tamagotchi units were sold every minute in the U.S. and Canada, according to its parent company, Bandai.

From the moment kids pulled out the plastic tab from the side of the Tamagotchi egg, awakening a pixelated blob that danced and pooped, they were hypnotized. Some children were so distracted by the need to constantly feed, praise, and discipline their pets that they were caught taking breaks from standardized tests to care for them. It didn’t take long for elementary schools to ban them. For other children, witnessing the inevitable demise of their Tamagotchi was their first encounter with death. No matter how well-cared for, the creatures age at a rapid pace and typically live for less than a month. One New York Times report quoted a parent who said her 9-year-old son “cried hysterically and went crazy” when his Tamagotchi died.

By 1998, however, the Tamagotchi was swiftly overshadowed by the Furby, a fuzzier, demon-like bird incarnate. Bandai maintained enough of a foothold in Japan to release a handful of different Tamagotchi versions that year (including a Christmas-themed “Santaclautch” that allowed you to evolve your pet into Santa). For most of us, that’s the last we heard of the device.

As the rest of the world moved on, though, online communities clung tightly to the brand. They were invigorated in 2004, when the company announced a new product line called Tamagotchi Connections. These devices looked similar to their predecessors, but came equipped with infrared communication functions that allowed the pets to befriend one another, give gifts, and mate. That same year, the founder of TamaTalk — who wishes to remain anonymous for fear of online harassment — read about the release in a magazine. They were learning HTML and saw an opportunity to build a community.

“This was way back in the day before Facebook and other social networks were widespread,” TamaTalk’s founder told me via TamaTalk’s chat system. “I consider forums to be kind of an early version of a social network for niche interests.”

The site was slow to grow at first, but eventually experienced “an explosion of interest and membership.” Though activity typically peaked on discussion boards around the prospect (or rumors) of a new release, the site creator says that many other nostalgic participants show up after rediscovering their old toys. Over the years, dedicated posters have risen to become volunteer moderators, maintaining a friendly tone within the community and wrangling trolls. Most visitors place a high value on anonymity.

“We try to keep real names out of this,” the founder said. “You are free to be who you want to be (as long as you follow the rules) with no fear of there being a digital trail to haunt your name in the future.”

As new releases in the U.S. have come to a halt, however, activity on the site has slowed. Bandai continually churns out new iterations of the Tamagotchi in Japan, which include higher-quality color screens, the ability to connect to cellphones, new characters and missions, and many other details. But the most recent U.S. release — a “Tamagotchi Friends” device — came out in 2015 and is now available to purchase only via resellers on eBay, Facebook, or Amazon. There hasn’t been a new English version of the Tamagotchi since, and it isn’t being sold in major English-speaking markets.

I myself have owned only one Tamagotchi in my life: a white original version (a.k.a. a P1) not unlike the matching Tamagotchis that Orlando Bloom and Katy Perry wore to the Met Gala last year. To understand how far the device had come, I ordered a light-purple Tamagotchi Friends on Amazon Prime. When I opened it, I was immediately taken aback by its size. This was not the pocketable gadget of my youth, but a bulbous mass with the heft and height of a hockey puck that was powered off of two AAA batteries. When I finally got it going, I pressed every button I could until my first egg hatched. The screen had grown in size over the years, as had the options of how to interact with your pet. But its dim, Casio watch–like graphics were almost impossible to see. It took me a moment to discern the shape of my new companion — it appeared to be a frenzied, jumping insect that lived in a home with nice curtains. My appreciation for low-fi digital pets had clearly been spoiled by years of staring at a hi-resolution iPhone screen.

To an untrained eye like mine, most Tamagotchis appear to be both needlessly technologically tedious and generally confusing. But much in the way that Grateful Dead fans prize live tapes from different years on different recording devices, Tama superfans delight in the subtle nuances of nearly every make and year of a Tamagotchi.

“People know of Tamagotchis, but not the extent to which they’ve changed,” Jezebel Eppie Howell, an 18-year-old New York City resident and TamaTalk member who has collected the pets for 12 years, told me via email. “The product has become more aesthetically pleasing and ergonomic, as well as much more content-heavy.”

Collectors memorize the characters available on each make, and then carefully tailor the conditions of their care to ensure they will hatch what they want. That means tinkering around with the amounts of food, discipline, and attention that each new hatchling receives. Even those environmental factors vary with each unique version. Morino Tamagotchis, for instance, evolve based on temperature and predator attacks. Angeotchi’s evolution necessitates doing good deeds. In the M!X, a Japanese color-screen toy that came out last year, a pet’s growth is even affected by the wallpapers users use to decorate their home.

As is the case with hundreds of other popular games, these incredibly precise requirements have driven users to discuss strategy online. Most of the TamaTalk members I interviewed for this story joined the forum while searching for written guides or instructional YouTube videos offering tips and tricks. But lately, Bandai’s absence in English-language markets has pushed the forums to function more as supportive advocacy groups. Some have found solace in sharing their love of the game via fan fiction or role-playing — often inspired by a Tamagotchi anime film that was released in Japan. Others, like psychotama, affirm their hobby by writing logs detailing their Tamagotchi care routines alongside the activities of their day. A handful of Etsy stores and other sites sell hand-knit cozies and colorful cases meant to decorate the outside of Tamagotchi shells. One forum on TamaTalk titled “Tamagotchi Memorial” is a list of obituaries for deceased tamas, accompanied by photos of them during healthier times. “He was 19 years old — the oldest Maskutchi I’ve ever raised on a P1,” a recent post in the forum from user rjalda100 read. “He probably would have made it to 20, but an unfortunate glitching took his life. My P1’s screen froze, then went blank. Then it came back on, but Maskutchi was gone and a bouncing egg took his place. Goodbye Maskutchi, until we meet again …”

According to Nina, a 20-something TamaTalk member based in Minnesota who preferred not to give her full name, the community’s guides and general enthusiasm are the reason she is able to remain a collector.

“The chances of coming across someone with a Tamagotchi on the street are very rare today, which means most current fans are rather isolated when it comes to their hobby,” she said via email. “Finally managing to get that one perfect care character is much more satisfying and exciting when you can share your success with other people.”

And then there are more tangible efforts to help bolster the TamaTalk community. Because collectors rely on auctions and other unofficial sellers, there’s a forum to discuss potential scam artists who might be peddling fake merchandise. Users will often call out the names of eBay sellers, or ask if someone has experience buying from certain obscure Japanese stores.

Because of the Tama drought in the U.S., members have also made an enormous effort to help the community better use Japanese devices. One mysterious fan who goes by the username of Mr.Blinky collaborated with fellow collectors to write software that translates the text of Tamagotchis only sold in Japan. He followed up by posting a YouTube video that walks people through the process.

Because of this public tutorial, “Now they can be enjoyed by everyone,” Xia, a 19-year-old based in the Pacific Northwest who goes by the username Miau on TamaTalk, told me via email. “They did an incredibly good job.”

In other cases, collectors will uses Tamagotchi’s official social media channels to appeal directly to Bandai employees. Their complaints have been consistent enough to catch the attention of the people who run those accounts.

“I oversee the Tamagotchi friends on Instagram and Facebook and all that stuff,” Tara Badie, the director of brand management at Bandai America, told me. “Constantly, to this day — even though we haven’t shipped anything for two years — there are people who are still begging for our next product.”

She said she hopes Bandai will be able to appease English-speaking superfans in the future. Given the nature of the product, she’s not surprised by their enduring enthusiasm.

“The core of what the device is all about is nurturing,” she said. “You nurture your Tamagotchi from egg to adult and then you can marry them off and begin the process again. It’s all about nurturing. So this doesn’t surprise me.”

Badie clearly understands the Tamagotchi customer base, judging by psychotama’s more recent Tama logs.

“I see tamagotchi as companions,” he wrote. “I have never seen them as pets or less than me, if that makes sense. They are friends that go everywhere with me and partake in all of my interests and enjoyments. Maybe that sounds strange, I don’t know. I’m not crazy, I promise.”

An earlier version of this story used incorrect pronouns for a TamaTalk user. Psychotama is a man, not a woman.