A few weeks ago my mom found a bunch of Tamagotchi Connections in Goodwill and bought them on a lark. Tamagotchi Connections were the 2004 reboot of the original Tamagotchis from the mid-nineties. It turns out the batteries for them were all dead so I dug out my old Giga Pet and decided to play with it instead, since the kind of watch batteries it used were ones I had on hand.

It really was a blast from the past.

Now for all you young whipper snappers out there, Digital Pets on a key chain may seem like an odd novelty since they must appear quite clunky compared to a cellphone, but when I was in elementary school they were all the rage. Kids, and particularly girls, would have dozens of these things, and it was a badge of honor to keep as many of them alive as possible at the same time, for the longest amount of time. They were banned from schools, of course, but kids would still take care of them on the sly, trying not to get caught by the teacher. The original was Bandai’s Tamagotchi, but imitators like Giga Pets and Nano Pets, were also socially acceptable.

To understand how huge these things were, in order to increase sales, KFC had a promotion that if you bought certain meal combinations, you could get a Giga Pet for a discounted price. (KFC also had a similar promotion for Pokemon Beanie toys a year or so later). Normally they had cost about 20 dollars or so (and this was back in 90s’ dollars, so they weren’t exactly ‘cheap’), but at KFC you could get one for about 8 bucks if you bought their chicken. This was how my step brother got his Giga Kitty. McDonalds also had Tamagotchi Happy Meal Toys for a promotion in roughly the same span of time.

Digimon, also produced by Bandai, got its start as digital pets. Their gimmick was that they fought one an other if you connected two devices together, and their Digivolution was just the same gradual transformation other digital pets had when they ‘grew up’. So when it was accused that Pokemon was being ripped off by Digimon, it was actually based off of a completely different concept. In fact, one could argue that Pokemon wouldn’t have been as successful stateside as it had if the digital pet craze didn’t coincide. And Pokemon even had its own digital pet, the Pokemon Pikachu, followed by the Pokemon Pikachu Color, which could link up with Gold and Silver to provide new items via the Mystery Gift feature.

I got a Tamagotchi from my grandmother when she came to visit in 1996. My aunt, a teacher, had told her about how popular they were at her school, so my grandmother got me one before the trend had started in my community and I even knew what they were. I also had a Nano Baby from that same aunt that Christmas, but my favorite one was my official Disney 101 Dalmatians Giga Puppy that came out a year later in 1997.

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I remembered the Giga Puppy was the only pet I could actually keep alive for more than a few days, because Disney has some pretty strict rules when they license their intellectual properties, so the dalmatian puppy didn’t actually die, just when neglected, it would ‘run away’ and when it got old enough and reached the natural end of its lifespan it would meet up with another dog and ‘start its own family’. It was also a lot easier to take care of because it didn’t have some of the features other digital pets had like it didn’t need to have its poop cleaned and it didn’t get sick.

Having not played with one since I was a kid, I had forgotten what it was actually like to keep a digital pet. First off, the little buggers are extremely demanding. They beep whenever they need something, and because a day in real time equates a year in the pet’s life, they constantly need to be fed and cared for. Like I said before, the Disney Dalmatian doesn’t get sick or poop, instead its needs are to be fed, played with, trained, bathed and put to bed. These needs reflect four stats: hunger, education, love and happiness. The three stats are easy enough to keep up. Training, feeding and playing a fetch game takes care of them, but the love stat is trickier, since there is no real way to force it to go up. Instead, your best defense is to simply not let it go down. Respond to its demands right away and don’t do the wrong thing when it demands it prevents it from going down, with slow response and making mistakes makes the love number trickle down. It eventually comes up on its own with enough correct actions, but if you goof and get into a low number, your pet is in danger of running away regardless of the other three stats.

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The other problem is sleeping. I figured out that after 9pm real time, the pet will stay asleep when put in bed until about 7am. Try to put it to bed earlier and instead it will only sleep for a few minutes of real life time, and stay awake all night endangering all its stats if you put it on mute, or wake you up in the middle of the night with its rather loud beeping.

Considering that these things were designed for kids, that programmed time seems pretty unfair. When I was in elementary school my bed time was 7:30pm, meaning any time I went to bed my pet was always at risk of its stats going down, and often it did. My puppy ‘ran away’ at least 6 times, much to my frustration. The constant, and I mean, constant need for care also means a digital pet took up most of your attention, to the detriment of teachers and parents. My mom complained I spent more time playing with my fake puppy than my real dogs, which was true. Though in my defense my real dogs weren’t going to die if I didn’t feed them every ten minutes, in spite of what they thought.

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As an adult, it is a lot more fun, because as I work I can simply take a few seconds to check the stats and adjust accordingly. Also because I need less sleep as an adult, I can fit that 9-7am window just fine. I also get more enjoyment out of seeing the pet ‘grow up’ day by day, because a week isn’t an incredibly long amount of time anymore, and Giga Pets, even with the best of care, have a lifespan of about a month anyhow (compared to Tamagotchi, which lived in excess of 30 days with proper care, though I’ll be damned if I believe that considering mine usually had a lifespan of 36 hours...)

I called my dog ‘Dan’ and started playing with him June 30th. I remembered ones in the past only lived a max of two weeks, and after the two week mark I hoped that I could make it a full 30 days. Alas, this was not the case. On July 22nd I had Dan go to sleep with fairly high stats (though his love stat dipped a bit due to not giving him a bath right away a few times. I was pretty busy that day shopping) but when I woke up the next morning I found Dan in a basket with another dog, meaning my time with him had ended. He stayed with me 24 days, which equates to 24 years. Which in truth would be way, waaay longer than a real dog’s natural life span. Still, I was pretty bummed out. After Dan leaving me I took the batteries back out of the Giga Pet, and it went back to my shelf. It was a fun little trip down memory lane but I think it’ll be a while before I play with a digital pet again, maybe next time I’ll get batteries for the new Tamagotchis, or even see if I still have my original Tamagotchi or the Nano Baby.

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(Also, I had an original Pokemon Pikachu that I inherited from my stepbrother because he didn’t want it. I used it for years as a watch until I lost it in high school while changing for gym. I still mourn its loss. Whoever out there who has it and kept it, I hope you’re taking good care of him.)