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Gifts of Holiday Past: Before there was Farmville, Tamagotchi was the pinnacle of time-wasting tech

Gifts of Holiday Past: I thought I liked Tamagotchi, but this guy has me beat 400 times over.

Besides nail polish, Beanie Babies, and “Jock Jams Vol. 1,” there was only one thing I wanted to unwrap during the Chanukah of 1996: a Tamagotchi virtual pet. I gleefully returned to school from winter vacation with my very own blue Tamagotchi and matching blue fingernails. The virtual pet craze hit my elementary school hard, and it seemed like everyone in the fifth grade was carrying around the keychain-sized toy. And if you weren’t 10 years old in the mid ‘90s you’re probably thinking to yourself, “Tama-huh?”

The toy was launched by Japanese manufacturer Bandai in 1996 and they’re still around today. It’s an egg-shaped gadget that features a basic LCD screen with three buttons below. There’s a “backstory” to the toy, about an alien species that lays an egg on Earth and it’s your job to raise the baby to an adult, through various stages of life.

As someone who had her Tamagotchi taken away by her teacher more than once, I can tell you that school is partly to blame for the toy fizzling out just two years from its release. The first versions of the digital pet didn’t include a dedicated pause button, and the pets were prone to dying very quickly if left unattended. Many schools ended up banning the toys from classrooms because the beeps of a hungry Tamagotchi frequently disturbed lessons.

After a rather long lull, the updated version hit the States in 2004, reviving the Tama revolution. Realizing that Bandai is still selling Tamagotchi models today on its TamaTown site, I wondered how many people are still buying the virtual pets in the age of the iPad.

Turns out, Tamagotchis not only still exist; they actually have quite a cult following. But spend some time on the forums they frequent – TamaTalk and Tama-Zone – and you’ll soon discover that few fans of the toy compare to a 25-year-old Virginia man named Erem J. Memisyazici.

Since 1996, Memisyazici has collected more than 400 Tamagotchis and the value of his collection is well into the thousands of dollars. But Memisyazici isn’t just known for his collection; he also maintains his extensive YouTube channel where he reviews the virtual pets in great depth. Going by the name of Ra in the Tamagotchi community, Memisyazici is a celebrity among Tama fans. 

The virtual pets have greatly affected Memisyazici’s life. A graphic design student at New River Community College in Dublin, Virginia, he says Tamagotchis have influenced what he does in school. He’s based marketing finals on their international popularity.

We spoke with the ardent fan about his love for the virtual pets, his mammoth collection, how Tamagotchi has changed over the past 16 years, and how the toys have changed his life …

DT: When did you start collecting Tamagotchis, and how did you get started?

EREM: It all started back in 1996. Prior to that year, we had never had anything like virtual pets before. Of course times were different then. We grew up without cellphones, computers or even the Internet! So many of the things children take for granted today weren’t around. Therefore, as silly as a pixel pet on an LCD screen may seem to some technologically spoiled children today, it was nothing short of magic to me! It was simply alive! That fascination never died out for me. Even though the Tamagotchi craze died in 1998, I held on to my passion. When at last they were re-introduced to the world in 2004, the flame of my Tamagotchi passion was rekindled.

How has Tamagotchi changed over the past 16 years? Is it relatively the same, or have there been major improvements?

When Tamagotchis were reintroduced in 2004, they came with several new features. The biggest of course would have to be its ability to connect with other Tamagotchis via an infrared port at the top of its shell. This way, the new modern Tamagotchis were able to connect and play games with others and even get married! The winter of that same year, Japan released the Keitai Tamagotchi, and its equivalent in America was the V2. This version introduced new characters and also the Gotchi Points system. Gotchi Points, which is Tama money, gave you the ability to shop for food, items and accessories! A new Tama Shop was added to these models and through playing games you could earn Gotchi Points to spend there.

 The end of 2008 ushered in a revolutionary new concept for Tamagotchis when Japan released the first Tamagotchi ever to be in full color! Since then, several different incarnations (all in full color) have been released, the latest of which is the Tamagotchi P’s released last month, and will hopefully continue. The color Tamagotchis introduced wallpapers, where your Tamagotchis live in actual places rather than the black and white Tamagotchis of the past, which featured no backgrounds. With this, we are now able to create our own custom-made wallpapers, toys, clothes, accessories, food items and much more, and send it over to our Tamas via IR port! It made Tamagotchis customizable and allowed people to relate to their Tamagotchis in a way not possible before.

What’s your favorite vintage Tama?

My favorite vintage era Tamagotchi would have to be Devilgotchi [pictured at right]. These are very rare and very expensive but well worth it these days. 

Do you still play with your Tamagotchis? If so, how often?

Absolutely! I often participate in group hatchings (where everyone who has agreed to join pull the tabs and start up their Tamagotchis at the same time), and I blog my progress with narratives and pictures. I usually have at least one Tama running at all times.

Have you ever been embarrassed by, or embarrassed about, your collection? 

No, if I were embarrassed, I wouldn’t be collecting them. As well as something I like, I view my collection as an investment.

How many Tamagotchis have you had living at one time?

The most I could realistically manage and look after without neglecting them is five. Anything more, and I’d have to neglect them, and I just hate that. Virtual or not, when you start up a Tamagotchi, you feel an emotional connection.

If your house was on fire, which Tamagotchi would you save?

Probably the most expensive one, as it would be the most valuable. Perhaps my Yasashii [pictured at right]? I saw one sell for $1,000 last year, which is the highest I’ve seen them sell for.

What is his highest high and lowest low as a Tamagotchi owner? 

I think the lowest [low] of being a Tama owner is definitely when one of your Tamagotchis stops working or breaks down completely. A lot of Tamagotchis, if not handled with proper care, will fall victim to battery corrosion or rust from humidity. When you’re buying a new-in-box vintage Tamagotchi online, it’s always a risk because you never know if it’s going to work or not when you pull the tab. This is why I always store the ones in my collection without batteries and with silica gels to keep out the humidity. As for the highest high, it’s either when I win a particularly rare Tamagotchi for a really cheap price online, or when I manage to get a secret character that’s really difficult to achieve!

From your experience, is the Tamagotchi community more male than female, or vice versa?

Although there are a fair number of male fans out there, the majority are female. In fact, one of the complaints we male fans have had with Bandai has been all the girly colors they release Tamagotchis in! Since they mainly target a female customer base, they release lots of pinks!

Do you spend more time with friends in real life, or online?

Oh my goodness. I’m not some anti-social hermit living out in the woods or anything. Definitely real life. I do have a lot of friends online, but talking to someone face-to-face versus on a computer screen isn’t the same. 

Have you made any friends via Tama forums that you’ve met in real life? How about any relationships?

I’ve made lots of friends via Tama forums! Though I haven’t met any in real life, I consider them dear friends! I keep in touch via Facebook and, of course, Tama-Zone. As for relationships, I did get close with someone I met through a Tama forum once, but alas, as with most long-distance relationships, it didn’t get very far.

Could you ever date someone who has never heard of Tamagotchi? If so, what if this person knew what Tamas were but didn’t have any interest?

That’s like not wanting to date someone because they didn’t have the same favorite color as you. It’s absurd. Of course I would date someone regardless of how they felt about Tamagotchis. Once more, I think it’s important to assert that Tamagotchis aren’t my life, they’re simply a hobby. No more than that.

Have you ever owned a real pet?

I grew up with real pets of all kinds and I currently have a cat. 

How do you think Tamagotchi differs from other gaming communities?

In the same way that playing with your house pet differs from playing a board game! Games are fun and all, but in the end there’s no personal connection the way you’re able to connect with a Tama. The main objective of most games (though I’m sure there are exceptions) is to play and win and be done. With Tamagotchis, you hatch a helpless little baby and take care of it and watch it grow. There’s an emotional connection there. You care about your little Tama.

Do you feel even the slightest bit weird about developing personal connections with a piece of plastic?

I don’t live out in a mountain like Gollum from Lord of the Rings, holding on to a Tamagotchi going, “precioussss…” Think of the emotional connection one might have for their virtual pet like someone’s game save on an Xbox. They’ve put effort and time into getting to that point, and they’d be pretty upset if the game save was lost all of a sudden, right? Same thing with a Tamagotchi. You put effort and time into caring for it, and you’d be upset if it was wiped all of a sudden. I wouldn’t break down and fall to pieces or anything.