If you remember 1997 like it was yesterday, the word 'Tamagotchi' may well be loaded for you too. Striking terror in then-parents hunting one down, notes of obsession in anyone who wanted or had one, and crushing FOMO if you were the only kid in school without one, the virtual pet craze was as intense as it was fleeting.
Spawning Digimon, GigaPets, NanoPets, and even a pocket LCD Pikachu that doubled up as a pedometer so you could earn in-game currency by pounding that pavement, Tamagotchis were the OG. Unlike most copycats, the cutesy illustrated Tamagotchi – or “Tama” as it’s lovingly known by fans – is still kicking about, celebrating 25 years of virtual petting a couple of years ago.
Tamagotchis have seen a few changes over the last couple of decades, having upgraded from monochrome to colour screens, launching in a Pix edition complete with a camera for parent/pet pictures, and Bandai even gives you the option to marry off your minion.
For 2023, the £69.99/$59.99/AU$129.95 Tamagotchi Uni has been given the Zuckerberg treatment, gaining Wi-Fi connectivity and access to – wait for it – the Tamaverse.
So why did a 38-year-old man like me want to enter the Tamaverse? Two reasons: the first is nostalgia; this is the first Tamagotchi I've used since 1997. I was genuinely curious to see what’s changed in 26 years. The second: I live a begrudgingly pet-free existence. As a flat-dweller in London, my options are limited to small rodents and reptiles, so I’m biding my time to get a pet until I move somewhere larger, preferably with outdoor space. Can the Tamagotchi Uni really scratch that itch?
If you’re a Brit who thinks Uni is short for "university", it isn’t. It’s actually short for "universe", thanks to the fact you can hang out with other Tamagotchi from around the world and download device updates over Wi-Fi. This connectivity also means you can send snaps of your Tama to your phone, and when it’s old enough, let it loose in the Tama Arena.
To look at, the Uni is an egg-shaped, plastic virtual pet with three buttons below a small, 128x128 resolution screen. This winning three-button formula has persisted since the first Tamagotchi was born in 1996, and while there have been plenty of Tamagotchi launched in Japan over the last 20 years, the Tamagotchi Uni edition is one of a handful to make it to the West.
What’s good about the Tamagotchi Uni specifically is that it’s the first Tamagotchi to launch in the UK with a rechargeable battery which powers up using the USB-C port at the base. That means it’s better for the planet and smaller than the last Tama to hit our shores, the Tamagotchi Pix, which required two AAA batteries.
While it still isn’t as compact as the OG, therefore, it’s small enough to easily pocket or strap on a wrist, thanks to an in-box watch adapter.
If, like me, you haven’t used a Tamgotchi since the 90s, the most welcome update is the option to have an in-game sitter watch over your Tama-tot while you hit the town. But don’t get it twisted – you can’t go AWOL for days. Rely on the sitter for more than a couple of hours and you can expect a hefty dose of guilt-tripping from both your sitter and sprog. To drive the knife in deeper, your Tamagotchi calls you by your first name to scold you for abandoning them. Harrowing stuff.
There are some things we love about the Tamagotchi Uni: the faithful art style, 8-bit everything, animations and characters. And there are also some things we loathe: three-button input when you need to punch in long strings of alphanumeric code, for example, and the lack of smartphone integration beyond clunky Wi-Fi picture-sending. But one thing we’re explicitly on the fence about is the Tamaverse itself.
When you access the Tamaverse in the settings, your Tama-offspring dons a VR headset and enters the Ta-matrix. Options here include Party, where you can date and, eventually, marry your Tamagotchi off. Do this at your peril, as after marriage, you bid farewell to your Tama and switch it out for an egg inspired by its parents (your past Tama and its spouse).
You can also send your Tama on holiday in the Tamaverse to bump up its joy metre and shop for global fashions, buying lewks from around the world. While these sound like connected experiences, none actually require internet access, so if you’re thinking that the Tamaverse is an entirely connected space, think again.
What looks set to be the connected element within the Tamaverse is the Tama Arena and Area Gate. Both were inaccessible in my time with the Uni – either down to the fact the virtual pet isn’t available for general release while testing or that my Tama wasn’t old enough to take part. Based on what I know, though, in the Tama Arena, users can compete in limited-time game events which are updated seasonally. The fact you only have three games to play with your Tama – and one requires the watch strap attachment to use – means any extra variety will be welcome.
There are some other online features Wi-Fi helps with. You can download items by punching in special codes, access updates for the Tamagotchi Uni itself, connect with friends, and more. Only time will tell how much Bandai upkeeps its latest Tama and takes advantage of its internet access within.
Tama-tastic or Tama-terrible?
There’s no denying that Tamagotchi Uni is a very fun, faithful reprise of an iconic Bandai franchise with welcome updates aplenty. Its more emotive, colourful Tama characters did a great job of letting me know what they liked, loved, and loathed. Meanwhile, the basic 8-bit beeps and pixel-heavy visuals kept things rooted in the charm of bygone days that I wanted out of this thing.
As a children’s toy for ages 8+, the Tamagotchi Uni seems like a novel and expensive gift. It costs as much as a budget smartphone despite there being a fraction of the tech inside. But given the Tamagotchi IP and charm – you can argue the price away at a push.
How much kids will care about Tamagotchis is a more interesting point. I took the Tama on a weekend away with my partner’s nieces and nephews, aged between five and 10-years-old, and they weren’t particularly interested in my all-beeping, all-pooping virtual pet. Meanwhile, the little Tama got plenty of attention from the 30-something-year-old adults in the room, suggesting Bandai’s biggest asset in selling this could well be nostalgia – at least in the UK.
If you’re wondering if the Tamaverse takes Tamagotchis to new heights, adding a Pokemon Stadium element to the mix, it didn’t seem to in my time using the Uni. In fact, I’d go so far as to say Wi-Fi seems like a missed trick on first impressions – doing little more than checking for updates and clunkily sending low-res pictures to your phone. I'm hoping, however, that the online experience evolves and upgrades the offline experience in the process. I’d love more games, smarter smartphone integration, and ultimately an experience that better caters to the plus side of ages 8-years-old and up!
And so draws the end of my time testing out the Tamagotchi Uni. It was handy to be able to say “oh, yes, it’s a Tamagotchi, I’m writing about it for work” when quizzed as to why a bearded, 38-year-old, 6-foot-4-inch-tall man might be pulling one out every half an hour or so.
Will I keep using the Uni? Absolutely, at least until my current pet, Labilatchi, goes to Tama-heaven. And does the Uni really dial back my desire for a real-life cat or dog? Of course it doesn’t. But it’s a lot less messy, smelly, and expensive, and until I can upgrade to flesh and fur, the Tamagotchi Uni is a welcome distraction, a healthy dose of kawai, and a great conversation starter with 30-somethings craving a serving of bleeping pixel-tastic nostalgia.