Recent Developments and Trends
in Keychain Virtual Pets

An Illustrated Report
Part 1 of 2

by Gary Polson
© Copyright 1997 Polson Enterprises

Virtual Pet Design & Consulting Services

Note: in November 1997 this article was cleaned up for publication in a magazine, Virtual Pet Secrets, with new images and text.

Written 18 September 1997
Last Major Update 31 Oct 1997
This two part article is very heavy with graphics.
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Through my involvement in the Virtual Pet Homepage I have seen hundreds of keychain virtual pets in recent months. New developments in one pet are rapidly copied by others. Some pets have several new features, others are basically clones of existing pets. Many enthusiasts are no longer captivated by the basic 3 button, egg shaped dog, cat, dinosaur pets. In an effort to gain more business (sell more pets to existing customers and sell pets to new customers) manufacturers have added new features to their pets. Some of these features are very successful and are rapidly copied by others. New features that are not successful for whatever reason (not liked, fail to work, break, cost too much) may result in a pet being withdrawn from the market, or even in the failure of a company.

I have attempted to list the trends sequentially in the order in which they occurred. Some were simultaneous and overlapping, but the order still gives a general historic account of the rapid developments in keychain virtual pets from late 1996 to the present (November 1997).

It is a symptom of how fast this industry is moving that I apologize for the datedness of this article even as it is being written. Things are moving so fast that while this article captures the trends of the industry today, we expect to see new trends tomorrow. If this article is well received, I will try to update it as trends change and time permits. Please let us know what you think of this article by clicking on the mail box at the bottom of the page.

I would also like to add a special thanks to Robert Worne for his assistance with this article.

  1. At First There was ONE, Then There Were NONE

    Bandai's Tamagotchi took Japan by storm in late 1996 and the rest of the world in 1997.

    Even with proven suppliers, a large distribution system, and sound financial backing, Bandai was unable able to meet the demand for Tamagotchi as the world caught "Tamagotchi Fever". Everywhere you went, there were sold out signs. Stores announced when their next orders would be received and long lines formed waiting for the pets. Some feel Bandai may have taken on the U.S. and European market before meeting all the demand in Japan in order to keep the excitement and media going in Japan.

  2. Pets for Boys Too

    The Tamagotchi was designed for girls. It was a big hit with Japanese school girls and surprisingly, was also used by boys and men. The success of the Tamagotchi with boys encouraged other manufacturers to design new pets more specifically for boys. Tiger Electronic's Giga Pets (T-Rex, Alien, Bit Critter, and MicroChimp) were the first to target U.S. boys.



  3. Rapid Proliferation

    The word "Rapid" cannot be given enough emphasis. This product has introduced more models faster than any we have ever observed in the toy industry. The basic components (chip, display, speaker, and a plastic case) can be rapidly produced in large volumes. A strong electronic manufacturing environment (China and Taiwan) with weak intellectual property protection (patents and copyrights) also contributed to the speed of the movement. Virtual Pets were basically unheard of in the U.S. before March 1997. By September we had well over 150 different models illustrated on our Virtual Pets Home Page.

    This rapid proliferation of pets seemed to come from every directions at once. Manufacturers with one pet turned it into a whole "series" of pets. Other manufacturers "cloned" the existing pets. Pets representing additional types of animals including life forms that do not exist (monster and aliens) were soon available. Even humans became pets. Many pets originally intended for sale in Japan flowed into the U.S.. Each of these methods is briefly discussed below.

    A. "Series" Pets

    The Tamagotchi was a single pet. New manufacturers began to enter the market with 2 to 5 similar looking pets. This "group of pets" used similar cases, the same electronic "chip", and followed the same basic "life map". Initially, they were often a cat, dog, dinosaur, chicken, and a baby. The earliest "series" pets were kitty and puppy pets designed for use in Japan, but some made their way to the United States. Giga Pets were the first "series" of virtual pets designed for U.S. use. They were followed by Playmates Nano Pets and many others (My Pet Series, Pocket Pets, My Pets, the Hatchling Series)

    My Pets Series

    My Chick

    My Dino

    My Dog

    In the "My Pet" series the only difference in the pets was the graphics.

    B. Clones of the Original Pets

    The basic Tamagotchi, and other early kitty and puppy pets built for sale in Japan have been "cloned" by many manufacturers. Even some clones appear to have been copied again by others. Now dozens of the basic dog, cat, dinosaur, chicken pets differ very little from the original pets. Nano Pets resemble the early Japanese kitty and puppy pets. In October 97, Radio Shack entered the market with another basic dog, cat and dinosaur (PC Puppy, Data Cat, Micro Dino).



    C. Pets Represent a Wider Variety of Animals

    As the original pets were being "cloned", manufacturers also added many new animals as pets. Bats, Fish, Frogs, Lizards, Pandas, Parrots, Penguins, and Turtles to name a few.

    My Baby

    Yuki Penguin /
    Dinkie Penguin

    D. Pets Represent Non-Existing Creatures (Aliens and Monsters)

    "Soyadeto Grey" (alien) in Japan and Giga Pet's Virtual Alien in the U.S. launched the Alien category. In Japan the Gyaoppi was an early "monster" pet that was "sort of" a dinosaur. Many other aliens and monsters soon followed.



    Baby Monster

    E. Human Pets

    While the pets were making there rounds at being various animals, human pets began to appear. First they were simple baby pets, then girl pets and boy pets. Additional pets representing people were Nano Baby, Venus, My Beauty Baby, Baby Byte, Rikou Rikou Chan, and My Baby.

    Human Pets

    My Beauty


    F. U.S. Availability of Pets Intended for Sale in Japan

    Most of the early pets, except the U.S. Tamagotchi, Giga Pets, and Nano Pets, were originally designed for sale in Japan. These pets first appeared in the U.S. in areas with high concentrations of Asian people such as Los Angeles. Business men brought them back from trips to Japan, family members in Japan sent them to family members in the states, and a few Japanese stores began selling them. Most were sold in Japanese packaging with Japanese instructions.The pets were bright, colorful, pretty, interesting, and economical. As interest spread beyond the Japanese population, small vendors began to sell the pets to a much wider audience. Sales soared, large stores began to sell the pets and even more Japanese pets made their way toward America. Nekotcha, a widely sold Japanese pet, began to appear in U.S. packaging.

    Nekotcha and Dog Keychain Pets and Packaging

    Nekotcha Packaging
    Dog Packaging

  4. Death and Dying

    Japan's Tamagotchi ended its life by dying. The Giga Pet kitten and dog were among the first traditional pets represented by virtual pets that "died" in the U.S.. Many virtual pet users were startled by having a pet die on them. Others wondered if the game was over and could not be replayed. Several pets go to heaven, run away, or to go to outer space at the end of the game to avoid dying. Web sites acting as virtual cemeteries for virtual pets were created to allow beloved pets to be properly laid to rest.

  5. Complexity of the Pets is Increasing

    More buttons and functions were added to the pets. Weather was among the first problems your pet had to prepare for. Coats, galoshes, scarfs, hats, and sunglasses were provided to make your pet comfortable in the rain, snow, and sun. One penguin even had a thermostatic control.

    New pets have many more activities and possible life paths than the early pets. Several of the pets can be "named" by selecting letters one at a time. They play more exciting games with you (tag, guessing game, shaking hands, fetch, reading, "rocks, scissors, paper" and many others). Several pets change into different characters and roles in response to how you care for them. These changes make them more interesting than the early pets.

    Many manufacturers reply to their pets as "the latest generation virtual pet". Others refer to their pets as 2nd generation virtual pets. We even saw one labeled the 4th generation virtual pet. This is done to indicate the units are newer and more complex than the early units.

    Most new pets have 5 buttons. Four on the front for mode/select, enter, left, and right plus one (often on the back) for reset. Some pets have additional buttons for other functions such as muting the sound..

    Rikou Rikou

    Back of
    Mulder & Scully

  6. Better View of What is Going On (Displays)

    As the pets became more complex and more features were added, the viewing screens have been made larger. "Line" or "segmented" (LCD) displays are used by some pets. These displays have sharper images but are limited in their ability to display animation. My Beauty Baby was one of the first to have both increased viewing area and an LCD "line" display. Dot Matrix (pixel) displays offer better animation and are more customizable.

    My Beauty

    A Bandai

    The "Bandai Game" shown above is NOT a virtual pet. It is a Tamagotchi-theme Puyo-puyo type game. It does illustrate an LCD display.


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