Deep Dives Level Up Newsletters Saved Articles Challenges

From Tamagotchi to Nintendogs: decoding the rise of virtual pets as loyal companions in the cyberspace

Let’s face it, we all love pets—be it a dog or a cat, a bird or a rabbit, fluffy friends bring immeasurable joy to our lives. For some, however, due to financial or logistical reasons, a pet just isn’t a feasible option. But who said a real one is your only option? Do you want a pet that is relatively inexpensive, can fit in the palm of your hand and can still provide the same amount of serotonin as the real deal? Then a virtual pet is the perfect choice for you! Don’t know what we’re on about? Well, you’re in for a ride into one of the most wholesome subcultures on the internet today.

What is a virtual pet?

A virtual pet, put simply, is an artificial human companion. These cute critters come in many different varieties but they all share the same goal—to give you the opportunity to easily raise a pet with love and care. But that’s not all. Most pets require you to feed, play and groom them, just like their real-life counterparts. Some of them can even evolve into different forms depending on the device you are using. They, of course, have no real physical form other than the gadgets they are housed in, which are often small, palm-sized and delightfully portable—making them perfect for those who didn’t have a pet but wanted one oh-so-badly.

View this post on Instagram

A post shared by Rachel (@mamagotchi87)

Virtual pets can range from portraying actual animals like the Petz series to fantasy creatures as can be found in the Tamagotchi and Digimon series. They are also not limited to the tiny pocket devices mentioned earlier, some virtual pets are web browser-based while others are part of video games like the widely loved Nintendogs collection by Nintendo. But where did these adorable digitised creatures originate? It’s time for another gaming history lesson.

A virtual past

Back in 1991, a video game company by the name of PF Magic was set up somewhere in San Francisco, California. This little company would go on to make the first virtual pet game ever in 1995, called Dogz. The great success of this entry prompted them to release Catz just a year later—ultimately birthing the Petz franchise. Little did they know at the time that they had just started one of the biggest crazes the 90s would ever witness…

View this post on Instagram

A post shared by 李星 (@hou_hai_)

In the same year that Catz was released, Bandai Namco brought Tamagotchi to the masses. Probably the most well known virtual pet to this day, Tamagotchi took the world by storm when it was released internationally in 1997 and had you feed, play games with and cherish a little alien you’d carry around in your pocket. If you did all this you would be rewarded and your little friend could grow up or morph into one of many different characters available. The fad had the entire US in a chokehold, to a point where they were actually banned for disrupting children’s school work as they needed constant attention to survive.

In 1998, Nintendo also jumped on the bandwagon and released the Pocket Pikachu, following the phenomenal success of the Pokémon franchise. The toy housed the series’ mascot, the electric mouse-like creature Pikachu, but worked a bit differently from those that were launched before it. Instead of having to care for Pikachu, owners would attach it to their belt and use it as a pedometer. For every 20 steps taken, Pikachu would give the player one Watt, a currency that could be used to buy the virtual pet presents online.

Fast forward to 2022, although the initial craze has died down significantly from the 90s, virtual pets (and the nostalgia that surrounds them) are still going strong. Don’t believe me? Well, Bandai Namco actually released Tamagotchi Smart in 2021 as part of its 25th anniversary. The new device is designed to resemble a smartwatch—complete with a rechargeable battery and a slot for special memory cards which allows you to download additional accessories, characters and food for your Tamagotchi pal. Technology never ceases to amaze us, am I right?

View this post on Instagram

A post shared by วυѕтιηє🍃 (@jubagotchi)

My pet is better than yours

Over the years, we have seen countless virtual pets enter the market. So many pixelated friends came and went. But which ones were the most popular? Let’s take a look.

1. Tamagotchi (1996)

Credited as the start of the portable virtual pet craze, there’s no doubt Tamagotchi should be in the top spot. Bandai really hit the nail on the head with this one, selling millions of units in Japan and North America alone, as well as many other iterations of the accessory years down the line. Your task was simple—take care of your little baby Tamagotchi until it grew up into a healthy adult. If you neglected your little friend then it, well… died. Sad times. It wasn’t long before kids started holding funerals for their late pets. Your zeros and ones won’t be forgotten, little guy.

2. Digimon (1997)

Probably more well known for the popular animated TV series, Digimon was Tamagotchi’s successor, but this time marketed with ‘boys’ specifically in mind—it was the 90s after all. On top of looking after your digital monster, you could also level up your Digimon’s power and using the built-in connectivity features, link up with friends and battle it out to see who had the stronger monster. Digimons are, in fact, the champions.

3. Pocket Pikachu Colour (1999)

Pocket Pikachu Colour was the second entry in the Pocket Pikachu series and incorporated probably one of the coolest features of a virtual pet at the time. Remember those Watts I mentioned earlier that you could save up? Not only could you look after Pikachu and take him on walks, but by connecting it to Pokémon Gold and Silver via the infrared sensor on the Game Boy Colour, the Watts could be traded to the video game.

Depending on the amount traded, the player could receive a variety of items in the game. This feature wasn’t seen again until the release of Pokémon HeartGold and SoulSilver (HGSS), remakes of Gold and Silver, which came packaged with the Poké Walker accessory—a device that let you transfer a Pokémon from HGSS and take it for a walk, earning Watts as you go. Nintendo’s out here, always trying to get us to exercise—one way or another.

This is just the beginning

Since their birth in the late 90s, virtual pets have slowly declined in popularity, but that doesn’t mean they’re gone for good. Bandai Namco has just celebrated Tamagotchi’s 25th anniversary and released a new device to accompany it. More and more virtual pet apps are also appearing on both Google Play and App Store as we speak. The shift from physical hardware to apps may just be the way to go, since practically all of us have access to a smart device of some kind. There’s even research that shows virtual pets are good for our mental health. Who knew back in the 90s playground, when you were showing off your new Tamagotchi or Pocket Pikachu, that it would be helping people nearly 30 years later find their peace of mind?

So, if you’re feeling lonely and need a little companionship, maybe a virtual friend is all you need. But remember—a Tamagotchi is for life, not just for Christmas.

Pokémon Nuzlocke Challenge: When adult players create their own game rules

“Gotta catch ‘em all!” Remember that old phrase? While it’s been quite some time since it used the iconic slogan, the worldwide Pokémon phenomenon is still going strong 25 years after its initial release. Unlike other franchises however, it hasn’t really matured with its audience. Many adults who played Pokémon as kids may be finding that those games of yore just don’t have the same spark they remember. So, in order to alleviate the mundane Pokémon experience, adult gamers have developed a new—and sometimes heartbreaking—way to play. Introducing the Pokémon ‘Nuzlocke Challenge’.

So what exactly is a Nuzlocke?

Well, in order to participate in a Nuzlocke, you’ll need two things: a Nintendo console and a Pokémon game of your choice. Pretty simple, right? Not for long though. From here on out you will be completing your chosen Pokémon journey by adhering to a self-imposed set of rules. The core of these are as follows:

– You may only catch the first Pokémon you encounter in each area.

– If your Pokémon faints, it is considered ‘dead’ and must either be released or placed in storage, which means you cannot use it for the rest of the playthrough.

– This one’s pretty cute. You must nickname every Pokémon you catch in order to get more attached to them.

If you’ve played in the universe before, then you already know that these new rules are a real game-changer. If you’re a new ‘Trainer’, then let me explain.

Normally, the regular Pokémon journey isn’t particularly taxing. You travel from town to town, defeating ‘Gym Leaders’ (the game’s version of bosses), collecting ‘Gym Badges’ from them, catching lots of Pokémon to complete your ‘Pokédex’ (a special electronic encyclopaedia for recording information on the creatures), stopping the bad guys and becoming the Pokémon Champion of the region. You get the gist of it.

The worst thing that can happen to your little pocket monsters is that they faint in battle, but just hurry on over to the nearest Pokémon Centre (the in-game equivalent of a hospital) or use some healing items and they’ll be good to go again. You can’t really lose a Pokémon game either. Your party can be wiped out but you can just respawn at the last Pokémon Centre you visited and try again.

Not in a Nuzlocke though. If one of your Pokémon’s hit points (HP) hits zero, they’re considered dead. If all of your Pokémon are wiped out, it’s game over and you must delete the save file and start fresh if you so wish. You can also forget about completing your Pokédex during a run like this. Every time you enter a new route or location you get one chance to catch the first Pokémon you encounter. If you knock the Pokémon out, or it runs away, that’s your chance gone, and you must wait until the next new area before you can attempt to catch another team member.

As you can see, making your team members somewhat ‘mortal’ and having a limited roster of Pokémons adds another layer of difficulty and strategy to your experience. You get what you’re given and you just have to make it work.

If you didn’t think that was enough, the icing on the cake comes with having to nickname each Pokémon you catch. “But it’s just a name,” some of you might say. Indeed, it might be. But when Sparky the Pikachu, who has been with you for most of your journey and to which you are now attached, gets taken out in a crucial battle, you’ll understand why this is the hardest, most devastating rule of all. RIP Sparky.

This extreme version of Pokémon was developed back in 2010 by Los Angeles-based artist Nick Franco. He initially documented his journey in a webcomic called Pokémon: Hard-Mode which went on to inspire many adult players who took to naming it themselves as a Nuzlocke—a combination of ‘Nuzleaf’, a grass type Pokémon and the character John Locke from the TV series Lost. Don’t waste your brain cells on it, not even fans understand it. In an interview with Vox, Franco told the publication, “I was just trying to make someone laugh at stupid comic. I didn’t want to make some big thing.” Well, well, well, look where we are now.

Go hard or go home

So, why do players want a harder challenge? Pokémon isn’t exactly known for its difficulty. Most fans, even the youngest ones, can get through a normal playthrough without much hassle. And that’s where the problem lies with many of the older players. Even after 25 years, the games are still being geared towards children, even more so now with many of the new entries guiding the player through the adventure—we’re looking at you, Ultra Sun & Ultra Moon—rather than just letting them explore at their own pace.

GameFAQ user SmellyvonBeli expressed their annoyance at the hand-holding, saying “Why can’t I explore on my own? Why does my overly-happy ‘rival’ constantly give me potions, revives, etc? I wish I could just explore new areas at my own pace instead of sitting through cutscenes every 90 seconds.” Now, Pokémon was, and always will be, a game aimed at a younger audience, there’s no disputing that fact. But older fans just aren’t content with that idea anymore. And we think nostalgia is to blame.

You know how it is—you experience something again from your childhood and it’s just not quite as good as you remember it. It’s the same with Pokémon. As you grow up, your perspective of things changes and you mature, so when you sit down to play Pokémon: Ruby Version 19 years later, it’s way easier and less impressive than you remember. This is where the Nuzlocke Challenge really comes into its own—it revitalises a beloved, yet ultimately tired set of games and gives them another chance to shine. And to the nostalgia- and challenge-hungry fans, this is a dream come true.

Illicit Pokémon activity

The Pokémon Nuzlocke Challenge is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to helping the game series ‘grow up’ however. In fact, a quick Google search will uncover an entire world of Pokémon ROM hacks.

A ROM hack is essentially an altered version of a game. Internet users take the file of an already existing Pokémon game and then mess about with it—adding their own features, some even going as far as creating a whole new version out of a pre-existing one. Some players take matters even further and make their own Pokémon games from scratch, one of the most notorious being Pokémon: Uranium Version which contained a much more mature story and was far more difficult than normal games. It added difficulty modes, a Nuzlocke option when you started the game and a bigger focus on building a competitive team. However, due to legal action being taken against the developers, they had to remove all download links and cease the development of their project in 2016.

As with most things that involve original intellectual properties (IPs), there are certain legal issues that can and will crop up. Pokémon ROM hacks and fan projects unfortunately cross these legal boundaries, with Nintendo historically pursuing a multitude of cease and desist orders. But if these projects are illegal, why do so many people continue to make them?

The answer is simple. As mentioned above, many gamers aren’t happy with the state of Pokémon at present and where Nintendo is taking the franchise. These fan-made games appear to be a public letter to the game developer to step up with Pokémon. If they won’t make the changes that are wanted, then the fans will.

Despite all this, it seems that, to some extent at least, Nintendo has heard the call for Pokémon to grow up. With the release of Pokémon Legends: Arceus on January 28 2022 came a huge leap forward in the way the video game could be experienced. In an article by Wired, YouTuber Rogersbase had this to say about it: “This is like grown-up Pokémon, to the extent that you can make Pokémon grown-up. It’s always gonna be a franchise that is aimed at everybody and can appeal to children.” And he is correct. By opening up the world, giving players the opportunity to explore as much as they see fit, and actually adding some challenge to the game, Pokémon is finally catching up to where fans want it to be.

Heart of the community

Let’s take a second and move back to the topic at hand. The Nuzlocke Challenge has been around for many years at this point, and with good reason. With such a fun and refreshing way to re-experience Pokémon, it seems obvious that some people would want to document their adventures. Enter the “PokéTubers.”

A type of YouTuber that makes primarily Pokémon video game content, there are hundreds, if not thousands of examples of this type of content creator around now and many of them take part in playing-through Pokémon games with the Nuzlocke rules. Zwiggo, a PokéTuber from the Netherlands is one of the more popular creators and produces many types of Pokémon challenge videos, including Nuzlocke runs.

This type of video has obviously found its way onto TikTok too, with creators like PurpleCliffe branching out from YouTube. From this, huge communities have been born. Many creators broadcast their runs on streaming services such as Twitch where fans can interact with them on a more personal level. This type of interaction builds up solid communities and fan bases and allows content creators to enjoy and share their often hilarious experiences.

Probably the biggest boost to Nuzlocke’s notoriety was the publication of a video by a YouTuber called Jaiden Animations back in November of 2019. The video followed the animator’s first-ever Nuzlocke of Pokémon: Ruby Version and what started off as a fun and jolly adventure ended in anything but that. One of the most notable moments came when she faced off against the sixth Gym Leader ‘Winona’, who is notorious for sweeping teams.

Prior to the fight, she lost her beloved team member ‘Corn the Nuzleaf’ and when fighting Winona, Jaiden’s ‘Magneton’—an electric-type Pokémon made up of a set of three magnets—aptly named ZIPZAPZOP was almost killed by Winona’s ‘Altaria’ (a large cloud covered bird). “Somehow ZIPZAPZOP lived the earthquake on 2 HP, like a mad lad. Corn must have been looking down on us for this one because there was a 90 per cent chance that ZIPZAPZOP was supposed to die there”

Pokémon Nuzlocke Challenge: When adult players create their own game rules

This emotional stance on the Nuzlocke struck a chord with viewers, many relating to the events of the video and exclaiming how emotional it made them.

Postgame

So, where does this leave Pokémon? With the new generation of games coming to Nintendo Switch at the end of 2022, it will be very interesting to see where Nintendo takes the franchise this time. With the information available, we already know that Pokémon Scarlet and Violet Versions will feature a similarly open world to Arceus as well as comparable mechanics. Arceus was a step in the right direction for the game series and it is these types of changes that will more than likely bring veteran fans back into the fray. Will we see a built-in Nuzlocke mode? Probably not, but as long as there are players looking for a new and exciting way to play their childhood favourites, the Pokémon Nuzlocke Challenge will live on.