Chris Starling was eight years old when he started collecting Tamagotchi in the mid-2000s. All of his friends at school had Tamagotchi, and he would use the hacks he learned from an online community called Tama Talk to show his friends how they could pick their own characters (which is usually determined by how well you care for your baby Tamagotchi) and how to put their pets into hyperspeed, growing them from babies to adults in just minutes. “Then their parents would kind of get mad at me and call my mom: ‘Your kid messed up my kid’s toy,’” he says.
Starling is 23 now, and he still collects and tinkers with his Tamagotchi devices. And while the Tamagotchi fad may have faded since Bandai first released the toy in 1996, Tama Talk is still very much alive and active, with users sharing tips for everything from how to knit cases for the plastic eggs to how to avoid fake pets being sold online. And Tamagotchi hackers still turn to thriving communities on Reddit, Facebook, and Discord for guides and tips on how to mod their little eggs. One of the most common topics of discussion seems to be how to keep the little pixelated pets alive for longer — even if it means cheating a little.
“I like to keep my Tamagotchi alive because they feel like pets or little friends, and it is silly, but it feels really bad knowing you neglected a tiny pile of pixels that relied on you and it died,” says Cat, a 25-year-old in Massachusetts who asked that I only use her first name. “You put a lot of time into growing them, they grow from babies to adults over a week, and you gather them money and toys, so I grow attached to them.”
“Because of my schedule, it’s hard to run a Tamagotchi for an extended time without any cheats. But I’m still pretty attached to these little guys.”
Cat relies on the pause function to extend her Tamagotchi’s lives. Once you start your pet’s life cycle, there’s no off button. Time doesn’t stop for your digital pet when you’re away from the device, and constant care is required to keep it alive and well. While you’re otherwise occupied, your pet is likely to die from neglect.
Older models made for the U.S. had a pause option, but Japanese models, as well as the new color Tamagotchis that make up some of Cat’s collection, don’t. So she searched the topic in the Tama Talk forum and figured out she could pause them by simply taking the batteries out, thereby freezing the game.
Starling uses another strategy for keeping Tamagotchi pets alive called debug mode. In earlier models, this function is activated by taking the backplate off of the egg and using a pencil to draw a line between the two contact pads. (Another more intrusive and less common way to do this is through soldering.) The graphite from the lead triggers a debug signal that lets users choose their own character instead of randomly hatching one and enables hyperspeed. With the newer Tamagotchis, this hack is a bit more difficult: You have to take the screen off and solder a wire from one pad to another. Starling doesn’t recommend a beginner attempt this — he once ended up breaking the screen. But debugging does extend the life expectancy pretty indefinitely. “I don’t believe it dies,” Starling said. “I never had a debug one die.”
Jess, a 20-year-old in eastern Canada who asked that I not use her real name, has three Tamagotchis that have all been alive for more than two months thanks to time cheats. She also uses the battery trick, and because she has newer models — the Tamagotchi Meets and On — she has to get creative without a dedicated pause function. She said that in these models, the Tamagotchi runs on internal and external clocks. The internal clock is what determines the Tamagotchi’s age, and it is influenced by what the external clock — the one the user programs based on the actual time — reads. Jess has learned that if she sends her Tama into the Tamagotchi On app (newer Tamagotchi models come with an app that can be used to do things like communicating with other characters or your friends), it pauses the internal clock, which in turn stops the pet from getting older.
“Because of my schedule, it’s hard to run a Tamagotchi for an extended time without any cheats,” said Jess, who works night shifts at a hotel. “But I’m still pretty attached to these little guys.”
Geoff, a 27-year-old grad student based in North Carolina who also asked that I not use his real name, noted that the new Tamagotchi On has three different ways to pause the game. One of these is a time-change trick — users open the setting for changing the time on the Tamagotchi and leave the pet on that screen, pausing the growth of the pet until they actually set the time. A second trick is to leave the Tama in daycare, but that only pauses the pet for a certain period of time. The third trick is to upload the pet onto the app and then exit out of it, the same trick Jess uses. The toy will think the character is still in the app until you force-return the Tama without connecting back to the app. This allows for unlimited pausing.
“Every player’s different, but my family tree means a lot to me. I can go back and remember all the different characters I raised.”
“As I understand it, a Tamagotchi’s life expectancy depends on ‘care misses,’ the number of times it needs something from you and you don’t take care of it in a decent amount of time,” Geoff said. “By making sure the Tamagotchi is only running when I’m able to take care of it, I reduce the possibility I could neglect it. If it’s seriously neglected, it could get sick or even die.”
Tamagotchi enthusiasts say the classic version can live up to 25 “years,” or about 24 real-world days. Each time the Tamagotchi wakes up, a year passes in Tamagotchi time. Reddit user wolfnanaki, who claims to have founded the Tamagotchi fandom Wiki page, said that on the vintage models, it’s easy to fake the age by adjusting the clock repeatedly to manually add numbers to the age counter, tricking the device’s clock into counting more hours than had actually passed. It wouldn’t change the growth of the pet, but it would hack the age. On models released after Bandai rebooted the Tamagotchi in 2004 — making them full-color and able to interact with other characters — the pets age based on how you care for them rather than how much time has passed, making the clock hack less relevant.
In addition to extending a Tamagotchi’s life, some hackers have figured out how to improve the toy’s quality of life by inserting new items, clothing, backgrounds, and characters. There are also cheats to get infinite currency, which can pay for better food for your pets.
Geoff, for instance, said that he spent hours in the app trying to find the octopus gene, which is only available in Japan and is very cute. (With the newer models, users can marry their Tama with another pet, and they will breed new Tamas.) He wasn’t able to pass down the octopus gene in any of his marriages, so instead, he used a hack to get an octopus. Geoff says that influencing the Tamagotchi family tree has become a focus for Tama hackers with newer models. It’s still cheating death in some sense because it provides a way to preserve progress in the game. “Looking back, you’ll see in the way traits change, come in, and phase out a long history of the choices you made in how you played and who you had your Tamagotchi marry as well as some random chance,” he says. “Every player’s different, but my family tree means a lot to me. I can go back and remember all the different characters I raised.”
“I’m not sure how Bandai feels about [the community of Tamagotchi hackers],” he said. “On one hand, they probably like that people enjoy their product so much. On the other hand, I could see them being worried about people changing things up on their Tamas. Tamagotchi fans are generally very careful and considerate about hacking efforts.”
Most Tama hackers aren’t trying to game the corporation by evading costs, tainting the toy’s gameplay, or causing havoc. They just adore their little pets, and they’re simply trying to give them the best — and longest — lives they can.
“When I was a kid, I didn’t get to have pets,” Starling said. “I have five dogs now because I didn’t get any pets as a kid. Tamagotchi was my pet replacement, that special place in my heart.”
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