TOKYO — Every parent knows how exhausting it can be answering newborn babies' every beck and call: the constant feedings, diaper changes and rocking them to sleep while they wail.
That's exactly the feeling that returns with the Tamagotchi Plus, a revamped version of the insanely popular digital pet from 1996.
This time, however, the egg-shaped portable electronic pets can befriend each other, even mate, thanks to an infrared-link. They're still monochrome, however -- rather primitive in this world of color cell phone video games, though the display is a bit bigger and visual quality has improved.
Tamagotchi Plus from Bandai Co. went on sale this month in Japan for $18, the same price as the original, and is planned for the United States in August for an as-yet undecided price.
Its target audience is young females, especially elementary school children who don't yet own a cell phone.
The basic idea is identical to the original: your pet character begins life as a simple black-and-white, cartoonish line drawing that is born as a circular blob. It slowly matures, through stages, into one of about a dozen animals, including one with rabbit ears and another that resembles a beaked ball of fire.
Parenting it is a relatively simple process -- done with three tiny buttons. Push one after the word "meal" pops up on the tiny liquid crystal display, and the pet will drink out of a bottle. As it grows, it eats supper at a table.
When your pet leaves droppings around, you push buttons to make a picture of a toilet pop up. Another push cleans things up. As you become more skilled, you learn that pushing the button at the right time, when squiggles appear on the screen, will get your pet potty-trained.
The new Tamagotchi also includes some rather boring dexterity games that weigh on how the pet develops mentally and physically. How often the owner scolds or caresses also bears on the pet's development. Leave a Tamagotchi Plus unattended for a couple of hours and it beeps for attention. Fail to respond and it grows sick. More neglect and a picture of a grave will appear.
Kill your pet and you have to reboot and start all over again.
The toy's developers at Bandai acknowledge it's probably impossible to duplicate the success of the initial Tamagotchi: 40 million sold worldwide in just two years.
But Bandai's chief Tamagotchi officer, Takeichi Hongo, says marketing research shows people still enjoy the essence of the original -- "experiencing a sense of life." You cannot put a Tamagotchi on "pause."
Bandai also thinks it can promote sales longevity by following up on the upgraded Tamagotchi release with innovative upgrades including cell phone tie-ins.
With the new version, repeated use of its infrared communications feature intensifies the pets' relationships with other Tamagotchis -- from casual acquaintances to friends to lovers.
A contact between lovers sets off digital fireworks on the screen, and the pets can marry and produce offspring -- another tiny creature on both screens to be arduously raised.
My pet tried to foster a relationship with a Tamagotchi Plus I assigned to my husband. Our machines became immediate friends after a few button-pushing sessions with the two machines facing each other.
My husband's pet gave mine a ball as a gift. A picture of a ball showed up on my screen that my pet proudly bounced around on its head. Meaner creatures give fecal droppings or ghosts as gifts.
I managed to nurture my spiked-hair pet to adolescence in a few days. And my husband, who has been known to spend hours on more sophisticated video games but showed little motivation to rear his Tamagotchi, parented his to about the same level despite repeated brushes with death.
But our pets never made it to marriage.
It's a good thing real-life courtship is far less boring.
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