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Toys of Yesterday: Digimon

3:00 PM on 09.29.2010 // Brian Szabelski

Last month, we brought you a Toys of Yesterday feature on Tamagotchi. So perhaps it only makes sense that this month, the Toys of Yesterday spotlight shines on its sibling, Digimon. While eventually it turned out to take a different path than its predecessor, Digimon was originally birthed from a similar idea but aimed at a new audience: younger boys. Like the 11-year-old me.

But it was more than that: it was a player in the virtual pet market at a time when the other options for young boys were few and far between, since you really couldn't play video games in school. That was, except for the game-like Digimon, just small enough to sneak into class and take care of while the teacher was busy talking about stuff that bored you.

Hit the jump and travel back to the past once more!

Before we begin, let me make it clear: we're not talking about the animated series or the rest of that crap. We're also not mentioning the more recent Digimon toys, because they have little real connection to the original virtual pet other than name and a few other basics. And with that out of the way, let us begin:

By 1997, Tamagotchi had flourished and become a cash cow for Bandai. But they still had a problem, after all: Tamagotchi was marketed to and extremely popular with women. Young boys in Japan didn't have an equivalent virtual pet to play with, but Bandai likely had an easy inspiration: insect collecting and fighting. The pastime had always been popular with young boys in Japan, and a game based on that concept had come out in February 1996 for the Nintendo Game Boy called Pocket Monsters. That game promptly blew the doors off everything in its path, and perhaps both the insect collecting/fighting pastime and the wild success of the first two Pokemon games led Bandai to believe that the monster fighting genre was the way to go.

On June 26, 1997, Bandai's answer to their problem was released upon the public in the form of Digimon, an obvious portmanteau of "digital" and "monster." The original Digimon was designed with boys in mind: not carrying a feminine egg shape, Digimon were big and blocky (for a virtual pet, at least) with an outer texture made to look like bricks, with a frame made to look like a broken cage surrounding the LCD screen. Part of that blockiness was also by design, thanks to two metal contacts at the top of the Digimon that were used for linking Digimon together for battles. The rectangular shape probably also helped make docking a lot easier.

Like their egg-shaped brethren, they were banned ina  lot of schools for being a distraction. However, that wasn't all they had in common. Tamagotchi and Digimon shared the same basic functions and many similar elements. Players still had to take care of their Digimon by feeding them, cleaning up their poop, making sure they got enough rest, though for the Digimon series, this was toned down a little bit since young boys apparently don't like taking care of animals so much.

But the big difference was the battling! And the training! Digimon needed to train in order to even be able to battle. Training was done via shadowsparring on each Digimon itself through a mini-game in which you had to attack in the right direction. If you won 3 out of 5 matches, your strength grew and eventually, you began to rank up. The more you fought and grew, the closer you came to evolving to the adult stage. Battling itself was simple, too: all you had to do was link them up, select monster match mode, and watch the fireworks unfold. Battling too many times was bad, though, so you had to be careful! Your win-loss record was also kept internally, and if your Digimon ended up injured after the match, you had to heal it until it was all better. It was all rather simply, but hey, when you're young, stuff like this is ridiculously cool.

Of course, there were also different versions throughout Digimon history. Originally, the box-shaped Digimon would go through six versions, each adding in new characters and colors, but retain the same initial basics. A mini version was also later produced, but big changes didn't come until the Pendulum series was unveiled. Besides the new shape, these Pendulum Digimon had a "pendulum mode" which was really just a pedometer inside the Digimon and a new Digimon evolution level. Other than that, it was still the same old Digimon kids had grown to love years before.

There were changes, too, between the Japanese and U.S. versions. In the Japanese version, Digimon whose time expired died, while in the U.S. version, they went to the Digimon Mainframe, apparently because U.S. kids needed a happier ending. A handful of Digimon names changed, too, most notably Devimon becoming Darkmon because Devimon is too terrifying for small American children, I guess.

However, by 2000, things had begun to change. The original Digimon started taking a backseat to the animated series which had debuted the previous year. Within a few years, the next version of Digimon virtual pets, Pendulum X, would ultimately be redesigned to fit more in line with the animated series, marking an end to the original pets and seemingly an end to our tale.

So, what's become of it today? The original toys have been somewhat forgotten by a younger generation of fans who have only grown up on the anime series and believe that to be the original source material. It never was able to put a dent in the mighty Pokemon machine, which still chugs along today as one of Nintendo's cornerstone franchises and perhaps even its most profitable one. But on the other hand, while the internal batteries of some old versions of Pokemon Red, Green, Blue and Yellow have begun to fade and fail, making the game carts not work, Bandai's been getting the last laugh: almost all of the Digimon that were well taken care of still seem to be operable (including mine, last time I checked) and can often be found for sale on eBay and other sites.

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Brian Szabelski, Editor-in-Chief
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Brian Szabelski is Tomopop's Editor-in-Chief, stuck with an ever-growing collection of figures and toys. When he's not posting on Tomopop, he can usually be found working on any number of project... more   |   staff directory

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