The Egg That Makes You Crack

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Tina Howell hatched her Tamagotchi over the weekend. She even had a christening party.

Howell is the manager of the Game Keeper, a toy store in the Northridge Fashion Center, and one of her own best customers.

As the Glendale woman puts it, "I get paid for playing all day. Does life get any better than that?"

So when the store recently got its first shipment of Tamagotchis, Howell had one picked out for herself--a white one, said to be the hardest color to find and thus the most desirable.

In case you've been incommunicado in the wilds of Papua New Guinea, Tamagotchis (literally "cute little egg" in Japanese) are virtual pets, little electronic toys that have sold by the millions in Japan and were introduced in the United States this month. In the toy world, they are to May what Tickle Me Elmo was to December.

Best not to ask yourself what makes millions of children march zombie-like to toy stores to throw their precious allowance money after what amounts to a noisy key chain. Did we not lust after Hula-Hoops? Are we not the sons and daughters of people who invested heavily in jacks?

Be that as it may, Tamagotchis are the most obnoxious toy ever invented. Annoyance-wise, Chatty Cathy was a rest cure compared with this.

Tamagotchis beep and make you feel bad.

Here's the drill. The Tamagotchi features a tiny screen. Press the right buttons, and an amorphous little creature appears on it.

The creature isn't particularly cute, but it is demanding. What it lacks in charm, it makes up for by beeping needfully every few minutes. It wants to be fed. It wants to be played with. It needs light. It needs medicine. It even produces digital dung that has to be cleaned up.

If you give the little beast exactly what it needs, including discipline, whenever it beeps, it will live and prosper for three weeks or longer. Screw up and--get this--it morphs into something increasingly unattractive, and, finally, it grows little wings and dies on you! Really.

Howell is undaunted by the prospect of taking care of something as demanding as an infant and as winsome as a calculator.

At the suggestion of her "squeeze," who happens to be a psychiatrist, she decided to take on a Tamagotchi she has provisionally named Kim. It's an empty nest sort of thing. Howell's daughter, Abigail, is a freshman at the University of Texas. Her boys, Scott, 16, and Trevor, 13, live in Texas with their dad.

"This is my new child," she says. "It was easier than being pregnant again."

Not much easier. It is hard to imagine that anything without a beating heart could be such a pain.

Jonathan Hershey of Winnetka got his Tamagotchi more than two weeks ago. He is no longer enchanted.

As the 21-year-old Pierce College student explains, he has given the care of his perverse, little pet over to a baby-sitter. The sitter, Hershey says, still finds digital care and feeding "neat." Hershey, who initially found the device "interesting," has lost interest.

Hershey may not have been cut out for Tamagotchi ownership. He didn't bother to give his time-consuming key ring a name, for one thing. And he wasn't thrilled about its beeping in the middle of the night. And he was unhappy to discover that even when it didn't beep, "you had to look at it at least once an hour to make sure things were going well."

He is not surprised that schools in New York have begun banning the things, not only because they disrupt class, but because some children are devastated when the creatures die. But Hershey does believe the toy has its uses. "I think it would be great for a kid to have before they get a pet."

Despite Hershey's warning, I bought one of these things, which is beeping next to me as I write this column.

At Howell's insistence, I got a green one because "green is the color of your heart chakra, and if you're doing Tamagotchi right, you'll cherish it." She also makes a joke about doing a lot of drugs in college.

With the help of one of my digitally gifted colleagues, I finally got my creature hatched. In the last hour, it has beeped sufficiently often that she finally peeked around her computer and said, not unkindly, "You can turn that off if you want."

I can't tell you how many times I've fed the damn thing, and I've cleaned up three batches of digital poop.

My Tamagotchi isn't even half a day old, and it has already morphed into something that looks like it has a really bad electronic disease. I think that's because I forgot about its light requirements, and I can't figure out how to discipline it. It seems to beep every time the phone rings, making me feel guilty and confused at the same time, something I really don't need.

I have decided to find someone I really don't like and give them my Tamagotchi.

And, right after work, I'm finding myself a Beanie Baby because there's nothing better than a toy that just lies there, silently, not doing anything.

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