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BYE-BYE, BEANIE BABIES -- ALL THE WORLD LOVES A CYBERPET

For two months, Wendy Applegate of Cheektowaga searched store after store for the hottest toy since Beanie Babies.

She finally found Tamagotchi virtual pets at the Wal-Mart in Amherst, where they were retailing for $14.86 on a recent Friday. So she picked up two for her 9- and 11-year-old cousins.

That morning, area Wal-Marts each got a shipment of 48 Tamagotchis (which in Japanese means "lovable eggs") in six colors, said Wal-Mart spokeswoman Sharon Weber.

"The Tamagotchis are selling so fast that . . . as soon as they get them in, they're gone," Ms. Weber said. "The popularity is absolutely amazing."

Most other stores, such as Walgreens and Toys "R" Us, are out of the cybertoys and won't be receiving more shipments until August.

In May, Walgreens was able to ship only a few dozen Tamagotchis to each store, said spokesman Michael Polzin.

"I think we're virtually out of them nationwide," he said.

Toy "R" Us can't keep the eggs on the shelf, said spokesman Pat Borden.

"Unfortunately, the demand is still greater than the supply at this point," he said. "They do sell out in the course of a few hours or a few days."

When the toy first went on sale in New York City, FAO Schwarz sold more than 10,000 Tamagotchis in the first 24 hours. They're made by Bandai Co. of Japan, the company that had a previous hit with Mighty Morphin Power Rangers.

What's all the fuss about?

First sold in Japan, the toys are small, egg-shaped games attached to key chains or necklaces. An alien hatches from an egg after traveling through cyberspace, and it's the owner's job to take care of the creature by feeding it, playing with it and disciplining it by pushing buttons on the toy.

If well cared for, the creature returns to its home planet after about a month. If neglected, the Tamagotchi becomes sick or even dies.

That's what happened to Stephanie Houck's pet when she left her Tamagotchi with her boyfriend.

"He called me from work and said he was really sorry, but it died," said the Town of Tonawanda resident. "He didn't feed or play with it. He said he was embarrassed to take it out at work and play with it."

Ms. Houck reset the game and hatched a new creature, but that one died, too, when she went to work and forgot to take the toy with her.

"I think it's popular because a lot of parents are buying it for children to teach them responsibility," she said. "They're saying they want real dogs and cats. Parents are saying if they can take care of the Tamagotchi pet, they can have a real one."

Some people have become so attached to their virtual pets that the World Wide Web has digital "graveyards" where people can leave farewell messages for their departed Tamagotchis.

The toys are so popular in Japan that teen-agers are mugging people for them. Tamagotchi owners are advised to keep the devices hidden in public.

In the United States, teachers and camp counselors are asking kids to leave their cyberpets at home, because they seem more interested in taking care of them than in the activities offered in classrooms and at day camps.

Look-alike toys -- Giga Pets and Nano Babies -- are also showing up in local stores, and these cybertoys are cheaper than the Tamagotchis. They are also easier to find.

But just like the Beanie Baby craze, kids may opt for the original and leave the other versions on the store shelves.

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