So -- how did Nintendo do?
I got a handful of Amiibos from Nintendo a couple of weeks ago, and then picked up the rest of them on launch day. I also played a bunch of Super Smash Bros. for Wii U this weekend -- the only game that, to-date, really uses them, which is a situation that won't change in the foreseeable future.
For cheap collectible figurines, they're solid. The characters which fare best are those with thick builds (Kirby, Pikachu) and medium builds (Mario, Yoshi). Realistically proportioned characters like Marth and Link end up a bit too small for details like eyes to really look great -- but they're still better than "okay," and the paint jobs surpass the Disney Infinity 2.0 figurines.
Unlike Skylanders, these characters weren't designed with mass-produced toys in mind; unlike Disney Infinity, the artwork wasn't homogenized for game and toy use. Nintendo is left with a variety of characters which were never envisioned to be used for cheap toys, and it still did pretty well.
That's interesting, especially, when you take into consideration that the first wave of Amiibos is tied to Super Smash Bros. I don't just mean in terms of their functionality (it's the only game that Nintendo has out right now that is truly designed to use them) but rather that this is the Smash Bros. series of Amiibos.
Note the Smash Bros. logo on the top left of the package.
It's easy to forget this, since the characters are drawn from Nintendo's decades-strong wellspring of IP. This isn't just Mario, it's Mario the fighter; you can easily imagine a Mario Amiibo down the road that's poised to hit a question mark block, not hurl a fireball at an opponent.
That means there's a lot of room for this toy series to grow, but that brings up an obvious question: How's the Smash Bros. implementation of Amiibo, then?
It's limited, but it works well within that scope. In fact, I went in a skeptic and came out thinking "this is pretty good!" Certainly, it got my husband revved up to train Amiibos -- excited not just by the figurines, but by their gameplay potential. I even have a friend who's planning all-Amiibo tournaments with his roommates. There's more mileage here than I anticipated, and more potential to actually drive people to go back and buy more figurines, too.
It works like this: Tag your Amiibo to your GamePad, and you can train it as an AI fighter -- kind of a virtual pet of the ring -- by having it battle human and CPU opponents. You can boost its attack, defense, and speed stats by feeding it items, and you can customize its moveset, too.
The developers put enough care into the A.I. to ensure that even duplicate characters will behave differently; there really is enough flexibility there that you'll recognize your Pikachu's behavior, for instance, versus someone else's, and the virtual pet-style growth does encourage a bond with its owner.
We had some friends bring their own Amiibos over for a Smash session this past weekend; as soon as we got two Pikachus into the mix, it became clear that the 8-player mode in Smash is as much about allowing you to train Amiibos while you play with friends as it is massive HD fights.
The two Pikachus ("Sparky" and "Pichaku") started out completely incompetent -- barely able to even run away effectively, let alone fight. By the end of the evening, each A.I. had developed its own style of attack thanks to its experiences in the ring -- and regularly survived until the very end of the free-for-all.
They actually seemed to have learned something.
The implementation in Smash is limited, but it bodes well that the figurines can store data, and presages gameplay ideas that will truly take advantage of the fact that the Amiibo is something separate from, but tied to, the game -- and something the player owns, an object that holds meaning for them.
The Amiibo conundrum
But let me not mince words: Smash Bros. does not offer a truly robust new gameplay mode that'll force you to rush out and buy an Amiibo just to enjoy it; it's more of a value-add for the figurine you'd already decided to buy. That's both the advantage and Achilles' Heel of the whole product range. That'll work right now, but it's not a long-term strategy. Unless Nintendo is okay with diminishing returns, that weakness will have to be addressed.
We must recognize that any implementation of Amiibo that would make it out in time for the 2014 holiday shopping season would necessarily be limited; a new, Amiibo-centric game would have had to be in development for a very long time to reach Nintendo's quality standards. A mediocre one would have been worse than not launching at all. Taking into account the need to pair the first wave of figurines to Nintendo's beloved IP, Smash was the only option.
And there's no way Smash Bros. could work like Skylanders. If you had to buy Amiibos to unlock characters in the game, people would rightly be up in arms. This is the fourth iteration of the franchise, and a fighting game has a fundamentally different playstyle than an action-RPG, where you might get attached to, and satisfied with having access to, only one or two specific characters.
Like I said, there's no doubt that a robust, compelling, and original experience centered around a line of Amiibos will take time to create. After all, a crappy Pokémon-based RFID toy-game hit the Wii U over a year ago. It was pretty much ignored; it was something like a beta test for the idea, no doubt, from Nintendo's perspective.
Nintendo's come far in a year, then, after a tentative start. But getting past the "value-add" style of Amiibo functionality is going to be pretty tricky without making a game that's truly structured around supporting the toys.
So where does Nintendo go from here?
The most important question is where Nintendo will take Amiibo from here. There are plenty of obvious avenues.
Already, Mario Kart 8 and Hyrule Warriors offer bonuses to players who happen to already own the figurines. This can only continue, but it's hardly a reason to buy the things.
The new Zelda game is the most hotly anticipated title for the system, and there's no reason it couldn't support a host of new Amiibos based on its fresh new versions of the series' beloved characters. It could also support the three Smash Bros. Amiibos based on the Zelda IP -- Link, Toon Link, and Princess Zelda -- like Hyrule Warriors. But I'm skeptical that Nintendo will jam Amiibos into all of its new games simply because it can. Further, I don't think it should; it would be crass, and fans will tire of that quickly.
Better would be Mario Party 10, which already has a host of characters and no narrative; it's also very toy-like. What about Animal Crossing? Sick of your favorite townsperson moving away? Buy the Amiibo, and they'll never leave your side. We're getting warmer.
We can't forget that Nintendo has yet to do any Mario sports titles for the Wii U. A team of customized AI helpers, along the lines of Smash, would make a lot of sense. (If EA could think of a way to sell figurines to the adult men who play FIFA, it would, wouldn't it? Get Starting Lineup on the phone.)
The company has already said it plans to release smaller and cheaper Amiibo toys -- at a guess, similar in stature to the Pokemon Rumble U toys -- and that the tech will also work in collectible cards, which opens up that lucrative genre to exploitation (let us not forget the Pokemon Trading Card Game. Yes, it still exists.)
Nintendo's much smaller Pokemon Rumble U figurines, which also had NFC compatiblity with the Wii U. They retailed for $3.99 in the U.S. and ¥200 (about $2) in Japan.
There's also the New 3DS, which has a built-in NFC reader, and the upcoming external NFC adaptor for older units; the obvious first step is to patch the 3DS version of Smash, but it's hard to imagine there isn't a bigger, better use of Amiibos coming down the road. Pokémon? Something entirely new? Both, I'd hope.
There are already third-party partnerships in the works: Both in the form of Mega Man and Sonic the Hedgehog figurines (they're in Smash Bros.) and unlockable Nintendo skins in a third-party title (Bandai Namco's upcoming Ace Combat game for 3DS). There's a lot more ground to cover here, too, that's only accessible to a platform holder.
Limited variants for existing characters (like Dark Link or Fusion Suit Samus) also seem likely: They'll generate money, keep the hardcore fans happy, and can be used as retailer-bait (Skylanders and Disney Infinity already do this, and Nintendo is already doing retailer exclusives with some of its upcoming figurines.)
Thinking outside the blister-pack
But Nintendo has a reputation for outside-of-the-box thinking (which sometimes results in great successes and other times in disastrous misses). Its game designers simply must be charting the path of Amiibo down roads that aren't obvious if the company hopes to grow the base of players for its new toy-peripheral.
In fact, I'm confident they are -- but when it comes to Amiibo, Nintendo's policy of releasing only ideas that it feels totally confident about could actually bite it in the butt more painfully than its penchant for putting out products that leave us scratching our heads.
In other words, holding onto Mii for 20 years, until it makes sense, is not the right strategy here; it's better to risk releasing the next e-Reader. After all, the first Skylanders game just scratched the surface of the potential of the "toys to life" genre; it was a gamble, but also important simply to be first. Nintendo has to risk something to truly make a stand.
I bring this up because right now, the Nintendo faithful are the ones who are the primary market for these things, and we all know it.
Amiibo in 2014 is not going to entice new players into the fold in significant numbers, because the line leans too heavily on established IP (you have to already care about the characters to want the figures) and an established game property (you have to be invested in Smash Bros. to use or even really want the toys.)
That said, I have little doubt that people who don't own a Wii U but who still have fondness for Nintendo's characters will buy some Amiibos this fall, whether or not they can "use" them; casual conversations I've had with clerks at shops and basic logic both dictate this. (Imagine my surprise when the bro with the tats at the GameStop cash register spontaneously offered, "When they put out Bowser, I'm gonna have to get that one.")
But Nintendo's going to burn through that store of pent-up desire fast. And if the Amiibo project doesn't expand Nintendo's audience, it has to be classified as an evolutionary dead end, even if it's a lucrative one in the near-term.
After all, the biggest threat to Nintendo as a going concern is churn. It has to refresh its audience by adding younger players in -- hence the bargain-priced 2DS. We all know how that funnel works by now. Even if some people (like me) haven't churned out after nearly 30 years, they inevitably will. Even I required an enabler -- my husband -- to buy more than a couple of the things.
Whenever I go to Target, I see young kids playing with the Wii U demo kiosk, drawn in by Nintendo's genuine appeal. But their parents inevitably yank them away. As much as Minecraft is dominating what was once Nintendo's main audience, I think it's just as much worth worrying about the fact that tablets and PCs offer more, in the minds of adults, than consoles can.
Conquering wallets will require making Nintendo's platforms so enticing to kids that parents are left with little choice but to buy one. This already happened with the rise of the NES, which arrived during an era when dedicated game consoles were officially "dead" and everyone in the industry expected PCs to rule home video games forever after.
Nintendo, as ever, is caught in a trap: How does it satisfy its existing fan base while cultivating a new one? How does it create a new IP that can perform nearly as well as its existing franchises? With two systems to support, how can it even make enough good games to think about branching out?
Oh, no… A mine-cart level
As big of a potential goldmine as Amiibo is, it also represents an incredibly rough road ahead for Nintendo. Amiibo, as it has launched, is a very good first step down that road. It bodes well that the company was willing to admit that an idea was valuable and fit Nintendo's internal development culture and external brand -- despite the fact that it came from outside the company, and from the West.
Disney successfully turned its existing character IP into a game that's fresh and appealing to today's kids (and began to post some of the first-ever profits for its video game division) by carefully choosing how to move forward.
Nintendo has some of the best game developers in the world, so the potential to create something that outstrips Disney Infinity on every level is self-evident. I don't think shortages of either intelligence or vision are Nintendo's problems.
Trying to balance its vested interests in hardware platforms and leverage its expertise in creating the kinds of console games its developers have honed their skills on for decades is what causes the company grief.
But we're seeing green shoots in everything from its approach to Animal Crossing to the upcoming launch of Splatoon (which represents both Nintendo's inventive move into a new genre and a deliberate decision not to stick Mario in the game, but go with a new IP -- both positive decisions in my book.)
To really get back on track, Nintendo has a lot of growing to do, and I think the company realizes that. With that in mind, it's hard not to be optimistic about Amiibo -- even if the potential for danger is as big as the potential for success.
For now, the company will ship a lot of the toys out, sell most of them, and establish its beachhead in the toys to life market. But I just got back from a trip to your average suburban Toys R Us, where there were more Skylanders toys on sale than I even thought possible -- by at least double.
In that universe, Nintendo is facing another uphill battle, and it needs to think very, very carefully about how to carve out a space in a market where it will find itself increasingly marginalized with every wrong step.