Last year when Super Smash Brothers for WiiU finally was unleashed, Nintendo also released Amiibo. Nintendo calls it their new platform, but most saw (and see) it as their answer to the highly popular toy-to-game series like Activision’s Skylanders & Disney’s Infinity. When the Amiibo were released it was anyone’s guess where Nintendo would take it. With Nintendo’s characters popularity initial sales seemed a given. But six months in, how do things look? What many people tend to forget is that Nintendo is a business, and gaming is the only thing they do. Because of this Nintendo protects the value of it’s intellectual property (or IP) as it represents their sole source of income. This has resulted in a impressive track record of high quality software that have (re)defined genres more than once. This also means that Nintendo software, in general, doesn’t drop in price. Nintendo’s argument is that the value does not decrease and a lot of Nintendo’s customers tend to agree. This extends to their Virtual Console service which has been criticized for being overpriced for offering existing software. The point is, Nintendo needs to make money of of it’s IP in order to keep making games.
For Amiibo this fact remains. The toy-to-game market is booming, especially on Nintendo platforms, so it makes sense for Nintendo to want to participate as those other figurines aren’t bringing in any royalties for Nintendo. In true Nintendo tradition their take on the concept is different from the competition. Where other toys are directly linked to a single game-series, Amiibo are meant to augment multiple games. This isn’t entirely true though. Like with other toys Amiibo can also store data. However this functionality is limited to a single game at a time. So it’s not like you can level up your Amiibo in game A and reap the benefits or that leveling in game B. This limitation remains a real disappointment for something that’s positioned as a platform. Another difference is that, with the exception of Mario Party 10’s Amiibo Party, you don’t control the digital incarnations of your Amiibo directly, which is in direct contrast with the competition. In Smash Bros. your Amiibo become AI controlled characters that you can compete against. In Mario Party 10 you do control them, but only as pieces on a game board. Amiibo are supported in other games but mostly to unlock items. I’ll get back to that later on. The appeal of direct control might be less than with the competition. As we’ve already been playing these characters for decades. And would you prefer to play Smash or Kart where you’d have to buy each character you’d want to use? At this point Amiibo are used to add to existing experiences, not replace them.
So far Amiibo seem to be a hit. Nintendo has been putting Amiibo support in practically any upcoming game. Just have a look at the latest Nintendo Direct to see my point. Commercially they seem to be doing great as well. Sales numbers are impressive and, except for a few exceptions, they can be very hard to find. But is their limited availability a result of their popularity or is Nintendo consciously throttling supply to create this impression and build some sort exclusive veil around them? Nintendo has gone on record stating that not all Amiibo will be on sale forever, so maybe exclusivity is what they’re after. Trying to get a hold of the Amiibo you want can prove quite tricky. Several retailers have told me, when I came looking for a certain Amiibo, that getting in a decent supply was nearly impossible. Nintendo simply wasn’t shipping them the volumes they had requested. The result being that, at least in the Netherlands where I live, shops are forced to import Amiibo resulting in inflated prices. Prices go up to 50 euros for the more popular characters. Right now it seems like only the original wave has some availability. Any of the waves that have been released since are practically sold out. I recently went online to find a Bowser Amiibo at a large online retailer. It’s available in two iterations and a large online retailer had both. One of the two, from the Super Mario collection, had the normal retail price but it also had an expected delivery date of 8-11 weeks! The other option from the Super Smash Bros. collection was being sold for a price that was over twice that of the suggested retail price. It seems that if you want your Amiibo now you need to pay for it, otherwise you need to wait.
So let’s assume you have gotten your hands on some Amiibo. Are they worth it? If you’re a Nintendo fan and are remotely into collectibles you already have several. The figurines are well made and there is a lot to choose from. Nintendo figurines have been around long before Amiibo but not with this level of variety and availability. But the main question of course is if their game tie-ins are worth it? Up to now I think they do. But Nintendo could be moving in a direction that might backfire. Up to now Amiibo have unlocked fun but trivial additions to games. In Mario Kart 8 it’s costumes for the Mii racer, in Hyrule Warriors it’s daily bonus items and even in Amiibo feature games it has been additional content like the AI characters in Smash. Some games also link to very specific Amiibo, like the Toad Amiibo that unlocks a game mode in Cpt. Toad Treasure Tracker that has the player searching for 8-bit toad icons in the existing levels. All of these are nice little extra’s but recent announcements and releases seem to indicate that this might be changing.
Starting with Mario Party 10 the impact of Amiibo seems to be increasing. The game’s Amiibo party is not something on top of the existing content, it’s a different game mode that can’t be experienced without Amiibo. You even need one Amiibo for each player. Now with a game like Mario Party 10 this isn’t that big of a surprise as this game got it’s own Amiibo collection. That being said, one could also regard this as a form of on-disc DLC hidden behind cute figurines. On-disc DLC isn’t exactly regarded as the best form of DLC by many gamers and that is the worrying part. Nintendo might also be using Amiibo to mask another less-popular form of DLC: pay-to-win. This form of DLC involves offering powerful upgrades as purchasable items. So if you’re willing to pay you get an advantage in the game. For a single player game this isn’t that big of a deal but with online multiplayer games, like the upcoming Splatoon, this might spoil it for those who don’t want to pay for (or can’t find) an Amiibo but are faced with someone who wàs willing to pay.
Right now I might be exaggerating the possible grim direction Amiibo are headed. Nintendo still seems to be well on the positive side of the line, I just hope they are aware of it and stay there. There is no denying however that Amiibo have developed into a form of DLC for Nintendo. But up to now it has been a positive experience. Being able to use the Amiibo you already have in a new game is a nice little bonus and (for me at least) it’s also a trigger to try and find a specific Amiibo if a game I like supports it. Where I originally thought I’d get one, maybe two Amiibo I now have six of them. And that’s mostly due to how hard they are to find because I have three on my wishlist.
So, six months in it’s safe to say that Amiibo have been a success. Both commercially and creatively. Nintendo has been throwing a lot of support behind it and that has mostly been positive. However supply has been frustratingly low and Nintendo need to remain vigilant to not abuse Amiibo to mask lesser gaming industry practices. So, if you’ll excuse me, I have some Amiibo to find.