Since their announcement last year, I’ve found it useful to think of Nintendo’s Amiibos as their take on a trophy or achievements system. Rather than the PlayStation and Xbox way of rewarding you with tiny images and bragging rights, Nintendo give you a physical item to store your progress and achievements on while it sits proudly on your shelf.
You can take around to your friend’s house and show off your progress and you can even borrow one of their statues and help them level up their character. They even work across Wii U and 3DS, although the line up of compatible 3DS games is a bit thin at present.
It’s not quite that simple though, Amiibos don’t chart your progress through every game, only the select few and all those that have been announced so far are first party games. Not every Amiibo will work with every game that’s Amiibo compatible and if you’ve bought the Mario statue because that’s who you play in Mario Kart 8 but want to work on your Smash Bros Link then you’ll need another quick trip to the shops for his statue.
They’re not even easily comparable to some of the other game-related figurines that are available – Skylanders and Disney’s Infinity range. Amiibos don’t introduce the character to your game, the characters are all already there, Amiibos simply hold the data.
They also act as a kind of remote character save system. You can use your chosen Amiibo in a game and it stores your progress and levelling for that game, kind of like a very simple, augmented RPG. There’s potential for a well-levelled Mario Kart 8 Yoshi Amiibo to have extra abilities when Yoshi’s Woolly World comes out, although the details of how these things will work in the future remains slightly hazy and a little overcomplicated.
The figures themselves are generally posed well and seem well made. It’s disappointing that the manufacturers felt the need to fit stabilising struts to some of the statues, rather than finding another way to strengthen them – or simply pose them in a way that doesn’t require distracting lumps of extra plastic. Link, for example, looks great but that yellow bar down his leg is off-putting and out of place on an otherwise attractive little piece of merchandise.
With a UK retail price of £10.99, they’re perhaps a little ambitious and it’s conceivable that after the initial flurry of interest demand will die down, especially for the less well known characters. Mario, Yoshi, Pikachu and Link will doubtless sell by the bucket-load but Pit and Marth might struggle a little.
There’s also a real danger of over saturation here. The initial wave of 12 statues are all part of the Smash Bros. collection, with another 12 due through December, January and February. But Nintendo executives have already spoken about future collections so we’re likely to end up with several different Mario poses – one for each range of statues he’s being sold with. If you’re keen to collect as many of these as possible, that will get expensive very quickly.
While there are some nice ideas behind a lot of the functionality of Amiibos, and the statues themselves are generally well made and pleasant additions to any Nintendo fan’s gaming space, they don’t seem like a finished concept just yet. There are a lot of questions about them that result in a degree of complication that might just be enough to put many people off.
There’s also the baffling question: if they wanted a kind of drop-in game statue system, why didn’t Nintendo make a Pokémon game with its range of characters and Pokéballs making use of the NFC chip in the Wii U GamePad? Obviously, that concept has more limited appeal than spreading your physical products around several core game series but the popularity of Pokémon and the concepts behind that series make it an obvious choice for this kind of system and the range would be much simpler to explain to customers, who would presumably be much more likely to pay for multiple statues.
It’s very early days for Amiibo and Nintendo is one of the few companies that is in no rush to see miraculous returns from their experiments. In many ways, though, that’s the prime concern with this system – it feels like it’s still an experiment, to see if people want this kind of thing, with no clear in-game benefit and a confusing array of which games each statue will work with.