"I knew I should have trained him better," a friend said sombrely of her Luigi Amiibo after he got steamrolled by another friend's Captain Falcon. "I knew he wasn't ready."
Amiibos, tiny plastic statues of popular Nintendo characters that can interact with a handful of Nintendo games, are all the rage right now. They're nice-looking, collectible, and most importantly of all, customisable. Whether through rigorous training in Super Smash Bros or your own callous-raising craftsmanship, you can make an Amiibo your own. You name them, watch them grow in skill alongside you, and perhaps even surpass you. Or you can just drill one attack into their itsy bitsy electric brains until they forget their families, their pasts, and their futures. Thunder is all. Thunder is all.
While I was visiting home over the holidays, a friend of mine hosted an Amiibo tournament. People journeyed there from far and wide (read: the Dallas area of Texas) to... sit around and watch a video game play itself.
It was intense as heck. Heck!
All eight people competing had trained their Amiibos up to level 50, and each had all sorts of tricky tactics baked into their circuits. For instance, one friend's Link — who had a win rate of 89 per cent in 700 matches — knew how to pause his basic triple swing attack at just the right moment to wreck people/Amiibo's block timing. The host, meanwhile, had taught his Marth to follow opponents off ledges and finish them with stunning brutality. Only problem was, sometimes he, er, forgot to leap back up after the finish. Even cold, calculating machines aren't perfect.
At first things were jovial enough, but after a couple matches, we were all on the edge of our seat — so hunched over and tense that we likely set the world record for most people to simultaneously develop early onset arthritis in a single room. People were spellbound, cheering on the Amiibos they'd put so much work into training, teaching, moulding in their own image.
Sometimes people cheered. Other times, they berated their Amiibo for a downright embarrassing performance. Amiibos revealed their "personalities" — whether intended by their owners or not — mid-battle, often to a chorus of laughter or Charlie-Brown-style "AAAAAUGGGGHS."
My personal favourite was Pacifist Luigi, who — despite allegedly being a nightmare in training matches — decided to spend his tournament time floating like a butterfly instead of stinging like a bee. He ran and jumped and ran some more. It took Falcon a while to chase him down, but when he did the result was... not pretty. "I feel directly responsible for his mistakes," glowered the friend from earlier after a stinging Falcon Punch sealed Pacifist Luigi's fate.
Shortly after, Falcon became a legend in his own right, as he displayed a distinct tendency to get crushed in the first round of each match, only to come storming back and take the second and third. He always did it by adapting. He learned, mid-tournament. After a severe trouncing from the host's Marth, Falcon even figured out how to trick Marth into screwing up his off-level finishes, in effect making him kill himself. It was at that point that someone said, "Falcon can beat anyone after a couple tries. They just have to show him their moves." As we moved into the semi-finals, the metaphor became completely transparent. Amiibos were people's idiot robot children, with all the love and loathing parenthood entails. Everyone was having a good time watching the battles, but they were also intensely invested in their Amiibos successes and failures. They beamed with pride when their Amiibo pulled off a signature move they devised — and drilled and drilled and drilled into them — perfectly. Narrowly snatched victories brought joy, storming comeback losses brought audible grief and sometimes insults. "The way we talk to our Amiibos," said one friend rather grimly, "it's a good thing none of us have children."
"YOU'RE A F**KING IDIOT," someone else bellowed seconds later at their Link Amiibo who'd developed the odd habit of drawing his opponents into prolonged, violence-free staring matches.
Eventually it all came down to a Zelda affectionately nicknamed "Hell Kicks" and Falcon, the wizened battle scholar. Zelda had held her own for most of the tournament, even beating the Link (of which there were two) with the absurd 700-match win ratio. Falcon had battled back from some lopsided beatings to somehow meet her in the finals. No one knew for sure who'd win, but the mood in the room was electric. The first round was close, but Zelda took it on her last, severely damaged life. Round two, however, was all Zelda from start to finish. Maybe Falcon got demoralised from his close loss? It's tough to say, but in round two Falcon was a totally different, decidedly less effective combatant. It was a shame, really. Falcon's owner was a good sport about it, but you could see the disappointment in his eyes. Falcon would be getting a stern talking to when they got home.
I did not actually have the pleasure/heart attack of competing in the tournament, as I'd purchased my first Amiibo — a Link — the night before, and he was level one at the time. Afterward the tournament wrapped, we let him duke it out with all the other Amiibos one-on-one, and I began to feel that strange parental bond form as I watched his ragged form get hurled about like a ragdoll pinata, except full of pained howls and sorrow instead of candy. I could feel my heart swell with pride every time he managed to hit, well, anyone or anything, really. By the time it was all said and done, he was beaten, bruised, and probably traumatised for life, but he was also level 25. It was baptism by fire, the birth of a new champion.
OK, probably not, but it was pretty entertaining. And I really did feel... something. Amiibos engender a strange sort of empathy in people, between the fact that they learn from us and, through trials and tribulations, grow on their own as well. Personally, I felt more emotionally involved watching my Amiibo fight than I did participating in my own matches. My Amiibo was a piece of me, but he was also more than that. He was a conduit for my imagination, for — shall we say — creatively embellished tales of his triumphs and crushing defeats.
But when you're already nurturing these knowledge-sponge Smash engines — pouring your time, energy, and tactics into them — it's only natural that creativity follows. The stories become strangely real. Maybe it's less like having a child and more like having a pet. You watch this small bundle of endearing quirk and infuriating inconsistency do really specific things over and over again, and you think, "Well, that has to be personality, right?" Then your imagination does the rest, and before you know it, whoops, you care.
The moral of the story? If you've got friends and your friends have Amiibos (or if your friends are Amiibos), set a date and have an Amiibo tournament. Give everyone time to train and prepare, and then toss a match into the figurative powder keg. It's a complete blast, not to mention an emotional rollercoaster. Speaking personally, it was the most fun I've had with Smash in ages, and I didn't even "compete." I watched artificial intelligences my friends had trained beat the virtual stuffing out of each other, and it was riveting. We all sat there, unable to look away, shouting at a television screen.
A couple of my friends summed it up best:
"It was almost as engaging as watching a real tournament," said one.
"Just a little dumber sometimes," added another.
Worth noting: if you'd like to watch other people's Amiibos compete for gold and glory, there is a streaming Amiibo Fighting Championship. And if you don't get the appeal of any of this, well, I DON'T GET YOU but also you're not alone.