The Amiibo Problem

The Amiibo Problem

I do not think it is possible to like the entirety of a corporation. Take Nintendo, for example. I like the part of Nintendo that makes Zelda games and, with less alacrity, Metroid games. I do not very much like the part of Nintendo that loves to sell plastic. And, boy, does Nintendo love to sell plastic.

You will notice Nintendo’s zeal for pushing plastic if you follow the company long enough. And perhaps it will give you the same anxiety I now feel when I see the company hawking its Amiibo figures, the latest guilty plastic pleasure from a glorious game-maker.

The Amiibo Problem

Many people do love these new figures of Mario, Donkey Kong, Samus and about three dozen more. They love collecting them. Maybe they love tapping them against a Wii U or 3DS to unlock content in compatible Nintendo games. I can’t say for sure why people might love Amiibo, because I do not love them at all.

Nintendo is famous for making Mario and Zelda games, and for making them great. But to understand the full spirit of Nintendo, follow the plastic. It’s fundamental to their history. Notice, back in the early 1980s, the longtime toy-maker reviving the video game industry after a gaming crash by selling a console bundled with a plastic robot and an extra controller shaped like a gun. Examine the bric-a-brac in the trunk of a true Nintendo collector: the two-way speaker that was bundled with an Animal Crossing, the microphone packed with a Mario Party, the conga drums designed to control a bevy of Donkey Kongs. Consider the Game Boy Camera and the Game Boy Printer. Spot the controller shaped like a bathroom scale and the plastic pretzel of steering wheel bundled with a Mario Kart.

Other video game companies have sold peripherals, too, some microphones or game-show controllers for mostly fringe Sony and Microsoft games. Those are exception more than corporate tradition. No company has Nintendo’s history of cramming game boxes with packed-in plastic.

“Games come first at Nintendo,” we all believe. The plastic has been moulded in service to the games. Nintendo shapes a plastic nub shaped to make a Mario DS game more playable. They deliver plastic stands to make controlling a portable Kid Icarus game hurt less. We assume they know best. We trust that there must have been good reason not just to make a portable Metroid pinball game but to bundle it with a cartridge that rumbles when the ball hits a bumper.

Nintendo pushes the idea that the peripheral is often integral to virtual fun, that your time playing a game will be improved by a Rumble Pak, an eReader or a Wii Motion Plus. They love the physical. You hear and see this in the way they design controllers for key console launch games, how they put so much care into perfecting d-pads, analogue sticks, “A” buttons and touch screens (ok, maybe not really “perfecting” touch screens). How can we explain their reluctance to become a software-only company, making Marios and Zeldas for Xbox, PlayStation and iPhone? They will say they need to sculpt their own hardware to make their best games. One wonders, though, to what extent they’d simply be sadder if they didn’t have as many avenues to sell plastic stuff.

Examine Nintendo’s history long enough and you’ll see the company the company in rich times and in poor. You’ll see them at a desperate phase, struggling with their GameCube, trying to prop it up with its successful Game Boy Advance and designing games that needed one of those to be tethered to the other (connecting cables sold separately). Examine their hottest phase and you’ll see them at it again, selling Wii controller shells shaped like guns and steering wheels while considering selling a health sensor for you to wear on your finger.

The Amiibo Problem

In the present day, we see a recently slumping Nintendo’s sudden love for selling statues. They call these Amiibos a “platform”, listed as a third pillar alongside the Wii U and the 3DS. Their CEO tells Time magazine that he thought Amiibo up two years ago on a bullet train. They may be figurines that digitally connect to video games, but he waves off the widely-held idea that they’re an imitation of Skylanders, similar figures introduced back in 2011 by Nintendo’s closest competitor in plastic peripheral manufacturing, Activision. “We have introduced amiibo in a way that is new and where amiibo do things in our games that they can’t do anywhere else,” he tells Time. “From that perspective, we feel that we are a trendsetter.”

Nintendo’s Amiibo are indeed different from the Skylanders and the Disney Infinity toys, which are compatible only in the games of the same name. They are, for Nintendo, not the extension of one game, but the uber-peripheral, the ones made to be matched with all their games. They are the executive’s eureka that a pantheon of characters can connect to a plethora of games. Press a $US13 Mario Amiibo to any of seven different Nintendo games and something will happen in each of those games. That same thingwon’t happen if you don’t own the right Amiibo. If you want an excellent special item in a new Zelda game, you’ll have to buy a plastic Link figure. You can’t pay for a code to unlock it. You need the toy. It wasn’t enough that you bought the game. What will be the next thing Nintendo prevent you from playing if you don’t buy — or find — an Amiibo next?

Perhaps your confidence in Nintendo’s plastic serving Nintendo’s game design is finally taking a hit.

Survey the Nintendo of now and the near future:

  • The new Mario Party comes bundled with an Amiibo and includes an Amiibo-exclusive mode.
  • A big new Zelda is delayed out of 2015. A new wave of Amiibo are announced for this summer.
  • Nintendo prepares to launch a brand new game and will sell special Amiibo with it, Amiibo who will unlock special challenges presumably not accessible without Amiibo.
  • Nintendo releases another brand new game and that game welcomes its player out of its tutorial with a helpful woman who offers advice….
The Amiibo Problem

She then tells you about the weapons and gear you’ll get. For example…

The Amiibo Problem

She’s nearly done.

The Amiibo Problem

…and then she slips this in…

The Amiibo Problem
The Amiibo Problem
The Amiibo Problem
The Amiibo Problem

This is your lesson, new owner of Code Name S.T.E.A.M. that the beloved Fire Emblem series can appear in this game, can be playable, but only if you tap their separately-sold Amiibos to a system running the game.

The Amiibo Problem

I get it. I see them trying to turn a profit when its other two platforms are less than red hot and when they’re more than a year from releasing their next systems to try to succeed in the console cycle again. They say they have shipped more than five million Amiibos since the fall, about the same amount of copies of the newest Mario Kart that they have sold in the past year. I’ve seen them get like this before, back when the Wii was suddenly hot more than eight years ago. Nintendo’s cycle of selling popular plastic kicks in: the struggle to meet consumer demand, the short supply, the eventual apology from Nintendo to its customers, the plans to keep selling more.

I have a bad feeling about where Nintendo is going with this stuff. Amiibos are only half a year old and I’m already surprised when they announce a new game that isn’t tied to them. That’s the point of the Amiibo platform, after all and they say so themselves. Here, for example, in a new company statement released last night, they vow to “stimulate demand for amiibo by expanding compatible software titles.” When I hear about a new Nintendo game, I wonder what the Amiibo concept has already done to it, the same way I wonder how a company making some new “free” game is working in some ways to cajole players to spend money buying in-game stuff. What will Amiibos unlock in that new Zelda or a new Mario — or what will they lock out? What will be on the discs and cartridges I own but inaccessible unless I buy a figurine, too?

Think about the complaints people have when other companies — game companies less celebrated than Nintendo, less seen, for whatever naive reason, as a force for good — tie extra missions or characters or costumes in their games to whether you pre-ordered at a certain retailer or bought a season pass. Those companies nearly always eventually let you buy that stuff separately. That hasn’t happened yet with Amiibos. Nintendo’s approach: no toy, no unlock.

It’s not just plastic that Nintendo loves to sell, of course. The fall will bring a new Yoshi game. It will be compatible with Amiibos made out of yarn. The season will bring a new Animal Crossing of sorts, too. It will work with Amiibos shaped like playing cards. The idea is the same. It’s the world’s best maker of video games indulging the passion for which I’m not much of a fan. It wants to sell us stuff; may it not ruin our games.

Illustration: Sam Woolley


  • Meh. As long as it doesn’t become a *requirement* to use amiibos in a game (yes, amibos, I refuse to refer to the plural as “amiibo”) and that they are only ever used to unlock special content or provide some special functionality that in no way detracts from the game experience if you don’t have it, I’m fine with it. Ultimately, the more games that make use of amiibos, the more valuable they become.

    • And the more profitable plastic stuff they sell, the more able they are to make niche games like pikmin.

      Nothing they’ve done yet feels like a paywall for proper content, and there’s no way your wild speculation about the Zelda delay being linked to amiibo integration is correct.

      As with mobile gaming, Nintendo has shown that they’re ACUTELY aware of the dangers associated with attaching content to these things. They’ve been perceived as a little shaky here and there (mp10 is almost arguable), but they are still walking the tightrope.

      Edit: And the conga bongos were amazing!

  • I’m a bit on the fence about these. The Smash ones, they make sense to me. A cool little AI “pet” you can train up and take around and fight against your friends’ ones, then you can also use it to grab a bunch of bonus little things in other games. Alright, that’s fine.

    The others though… those don’t make sense to me. I’m not overly clear on what the Mario Party ones do for that game, but neither the game nor figures appeal much to me so I haven’t really investigated them at all. After having played through and completed Captain Toad recently, a friend asked whether I’d done the “pixel Toad” mode, or something. I don’t know what it is, but apparently you need a Toad amiibo to unlock it. I don’t think I’m going to lay down (what would we say, $15? $18? Shopping habits depending) just for that.

    The ones that get me most though are these Splatoon ones. As far as I can tell or anyone’s been able to tell me, all they do is unlock items and missions in the game. Basically, they are a ~$15-a-pop passcode. There’s no reason for them to exist, they don’t actually offer anything that takes advantage of the whole NFC deal. They don’t “do” anything that makes the figure I own unique, that makes it “mine”, no reason to take it to a friend’s place when we play the game there so that we can together use this particular data we’ve each cultivated on our own.

    Don’t get me wrong, it’s nice to be able to unlock a bunch of little bonuses in your games just because you happen to have this particular thing already. But that’s a secondary feature, a nice little extra. It’s not nor should it be the main attraction.

    I’m a huge fan of Nintendo’s peripherals. The bongos, the e-reader, GB Camera, DS rumble pak, just about all the stuff mentioned in here lives somewhere in my room (although the shells for the Wii remote generally sucked – Sega’s handcannon was excellent), and they were all well-loved – but that was because they brought new and interesting things to each of their respective games. These things… it feels like they still don’t really know what to do with them. But as long as people keep buying them (I currently have no plans to get any beyond the Smash line but most I know seem pretty hyped for the Splatoon ones) I guess it won’t really matter too much.

    • How ace were the hand cannons?! I still whip em out every now and then for some overkill (either co-op or dual wield). Good stuff!

      I haven’t bought any amiibo which don’t serve a purpose in multiple titles (unless they look particularly cool!). My smash ones work in Mario party, and apparently they’ll also unlock missions or gear in splatoon, too. The splatoon ones are never going to have that kind of utility (and they’re too ugly to want).

      That multi game stuff is great for amiibo which don’t have a novel purpose, a lot of little somethings.

      My favourite use would be nfc equipped matchbox cars for project cars, which held setups/customizations. I’m saddened that it will never happen.

      • Actually, the one problem with the handcannons was they were really front-heavy, thanks to the Wii remote and its batteries. Put a bit of a strain on things after a while. I ended up (non-destructively) modding a battery pack into the handle of one of my shells using some Sculpey and other bits and pieces. Made it so much more comfortable to use, would’ve been great if they were built to hold the batteries that way in the first place. Never actually got around to fixing up a second one 😛

        I hated the Nintendo Wii Wheel though. It just felt so small and there was no real comfortable way to hold it, to me. Plus it was super light. Do you remember the Ubiwheel (unofficial name I totally made up)? The one they packed in with Monster 4×4 and GT Pro Series, it was just this three-piece thing that you had to slot together yourself but I thought it was great, used it all the time for ExciteTruck. Really, all it did was add some weight and dimension to the remote, but that’s pretty much all it needed. Made it feel much better for steering.

        • I thought the moulded wheels were dumb because waving it around without it being tethered to a steering axis felt stupid and inaccurate.

          I modded my Wii u gamepad to accept peripherals a couple of years ago, and recently adapted it to my g25 wheel, with pedals. The motion steering is actually AMAZING!

          • Oh man, a couple of years back I saw that Logitech had put out a new version of the Speed Force for the Wii (in horrible ugly white) that seemed to basically be just a giant shell for the remote, I don’t think it even had any pedals for it. It was just like… why? I’ve got the GCN one though, so badly wish I could hook it up to more games. F-Zero and Burnout 2 are incredible with it (MKDD, not so much). Might should try strapping the gamepad to it and see what happens…

  • Nintendo makes great games and great handhelds.

    Everything else they do, I expect a failure and cross my fingers for a pass mark. It’s the sensible expectation.

  • Given Nintendo’s reluctance to make Amiibos in the first place and their tendancy to just sort of ignore their own accessories after the flagship title the accessory is bundled with, I’m actually pretty happy with Amiibos. I mean originally people were complaining that Amiibos only had a significant role in a single game. That’s normally where things end with Nintendo. Instead they seem to have actually moved to get these things working with a proper range of games and they’ve done that without forcing anyone to buy an Amiibo just to play their full priced game.

  • im just still waiting for someway to store my data so that all my work with sm4sh isnt lost when I want to put new fighter data there – and to save my wallet from having multiple amiibo fighter ‘builds’ 🙁 makes me sad that the current answer is to keep buying more of the plastic figures

  • This isn’t a new practice you know…. Nintendo have always structured away a portion of a game’s content unless you were willing to shell out more; case in point every single pokemon game since the beginning of time.

    As I see it Nintendo have hit gold with the Amiibo’s and found a way to capture and exceedingly elusive younger generation of gamers that are primarily drawn to mobile and ipad based games.

  • As someone who never played Nintendo games growing up, I have no nostalgic compulsion to acquire them. I thought the Fire Emblem ones like Lucina would be cool, because I played Fire Emblem Awakening recently, but since it’s hard to get I just shrugged and wrote off the idea. I think I’d buy them more for the figure being cool than any other reason, and the figures aren’t *that* cool. Now *this* is a cool figure (and all mine!)

  • I don’t get the scorn dripping from this article. If someone doesn’t like Amiibos it’s perfectly possible to ignore them. They are no requisite, they just open additional content and options. Why would anyone begrudge that?

    • Kotaku is strongly anti-Nintendo. Whenever Nintendo fail, they let us know in mocking terms, and when they succeed, we get scornful articles like this.

    • The complaint (I think) is that there is content in the game, which he has paid for, which he cannot access unless he’s also forked out for an Amibo.

      It’s basically day-one DLC, except that day-one DLC doesn’t have supply-chain problems because not enough figures could be made.

      Seen in that context, it really is maddening.

      • Fair enough but it’s kinda like complaining that your CPU tower has one unused ram slot. Getting outraged by having the built-in option to upgrade your experience (which is already complete and functional) seems silly.

        The supply-chain issues are undeniable, though.

        • It’s more like your CPU tower having an extra RAM slot, with RAM in it, that you have to pay to enable.

          The code tied to the Amibos is in the game whether you’ve bought the Amibo or not.

          I can see one reasonable counter-argument here though – that if Amibos didn’t exist, the extra functionality would simply be absent; the extra Amibo functions were designed in and paid for with forward revenue from Amibo sales. On the other hand, exactly the same thing could be said of day-one DLC.

  • It seems like you are looking at it in the most cynical way Stephen. If you see them as little things that add bonuses to different games instead of content locks, it is way better.

    Also, like you said – as the platform grows and the more time goes on, the more games are compatible. If you already own a $17 Mario for example, he can be used across something like 10 games already – it’s not as if you’re paying $17 more EVERY time you get a new game. $17 split across 10 games is pretty good considering the competition has you locked into a single game franchise.

    I’m also under the impression that the games are worth getting regardless of amiibo compatibility. Personally I think Smash is well worth the money you pay for it, amiibo compatibility is just a bonus.

  • nintendo has always made or licensed merch. i have some yoshis and marios etc but what the smash amiibo especially have done is expand the range (when you can get them) of characters you can buy figurines of, and now they kind of awkwardly do something. i’ve been impulsively buying them when i see them.. but also celebrating a year not smoking.. so i’m still far better off than i was a year ago.

    the weird thing with the smash series are the differences between the series.. for example the zelda characters are highly intricate whereas charizard and pikachu look like they’ve been moulded from dies they’ve had lying around for a decade.

    silly plastic yes. fad yes. permanent probably not but will be part of nintendo’s strategies until they hit saturation point and tank.

  • Honestly? Anyone buying amiibos for gaming purposes are doing it horribly wrong.

    They’re official Nintendo toys of your favourite characters. That’s why people are buying them. They’re absolutely WORTHLESS in every game they’re attached to. Infinity and Skylanders toys are not.

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