Toys and collectibles were separate from video games for a long time. But now, since the turn of the century, companies have found ways to overlap these kinds of entertainment. This is still a relatively niche corner of the industry of course. But that doesn’t stop adults and kids alike from collecting toys-to-life products. Specifically, I want to talk about amiibo.
Anybody who knows anything about video game figurines will tell you they hit it big with the advent of Skylanders. The idea that a plastic figurine in real life could translate to a character in a video game was mind blowing. And true to form, Activision hasn’t hesitated to capitalize on it (surprise, surprise). As of today, around 300 million Skylanders figurines have been sold so far. Disney Infinity, another toys-to-life franchise, has sold millions of figure packs of various Disney properties, from Marvel to Star Wars. Clearly a market has developed for these things.
Regardless, a lot of people were surprised when Nintendo announced they were getting in on the toys-to-life trend. Whether their fan base approves or disapproves is still rather undecided. Amiibo can never seem to win with the public. Some people love them dearly, some people think they put Nintendo as low down as EA or Activision. Then again, many are indifferent. For people who haven’t really followed to amiibo scene, their biggest failing is that Nintendo hilariously underestimated their popularity at launch.
The likely reason is because Nintendo decided to get ambitious in their production goals. They created figurines for every single one of the over 50 Smash Bros. characters, a line for Mario Party 10, and a few for Splatoon, with more and more coming all the time. This was a lot to take on, and people were all over these things when they came out, which only made matters worse.
Amiibo ended up with an issue from the very start, stemming from how Nintendo decided to market them. They started out with a small line of around 10 Smash Bros. characters, but a tier of “rarity” immediately emerged. Nintendo assumed that more well-known characters like Mario or Link would be in highest demand. However, people gravitated towards characters who had never gotten any real merchandise before. As a result, you saw characters like Marth, Villager, and Wii Fit Trainer selling on eBay for hundreds of dollars. Wii Fit Trainer is still not available in stores anywhere in the U.S., even after more than a year.
For better or worse, a culture has developed around amiibo. Certain amiibo have become more desirable, and ironically, demand for them has increased because they’re not in stock anywhere. Twitter accounts like Amiibo Alerts work constantly to put figurines in the hands of fans, gaining almost 40,000 followers in the process. Now even when figurines are restocked, people think of them as rare. However, logically, no single amiibo should reasonably be harder to get than another. Tons of videos now exist like this one where people show off extensive collections of amiibo. Many of them are still impossible to find in stores.
Fans have argued that amiibo are everything from a cash grab, to a waste of time for people who take games seriously. My argument is that they are something of a cash grab, but that doesn’t make them a bad thing. Plenty of things in the world are for the sake of making money. The question of how we receive them comes down to quality. In the case of something like amiibo, we have to ask what they add to their games.
Functionally speaking, amiibo are a mixed bag. In my opinion, the two best uses of amiibo so far are the Smash Bros. line and the Shovel Knight amiibo. Smash amiibo are trainable figurines that serve as sparring partners for players. The Shovel Knight amiibo unlocks co-op play for the game. These are because they add to their games without being necessary to enjoy them.
The worst offender, on the other hand, is Animal Crossing: Amiibo Festival. It’s built specifically to try to sell amiibo. It would be more excusable if the game involved some kind of motor skill like Mario Party. It would be even more excusable if the game itself didn’t sell for a full 60 dollars. As it stands, though, the game is pretty much just a money pit.
Nintendo is still figuring out how to implement amiibo in a way that makes them worth buying. Although they’ve had missteps, they’re onto something. The best figurines don’t act as a paywall. In fact, a lot of people are concerned about the upcoming release of The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess HD, which is to come with a figurine that unlocks a new dungeon. The future is uncertain for these things.
After a year of experimentation, many have written off amiibo as a misguided attempt by Nintendo to expand its product lineup. But to answer my own question, I don’t think they’re a scam. I personally love the little things. I think they have value in that they’re not only software compatible, but collectible. Lots of figurines are characters that don’t otherwise come with merchandise. Therefore, they’re more interesting than simple collector’s items, without being particularly expensive. I never thought I’d ever have action figures of characters like Shulk from Xenoblade or Ness from Earthbound, yet here they are. And the fact that they play a role in actual games is something I think can have lasting appeal if done right.
As long as supply of amiibo in the future can meet the public’s demand for them, I think they have a bright future. Developers just need to balance them so that they’re important, but not necessary to the experience of a game. Granted, I don’t plan to buy that many more, but who knows? I never planned to buy amiibo at first, until the right ones came along. Now I have, well…a couple…
OK, maybe more than a couple.