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Making Amiibo Essential

Making Amiibo Essential

Written by Sean Colleli on 12/17/2014 for 3DS   WiiU  
More On: Super Smash Bros. for Wii U Nintendo Amiibo

I recently reviewed the new Super Smash Bros for Wii U, and for the most part I absolutely loved the game. It has so much going on at once, so many features, modes and characters that I’m amazed it keeps all those plates spinning for a remarkably balanced and playable experience. That said, the one feature I felt wasn’t fully explored was Amiibo, the integration of Nintendo’s entry into the highly lucrative toys-to-life market. After the embarrassing success of Skylanders and Disney Infinity, it was inevitable that Nintendo—originally a playing card and toy company—would join the fight, so to speak. But whereas Skylanders and Disney Infinity are almost comically straightforward (one might uncharitably say “idiot proof”), Amiibo aren’t so intuitive, and thus some of that “magic” is lost in their setup and use. Even worse, I feel like they’re kind of tucked off into a corner of the new Smash Bros. Amiibo aren’t exactly an afterthought, but for all the publicity Nintendo has given them, the figurines are a definite side-feature in Smash Bros.

I’m not knocking the quality of the figurines themselves—far from it. I picked up a few and the craftsmanship is impeccable; highly detailed sculpts, intricate paint apps and dynamic poses make each Amiibo visually striking and eminently collectible. The fact that we’re eventually getting the entire roster of 49 Smash Bros fighters is pretty amazing all on its own. For a long time it was difficult to find decent Mario merchandise, much less toys for more obscure Nintendo series like Star Fox and Fire Emblem. It might seem hypocritical that I’m excited for Amiibo, when I didn’t much care for their Disney and Activison competitors, and there is indeed some bias there.

It’s no secret that I take a dim view of Skylanders and Disney Infinity. I openly admit that because I have no nostalgia invested in either property, it’s much easier for me to be cynical about them. Skylanders in particular seems to run on bald-faced greed, with the newest game requiring you to not only purchase the figurines, but also little crystals for “trapping” them, too, at around $8 apiece. I also admit that my longtime affection for Nintendo and their franchises makes me predisposed to like (and purchase) their brand of toys-to-life. This nostalgic predisposition makes Amiibo’s surprisingly subdued Smash Bros. integration all the more of a minor let-down, and especially confusing for a fanboy like me who was ready to snap up every one of the new figures.

On paper, Smash Bros. and Amiibo seem like a match made in heaven. The original Super Smash Bros. way back in 1999 had a framing story about a kid playing with his or her Nintendo toys, pitting them against each other in epic homework desk battles. Smash Bros. was originally about imagination; the series’ mainstay boss, Master Hand, was the hand of a daydreaming child with a bunch of toys. And you can bet that 14-year-old Sean was intensely envious of that kid and those toys—back then I would’ve killed to have had figurines of my favorite Nintendo characters. The figurine concept continued in Melee and Brawl, with the games’ highly collectible trophies closely resembling detailed gashapon toys. Melee even had a little vending machine where you could spend your Smash coins on new trophies. Naturally, the Amiibo are identical to their in-game trophies, complete with gold Smash-branded bases.

So why is the culmination of all this imagination kind of disappointing? Is it because I am older, more jaded and frankly have better things to spend my money on? To a degree yes, but I also feel that Amiibo just aren’t a strong enough presence in Smash Bros. Game director Masahiro Sakurai recently admitted that their inclusion happened relatively late in development. Considering that the premise of the Smash series is literally toys-to-life, I’m a bit surprised Nintendo didn’t jump in earlier. Nintendo even passed on making Skylanders an exclusive back in the Wii days, and while this is Nintendo going their own way per usual (and keeping as firm a grip on an idea as possible), their delay is troubling.

Nintendo made a tentative entry earlier with Pokemon Rumble U, but the associated Pokemon figurines were difficult to find and blind-bag purchases, so you’d inevitably end up with duplicates. These little polygonal guys were clearly Nintendo just dipping their toe into the water. Amiibo have the full thrust of Nintendo’s advertising behind them and they’re admittedly much better done. The fact that they can be used across a wide range of games is a big selling point; Skylanders fans are forced to upgrade to a new line of figures every year. Bringing Amiibo out with Smash Bros as the primary tie-in makes sense, but their late inclusion leaves their functionality a little flat.

To be blunt, the magic just isn’t there. I know that’s a vague statement, but I can’t help how I feel. Part of it is the somewhat roundabout way you activate Amiibo. You must first go into the dedicated Amiibo menu in Smash Bros and associate each figure with a specific Mii “owner,” basically your Nintendo Network player profile. Once you’ve registered, customized and nicknamed your Amiibo, then you can scan them in as a custom “figure player” or FP, in most matches. It also helps to register each figure with your Nintendo Network ID, an extra step that must be performed on the Wii U home menu.

The whole “figure player” aspect also adds to the emotional disconnect. It’s pretty cool to have your own special fighter, inextricably linked to your profile, a figure that you train and level up as you engage in battle. That said, initially there isn’t a whole lot to distinguish an FP from a regular old computer player, at least not visually. When you drop a Skylander onto that hideous, tacky glowing USB portal, BAM, it’s right there in the game. That instant visual association might make me roll my eyes, but it means a whole lot to Skylanders fans, and especially to the kids.

What I’m trying to say is that the way they exist right now, Amiibo make more sense as collectibles and less as toys. There’s a sophisticated cool factor to them, the way you scan them across the slick Wii U GamePad. Nintendo isn’t being facetious about the technology; they come right out and say things like “NFC reader” and “RFID chip.” Activision calls their bulky, plasticy reader a “portal” and banks on their preteen fans having no blinking clue how the tech works. I do know how it works, and the fact that there’s a cynical cash vacuum right underneath that cheap veneer of flickering LEDs and plastic makes me look askance at Skylanders. But the very reason Amiibo are cool to an adult like me makes them puzzling to children. They don’t see the cool tech—they see a confusing series of menus and procedures to follow. Conversely, Skylanders fun is just one simple step away.

And herein lies the hard truth: For all its origins as a game about toys and imagination, Smash Bros. just isn’t set up as the perfect platform for Amiibo. A competitive fighting game, bound by rules, balance and strict tournament regulations, just doesn’t work for that elusive toys-to-life magic, at least not as the main idea. It’s a really cool side feature to be sure and I’m very glad that they included it. I’ll tell you right now, the adult that the 14-year-old Sean evolved into can appreciate how the Amiibo concept finally incarnated in Smash Bros.; a thread of that teenage kid’s desire for living Nintendo toys has been fulfilled, no arguments here. It’s also pretty cool that I can use Amiibo to unlock bonuses in Mario Kart 8 and Hyrule Warriors—the first tentative steps of Amiibo becoming a lasting value, multi-platform investment instead of an annually iterating cash grab.

But toys-to-life instant gratification? No, Smash Bros. does not do that, and it isn’t designed to. The game’s inherent competitive nature will not allow it. In Smash Bros. at least, Amiibo will forever be along for the ride, not the main event. Smash Bros is a great way to let people know about Amiibo—it’s a game everyone is watching this holiday—but it doesn’t make Amiibo essential. Amiibo need a separate game built just for them, something simpler, more elegant, more straightforward. A game that only works with them, a game completely designed around them, a game that needs them to function. It shouldn’t be competitive either—strictly cooperative. Amiibo don’t need an all-out melee to shine. They need an adventure.

The other thing that disappointed me about Smash Wii U was the game’s omission of a strong cooperative story mode, one of the best features of its predecessor, Super Smash Bros. Brawl. Brawl’s Subspace Emissary adventure mode was a pretty standard 2D platformer, leveraging the Smash Bros. engine against a lengthy cooperative story quest. It wasn’t all that innovative but it was incredibly solid, a total blast to play with a friend and it had a genuine sense of discovery. As you played you unlocked new characters, resulting in comical teamups between the likes of Samus and Pikachu. Sakurai explained that Subspace Emissary was left out of the new Smash Bros. because fans just watched all the beautifully crafted cutscenes on YouTube, destroying the sense of discovery in the fanservice-heavy plot. No offense to Sakurai-san, but that sounds like a rather flimsy excuse to me. Subspace Emissary has its roots in the simpler but excellent adventure mode from Smash Bros. Melee. It’s been a main feature for two games going now. To omit it entirely because of cutscene spoilers just seems wrong.

I think it’s far more likely that Nintendo is holding back a new Subspace Emissary as a completely separate game. Brawl’s extensive story mode could’ve stood on its own after all, but more importantly, Subspace Emissary—or something very much like it—would be perfect for Amiibo.

Think about it: a giant 2D platforming adventure as only Nintendo can do them, with the full cast of Smash Bros. potentially as playable characters. The game might start you with a handful—say, Mario, Link, Samus, Villager and Pikachu—but to unlock the rest, you need to buy the figures and scan them in. Maybe the starting handful is also locked at a level cap, so they don’t get stronger unless you unlock them with Amiibo. To mitigate the greed factor, maybe scanning one figure from each series would unlock the basic level-capped characters from each series. For example, scanning Mario gives you the full access Mario character, but also stat-locked versions of Peach, Luigi, Yoshi and so on. This would give players a taste of the full roster, but to get the whole experience, they need the corresponding Amiibo.

This is nothing more mercenary than Skylanders, their crystal traps and the in-game ads gatekeeping locked areas that can only be accessed with certain figurine classes. One advantage over Skylanders is that most Wii U owners will already have at least a few Amiibo that they picked up for Smash Bros. This will encourage that “living room” social aspect that Nintendo plays up whenever they can. Kids will take their Smash Amiibo to their friends’ houses, trading back and forth to unlock all the characters in this hypothetical Subspace Emissary successor. But to level up those characters all the way, you’ll need your own figure linked to your Nintendo Network account. If you want to see everything in the game, you need a full set of Amiibo.

Most important of all, the toys-to-life concept will be the core of this game, not a side feature. If you want to play as Marth, or Zero Suit Samus, or Lucario or Zelda, you just scan them in and there they are, bigger than life. Not a figure player, not a computer-controlled ally. You scan Link in, he spontaneously appears on screen, and that’s you, right there. It’s the instant magic that Smash Bros. just doesn’t have. Breaking out of the competitive fighter mold also allows for even crazier story mashups than the original Subspace Emissary had. Why are Megaman and Pac-Man battling Ganondorf? Who cares! This could even be the long-coveted holy grail of fanservice, a classic adventure where Mario and Sonic team up against the combined evil of Bowser and Robotnik and their chaos emerald/power star fueled doomsday machine.

I’m just spitballing here, but it’s clear that the Amiibo need a game to call their own. Nintendo just announced game-specific lines of figurines, so I fully expect the next Zelda, Metroid, Star Fox and Mario games to get their own special Amiibo. I shudder to think how “gotta catch ‘em all!” could take on a horrifying new money-eating definition when the inevitable Pokemon Amiibo game is announced. But until that dark day, these promising new toys could use a special game all to themselves. Super Amiibo Land or something along those lines. It would make more sense to Nintendo’s traditional core audience—children—and might bring some of the old magic back for their older fans, too.

* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company.

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About Author

I've been gaming off and on since I was about three, starting with Star Raiders on the Atari 800 computer. As a kid I played mostly on PC--Doom, Duke Nukem, Dark Forces--but enjoyed the 16-bit console wars vicariously during sleepovers and hangouts with my school friends. In 1997 GoldenEye 007 and the N64 brought me back into the console scene and I've played and owned a wide variety of platforms since, although I still have an affection for Nintendo and Sega.

I started writing for Gaming Nexus back in mid-2005, right before the 7th console generation hit. Since then I've focused mostly on the PC and Nintendo scenes but I also play regularly on Sony and Microsoft consoles. My favorite series include Metroid, Deus Ex, Zelda, Metal Gear and Far Cry. I'm also something of an amateur retro collector. I currently live in Westerville, Ohio with my wife and our cat, who sits so close to the TV I'd swear she loves Zelda more than we do. We are expecting our first child, who will receive a thorough education in the classics.

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