Seen one toy-video-game craze and you’ve seen them all, right? Counter to first impressions Skylanders, Disney Infinity and Angry Birds Telepods each offer a distinct experience. Nintendo’s amiibo characters offer another new way to combine toys and video-games, but how different is it to these other products?
Firstly the similarities are fairly obvious. You use the plastic toy figurines to access particular characters in the game. As you play progress is automatically saved back to the toy figure ready for the next time you use them.
This is where we first encounter differences. Rather than bringing playable characters in like Skylanders and Disney Infinity, amiibo figures grant access to companion or competitor characters. This is a substantial difference but one that makes sense. It would be hard to imagine Nintendo selling Super Smash Bros. and then not allowing players to use Mario unless they purchased the toy figure – locking on disc content away like Activision and Disney.
In the Super Smash Bros. example, the amiibo version of Mario would be used to fight against, team up with or battle other in-game characters. Using the character in this way would increase its attack and defence stats and let it learn new fighting tactics, all of which are then saved automatically back to the figure.
This data is then transferred via the Wii U GamePad, another big difference about the amiibo ecosystem. Unlike Skylanders that sells players a new Portal each iteration, or Disney Infinity that requires its equivalent Infinity Base, amiibo figures use the technology you already have in your Wii U. This will be extended to the 3DS in 2015 with a peripheral that enables Nintendo’s handheld games to access and update information on the amiibo figures.
This should certainly keep the costs down for collectors, but also changes the interaction somewhat. Because the figures can’t sit on the GamePad the whole time during play, data will only be transferred when they are temporarily placed on or near the NFC zone. In some ways the amiibo figures don’t need to stand on a circular base at all, they could contain the required technology in the body of the figure. With this in mind, my children liked the idea that these toys could be freed from their stands. However, it seems that’s sadly not the case.
The circular figurine base — like Skylanders and Disney Infinity — is where the NFC tech is housed. These also continue the themed bases approach with the current crop of figures each having a Super Smash Bros. logo on their stand. This not only demarks which game they came with, but opens the door to multiple collectable versions of the same character for different games.
So far we are expecting 10 figures for Super Smash Bros. (Mario, Donkey Kong, Kirby, Pikachu, Princess Peach, Samus Aran, the Animal Crossing Villager, the Wii Fit Trainer, Yoshi and Link) with four more seen on the official website (Fox, Marth, Pit and Zelda). Nintendo's Shinya Takahashi has stated that there are plans for every Smash Bros character to have an amiibo, although there are no details on when they will be available at retail as yet.
In addition to Super Smash Bros., these figures will be supported by Mario Kart 8, Yoshi's Wooly World, Mario Party 10 and Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker. Whether those games will get their own related collectable figurines remains to be seen, but it must be likely.
This cross-game compatibility is another significant distinctive feature for amiibo. Having a single figurine that enables you to bring a companion character in to multiple games not only means you don’t have to buy as many toy figures, but also makes the toys more significant. There can be a flow of upgrades and abilities between different titles via the amiibo characters.
This also creates a greater connection between the young player and the toy character. Making decisions about upgrading and customising along with time spent playing with the same character in different games underlines the fact that this is your Mario or Princess Peach rather than a stock derivative version.
Getting this cross-game feature right will be important for amiibo. If bringing a Super Smash Bros. Mario figure into Mario Kart is more limited that brining a Mario Kart version of the same figure, players may feel that the experience is not as good as it could be.
Equally, to work as a collectable toy line, each different version of these characters needs to have a distinct reason to be owned and collected. Skylanders walked this line well with their potentially controversial reposed versions of characters from previous games. Although this encouraged collectors to buy multiple versions of the same character, in the game they unlocked specific abilities not previously available to the original version.
Provided these retail considerations are well managed — and there are enough amiibo figures to make the offering substantial — it seems that this will be another driver of game and console sales for Nintendo. It’s an ideal follow up to Mario Kart 8 and is likely to be the sell out product this Christmas. Savvy parents will want to get in early.