Beyond simply dropping amiibo into stores and saying "look, Nintendo characters as collectible toys", the big N has also been trying to produce free software to tempt Wii U and 3DS owners to pick up some figures. We've already had amiibo Tap: Nintendo's Greatest Bits, but that was an oddly flawed and arguably rubbish app - thankfully Mini Mario & Friends: amiibo Challenge is far simpler in concept and provides some nice entertainment at no cost.

The core gameplay, unsurprisingly, brings this in as a spin-off to the Mario vs. Donkey Kong series, which has established itself as a solid and charming franchise. The approach here is a little different in that there's no underlying plot or rivalry, but this is simply a collection of puzzle levels designed to put your amiibo collection to work; it does so in some fairly imaginative ways.

For starters, this free app won't let you play in any way if you don't have any amiibo figures. We tried a random Animal Crossing: Happy Home Designer amiibo card and it came up as incompatible and wouldn't start the game. You need an actual figure, and they all seem to be supported - we trialled the Shovel Knight amiibo which would be the most likely to be rejected (as the only figure produced by a third-party) and it worked.

When you scan a non-Mario series figure you play as a cute little cube called Mini Spek, which has no special abilities and simply marches along. Anyone who's played previous entries in the series knows what to expect, as you manipulate and place environmental items to guide your character through a course to grab coins and reach an exit. From classics like girders, to springs and warp pipes, you use the stylus to tap and place items (or speed up your character) while using an analogue stick to look around larger stages. Your attention is largely fixed to the GamePad, with the TV showing a handy wide view of the whole stage that can be used for reference. We rather got used to treating this as a GamePad-only game, but with tougher stages the TV can be useful for planning a route.

Part of the series formula is the time pressure of clearing a path as your toy relentlessly marches on, and this game plays up to that. If you only have non-Mario series toys you can play 12 stages in total, which is decent for a free download, and that'll be your lot. They're decent stages, too - they won't take long and they're far from the best the series has offered, but as a throwaway download treat they're not bad.

The game opens up a lot more when you have Mario-themed amiibo. 10 of the 12 core stages have an alternative exit that can only be reached when using certain characters; reach that exit and you have four special stages for that character. On top of that the core stages have two collectible 'amiibo cards' that can only be reached with a specific characters, so those seeking 100% completion will need amiibo for 10 Mario universe characters and will play each core level three times. Those replays, along with the unlockable batches of four special stages, mean there's plenty of content.

This writer had half of the required amiibo (the Yarn Yoshi and Pixel Mario toys do work, for reference), and in general the special stage areas were nicely done. Each character toy has unique abilities (Mario can wall jump, Bowser stomps downwards, Toad squeezes through narrow gaps etc) and these stages play up to them. There are some clever moments that raise a smile, and a handful that are rather flat and unimaginative by comparison. We suspect this project allowed some less experienced developers to cut their teeth, as the quality of stage design wavers from excellent to mediocre, and various levels in-between.

The use of different abilities is a neat idea, though, and this game does give one of the nicest incentives to break out the amiibo collection. There are fun stages to tackle here, and by collecting enough amiibo cards throughout the stages you can unlock more stages at the end; these get rather tricky, which is a good thing with unlockable post-game extras.

The presentation here is decent, though not impressive as such. Nintendo actually showcased a version of this at GDC 2014 to demonstrate Nintendo Web Framework tools, and a few of the flaws of that platform come through to suggest this final product is using that setup. There's occasional framerate stutter (mostly at the start of a stage), and general visuals and audio are sufficient for the job and little more. That's not exactly a complaint with a free app, but it's worth setting expectations for the lower end of that 'Nintendo Quality' spectrum.

Conclusion

As a free app that provides an incentive to explore amiibo, Mini Mario & Friends: amiibo Challenge is a good effort. It offers a nice taster for those with non-Mario-themed toys, with 12 levels to tackle, and adds enjoyable twists and extra content for those with the correct figures. It's a fun if not premium experience, with some rather uninspired level designs mixed in with moments of greater quality - for amiibo fans it's well worth a look.