When Nintendo unveiled its amiibo range in Spring 2014 with the codename of "Nintendo Figurine Platform", it came at a time when the toys-to-life market was near its peak. After Skylanders had blazed a trail Disney Infinity had followed, and it had become a lucrative sector in the market. Nintendo's initial pitch was enticing - the visual and collectable appeal of Nintendo IPs in small figures, along with the promise that one toy could feasibly support a broad range of games in interesting ways. It was a generous twist on a hot trend.
When it was branded as amiibo and paraded at E3 that year, it was primarily tied to Super Smash Bros. for Wii U and to a degree the 3DS version; it was as good as 'synergy' - a term corporations love - can get. The diverse cast of the fighting game opened the door to a substantial range of varied characters, and in addition the game suited the toys-to-life concept rather well. The technology is extremely primitive in terms of reading and writing small amounts of data, but Masahiro Sakurai and his team utilised it to create trainable companions. Conceptually your amiibo was your ally or sparring partner in the game - you'd feed them items, train them, and they'd give you presents. A couple of simple scans in the game and you could also take it with you to a friend's house or to events - 'amiibo fighting' became a sub-game all on its own.
Sales of early waves were significant, to the point that they got Nintendo into some trouble. The company didn't make enough units, and the problem was exacerbated (according to the big N) by major port strikes in the US. All around the world certain figures were extremely hard to find, and eBay was awash with opportunists making an easy buck. The trend lasted for a while - Nintendo would release a new wave of Smash Bros. figures, they'd sell out, and the money would roll in. Between the range starting in late 2014 and 31st March 2015, Nintendo shipped about 10.5 million units, and that's in light of the fact demand was far higher than the stock supplied.
Nintendo kept up momentum through 2015 and early 2016 with more Smash Bros. figures, of course, while also expanding into a number of other games. There were examples such as the Yarn Yoshi and Splatoon amiibo, while a range of cards (which has had multiple 'waves') accompanies Animal Crossing: Happy Home Designer; those cards were a success in Japan, particularly. At the end of the 2015 / 2016 financial year, covering a full 12 months for amiibo, Nintendo said it shipped approximately 24.70 million figures over that year and 28.90 million amiibo cards (which were sold in packs of three). At that point, Nintendo's presentation to investors included three slides that highlighted the strong growth of the amiibo product.
Of course, those happy updates were less than a year ago, so it's not exactly ancient history. Nevertheless, the continuing fade of Wii U and some figures being tied to titles that typically shift less units - like Mario Party: Star Rush on 3DS - have contributed to momentum slowing down and the vibe around the range shifting. In the nine months since those giddy highs Nintendo recently reported that, from 1st April up to 31st December 2016, it had shipped around 6.5 million figures and only about 6.6 million cards, so after the final three months of the financial period they're clearly going to fall short of those impressive figures from the previous year. In Tatsumi Kimishima's investor briefing the range only had a brief mention that said very little.
For amiibo fans there's reassurance that, of course, the figures and cards will be compatible (when software allows) with the Switch, with the NFC reader now located in the right Joy-Con. Yet the range hasn't been anything near prominent in Switch marketing, and is largely ignored in the flashy Switch hubs on official websites; this is perhaps a reflection of amiibo drifting away from the spotlight. Once you dig into the amiibo-specific areas of Nintendo's sites you see promotion of the new figures coming for The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild on Wii U and Switch, of course. Other upcoming releases include the recently announced Celica and Alm to tie-in with May's 3DS release of Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia, and cards for Mario Sports Superstars.
These are interesting cases, and it should be said that they show Nintendo is still eager to keep the range growing. It's not entirely clear what the new figures for Breath of the Wild do (some of which are pictured at the top of this article), though Smash Bros. and Anniversary ranges for the series will deliver items in the game or, in the case of Wolf Link, bring that character in as an AI companion. The Mario Sports Superstars cards could be controversial depending on how they pan out - blind-packs will be needed to unlock the 'Star' versions of characters, a feature that's previously been driven by in-game achievements in Camelot's sports titles.
Of course, Nintendo has a lot of announcements likely still to come, and we'd be surprised if games like Splatoon 2 don't at least support existing figures. The company's commitment to the range will be interesting to observe, though - those new figures and cards on the way will have begun development when amiibo and the toys-to-life sector were relatively hot, but now the market is softer. The 'toys-to-life' sector has seen sales fall in countries like the US, LEGO Dimensions arrived and Disney Infinity bit the dust, and there have been persistent rumours that the Skylanders series is struggling and could be at threat, though at present it's still very much alive. Toys-to-life is far from finished, but as a sub-industry it's not quite the runaway money-maker it was before.
For Nintendo, the challenge is making the figures truly interesting. Games like Yoshi's Woolly World have used them quite well, and as a Nindie Yacht Club Games did a nice job with its Shovel Knight amiibo, but in some cases the figures and cards have been used in uninspiring ways. Another problem for Nintendo is that some pick them up primarily as collectibles; sales are sales, yes, but for the range to shift big numbers it needs have relevance in improving games. In some cases amiibo are semi-lazy content unlocks and little more; it's not hard to see why some feel turned off.
As for what Nintendo should do to make amiibo a must-have again, it'll naturally have talented individuals considering that very point. That said, we do have one word, a drum we've beaten before - Pokémon, namely Pokémon amiibo cards. Frankly, when Pokémon Sun and Moon came and went with no whiff of amiibo, and instead offered chunky toys entirely unrelated to the range, we were surprised.
On a superficial level, Pokémon amiibo cards could be an extraordinary success - it's a series focused on collecting and so taps into that compulsion, and of course the games are normally followed by new ranges in the Pokémon Trading Card Game. This is a franchise that has collecting cards at its heart, even if the video games and TCG exist in relatively separate spaces; in fact, amiibo could help being the two together.
It seems like a no-brainer, but to be fair it'll never be that simple. A series as entrenched and with a fan-base as passionate as Pokémon's always considers moves carefully, especially as there's also a vibrant competitive scene to consider. With that in mind integrating amiibo cards would need careful management, but it is a series that - particularly in Sun & Moon - hasn't been afraid to shake up the formula and try new things. Perhaps if the rumoured third game to follow Sun & Moon does come to Switch, as reports suggested earlier in the year, that could be a jump-off point for a franchise ready-made to sell collectable amiibo cards (and perhaps some figures). Ultimately Nintendo needs to want this to happen and then get The Pokémon Company and Game Freak on board.
Rather like with any Nintendo product range or concept, over the coming months major reveals for Switch will be picked over to see how far amiibo is supported. Super Mario Odyssey is another - will Nintendo incorporate the range into the adventure, or decide it's not a good fit?
We think amiibo can still be a hit for Nintendo, but its momentum has stalled in recent months, and we've seen plenty of them looking a little unloved on shelves at a discount here in the UK, at least. With more figures and cards coming and a number of Switch games yet to reveal their full hand ahead of release later in the year, it'll be interesting to see whether Nintendo has new ideas and ambition for amiibo, or whether the concept will slowly fade into the background.
Let us know whether you hope to see amiibo grow and flourish in the coming year or two, or whether you think it's time for Nintendo to focus its attention elsewhere.