Super Mario amiibo.jpg

Nintendo is still fully committed to amiibo, that much is obvious. New figures and cards continue to gradually emerge, some as expected with the biggest games (such as Splatoon 2 and Metroid: Samus Returns), and others a little unexpected like the cards that came out alongside Mario Sports Superstars. A number of the ranges seem to get little shelf space or interest, while some figures remain evergreen and somewhat in demand.

But still, it seems like the brand and indeed the concept has lost its shine, and as I look over my own collection I realise that purchases are now rather rare; the newest on my shelf is a Link from the series anniversary range, which was picked up out of sentiment. Most of the others are from the Smash Bros. era, and a Yarn Yoshi sits on my desk (well, I do write for a Nintendo website). Notably my Legend of Zelda collection (which is small) doesn't include the Link figures I want the most from the Breath of the Wild range, because they're rare and overpriced on the reseller market. It's slightly odd that demand isn't being met on all of these figures to capitalise on the game's success, but instead it's a case of patiently waiting for occasional (and often brief) restocks at the right price.

That's the thing - the amiibo range still has a market, one that Nintendo is evidently happy to fulfil to a degree, but it's a shrinking enthusiast market. Spot the difference, for example, between the following summaries from Nintendo's financial reports for Q1 2016/2017 and Q1 2017/2018.

Q1 2016/2017

For amiibo, the figure-type and the card-type sales remained at approximately 1.70 million units and 1.30 million units respectively mainly due to a lack of new titles that are compatible with amiibo.

Q1 2017/2018

As there were few new types of amiibo compared to the same period last year and few new titles offering amiibo functionality, amiibo sales were approximately 1.60 million units for figure-type and approximately 1.30 million units for card-type.

Nintendo often brings out the line that there were 'few new titles' to brush off declining numbers, so let's take the annual results for 2016 / 2017 and the equivalents for 2015 / 2016.

Full Year 2015 / 2016

In addition to the above, amiibo sales continued to maintain momentum and showed strong performance globally. The figure-type and the card-type sold approximately 24.70 million units and approximately 28.90 million units respectively.

Full year 2016/2017

Although the release of some new titles offering amiibo functionality restored some momentum, amiibo sales remained limited to 9.1 million units for figure-type and 9.3 million units for card-type.

The amiibo range sales more than halved in the space of a year, as 3DS clung onto momentum and the Wii U headed to discontinuation. March of the last full financial year did bring those aforementioned Breath of the Wild amiibo, but they were and still are quite tough to find at the recommended price. Nintendo, it seems, isn't overly concerned with maximising the market, but rather catering to the most eager collectors alone (and some scalpers, of course).

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When the concept originally launched it was, of course, a phenomenal success; combined with Super Smash Bros. for Wii U it took off, and Nintendo had a torrid time meeting demand. New 'waves' were hot news and would fly off shelves. Part of this was the sheer novelty, of course, there's no denying that, but I think there's more to it - the functionality was actually rather cool.

When originally revealed by Satoru Iwata in 2014 it was pitched as a platform, with the idea of figures with various features that work across multiple titles. Before it was branded amiibo, its codename made clear its intentions.

We are calling the figurines by their development codename, NFP, which comes from “NFC Featured Platform” and “Nintendo Figurine Platform.”

What is especially unique about NFP is that it is not classed as an accessory product of a certain software title but as a platform itself. 

And it has been designed to be compatible with multiple software titles for Nintendo platforms. In other words, the figurines, which consumers can buy and collect, are going to work with multiple software titles to be released in the future, and we are aiming to develop more software titles compatible with the figurines. Nintendo has a lot of well-known character IP that has originated in video games, and we have been regularly releasing titles from game franchises that make use of this character IP. This is why I believe a brand-new type of platform will be born when the character IP becomes compatible with NFP.

In Super Smash Bros. the simplicity of the NFC technology was used in a smart way - you 'trained' your figures in the game, they'd level up and would even join you in fights and give you gifts. We'd see communities organise 'amiibo fights' in which they'd pit figures against each other, meaning that they were collectibles with a bit of actual purpose. It was a perfect marriage between game concept and product - there were figures covering lots of Nintendo IP, and their functionality was simple but clever.

To be fair, Nintendo was good on its word for quite a while in terms of developing the range while also maintaining support across a lot of titles. Detailed infographics and dedicated websites would track which figures were supported in particular games, with those Smash Bros. characters proving busy. In many cases, though, only the read functionality was used; in other words you'd scan a figure and get a power-up or minor reward. They stopped being 'characters' and began to become optional 'physical DLC', a contradictory term that I've used for them a few times. Shovel Knight bucked the trend a bit in making the figure more active, but in many first-party cases they were a bit shoddy for a sustained period. Then there were eventually doomed attempts to shoehorn amiibo into modes and entire games without finding a real hook, with Animal Crossing: amiibo Festival being the nadir.

Nintendo has also tried to monetise them in cynical ways, perhaps best summed up by the Mario Sports Superstars blind packs of cards - they were cheaply produced with old artwork and were needed to unlock 'Superstar' versions of characters, though it wasn't the first time a mode was locked behind the range. Collecting all those cards seemed like an expensive and thankless task, something I suspect very few players even attempted. It was also an entire range for a modest game too, both in quality and number of sales. At times Nintendo's done this, saturating its own market unnecessarily.

It does feel like saturation, especially when new figures emerge with very uninspiring or downright annoying perks. The Splatoon range unlocks outfits in the latest title, though in its favour you can at least 'save' outfits to the amiibo to take with you as a loadout; it's better than nothing, but rather 'meh' I'd suggest. But then there's the upcoming Metroid amiibo, which is an unlock key (essentially) for the 'Fusion' difficulty mode that you get after beating the game; this is only accessible if you have the amiibo. Plenty complained that the Master Mode was tied into the expansion pass in Breath of the Wild, and Nintendo is continuing that approach with this squidgy figure, but the content will clearly have been developed ahead of time for release and just locked away.

We saw plenty of amiibo pop up during E3, and my hope is that the Super Mario Odyssey figures will do something interesting or clever, rather than just provide half a dozen extra lives; we don't know yet. We've seen that Nintendo still occasionally has nice ideas for amiibo, such as the use for Wolf Link in Breath of the Wild, in which he appears as a companion to help you in the game. That's a lovely touch, with the only downside being that the figure is hard to find at a good price. 

We're in a loop at the moment where Nintendo keeps pumping out more and more amiibo (not all of them used well), and on occasions when they're really desirable stock is limited and scalpers strike. At the same time sales are static or potentially falling. Nintendo will no doubt hope that the Switch can help bring the sales numbers back up in this financial year, as interest in the system converts to intrigue in the figures; if there's enough stock, that is.

I still think amiibo can be a terrific thing for Nintendo, a range of products that genuinely adds to our gaming lives. Rather than exponential growth of the range with limited stock and functionality, however, I'd love to see a focus on quality. Less figures, more functionality. The NFC technology is limited, of course, but examples like Shovel Knight (which was entirely the work of Yacht Club Games), the Smash Bros. range and Wolf Link in Breath of the Wild show how they can be clever, enjoyable additions to our games. The question is whether Nintendo cares about bringing amiibo back to mainstream attention, however, or whether it wants to make relatively few units and shift them to collectors without too much stress.

The latter case would be a pity. The amiibo idea was born as a platform to enhance games, making the experience that bit more creative and fun. It can still do that and does on occasion, but the range needs to be more focused and less cynical if it's to thrive rather than stumble along.

As for me, I'll keep an eye out for a Breath of the Wild Guardian at its recommended retail price...