With Disney Infinity, Skylanders and Lego Dimensions falling by the wayside in recent years, toys-to-life seems to have reached its natural conclusion. Much like the plastic instrument peripherals of a decade ago, consumers have had enough after filling their homes with plastic discs, USB base plate readers and assorted clutter – the novelty just isn’t enough anymore. As much fun as we had with it, Starlink: Battle For Atlas seemed like a foolhardy endeavour even from its initial reveal back at E3 2017, and despite being a very strong game (with Switch owners getting the choicest cut thanks to the excellent Star Fox crossover content), disappointing sales and a speedy price drop only confirmed what seemed self-evident from the start: toys-to-life is well and truly dead.
But is it, though? A quick survey around the Nintendo Life office reveals we’re still picking up amiibo when something catches our eye. Nearly five years on from launch, Nintendo’s reaction to Skylanders and Disney Infinity – wisely branded apart from the struggling Wii U – has somehow bucked the trend and outlived nearly all competition. We’re still buying them even after toys-to-life went off a cliff. The crazy days of shortages and flipping Wii Fit Trainer on eBay for 500% profit are long gone, but last year’s figures remarkably showed growth in amiibo sales. Nintendo is often accused of artificially bottle-necking supply to generate consumer demand – a practice they deny – but shortages certainly drove interest when the platform launched in 2014.
The reasons for toys-to-life’s precipitous decline is tough to pin down to one factor, especially while Nintendo continues to buck the trend. The explanation that brick-and-mortar stores got sick of bulky stock might hold water were it not for all the Funko Pops lining racks at your local gaming emporium. Retailers are happy to clog shelves with plastic so long as it’s shifting, and amiibo are still doing just that. Restocks of some of the rarer figures prior to the arrival of Super Smash Bros. Ultimate helped collectors pick up ones they’d missed, and we’ve seen figures from other series reappear, too. Just the other day we were thrilled to see an Ocarina of Time Link in the wild and fought the urge to snap it up immediately. What started out as ‘okay – just a couple of the ones we really like’ has ballooned into a collection which threatens the structural integrity of our Billy bookcase. Of course we were going to get Chibi-Robo and the squidgy Metroid, and we’d snap Nintendo’s hand off at the wrist to get that Japan-only Qbby amiibo for a sensible price, though did we really need Duck Hunt dog? Our shelf contains several fringe characters purely because they were cheap, or worse, they were rare.
You could argue that other brands don’t enjoy the broad cross-generational appeal of Nintendo’s beloved characters and IP. Skylanders are unlikely to strike a chord with many parents – as the plastic pouches filling second-hand bargain bins at your local GAME will testify – but Nintendo’s roster is recognisable to virtually everyone. It’s a valid point that unfortunately founders when you consider Lego’s timeless charm and Disney’s unimpeachable (and ever-expanding) portfolio. If Mickey Mouse, Buzz, Woody, Darth Vader, Iron Man, et al. aren’t enough to save a sinking ship, what dark magic fuels the success of a platform boasting Captain Falcon, Mii Brawler and, er, Roy? How are amiibo popular enough to justify twelve different versions of the same character? (Link, if you’re wondering – yes, that includes his lycanthropic form.)
One can safely assume that amiibo are surviving – thriving, even – purely as collectables. The wedding-themed Mario, Peach and Bowser figures comprising the Super Mario Odyssey series, for example, were arguably designed as cake-toppers for nerd nuptials in addition to the nominal in-game bonuses they offer. The overall sculpture quality means they look great on display – far better than any run-of-the-mill World of Nintendo figurine – so that’s undoubtedly a factor in their continued success.
In spite of amiibo’s healthy effect on Nintendo’s balance books, it’s harder to argue that in-game implementation has been anything but a disappointment. With no need for a bulky base, the fact that their Near-Field Communication chips interface with the controllers directly is a massive boon, but we’ve yet to see any truly innovative use of them in software. Even notable examples of integration are hardly ground-breaking and anecdotal evidence suggests that many players simply don’t bother scanning them anyway. Smash Bros. – the driving force behind the majority of the amiibo line – is a case in point: training amiibo fighters that ape your fight-style is a diverting little extra and the idea of pitting them against a mate is fun, but the novelty wore off quickly. The handful of bespoke challenge levels they unlocked in the original Splatoon led to some exclusive swag, although we don’t recall if we completed them all, and we’re not digging the Wii U out of the loft to check. In Super Mario Maker they handily gave you immediate access to the corresponding 8-Bit costume, but those could be earned through normal gameplay. Other instances of decent implementation exist, but it’s nothing terribly interesting or game-changing.
In fact, you could say that for space-conscious gamers with families, NFC functionality and gameplay value – however notional it may be – works more as a psychological justification to purchase. It’s an easier sell to yourself and loved ones alike when you can claim these attractive bits of plastic also enhance the games. Their compatibility with multiple titles is another win; even the ones you’re on the fence about might end up on your shelf if they unlock a natty costume in Mario Kart 8. Hardly essential, but neat enough to rationalise throwing down a tenner.
Conversely, there are plenty of examples where amiibo support feels like more trouble than it’s worth. Wii U’s insipid Animal Crossing: Amiibo Festival was developed mainly to encourage the company to make amiibo for that series – and for that we’re thankful. The actual game, though, was a turgid snorefest. Mini Mario & Friends: amiibo Challenge on Wii U and 3DS was another stab at a bespoke title which fell flat, though at least that was a free downloadable offering.
Perhaps the problem lies in Nintendo’s unwillingness to use amiibo for anything more than cosmetic items or minor rewards. The company’s approach has been sensible for the most part – any variant of a character (Dr Mario or 8-Bit Mario, for example) will unlock character-specific bonuses. Of course, gating significant content behind them (like, say, proper dungeons in a Zelda game) would be a sure-fire way to provoke ire from the fanbase, and Nintendo hasn't taken that road.
Admirable as it is, this approach does hamstring creativity somewhat if designers must constantly work on the basis that players have nothing but the base game. A sensible choice, yes, but it leaves an enormous amount of untapped potential on the drawing board, and after seeing the sheer creativity on display with things like Labo, surely there’s some outrageous, outside-the-box idea that could make use of the millions of amiibo sitting on shelves across the globe. It’s unthinkable that Amiibo Festival and Mario Party are really the best Nintendo can do.
At the very least they should be providing added value to your system. Why don’t they unlock custom themes or skins on your 3DS or Switch? Is a simple colour scheme asking too much? How about a simple chess game? Board games have enjoyed a huge renaissance over the last decade, both digital and physical. Imagine a Dungeons & Dragons-style campaign, for example, where your character stats and choices are stored in your amiibo. What about some sort of Labo tie-in where you can use the figures in your own Toy-Con creations? Remember the oversized Yarn Yoshi or that monstrous Guardian amiibo? Why weren’t they tied into some exclusive DLC – something meatier than a boss-rush challenge dungeon? We’re not promoting the idea of excluding players, but packing amiibo with the software ensures everybody’s on the same page and opens the door to more interesting interactions and gameplay possibilities.
We’re just spitballing – Nintendo’s boffins could surely come up with something that utilised all those latent NFC chips in the wild. The company is adept at finding new and interesting ways to repurpose older tech. Think how some simple motion tech started the Wii revolution, or how Pokémon revitalised the ageing Game Boy. In fact, Pokémon is the perfect vehicle to refresh the amiibo concept. Remember Pokémon Rumble U? Its capsule toy concept died on the vine, but for one hot minute, those tiny pre-amiibo figurines seemed to indicate the direction Nintendo would take with NFC.
The sheer number of monsters in the franchise makes our once-imagined toys-to-life/Pokemon RPG crossover impractical now – obviously, you’re not going to carry all those figures around with you, and the reality of finding the right one and constantly tapping it to the reader would soon become a chore – but the franchise seems ripe for a trading card crossover using the amiibo cards we saw for Animal Crossing: Happy Home Designer. Unlike Animal Crossing, direct control over the Pokémon brand lies with The Pokémon Company (of which Nintendo is joint owner), so there may be a couple more legal hoops to jump through, but if there's one thing The Pokémon Company likes more than Pocket Monsters, it's cold hard cash. Switch sales are incredibly healthy and, unlike the 3DS family, every single console (or more accurately, every right Joy-Con) has an in-built NFC reader, so the player base is primed.
It’ll be interesting to see what amiibo integration Pokémon Switch has in store. At the very least, it seems we’ll be seeing the Gen 1 starters in Smash amiibo form, and once again we’ll snap them up because, at the very least, they’ll be cute little figures. There’s so much untapped potential in them, though, and following Switch’s success, it’s still not too late to unlock it.