How Amiibos fit into Nintendo's toy making history

By Peter Allen Clark

 

Amiibos might pay off for Nintendo.

In the first reported numbers after the legendary company launched Amiibos, it looks like the entry into a crowded market points to a promising start.

December NPD numbers announced that Nintendo’s $13-$20 Amiibo figurines, which showcase characters from various games both old and new, have sold as well as Super Smash Bros for the Wii U.

“Nintendo’s new platform where gaming’s most recognizable characters can be used in different ways in many compatible games,” a Dec. 11 press release read. “Sales of Amiibo are approximately equal to sales of Super Smash Bros. for Wii U.”

They put the Super Smash Bros. numbers at 710,000.

The figurines use an NFC (Near Field Communications) chip to communicate with the Wii U gamepad and affect certain games.

 

All in the family...

Fans of Nintendo know that the company started selling decorative playing cards in 1889. Moving shortly after into western playing cards, the company established itself as a toy maker and has largely continued that role to this day.

The fact is, even after finding electronic success, Nintendo has regularly tried to supplement its video games with toy peripherals. Amiibos are simply another mile marker along a history of devices.

The first actual toy that Nintendo produced was a tiny little racing track called the Rabbit Coaster in 1964. From there it only got more complex, especially as Nintendo entered the video game space.

The first outing to work with the launching of the Nintendo Entertainment system is the now iconic R.O.B (Robot Operating Buddy). Only working with two of the NES’ launch games, Gyromite and Stack-Up, Nintendo fiercely marketed it as a toy to enchant the jaded American video game market of 1984.

Far from the end, the success of the NES and R.O.B. only sparked Nintendo’s interest in pairing their video games with plastic peripherals. Of course, the Duck Hunt light gun numbers in that category, but it was far more straightforward than many of the experiments, which leaped onto Nintendo consoles.

The Power Glove, the Super Scope and the Power Pad are all examples of Nintendo’s unique strategy to implement peripherals into gameplay.

Nintendo also released these things. 

Nintendo also released these things. 

The company also insisted on exploring functionality space through the Gameboy’s camera/printer, Mario Party 6’s microphone attachment and Mario Paint’s mouse.

The movement towards stand-alone peripherals has continued into the past five years, primarily with Pokémon. The Pokéwalker a pedometer specifically used with either Pokémon HeartGold or SoulSilver came out in 1999. And Pokémon Rumble U NFC figures accompanied the 2013 game to add their own level of enhancement into the experience.

The idea of stand-alone peripherals in Nintendo’s arsenal crossed paths with the idea of collectability a number of times. Affiliate Game Freak has led that charge with the Pokémon card series and Nintendo even attempted to branch out with Kirby cards.

 

What’s the difference this time?

125 years into its diverse history, Nintendo has found itself at an interesting crossroads. The 1980s and 1990s success was borne on the back of continuing the company’s modus operandi: manufacturing toys for kids.

As those kids have aged, so have the ‘toys’. Video games have long become main stream and Nintendo has run into the dilemma of developing consoles, products and toys to capture the attention of children and also try to keep longtime devotees still on board.

While the Wii’s striking success managed the company to make up ground it had lost in the previous two console generations, it found a home with audiences not used to regularly buying new consoles or keeping current on the latest video game trends.

Many have speculated that Nintendo could have done a better job with the announcement, naming and concept of the Wii U, calling it too close and seemingly a mere expansion on the 2006 console.

Since its 2012 launch, the Wii U has not sold well compared to other players in the market.

Because of that it seems apparent that Nintendo has shifted to a reactionary mood. While they were relative pioneers in the motion control trends of the last decade, they followed a wave of industry interest in 3D gaming with the 3DS and the Amiibos come in warm on the heels of well established franchises like mega-blockbusters Skylanders and Disney Infinity.

In fact, the 710,000 Amiibos sold seems quite paltry compared to the $1.5 billion publisher Activision said they made off of Skylanders retail sales last year.

 

A hard plastic bargain

Nintendo pitches these figurines as affecting a wide range of games, though so far they have only announced Super Smash Bros AI companions, Mario Kart 8 costumes and invite players to “boost your firepower” in Hyrule Warriors.

While Amiibos do offer this expansive gameplay, Nintendo also apparently hopes that they tap into another tried and true video game mechanic: collecting.

For this first period of Amiibo launch, dubbed the Super Smash Bros. series, Nintendo will release a full 29 figurines.

Coinciding with announcing the sales figures, Nintendo also began “retiring” some of the figurines as President Satoru Iwata announced during this year’s semi-annual financial results briefing.

This made some collectors pretty angry, but surely Nintendo hopes the scarcity inspires demand.

The sales figures speak for themselves. Without having official Nintendo projections we can’t say that it hit their targets, but still this figurine gamble seems to have paid off for at least one quarter.

Of course, it’s still unclear what future implementation will make its way from Amiibos to games. For the time being, Nintendo has expressed a desire to bring compatibility to the 3DS but only hinted at a peripheral for those peripherals to come in 2015.

A peripheral for a peripheral...

A peripheral for a peripheral...

As for future games, the company has done no more than listing Mario Party 10, Yoshi’s Wooly World, Kirby and the Rainbow Curse and the currently out Captain Toad Treasure Tracker as those coming with “Amiibo-compatibility.”

With no word on how it will implement the figurines or what new characters Nintendo will make available, video game fans can do nothing more than wait for more information. Nintendo surely hopes those fans continue to collect all current 29, but it has plans for future products along the same lines.

Nintendo icon Shigeru Miyamoto held an extended interview with the Associated Press Dec. 18 and laid out the possibility of extended collectibles.

“Other games can take advantage of past Amiibo that developers want to make their game compatible with,” he said. “In the future, we have the option, if certain Amiibo figures are no longer available in stores, to release an Amiibo in card form with the same functionality.”


It is easy to draw a correlation between Amiibos and R.O.B.. R.O.B. reportedly entered the scene because investors were nervous about the video game crash of the early 1980s and buoyed the prospects of the newcomer Famicom. Nintendo is clearly trying to refine their strategy and update it for a rapidly shifting gaming space and, in a sense, throwing many ideas against the wall, hoping something sticks.

They could have found something lasting with Amiibos, but so far, one quarter does not a success make.