Nintendo Amiibo Review: New Model Army

By Matt Hill on at

Nintendo are a toy maker first, a tech company second. It’s worth reiterating that at the outset, as the Japanese firm’s legacy of first selling playing cards in the 19th century and then making physical children’s playthings well before the digital age is at the heart of the company and everything it still does today. It’s all about the fun above and beyond the technology.

Despite well-documented poor sales of the Wii U, a console ridiculed in some quarters for its supposed low tech at launch despite the of-the-time phenomenon of the Wii doing fine with a similar lack of grunt, it’s also what’s kept this under-appreciated gaming platform vibrant and now popping up in more end-of-year best-of lists than anyone else. It’s a super-special fun house among a sea of similarly drab, modern entertainment hubs, with lots of killer, very little filler, and its own unorthodox and quietly innovative line of thinking.

Which all makes Amiibo seem like a very, very late play indeed for the video-game toy market from a hit-needing Nintendo. A market that has been grown by Activision’s Skylanders – a franchise that Nintendo themselves passed on the exclusive rights to – to such crazy volumes that even Disney couldn’t ignore it, jumping on board last year with its Infinity us-too figurines.

Nintendo’s raft of much-loved, internationally known, highly merchandisable characters is one of its greatest strengths. And after an unofficial trial of sorts in Japan with Pokemon Rumble U’s NFC-connected mini-figs in rather charming vending-machine balls, it’s rolling out the big plan.

What Is It?

Amiibo is a range of plastic Nintendo figurines that also double as game add-ons for both the Nintendo Wii U and 3DS consoles, connecting over near-field communication (NFC). The £10.99 figures vary in height from 7cm to 9m, depending on squatness of chosen character, but all are on a 4.8cm-diameter disc base.

The initial wave of Amiibos includes characters from an array of franchises: Mario, Link, Yoshi, Donkey Kong, Princess Peach, Pikachu, Kirby, Samus Aran, Fox McCloud, Marth, Animal Crossing Villager and, of course, the undeniably iconic Wii Fit Trainer (Female). There will inevitably be more to follow (Mega Man please).

Who Is It For?

Nintendo fanboys. Toy collectors. Children who like Nintendo and Skylanders. Nintendo console owners who want to get a little more out of their games.

How It Works

Sidestepping the RFID tech used by Activision, Amiibo’s NFC chip is in the figures’ base and you tap it to a reader as you would a contactless payment card. The Samus Aran one has already been used to open ticket barriers at Russian train stations, so we're off to Paddington to try Pikachu on the Oyster gates…

No joy. On the Wii U, fortunately, it's not an issue, the receiver that so-far-unused square outline under the D-Pad, and it works well, though the Wii U's sloping surface isn't made for them sitting there too long. The 3DS, in turn, requires an NFC reader add-on that hasn’t yet launched in the UK yet, so Amiibos are only Wii U-only for now. The New 3DS, out in Japan and also hopefully headed our way, comes with this built-in.

Alas, the NFC signal won't make it through the box. Yes, the collector in us is still hurting from having to remove our three – Pikachu, Mario and Link – from their carbonite-like plastic stasis.

It’s soon apparent once you're actually using the things, though, that, despite similar appearances, Amiibos are no Skylanders, a nice added bonus to your play rather than a core mechanism. Indeed, there’s no requirement of the games to factor in Amiibo at all, although we’re sure Nintendo will make some titles to do just that in time. But as this is a line of figures envisaged to be integrated across two entire consoles, rather than a series of games, making them core to a game’s dynamic will be interesting to see.

The Games

A smattering of games are compatible so far, two new, Amiibo-ready titles in Super Smash Bros and Hyrule Warriors, plus Mario Kart 8, which has introduced them through an update. Yoshi’s Woolly World and Captain Toad are due to be included, too, when released (we’re playing the latter now and it’s good fun, although Amiibo functionality is still to be added).

The implementation of what your tap does varies a fair bit. Indeed, finding out what you’re going to get each time is part of the fun. For Mario Kart, it just means a nice new costume for your Mii characters – so thank to Mario you can now ride in Evil Knievel-like getup or Link (above) in what looks like the 12.15 at Chepstow.

Hyrule Warriors is more interesting, handing out “gifts” of usable in-game items to you each day in exchange for a tap of an Amiibo. While each figurine is limited to a solitary handout a day, you can check up to five of the buggers in at a time, which obviously encourages owning a few to maximise the reward.

In a classic Nintendo twist, though, the gift-giving is a lottery, so while volume of figures ups your chances of a decent payout, it’s no guarantee. Rather than paying to win, the incremental element of chance recalls the random delight of StreetPass Mii Plaza on the 3DS. First time out, Mario nabbed me 50,000 rupees and Pikachu just one.

Link, on the other hand, was, appropriately given the game, handed the best boost of the lot: a rather tasty Spinner for his arsenal, which lets you fly around whacking people and generally getting your Green Goblin on.

But again, these are just bonuses, the game is not designed around their inclusion (the Spinner is just a weapon you find later handed to you earlier). Yet cartoon beat-em-up Super Smash Bros is different again and you can see why it’s the poster boy. In the most Skylanders-like use, Amiibos take on the form of a character in the game, remixed versions that you can power-up through training and level-up through impressive feats.

Acting as mini memory cards, the Amiibo also saves your progress for it to be taken to a mates’ houses and used to beat them up royally. Your Amiibo-stored character can be customised in a light RPG way to take on preferred battle roles, too, then used as a reliable wingman rather than your primary fighter.

Like

The figures are cool little things that appeal to that "I should probably grow out of it" yearning for desks to be cluttered with cool little things. Young kids, who are supposed to want such pap, are sure to appreciate them, too. The range is good, with most of them looking the part.

Although we couldn't try it out, cross-platform character data working across Wii U and 3DS is a strong addition. Not only does this mean charged characters can be taken on the move, as with Super Smash Bros, but should ensure your figures have plenty of uses going forward, on future devices, too.

It's also good to see Nintendo already coming up with a variety surprising ways to enrich, and extend the life of, games rather than using Amiibo simply as a quick Christmas cash grab. It already feels like a natural extension of the platforms and at a firm like Nintendo, you can see that it may inspire creative ideas, not just commercial ones.

No Like

Speaking of commercial: £11 for what is a very small, non-posable plastic figure is a bit on the steep side, especially when you consider it will cost the person with the wallet £131.88 to get the entire first run of 12 figures. In the video-game toy arena, though, that's not actually badly positioned: Skylanders cost up to £13, while DIsney Infinity figures run up to £15. But those are arguably better made and more integral to the playing experience, and… well, just because they're all doing it doesn't make it not a bit pricey.

Not all Amiibo are created equal, either, and the general build quality of the figures is sadly not quite up to the standard of the pre-production models shown off at E3. The simpler ones fair better: Pikachu, Mario and Samus excel as they’re solid, bright and enjoyably manhandalable in their uncluttered form.

Link, though, is strangely iffy. His taller, thinner build make him a less solid character to recreate, for sure, but the stance he’s been given – a weird part-run, part shield block, part duck that’s hard to figure out – has played to the worst of this. The weird clear plastic stick that’s propping him up is ugly and his bendy sword (presumably made flexible because it’s so big it will take someone’s eye out) feels cheap. And why’s he looking down? You never get to see the poor guy’s face.

Oh, and Amiibos only have enough on-board storage to hold one lot of game data. So if Mario’s knee-deep in some Super Smash Bros levelling up, you’ll have to use another figure for your next game or scrap all that time spent that's now sitting in his gut.

Should I Buy Them?

Well, if you love Nintendo and their games, there's a fair few reasons to. A decent spread of characters that are (mostly) smart looking as figures in their own right, and that add a real element of fun, discovery and functionality to games across both Wii U and 3DS.

If you can take or leave Nintendo, as figures they're not cheap, despite their not exactly high-end build, and as gaming peripherals there's not an overwhelming amount of games working with them just yet. But they only came out on Friday, so this is very much "early adopter" territory – looking at Nintendo's sales figures, they could do with this working, so you can bet they'll be supporting them.

Of course, if you don't love Nintendo and its games, this cutesy reselling of well-worn characters won't sway you. You'll probably find the fact that they do different things with each game really inconsistent, too, rather than enjoyably quirky. But what Nintendo is banking on is that a third group, those that like the characters but stopped buying the games, can be tempted back.

While there's an element to all these video-game toy lines of "don't start buying them or you'll never stop" when it comes to kids (and that still pervades), they are fun and Amiibo's functionality so far treads a happier line of complementing games, rather than making them slaves to additional purchases. There's some real invention in the way they're implemented already, too, that chimes well with the company's history. It's a good fit.

So, in short: possibly.