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Amiibo: Why they’re not going away anytime soon

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It’s a strange transitionary time for Nintendo and its loyal fans. The glory days of the company’s illustrious and market-dominating NES and SNES consoles are long behind them. The cracks may have started to appear during their heated rivalry with Sega, but the house that Mario built was never truly bested – in terms of lifecycle console sales – until the release of the PlayStation by its former temporary business partner, Sony. Despite the action-filled games and the calibre of first-party studios, Nintendo were unable to get a foothold in the console market until the release of the Wii, a console that would go on to sell 101.18 million units to date, making it the third highest selling console in history. The Wii and the Nintendo DS combined proved a formidable opponent for Sony and Microsoft – neither Sony’s technically superior PlayStation 3, with its emphasis on becoming the only home entertainment system you would ever need, or Microsoft’s Xbox 360 with its advanced and computer-like online capabilities could match Nintendo’s family oriented approach.

Flash-forward to 2016 and it’s a completely different picture: the Wii U has barely stumbled over the 12 million units sold mark, and 3DS hardware sales, while initially strong, are currently in decline. With a new console and smartphone initiative on the horizon, things are starting to look up…but we need to wait just a little longer. One Nintendo product continues to exceed expectations, a beacon of hope for the Nintendo incarnate: the sales for the first and second quarter of 2015 for this particular product were less than half reached in the third quarter! It’s during these tumultuous times that Nintendo can rely on something other than its dwindling software/hardware: we’re talking about amiibo.

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Some might argue over the correct use and application of your average amiibo, but nearly all of us can agree on the nostalgic and sentiment-infused attraction at seeing our amiibo collection on display. In a time where Nintendo seems inclined to revive and reimagine older classic titles (Wind Waker HD, Twilight Princess HD, Mario Maker etc.), it only seems right to want to celebrate the past with these small, detailed figurines. From a Nintendo collector’s perspective it’s a dream come true, and part of the fun stems from attaining that “oh so special” character, an experience not dissimilar from discovering a rare shiny Pokémon trading card.

After the announcement by company President Tatsumi Kimishima that amiibo have surpassed 21 million figures sold, Nintendo has promised to expand the product line-up, so we can all be safe in the knowledge that we’ve all got a lot more collecting to do. There is, however, something that bothers even the most enthusiastic amiibo aficionado, a meddlesome thought we just can’t swat away. With Skylanders popularising the virtual/figurine-synchronous video game, it didn’t take long for other big publishers to start constructing their own family-centric titles, often with big licenses to attract audiences of a particular IP. Often there’s a device to transfer the data from the physical figure into the virtual video game world, and thus you’d be able to control that character with their very own story and background. There has yet to be an amiibo exclusive game, and it’s slightly disconcerting.

Tatsumi Kimishima himself has stated how amiibo functionality has yet to be properly integrated into Nintendo software – a glaring omission from a company fully aware of the success of amiibo – and yet they don’t fully understand the potential of the figurine’s technology. Maybe the issue resides within the recurring theme of Nintendo’s lack of third-party support, but this is unlikely; Nintendo recognises the success of amiibo, and, if they wanted to, could’ve assigned one of their first-party studios to build a game centred around amiibo. Maybe it’s the compatibility issues between the NFC technology and the old 3DS. For all of us who didn’t purchase the new 3DS (with a built-in NFC reader), we would have to purchase a NFC reader/adaptor to access amiibo/videogame functionality (though the out-and-about perks of a handheld system don’t seem so enticing with a white disc hanging off your 3DS). Nintendo, now more than ever, needs to fully comprehend their situation and justify the existence of amiibo’s NFC capabilities, and we’re not just talking about the opportunity to unlock a new character skin/costume to be used in-game either.

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Take for instance the Yarn Yoshi amiibo: an adorable addition to the amiibo family, and, in typical Nintendo cutesy fashion, the figure is woven from actual yarn; it’s as if somebody stuck their hand into the television screen while playing Yoshi’s Woolly World and pulled out one of its eponymous characters. It’s a novel idea that perfectly reflects the innocent sensibilities and content of the game it represents, but aside from the wonderful charm it exhibits to our awesome amiibo collections it doesn’t augment the overall game experience; the inclusion of Nintendo-themed costumes for Yoshi to wear reinforces the idea of a novelty that soon wears off. Likewise, the same can be said for Mario Kart 8 and Super Smash Bros; other than exclusive costume content, these titles offer little else in terms of gameplay incentives.

2016 feels like a year of questions: What is the NX? Will it be backwards compatible with previous console software? Will the smart device titles synchronise with any of Nintendo’s platforms? It begs another question: does the function of amiibo have to change at all? In the meantime, we can all take solace in the fact that amiibo are here to stay, and, judging from the sales figures of these iconic personalities, we seem to be content with their role as collector’s pieces. With the release of Twilight Princess HD on the horizon, it’s an exciting opportunity for us to replay one of the darkest Zelda’s in recent years. It’s also a chance for us to grab that awesome Midna/Wolf Link amiibo. Regardless of how the game utilises amiibo functionality, it’s a fantastic way to pay homage to our favourite franchises (he’ll fit snugly between my Yarn Yoshi and my 8-bit Mario), and isn’t that enough?

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Films, games and music: the big three! If you like any of these, chances are we're going to get on just fine. I'm just a balding, goggle-eyed 26-year old Masters graduate from the UK, and I'm here to talk games! Let's dance.

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