Salvation, Thy Name is Amiibo: The Quixotic Challenge of Nintendo’s Collectibles

Games Features nintendo

I am a thirty-three year old married man. Yesterday I drove to a job interview. On the way home I noticed a Toys ‘R Us approaching. I was hungry. I wanted to get home, feed my cat, and make a sandwich. I wanted to beat traffic. I had a million reasons to keep driving. But I turned on my blinker, checked my blind spot, switched lanes, and turned into a giant parking lot in front of a giant toy store for one reason that somehow negated all the others: Amiibo.

Nintendo’s Amiibo figurines are small plastic statues based on their popular characters. Each statue has an embedded Near-Field Communication (NFC) chip that, when pressed to either the Wii U GamePad or the New Nintendo 3DS XL, interacts with certain games. The in-game rewards thus far range from “neat” to “ho-hum.” You can unlock a cool racing suit in Mario Kart 8. You can train a battler in Super Smash Bros. The recently launched Amiibo Tap: Nintendo’s Greatest Bits for Wii U is free software that, upon tapping a figurine on the GamePad, unlocks a series of ten scenes from a classic NES or SNES game. You then have 180 seconds to play each scene. For around half of an Amiibo’s MSRP ($12.99), you could buy the entire game from the eShop. What I’m trying to establish is, as far as value to the software on offer is concerned, the figures are limited.

And yet. Nintendo has shipped over ten million of the things across the world since last November. The majority of those units came to the United States. President Satoru Iwata, in his end-of-fiscal-year presentation, expressed optimism for continued growth: “Our assessment is that people purchase additional Amiibo figures without any seasonal bias, as they are relatively more affordable than videogame titles.”

But this does not answer why I pulled over. Thirteen bucks could buy a lot of things: A new paperback book, say, or an expensive burger and fries, or a bag of Hanes undershirts from Target, or Super Mario Bros. 3 plus Super Metroid on the Wii U Virtual Console. The strange allure of Amiibo is a confusing mix of long-suppressed demand (Nintendo has often outsourced manufacturing and distribution of their characters’ toys; these feel “official”), zeitgeist-y trends (Skylanders and Disney Infinity have popularized such figures, such that the category now has its own name: Toys-to-Life), and that most intoxicating of elixirs: rarity.

I pulled over because, maybe, in the aisle of toys next to videogame software, hanging on a hook would be a box with an Amiibo I’ve never seen in a store. Little Mac from Punch-Out!! came out in December; I’ve never seen him in a store. Pit from Kid Icarus, too, has been “available” for months yet I’ve not once had the opportunity to buy him. I don’t even really want these figures. Though they are quite attractive, and I enjoy the odd totem here and there, I simply don’t need them. They take up space I don’t have in my cramped townhouse apartment. They don’t add much appreciable value to any software. But if I saw one on that spontaneous venture to a warehouse filled with distractions built for human beings one-fifth my age, I would have bought them.

My illness is only one of a spreading affliction. Fans and would-be consumers have expressed their dismay with what, on the surface, appears to be an issue of low supply and under-predicted demand, but feels like something more mysterious or vaguely sinister. There is something in the water, friends, and it’s making good people go bad.

On Nintendo’s social media channels, the first comment is often a single word, often in caps: “AMIIBO.” Nevermind the party-line of using only lowercase letters for the product, a decision wrapped in similar voodoo connotations; perhaps the sharp edge of the capital A will cut our fragile selves. The caps are an equivalent of our shared, shouted rage: Why can’t I buy this plastic figurine that I want? The question we ask ourselves, more quietly, is no less confounding: Why, though, do I want to buy this plastic figurine?

Some respond to the collector’s drive: To complete a series; to check every box. For these unfortunate souls, the fact that certain figures are near-impossible to find on store shelves due to small manufacturing runs, like Animal Crossing’s Villager or Fire Emblem’s Marth or Super Mario Galaxy’s Rosalina, is the equivalent of a nagging itch, an OCD sidewalk-walker who can’t help but step on every crack except that one, and then forced to walk on, looking back, wondering why their shoes feel on fire.

Some merely want what is offered. Tap the Toad Amiibo to the Wii U GamePad before starting a level in Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker and a delightful thing happens: a pixelated toad runs across the screen and jumps into the thumbnail image of the level itself. He has hidden himself away; your task now is to find him tucked into the scenery somewhere. The game fundamentally changes. It’s a small but welcome and surprisingly engaging bonus. I played through every single level again because of this “Hide & Seek” mode.

Tap the Amiibo on a bonus level, however, and pixel Toad jumps into the image only to bounce off and scurry away; he can’t hide there, the game lets you know. To the Amiibo hunter who can’t find a Toad figure in stores, this is how they feel: Enticed with a picturesque vista, they leap, only to come crashing down empty-handed and bruised.

Some, like me, don’t know exactly why they’ve been sucked into what has become a perverse quixotic challenge. But I admit to feeling the pang of wanting a thing few others have. This is a corrosive need, an ugly desire that empties as it fills. I pray that my hunger is sated soon. For those unquenchable many, strangers are swooping in to feed those still hungry, like enterprising potato farmers in the midst of a famine.

Each new batch of figures have been launched in waves: Wave 4 will release on May 29th. Certain retailers allowed customers to pre-order, but when Wal-Mart posted their pre-order page at 3:00AM EST on April 17th, most of the allotment was sold out by the time most normal people woke up. Websites dedicated to the hunt have popped up, cataloguing dates and times of stock availability. Those with time and money to spend questionably buy up the few, sell them back to the needy public on auction sites, and reap profit. They are vultures lapping at the wounds of fresh carrion. But they are not the real problem.

Stephen Totilo, Kotaku’s Editor-in-Chief, posted an article last week titled “The Amiibo Problem.” (There’s that capital ‘A,’ slicing the unprotected.) He links the surge in selling plastic figures with Nintendo’s long history of selling other plastic “stuff”: from bathroom scales (Wii Fit) to congas (Donkey Konga) and before that, hey, plastic playing cards, the very first product they ever sold in 1889. It’s a solid observation that does not impinge on his own distaste for the things: “I can’t say for sure why people might love Amiibo,” Totilo writes, “because I do not love them at all.”

While I share his confusion, I do love Amiibo; more than that, I love the people who also love Amiibo. Their brash disregard for reason inspires me to be okay with my own throbbing sense of disorientation. That is the real Amiibo problem: Our need to understand. Why shouldn’t there be four total Marth figures across fifty states and thousands of retailer? Why not allow Gamestop an exclusive Ness figure, that baseball-bat-swinging kid from Earthbound, even if a hundred hopeful wanderers show up outside your locked doors, only to be disappointed and broken?

Nintendo has released something feeble into the wild that has evolved stronger bones and sun-resistant skin. Earlier this month, they posted something of an apology to their fans on Facebook, asking for patience. In their eyes, they are victims of success and are being punished by the unrelenting wants of others. In the eyes of those with Amiibo lust, they are barbarians holding loved ones captive in a cage with a thousand locked doors and only one key. But these are false dichotomies. There’s only one truth. It is a single word. Please, I beg of you: Give in. Let go.


Since 2003, Jon Irwin has been paid to write about film, techno, ice cream, wine, golf, drag-racing, French children and videogames. His first book, Super Mario Bros. 2, was published last year by Boss Fight Books. Follow along: @WinWinIrwin.

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