What do Street Fighter fans and Skylanders fans have in common? Not much, but that particular Venn Diagram does have at least one overlapping group: collectors.
Some fans of games simply care more about collecting than competition, be it collecting and displaying copies of games both old and new, collecting characters in-game (fighting games in particular tap into a completionist instinct to unlock every last hero), stacking up costumes and armor and weapons sets, or – of course! – collecting figurines. This “collector” subset of gaming fandom is considered, without a doubt, to be just as “nerdy” as the rest – but it isn’t necessarily seen as “hardcore,” since sometimes these Collector types don’t care about playing competitively. Sometimes they do, of course. But not always.
I wasn’t born with the Collector gene, so when I first heard that the Skylanders aesthetic was about to invade my fighting games, I felt annoyed. There aren’t going to be figurines associated with Street Fighter – not yet, anyway – but there will be a set of figures called Amiibos for the newest iteration of Super Smash Brothers, a fighting game that already bridges the gap between “casual” and “hardcore,” as well as the gap between young gaming fans and adults.
I always find this type of gap-bridging fasinating. I wrote last year about the Ouya’s attempt to bridge these same divides (between casual and hardcore players, as well as between young and old) – although at this point, I’d say the Ouya has failed in that particular mission. Nintendo’s Amiibo idea could work, however – unlike the Ouya, Nintendo already has an established fanbase of players who are diverse both in age and investment. Even though “hardcore” (read: adult and/or hyper-competitive) fighting game fans might not understand the purpose of the Amiibos, I can already see Nintendo’s intended trajectory here. Amiibos are intended to tap into the Collector fandom, which crosses the divide between all different types of gaming fans.
This tactic has worked in the past, at least when it comes to selling games to the younger set. Games like Skylanders and Disney Infinity already have successfully incorporate figurines into co-operative and single-player adventures; players buy as many figurines as they wish (or as many as their parents allow, assuming they’re younger players), and then scan in the toys to designate them as playable, virtual heroes. In Skylanders, you can switch figurines at any time, so long as you have multiple toys to swap out. In Disney Infinity, the appeal is not only swapping out characters, but getting to play as recognizable heroes from the Marvel Universe or Pirates of the Carribean. Instead of marching Iron Man around your living room and merely pretending that he’s fighting an enemy force, kids can just scan their plastic Tony Stark into a virtual world and move a joystick around. Blah blah, death of imagination, blah blah. The concept may be soulless, but it does seem to sell a lot of toys.
Nintendo’s idea to introduce Amiibo figurines into Smash Brothers (as well as Mario Kart 8, Hyrule Warriors, and probably a bunch of other games) seems like the exact same idea as Disney Infinity and Skylanders at first, but the difference is that Nintendo is introducing these figurines into competitive games that aren’t geared solely towards children. That’s not to say that adults don’t still enjoy Disney Infinity or whatever – on the contrary, Nintendo is catering to those very adults by normalizing the existence of figurines in association with slightly more “adult” games. Kids play and enjoy Smash Brothers, too, of course, but unlike other fighting games, Smash offers enough varying modes to cater to every kind of gaming fan, be they old, young, hyper-competitive, or overwhelmed by other fighting games’ less accessible learning curves.
Nintendo intends to release an Amiibo to correspond with every single Super Smash character, but there isn’t any competitive edge that comes along with buying the figures. If I purchase, say, a Samus Amiibo, then I can scan her into my Wii U, customize her stats, and bring my toy to a friend’s house (provided they have a Wii U and Smash as well). Then, we can each duke out our customized virtual Amiibos against one another. However, we don’t actually get to play as our figurines in-game. The figures fight each other – and we can fight against them, or alongside them – but we can’t play as them. Amiibos are more like virtual pets than fighting game characters … hence the popular theory among fans that Amiibos will later be introduced into the upcoming Pokemon fighting game, Pokken Tournament.
Since these figurines don’t translate into playable characters, it’s not clear what benefit owning them would serve to a more competitive player. The only exception so far is the implementation of the Link figurine in Hyrule Warriors; this figure will unlock a Link who uses the Spinner weapon from Twilight Princess, so buying the $12.99 figurine in this case will actually result in a new game feature. In Mario Kart 8, it sounds like figurine purchases will only provide new costumes for your Mii character – as opposed to unlocking, say, the ability to actually put Captain Falcon behind the wheel.
So, other than the fact that Amiibos are scannable figures, they have almost nothing functionally in common with Skylanders and Disney Infinity figurines. Given that Amiibos tend to be tied to competitive games rather than cooperative ones, and given that they symbolize an object to be collected rather than a virtual hero to unlock, the Amiibos may be little more than a hopeful cash grab from a company that could use a little extra pocket lining. Taking advantage of the Collector fandom is almost too easy, really, especially when you factor in the “completionist” types who’ll feel obligated to buy every single Amiibo for the sake of unlocking every corresponding costume. At $12.99 per figurine, that could be a painful experience. Smash Brothers has a lot of characters!
I have no doubt that the toys will result in an income uptick for Nintendo. But I also know that these figures speak to a specific subset of gaming fandom that gets a lot of mockery as it is – oftentimes, that’s mockery from me, which I’m going to try to cut back on. As I’ve said, I’m not a collector; I owned tons of action figures as a child, but as an adult, I’ve grown to hate clutter. I am not ever going to be the type of person who buys every single Amiibo, nor have I been born with the compulsion that I “have” to buy every single Amiibo in order to “complete” my game. But I know that for some people this form of collecting taps into a specific joyful sensation. I can undertsand and empathize with that concept, even though I may not experience it myself.
The experience of collecting is often characterized as a childish activity that adults are supposed to overcome and stop doing after a certain age. I just made that implication inadvertantly myself in the previous paragraph by writing that after I passed a certain age, I stopped caring about figurines. There are some objects that it’s socially acceptable for adults to collect – stamps, for example, or rare coins – but collecting action figures? Still not socially acceptable, despite how many people keep telling me that “being a nerd is cool now.” Pretty sure it still isn’t.
Gaming as a whole is often considered “childish,” too, by non-gamers – even the most competitive forms of gaming aren’t exactly acceptable discussion at a cocktail party (just ask my non-gaming friends, whose eyes start to droop whenever I accidentally talk about StarCraft tournaments for too long). The “collector” type of gaming in particular is considered to be the most childish and shameful of all, at least in my experience. Perhaps it’s because adults are “supposed” to be spending our money on something more responsible than figurines – like, uh, stamps and rare coins? Conspicuous consumption itself is considered childish and irresponsible, assuming that you’re consuming “childish” objects rather than “adult” ones. We should be playing the stock market, not playing with toys, right?
I’ve written before about how I don’t think it’s fair that in order to be considered a “hardcore” gamer, by other gamers, you’re supposed to make a lot of very expensive purchases. You’re “supposed” to have a very expensive television and/or computer set-up, and every single gaming console and corresponding controller, plus a huge collection of games to boot. That’s crap, I think. But the “collector” form of consumption doesn’t fall into the same category, I don’t think, because it’s often considered shameful and stupid even by gamers themselves, especially adult gamers. It’s cool to own a huge TV, even if you barely use it. But it’s not cool to own a collection of figurines, even if that collection costs significantly less than other markers of performative financial consumption.
A lot of the “hardcore” verbiage that we have collectively created about games is about defining games as being masculine, at least in part – but it’s also about affirming that we are adults, that games have “grown up,” and that games are very serious. They are definitely not just toys. But sometimes, they are toys, and the introduction of Amiibos into games that bridge the gap between adults and children affirms that.
It’s okay for games to be about joy. It’s also okay for adults to experience a sense of wonder, no matter how ashamed we may feel about it. We often characterize wonderment itself as “childlike” – that’s sad, isn’t it? Children get to have all the fun. We get to grow up and engage in serious competitive tournaments. Or stock market trading. Whatever.
I’m pretty sure Nintendo is releasing these figurines because they need money. But maybe – just maybe – Amiibos are also part of Nintendo’s overall joyful aesthetic. After all, Nintendo has convinced both children and adults alike that it’s perfectly normal to keep playing Mario forever. Maybe it could be just as normal to play with figurines forever.
I’m willing to buy the Samus one, at least. And I may or may not march her around the room and pretend that she’s fighting an enemy force. It seems like the normal thing to do.