Opinion: Can Amiibo Save the Wii U? – Part One

There’s something to be said about Nintendo’s place in video game history. Since the 1980s, the company has created and sustained a number of games and characters that have become ubiquitous to childhood across the world. No, not everyone knows who Mario and Luigi are, but show a child a picture of Mario and a photo of Mahatma Gandi, and guess how many children are going to know Gandi as compared to the overall-wearing plumber brother?

It’s certainly true that Nintendo characters aren’t quite as prevalent these days as they were in the 80s and 90s, which was arguably Nintendo’s golden period—in North America, anyway. Mario and friends had a movie, a TV show, plenty of branded toys and other items, and so forth. Mario and Nintendo products really were everywhere, and everyone wanted them. Many a friendship was tested by jealousy at one person have a GameBoy and the other having to go without!

And it’s not like Mario has disappeared—my first paragraph presents that point—but the strength of the brand has certainly been tested in the past five to ten years. It’s the nature of any industry for competition to emerge, and emerge it has. With smartphones and their ability to run games for the casual gamer, there’s no longer a need for the casual gamer to carry around a handheld gaming device plus phone. Add in plenty of other consoles to choose from, and any one company’s strength in the marketplace diminishes.

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Then we look at Nintendo’s fiscal results and projections in the past 2-3 years, and it’s a wonder that Mario is still able to afford to eat mushrooms at all. The Wii and the DS were definite high points for the company, but those releases go back further than the past 3 years, and their successes weren’t enough to carry the company’s momentum into the subsequent console iterations. We all bought Wiis—casual and hardcore gamers alike—and we all bought games like Wii Fit or Brain Age, and party games like Wii Sports. And then with the Wii U and 3DS, the upgrade simply didn’t take… primarily because it wasn’t an upgrade at all, but (in the case of Wii U) a new system with an ‘upgrade-like’ name (or at least, that’s this author’s perception). And it was around this time that smartphones became the ubiquitous piece of tech in everyone’s pocket and phone game costs plummeted, so what was the point of having a 3DS?

So, for the past year or two, we’ve had Nintendo pulling out all the stops they could think of (short of a price drop) to explain to the general public what their primary console systems actually are—and to remind consumers of the value and brand excitement that the company brings to games for children and adults alike. In fact, it seems as though the collective Nintendo fanbase has been holding its breath for the release of Mario Kart 8, desperately hoping that this game, maybe this game, will be the one that brings the company that brought them so many incredible childhood memories back from the brink.

And Mario Kart 8, which has a track record of delivering on its promises, might do just that. But can Nintendo really regain its ground in the industry off of one game? What comes next, we all wondered, and why hasn’t Nintendo truly leveraged its impressive catalogue of beloved and well-recognized characters in a tangible way?

With the announcement of amiibo… it may have finally found a way to do just that.  The announcements surrounding the NFP (Nintendo Figurine Platform) suggest that Nintendo may have finally discovered the sweet spot of today’s gaming enthusiast and casual player alike… or is it a case of too little, too late?

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Ever since the incredible success of Activision’s first Skylanders game, Nintendo fans have been asking Nintendo to do something similar for them. The profits reaped by Activision over the Skylanders games have to be astronomical, because the nature of these games is to sell pieces of plastic in order to unlock all the areas of the game. Each game also contains its own version of in-game marketing, enticing players with cool action montages of characters that they might not have yet. It’s a great way to get kids (and, ahem, adults) clamouring for just one more figure… until the next set, or the next game, is released. Right now, we’re sitting at three Skylanders games—all with their own set of figures, including reposes of the old figures—and a fourth on the way this fall.

Whether or not you want to accuse Activision of exploitative practices in how they present these games (forcing a player to buy another character to unlock an area—it’s more or less on-disc DLC, let’s be honest), and whether or not you think that’s a good or bad thing, the model works. And more recently, Disney Infinity has come from behind to achieve enough success to release a second game with another new set of characters.

The technology, for these companies, is relatively inexpensive, and ultimately the whole shebang isn’t as impressive as it first appears. Near-field communication technology is being used all over the place these days, and it’s kind of a wonder that it appeared as late in the gaming industry as it did.

So, back to Nintendo. We already have two major franchises using NFC figurines for their games, which means players have already been shelling out for one or two of these games and their associated figures—which aren’t exactly dollar-store priced, to be perfectly frank. And now Nintendo wants to enter the playing field.

The question we’re all asking is… have they jumped in too late and missed the boat?

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Faith
Author: Faith View all posts by
Faith likes games and books and cake and writing and Lara Croft, not necessarily in that order. She also thinks a Skylanders cartoon show is a really, REALLY good idea...

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