Monday, January 26, 2015


Super Smash Brothers Amiibo

When Nintendo first announced their plans for Amiibo and the way they would work with Super Smash Brothers, I was of two minds.

On the one hand, what the hell?  What is the point of buying a toy that plays the game for you?  What's the difference between that and playing against a CPU opponent?

On the other hand, what in the world could be more hilarious than buying a toy Wii Fit Trainer?

Of course, given my record of resentment toward NFC figures, I took a wait and see approach to the whole idea, which turned out to be a mistake, because the damned things vanished about two weeks in.  As of this writing, there's still no word as to whether Nintendo has any plans to meet customer demand for anything but Mario and Link.

Luckily for me, the Wii Fit Trainer sank in price faster than any of the other rare figures, and now I have my very own tiny plastic yoga woman sitting on the shelf where I keep my yoga mat and hand weights.  So how do I like the Amiibo experience so far?

The Figures

At $13 apiece new, the figures seem pretty pricey, but I think I'm okay with it.  My Wii Fit Trainer is large, beautifully sculpted, beautifully detailed, and sturdy.  It's about the same price I paid for some non-NFC Earthbound figures of similar size and quality.  Plus it's not like there's a lot of places you can go for official Wii Fit merch, so you kind of have to take what you can get.

And let's be clear about this -- if you don't want these figures for their intrinsic value as figures, then you probably shouldn't bother with them.  My disdain toward Disney Infinity comes from the fact that I want to play the game, but I don't care enough about the characters to totemize them and display them in my living space.  But I'm a big enough Nintendo nerd that I'm positively tickled to have little physical representations of some of the characters.


Nintendo has been trying to play up the value of Amiibos by making them compatible with all kinds of games, so it's not like you're blowing $13 on an accessory that only does one thing.  But at the same time, it's clear that some characters are going to get far more support than others.  The Wii Fit Trainer is not going to be integrated into very many games.  That's just reality.  Besides the fact that she's not a very videogamey character to begin with, there's no point in Nintendo bothering with content that's going to be unlocked by a character nobody owns.  (And nobody owns her because Nintendo decided not to make very many.  Because she's not a very videogamey character.  And so on.)  So beyond unlocking a doodad here or there, Super Smash Brothers is likely to be the Wii Fit Trainer's one and only day in the sun.

So bottom line: what do Amiibos bring to Super Smash Brothers?

I was already familiar with the fundamental concept.  An Amiibo stores data for a customizable CPU character that levels up as it fights and gets better over time.  It doesn't sound like much in writing, but when you actually sit down and do it, it feels like there's this whole new dimension to the game.

The thing is, you get to follow this character's journey from a Level 1 punching bag to a Level 50 master.  And since Amiibos level up faster when they're beaten by human opponents, a lot of that time is spent with you playing against it.  It starts out as a punching bag, but after a few fights and a few levels, it starts getting good enough to beat you.

And it's actually kind of satisfying to get this friendly rivalry going with your Amiibo.  I'm not very good at Smash Brothers, so I tend to play against low-level CPUs.  But when my Wii Fit Trainer started beating me, I was actually kind of proud of her.  Her victory is something that I can take ownership in because I put in the time to make her what she is.  And when I manage to beat her, I can take some pride in that as well because I'm holding my own against an increasingly skilled opponent.

It's also an interesting way to train yourself.  Supposedly, the characters pick up some habits from the way you play, favoring the same sorts of moves that you do, which forces you to learn tactics that work against your own style of play.  And when your figure adopts those tactics, you have to adapt your own style again, and so on.  And since the characters level up more quickly when you beat them and more slowly when you lose, there's this nice sort of adaptive difficulty curve which cranks up the difficulty faster when you're ready for it.

A lot of people were surprised and even disappointed that you didn't play as your Amiibo the way you do in other NFC figure games like Disney Infinity or Skylanders, but I think what they've done here is more interesting.  It's like having a little robot friend that can go inside the video game and play it with you.  And there's also the Pokemon aspect to it.  I can imagine Amiibo owners holding tournaments where they pit their custom characters against each other.  (And, incidentally, I can see Pokemon games having NFC functions in future editions.)

Why NFC Figures?

The thing is, there is nothing about this software that actually requires NFC figures to be a part of the equation.  You could have the whole CPU character development idea done completely in software and find other ways to save and transfer the data.  So why involve these $13 pieces of plastic?

Well, let's be honest.  It's a cash grab.  Nintendo has this roster of characters that are beloved by millions, and they want to use that against us to sell us toys.  But that's fine, because sooner or later, everyone with a beloved character does the same thing.  (Well, except Bill Watterson maybe.)  It's not that big a deal; if you love the Wii Fit Trainer enough to stick her on a shelf (and I do!) there's nothing wrong with that.

In fact, I would say that Nintendo is more polite than, say, Disney.  Super Smash Brothers is a complete game that can be enjoyed without ever buying anything extra.  They're not locking out content and forcing you to buy a figure that you might not even want; they're just giving you this superfluous little bonus if you already have the figure.

But with all that said?  It's just a really cool idea.

Like I said in my Pokemon Rumble U review, there's something really satisfying about carrying around data for a character inside an object that looks like that character.  The "toys to life" concept has been a part of Smash Brothers lore from the very beginning, and now we can do it in real life.  It's awesome to pick up my Wii Fit Trainer and know that somewhere inside her is a formidable AI that I crafted myself.  There are many Wii Fit Trainers, but this is the one I made.  When I swipe her into the game, I'm adding something to the game that nobody else has.

I can understand why this sort of thing might not appeal to other people, and that's cool.  All I can really say is that I like it.

The Future of Amiibo

What I've wondered from the start is what Amiibo will be like down the road.  When Nintendo has hinted about upcoming games, compatibility has mostly been limited to little enhancements -- costumes or whatever.  But now that the Super Mario line has been announced to coincide with Mario Party 10, I think we're starting to see the shape of things to come.

It seems like there are going to be multiple "lines" of figures.  This first round is just the "Smash Brothers" line.  Some figures may be interchangeable with the same character in a different line -- they've got a new Mario figure that works the same as the Smash Mario, for example -- but rather than try to offer support for every Smash figure in every game, it looks like they'll have a line for every major series.  Mario figures for Mario games, Zelda figures for Zelda games, and so on.  Tom Nook is on the official Amiibo website; an Animal Crossing line seems inevitable.  Maybe we'll even get a Villager reprint to go with it.

It'll be interesting to see what they come up with.  Hopefully we'll get more games that offer the same kind of interaction as Smash Brothers or Pokemon Rumble, where you create character-specific data that you can take with you.

Should You Get One?

Like I said, the main reason to buy an Amiibo is to have a little plastic figure to put on your desk.  Everything else is just gravy.  Buy it with the understanding that you probably won't get a lot out of it as far as gameplay features.  If you're going to buy one for Smash Brothers, pick a character you love that you want to form a sort of imaginary friendship with.  Or get the whole set, if you like collecting things.


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