The runaway success of games like Activision's Skylanders and Disney Infinity should come as no surprise. Kids have been delighting in the pairing of physical and digital toys for years now, starting with the Tamagotchis and Neopets of the '90s.
Obviously Nintendo - the Disney of the video game world - wants to get on board this train, though it's equally unsurprising that they're caught sprinting down the station platform next to the already-moving caboose, shedding luggage in the hopes they don't miss this one too.
This is the company that launched an HD console a generation later than everyone else, and still hasn't proven it can do online multiplayer right (fingers crossed for Super Smash Bros. Wii U). Nintendo comes late to every trend that it itself doesn't start.
Granted, Nintendo has been experimenting with physical toy tie-ins for years, from the Pokéwalker to the Game Boy Advance's e-Reader. Not one of these has been used to its full potential, and Nintendo's newest me-too gimmick, the amiibo, is by default in danger of suffering the same fate, particularly since Nintendo hasn't committed to making amiibo a mandatory purchase for any games the way Disney and Activision do.
But TechRadar got to play around with Nintendo's new "toys-to-life" line at an office building in downtown Los Angeles this week, and we discovered that they have a lot of potential as well - potential that we'll glimpse when the new Super Smash Bros. is released in November.
Get it right: "amiibo"
Nintendo's amiibo - always lowercase, never an "s" on the end, a Nintendo publicist insisted - will launch November 21 alongside the Wii U version of the new Super Smash Bros. game (one version is already out on Nintendo 3DS, but it's not yet compatible with the amiibo).
Their name is a play on the Miis that populate Nintendo consoles. These player-created characters act as your avatar in various Wii U and 3DS games, and greet you when you turn on your console. You even select your Mii when you're signing in.
If you look at your Mii as an extension of you in Nintendo's virtual worlds, then amiibo may wind up being your virtual pets. That's a decent metaphor for describing what amiibo do, at least when it comes to their Super Smash Bros. functionality.
Like the figurines integral to Skylanders and Disney Infinity, amiibo are physical statuettes that can be purchased individually. But unlike those games, Super Smash Bros. doesn't require that you have amiibo to play it.
Imagine the outrage if Nintendo locked every Super Smash Bros. character (or even some characters) behind mandatory physical purchases. It wouldn't fly, which is why Nintendo had to make amiibo an ancillary part of the game.
As a result amiibo are in danger of being ignored, which they surely will be by many players. But others, especially collectors and fans of Nintendo games like Pokémon and Animal Crossing, may well become enamored with their little virtual characters.
Come play with us, Danny
The first wave of amiibo, launching alongside Super Smash Bros. for Wii U on November 21, will feature Samus, Donkey Kong, Link, Mario, Peach, Yoshi, Animal Crossing's "Villager," the female Wii Fit Trainer, Star Fox, Pikachu, Kirby, and Marth.
It's not a coincidence that these are all playable characters in Super Smash Bros., but thankfully buying the amiibo doesn't unlock the characters in the game. Instead the amiibo unlocks a computer-controlled version of that character who you will name, design, fight with, and train.
That bears repeating: you will never play as your amiibo characters, but you will play with them.
Let's say you choose the Mario amiibo. When you tap the figurine's base to the Wii U GamePad - the console has been out for two years, and amiibo will be the first widely available accessory to use the controller's built-in NFC - it recognizes the character right away.
You can name the character and choose a unique costume for him or her. In the demo Nintendo showed us, their Mario had a stars-and-stripes pattern on his overalls. His name was "Murica."
That character, Murica, was tied to that particular amiibo figure, not to the console's memory. That makes it easy to bring your amiibo characters to your friends' places, which you will probably only do if you want to watch them fight.
It might sound crazy that players will sit down and just watch two or more computer-controlled characters duke it out, but the reality is that's something Smash Bros. players have been doing for years anyway. It's not that unusual, and the amount of work that some players will put into their amiibo will raise the stakes significantly.
Can't you easily see amiibo battles becoming the subject of schoolyard wagers around the world? If schools have to start banning something you know it's hit the big times.