Nintendo is getting into the figurine game with a lineup called "amiibo" (disregard for capitalization included). Set to cooperate with several different games, most prominently this holiday's Wii U version of Super Smash Bros., the Amiibo statues capture the company's fanciful characters in a cute, tangible form. "Capturing" might be too strong a word, though, because it implies more fiction than there really is.The Amiibo figures are brought to life in Super Smash Bros. with simple menus and surprisingly little fanfare, and none of the winking interplay between the real world and the game-world as you see in a series like Skylanders, which teleports its creatures between physical and virtual realms with charming animations and a cheeky smile. It's not necessarily a bad difference, but it is key in understanding the role your little Amiibo army plays in Super Smash Bros.
The first batch of figures (18 total at $13 each) cover characters like Link, Peach and Mario, all of whom are already represented and playable in Smash. For instance, by tapping a Donkey Kong statue into the game – simply place it on the Wii U Gamepad for a moment and then remove – you are registering an additional, customizable version of that character. You can make your own Donkey Kong pink if you want to, but the real distinguishing feature will be his level of fighting prowess.
The cycle that Nintendo envisions for Super Smash Bros. goes something like this: You buy your favorite character(s) in Amiibo form, you drop them into the game and you start leveling them up. Amiibo fighters are controlled by the computer and gain levels as they fight, especially if they spar against you. Nintendo says the Amiibo will learn your style of play like a protégé. After a few rounds, you can unlock and equip additional power boosts to your Amiibo and then send them back to the statue. From there, you can drop them into a friend's game seamlessly – like a Nintendo-embellished USB drive containing your character data. Just remember to save your earnings back to the statue when prompted, or they'll be lost.
Ideally, a sufficiently trained Amiibo (say, level 50) can easily stand in for a human player if you're running short on local players. I think Nintendo is hoping for a Pokémon-esque level of attachment between players and Amiibo statues, with well-trained pocket fighters battling for supremacy while everyone else hangs back with a beer and/or Mountain Dew.
With that in mind, the Amiibo figures graft a cool, long-term progression game to Super Smash Bros., especially for those who want physical tokens to represent their gains and dedication. The approach is non-invasive, but it does feel oddly cold for Nintendo, a company with lovable characters and a history that began with physical playing cards.