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Nintendo Turns into Toymaker with Interactive 'Amiibo' Action Figures

Nintendo’s newest trick: toys. (Image credit: Nintendo)

Best known for setting trends, Nintendo is proving it isn’t afraid to follow them, too.

During a digital event broadcast from the E3 video game conference in Los Angeles on Tuesday, the game maker unveiled plans to invigorate its ailing Wii U console. Chief among those is a new franchise called “amiibo,” a line of interactive action figures built to interact with a variety of Nintendo games.

If that sounds familiar, it should. This is essentially Nintendo’s take on the immensely popular ‘toys to life’ genre pioneered by Activision’s Skylanders franchise and made competitive by last year’s Disney Infinity.

“Nintendo has always represented a unique source of video game entertainment for the widest range of gamers,” said Reggie Fils-Aime, Nintendo of America’s president and COO. “We create timeless games with twists and turns that provide hours of enjoyment for fans of all ages, and this year with the introduction of amiibo, we’re pushing the creative envelope forward in compelling new ways.”

The amiibo figures work in much the same way as toys from other games. Players purchase action figures — the company showed off 10 of them, including Mario, Link, Pikachu, Donkey Kong and Metroid’s Samus Aran — and then place them on the Wii U Gamepad to ‘warp’ them into video games using the system’s NFC (near-field communication) technology.

That’s games, plural. Amiibo characters will work with a variety of Nintendo games, starting with the upcoming Super Smash Bros. for the Wii U but soon to include the likes of Mario Kart 8, Mario Party 10 and more. That’s a notable change from Skylanders and Disney Infinity toys, which only work with their respective games.

Amiibo figures gain skills and level up over time, but gamers won’t control them directly. Bring your Amiibo Mario into Super Smash Bros., for instance, and you can fight against him, pit him against other players, or include him on your team. You won’t fight as him, however. You’re essentially raising an army of personalized Nintendo mascots cleverly tucked away in beautiful molded plastic.

Based on the success of other toys-to-life games, it’s a smart play by the company. Skylanders has raked in over $2 billion since its 2011 launch. Disney Infinity managed to break $500 million in revenue since releasing last August. There’s gold in these hills, and though Nintendo has yet to announce pricing for amiibos, it’s a safe bet they’ll make a pretty penny once the Nintendo die-hards start collecting characters.

In addition to amiibos, Nintendo showed off a hefty slate of upcoming games in an effort to drum up interest in its devices.

A screenshot from the new Super Smash Bros.

The company is pinning 2014 on Super Smash Bros. Due out on October 3 on the 3DS and over the holiday season for the Wii U, the mascot fighting game boasts multiple modes and a wealth of characters, including the newly announced ability to fight with your own Mii character.

Several of those mascots will see their own games. Just not this year.

Yoshi’s Wooly World and Kirby and the Rainbow Curse are earmarked for 2015. The company also confirmed the worst-kept secret of E3 in Mario Maker for the Wii U, which lets players create and share custom Mario courses. Looks awesome…except for the 2015 release date. Massive role-playing game Xenoblade Chronicles? 2015.

A screenshot from Nintendo’s new Zelda game. 

Joining that crop in 2015 is perhaps the company’s most hotly-anticipated game, The Legend of Zelda for the Wii U. Series producer Eiji Aonuma explained that the new game will be vast, open, and nonlinear, though it still doesn’t have an official name and we’ve yet to see its gameplay in action.

The 2015 train continues with Splatoon, a family-friendly twist on online shooters that tasks teams with splattering the play field in paint. In a separate announcement, legendary Nintendo designer Shigeru Miyamoto confirmed that another Nintendo staple, Starfox, was in early development on the Wii U, but again, it’s not coming out this year.

So what’s coming this year, exactly? This holiday brings a different take on Zelda in the action-heavy button-masher Hyrule Warriors along with a new pair of 3DS Pokemon games, Alpha Sapphire and Omega Ruby. Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker, the first starring gig for Mario’s mushroomy sidekick, is another 2014 release. And fans of wild, over-the-top action will be anxious to get their mitts on Bayonetta 2 this October, which pulls a twofer by packing the original Bayonetta game on the same disc.

That’s nothing to sneeze at, but with stiff competition coming from massively popular franchises on the PS4 and Xbox One this holiday, Wii U owners will need to show some serious patience.