Nintendo’s Amiibo are about to rescue Activision’s Skylanders! No, not Activision’s epically successful $3 billion toys-to-life franchise, which is doing just fine on its own — but some of its perennially embattled in-game heroes. Let me explain.
The House of Mario just revealed that it turned not one but two of its iconic characters over to Activision to use in its upcoming annual Skylanders installment, Skylanders: SuperChargers. It’s a move you could comfortably call historically unprecedented.
I spoke with Nintendo of America President Reggie Fils-Aimé and Activision Publishing CEO Eric Hirshberg a few days ago. Here’s what they told TIME about the deal.
Activision and Nintendo have been talking about this deal for years
“All the way back when we were developing the first Skylanders game, about four years ago, Nintendo was one of the first groups outside of Activision that we shared Skylanders with,” said Hirshberg. “As early as all the way back then, this was in that space, and so it didn’t take too long for people’s imaginations to go there. It’s been discussed from both perspectives for a while, but it wasn’t until last year at E3 that it got more concrete, as Nintendo revealed its Amiibo plans, and that’s when we got more specific with it.”
Nintendo did none of the coding
Nintendo creatively consulted on the new figures, Skylanders developer Vicarious Visions told me during my demo, but all of the hands-in-the-code development for the new Bowser and Donkey Kong hybrid Amiibo/Skylanders was handled on the Activision side.
The biggest challenge was figuring out how to make the Amiibo figurines work in both games
“The one element that had a few rounds of creativity was switching between Skylanders and Amiibo functionality,” explained Hirshberg. “I think we wound up with a very elegant solution that’ll be intuitive to kids, which is just that simple twist of the base, which determines whether it’s a Skylander or an Amiibo.”
It was a genuinely collaborative process
“The bulk of the creative process, and this was very much a collaboration between the two groups, was figuring out how the characters should come to life in the game,” said Hirshberg. “Our team approached that as both an opportunity and a responsibility. We wanted to get it right, to honor these characters and have it be a great homage in addition to nailing the gameplay. Interestingly, the Nintendo team met us more than halfway, with equal admiration and collaborative spirit, because in some of the meetings, it was Nintendo saying ‘But is that right for a Skylander?’ So I think each team was very protective of the others’ characters.”
“As Vicarious Visions would be thinking about how should Donkey Kong move, how should Bowser move within this Skylanders environment, our developers were thinking about the history of the various Skylanders games,” added Fils-Aimé. “And so when Vicarious Visions would suggest a move set, or a set of experiences, our developers were always challenging and saying, ‘Is that the way a Skylander would do it? Is that the way it should be in this environment?’ And it was that type of discussion that led to the characters you’ve seen, which look so natural and the way it should be.”
It’s not a violation of Nintendo-first principles
Nintendo guards its IP like no one else in the video game industry, but Fils-Aimé said Nintendo’s collaboration with Activision is in keeping with its modus operandi.
“First and foremost, we’re an entertainment company,” he explained. “We exist to make people smile, to have people enjoy our experiences. And it’s with that thinking that the collaboration with Activision happened. It’s not us letting go of our IP, it’s us collaborating with a team that has such a respect for and knowledge base of these franchises, that it was easy to collaborate to create something that’s never been done before.”
You still call them Amiibo…sort of
“It’s true that Skylanders are still Skylanders and Amiibo are Amiibo in terms of their functionality,” said Fils-Aimé “But in the game, this is a special Donkey Kong and a special Bowser with special abilities and special moves, and that’s the way it exists within the Skylanders environment.”
“When you play the entire game through, you’ll also see that there’s an elegant piece of fiction where the Skylanders are on the ropes against Kaos’ most evil weapon yet,” added Hirshberg. “So they put out a clarion call across the dimensions for any assistance they can get, and Donkey Kong and Bowser come to their side, so it makes sense why they’re there.”
The new Amiibo work as you’d expect in existing Nintendo games
“Donkey Kong will work as a Donkey Kong Amiibo and Bowser as a Bowser Amiibo, whether we’re talking about Super Smash Bros. for Wii U, or in Mario Party 10,” says Fils-Aimé.
It’s the first time Bowser’s been playable in a 3D game
Nintendophiles are probably saying “What about Smash Bros.?” And granted. But the distinction lies in how you semantically define “playable.” In the Smash Bros. games, 3D Bowser is limited to motion along a 2D plane. Skylanders: SuperChargers marks the first time he’s been maneuverable unfettered by that stricture.
It’s not (yet) clear if the figurines employ multiple NFC chips
When asked how the tech works, Hirshberg (laughing) replied, simply “There’s magic in these figurines.”
The new Skylanders Amiibo are only available on Nintendo platforms
Skylanders: SuperChargers will be on pretty much everything when it launches this fall, but the new Nintendo Amiibo will only work with the Wii U, Wii and 3DS versions of the game.
“Our franchises live on our platforms,” said Fils-Aimé. “That’s what we do. And certainly we are experimenting with smart devices, so that might be an added element, but the core concept of our character showing up on competitive gaming platforms is just not something we believe in.”
The new Amiibo figures and vehicles are available in special starter packs
You can get Hammer Slam Bowser and Turbo Charge Donkey Kong in special starter packs priced at $74.99 each (for the Wii and Wii U versions), or $64.99 for the 3DS.
Nintendo and Activision hope to have plenty of the new figurines to go around
No promises, but both Hirshberg and Fils-Aimé indicated that they’re expecting high demand for the new figures, and hope to have enough to go around when the game and new figures debut on September 20. Nintendo ran into trouble when it launched its Amiibo figurines last November, in part due to a labor dispute that stalled cargo coming into the U.S. for months.
And the future could lead anywhere…
“As I’m sure you’d anticipate, we’re here to talk about this collaboration today,” said Hirshberg. “But you know, we’ll see what the future holds. We’re both every excited about it and feel very positive about it, and so we’ll see what happens.”