Some years ago, Toys For Bob executives visited Nintendo of America to pitch them with a new idea; toys that could be attached to game consoles and simultaneously appear inside video games.
Nintendo's people said that the toys, called Skylanders, were interesting, but they declined an opportunity to partner on the project.
Fast forward to 2014, and Skylanders is one of the single most successful toy brands in the world. Nintendo, meanwhile, is struggling to find a place for its underperforming Wii U console.
Today, Nintendo finally caught up with an idea it probably could have incorporated into Wii U from its beginning.
Later this year a series of ten toys will be launched alongside Super Smash Bros. They include Mario, Yoshi, Link, Pikachu, Donkey Kong, Kirby, Princess Peach, Samus Aran, the Wii Fit Trainer and the Villager from Animal Crossing. It's something that has been widely expected, and even teased by Nintendo executives.
The figures are placed on the Wii U's touchscreen GamePad in much the same way as Skylanders are placed on that franchise's portal. Inside the game, the figures can do battle on your behalf against other humans, against other toys, against AI or against you. The toys, called "amiibo," can be leveled up and individualized.
"Let's say you head over to a friend's house with a Link figure," explained Nintendo's senior product marketing manager Bill Trinen. "Your friend has a Wii Fit Trainer figure and luckily your friend has Super Smash Bros. for Wii U.
"Each figure contains the spirit of the figure they represent," Trinen said. "So, when you touch an amiibo to a Wii U, that character will appear in the game to do battle while you cheer it on from the sidelines. There are many different ways to engage these characters in battle. You can pit them against other figures, you can face off against them yourself they can team up and fight alongside you."
He said that each time an amiibo does battle, its abilities receive a small boost and can learn tactics. "They can become quite formidable," he said. "Fighting against them is going to be a lot more interesting than fighting against a plain old CPU opponent."
Although the first amiibo will be released alongside Super Smash Bros. this winter, Trinen said plans are in place to add more toys for more games, including Mario Kart 8, Mario Party 10, Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker and Yoshi's Woolly World. The company is also planning to release a 3DS peripheral that allows the use of amiibo.
Amiibo will expand the gameplay experience in terms of supporting titles and bringing about new kinds of fun and new ways to interact with your favorite Nintendo characters," said Trinen.
For Nintendo, one of the chief charms of amiibo is their capacity to be unique. "Even if you and a friend both buy Link figures they won't be the same," Trinen said. "You can customize their special moves based in the character's unique capabilities.
"That means your Link amiibo becomes your personal version of Link that you can train and customize in ways that are different from your friend's version of Link," he added. "You get to breathe new life into each figure as you watch them evolve and witness their personality take shape."
Trinen said that the portable toys can become alter-egos or allies in battles against pals. "They may even be able to beat up your friends for you, in the game of course," he joked.