Fan-Customized Amiibos Are A Beautiful Piece of Nintendo’s Resurrection
There are a few different Mario amiibos available at retail, but before French artist and deviantart user NBros, a Paper Mario amiibo was not real. Until Los Angeles-based artist Jared Circusbear got involved, a Penguin Mario amiibo wasn't a thing. DeviantArt user DMagnum2 ushered an amiibo of Yoshi dressed as Metal Gear Solid’s Snake into the world. Thanks to Norman Miran, a college student studying animation from Chicago, and Patricio Thielemann, a freelance musician and designer from Santiago, Chile, there is now such a thing as a Toadsworth amiibo and a gory figure of Bowser tearing Mario’s friggin’ head off.
This wave of customized amiibos by fans from all over is a positive and beautiful symptom of Nintendo’s first stab at mainstream gaming relevance in what feels like forever.
2013 wasn’t the year Nintendo died, but it had a very real health scare. In the fiscal year that ended on March 31, 2014, the Japanese gaming giants reported a net loss of $288 million. The Wii U sold 2.72 million units, a number that looks decent only when stripped of context, since the console’s competitors absolutely obliterated it in stores: The Xbox One sold somewhere between 3 and 3.9 million units in 2013, and the PlayStation 4 moved 4.2 million consoles over the same period.
While Microsoft and Sony are on the cutting edge of high-res graphics and online play, Nintendo pulled out “The Year of Luigi,” a flopped celebration commemorating the other brother’s debut in Mario Bros. 30 years earlier. Nintendo became Luigi in 2013, both in terms of self-branding and function: a second banana, an afterthought, a last resort, Player 2. Nintendo needed a shot in the arm, and thankfully, its new novelty has pushed it back into the limelight.
“It's the latest craze and is bringing some attention back to Nintendo that it otherwise may have been losing,” DMagnum said. “I know multiple individuals that went and got yet another 3DS just so they could use their amiibos on it.”
“The first impression I’ve had of amiibos was that I needed to collect all of them,” Miran told us.
The community spawned by this frenzy is as diverse as amiibos themselves — and it is a frenzy: since their U.S. launch in November 2014, more than 5.7 million amiibo figurines have been shipped worldwide. That tally is accurate as of January 28, so it doesn’t account for figures that have been released since then, including a new wave that hit shelves on March 20. Nintendo has had a hard time meeting consumer demand, and when they put out a new line of amiibos, GameStop has to be ready for its computers to crash under the pressure of fans who need all of them and then some.
Some use them for saving data and unlocking new features in Super Smash Bros., Hyrule Warriors and the growing list of games that are compatible with them, while others are into collecting and displaying the detailed figurines. As for the aforementioned amiibo modifiers, they’re part of a flourishing sub-community that specializes in customizing the 50-plus varieties of figures to create even more options.
“I do it because I want to make something original that I hope people could appreciate,” NBros said. “I don't want to do the same custom that anybody else could think of. Like, well... painting a sky-blue Yoshi. What I love in customization is the originality.”
While amiibos have built-in practical and aesthetic functions, Nintendo has also inadvertently given customizers a detailed template on which to display their creativity. Creating a custom amiibo can be as simple as painting Yoshi’s green skin blue or as complex as Miran’s methodology:
“When making an amiibo, there’s certain steps I have to do,” he said. “The first is deciding on what to make. I usually choose one that looks like the original. The next step is getting reference pictures: A lot of reference pictures. I use 3D models of the character and about 10 more pictures of that character. I then sand down any parts that need to be sanded down. After, I add epoxy putty to the necessary spots and I sculpt the parts to the desired shape. After they harden, I sand them down until they are smooth. I then paint the figure with multiple coats until it’s finished.”
As DMagnum2 pointed out, imagination isn’t the only limit to the process. “Once you get the idea of what amiibo you want to customize and what you want it to look like, you’ve got to figure out exactly how you're going to go about bringing that to fruition,” he said. “I sketch my idea out and then decide how practical it is; you don't want things breaking or falling off. Then I get the materials needed and go to work.”
Despite the lofty amount they’ve already sold, Nintendo literally can’t make enough amiibos to satisfy customer wants: the second-hand market for them has gotten crazy and the figures are going for a lot more than their $12 retail price.
“In my country, Mega Man amiibos are being sold for 80 dollars,” Thielemann said. That price point is far from atypical. So as bad-ass as having a unique figurine of the koopa king holding the limp halves of Mario’s body in his blood-covered hands is, the bottom line is that unaltered amiibos are selling for all kinds of money right now, so how dare these artists vandalize them?
“Everyone that gets one is gonna do with it what is most valuable to them,” DMagnum2 said. “So, if you want to use it as for what it’s intended for (destroying you one-on-one in Smash Bros.), keep it in the box to collect and/or possibly sell in the future, or customize it into something you think is cool that may make it mean more, then great!”
With the amount or work that goes into each custom figure of which no other copy exists, it’s actually easy to argue that a good alteration can increase the value dramatically, because numbers don’t lie.
“The two customizations that I've made have been placed on eBay at a low price of €30 ($32),” NBros said. “My goal was [for] them to reach €60 ($65), but it goes beyond all my expectations because Paper Mario [was] bought for €167 ($181) and Paper Luigi for €125 ($135).”
Buyers have taken notice of the craftsmanship behind these works of art and realize the value of the artists’ work: “With my work with customs figures, I spend hours and hours to make them high-polish, fine detail, one of a kind figures,” Circusbear told us. “I tend to think they become substantially more valuable after being worked over into a one of a ‘one-of-one’ piece of art.”
“A custom can be just as you want to be like. Obviously the details and the finishes of the original ones are superior, [but] it is always funny to see figures that were impossible to find until now!” Thielemann said.
But there are always second thoughts about the sanctity of an officially licensed product.
“I don’t customize amiibos unless I have an original,” Miran said. “When I customize, I always buy two so I have the original and the custom. So I don’t really feel bad about ‘ruining’ them.”
On one hand, an untouched amiibo is as Nintendo intended it to be, but as DMagnum2 put it, having a custom amiibo means “no more mixing your Samus with the neighbor kid’s!”
The mass interest in amiibos in either capacity is beautiful news for Nintendo, and it all seems to have been constructed that way. Want somebody to feel they need something? Tell them they can’t have it: they’ll go nuts and clamor for it. The rarity and exclusivity of amiibos, combined with their in-game benefits and how nice of a visual complement they are to any game-friendly space, seems to have Nintendo back on top.
At the very least, they’re being reintroduced to the conversation Sony and Microsoft have been the only members of for years.
“I knew that there would be some fun potential, especially with how they serve a practical function as well as looking really cool on a display shelf,” Circusbear said. “I think Nintendo has always had fascinating and loved characters, so to be able to connect to them or reconnect through collecting is just awesome.”
With amiibos, and fans' creative desires to make them their own, Nintendo has finally achieved what it seems to have been going for during its recent floundering: pay tribute to the epic dynasty it has built, engage the fans who helped lay its groundwork years ago, and recruit fresh blood to ensure continued prosperity.