Yesterday was an Amico kind of day for me. I wanted to play games but I didn’t want to play anything overly complicated or taxing. I was looking for some accessible quick fix fun, the kind we used to have back in the 8-bit era where gaming didn’t require 10 mapped buttons or 3D camera control. The exact kind of gaming experience that the Amico is selling itself on.
I started out with Mighty Goose, which I downloaded for “free” off Game Pass. This is a Metal Slug style run ‘n gun. It’s teen rated, but if you removed a little blood and a few bones that fly out when you run over enemies in a vehicle it could probably get an E. This is a Metal Slug style arcade run ‘n gun with a pretty forgiving difficulty curve. It even has a system similar to the Amico’s much touted “karma” engine that gives you extra health and weapon pick ups if you die too much on one checkpoint, tailoring the game’s difficulty to the player’s skill. It’s 2 player local co-op as well. In other words it’s exactly the kind of game that you’d expect to find on the Amico based on what they’ve shown so far. Except I’m not sure the Amico could handle the game’s graphics, since there are lots of screen filling effects when things blow up and it has large sprites with detailed animation. Maybe it could.
Amico proponents will argue that this is a “hardcore” game and a different market, but that has never made any sense. Two of the system’s games that people anticipate are Finnigan Fox and Earthworm Jim. Both of those are different forms of run ‘n guns, with a similar cartoony art style to Mighty Goose. I’ve finished Fox ‘N Forests, the game that Finnigan Fox is a reworking of, and though they have promised to make Finnigan Fox easier than that version I can tell you that Mighty Goose is much more accessible to non-gamers than even a reworked Fox ‘N Forests will be. Fox ‘N Forests requires collecting seeds to open up new levels, many of which are hidden or even invisible in the level, and others of which require backtracking with new abilities from older levels. Mighty Goose just requires you progress left to right, blasting everything in your pass. Fox ‘N Forests had constantly respawning enemies and tightly timed puzzle areas that required you to manage a magic meter. Mighty Goose is firmly based in the arcade mindset that it should be fun and obvious from the first time you pick it up. If I had to choose a game for a non-gamer to enjoy Mighty Goose would be the easy answer.
Mighty Goose does cost $20 if you don’t have Game Pass, which is twice the price of Amico games, but with Game Pass that cost comes down to 0 and even without it I’m sure it will go on sale from time to time. But more importantly…you don’t need to buy any new hardware to play Mighty Goose. It’s out on pretty much everything. Switch, PS4, XBONE, PC…if you have access to any of these platforms you can get Mighty Goose. It’s not locked behind a $250 investment, and while you do have to own at least one of those platforms, most people have one and they can all do a heck of a lot more than just play Mighty Goose.
This is a fundamental issue for the Amico. The Switch and the PS4 have both sold over a hundred million units. I won’t even attempt to estimate how many PCs are out there in the market, but it’s a lot and even without a dedicated graphics card most of them can run something like Mighty Goose. How many people are there out there who want to play games but don’t have one of these platforms, or a cell phone, or an Android tv streaming box that can play games? How many grandpas exist who A) like video games, B) don’t just want to play certain huge hits that they remember from the 80s like Pac-Man or Donkey Kong, since those people are covered by cheap plug ‘n plays and C) don’t already have something to play games on? I don’t know any of these people and it’s hard to imagine them. My mom liked Tetris when I was growing up and she dabbles with Words With Friends on her phone but she doesn’t like anything more complicated than that, but she doesn’t want dedicated gaming hardware and she would have no interest in Astro Smash, though she might play it for a few minutes if you handed her a controller to be polite.
After I finished Mighty Goose I downloaded Clubhouse Games for my Switch because it was on sale for $27. This is Nintendo’s compilation of 51 versions of popular games, mostly card and board games like solitaire and chess but with a few more videogamey minigames like a target shooting game and a golf game. It has a charming, family friendly, presentation with you taking the role of a little board game miniature and each game being introduced with a short, funny, voice over description by one of these little figures. It makes a lot of sense as Switch software because it allows you to play these games without any set up or clean up and through online multiplayer on the Switch’s network. It would be great for a camping trip if you want to play Connect 4 or Othello at night without having to buy or bring a bunch of those travel versions where you can lose the pieces, but it also makes sense in a small apartment without a lot of room for board games or even just a quick game in the living room if you want to play a few different things without having to dig up your old chess set or clear off space on a table to throw dice.
The presentation here is many times slicker than anything the Amico can offer, which you’d expect because the Switch is much more powerful and because Nintendo is…well..Nintendo. The Switch has a massive userbase and Clubhouse Games has sold over 3 million copies, meaning that it would have been profitable even if Nintendo had spent $50 million to make it, though I very much doubt they did spend that much. Amico projects seem to have a budget closer to the $50-200,000 range, so there’s no way they can compete in terms of polish.
Clubhouse Games nicely covers another genre that the Amico is aiming for. One of the Amico’s pack in games is Farkle, and there’s nothing inherently wrong with that but I can’t imagine it’s particularly more engaging than the Yacht Dice game included in Clubhouse Games as one of more than 50 options. Farkle comes ‘free’ with the Amico but the Clubhouse games cost less than $1 a game even at full retail price, and at around $30 including tax I paid a bit more than 50 cents per game. That’s not free but it’s not far from it. Clubhouse games offers way more variety, a much slicker presentation, and, most importantly, online functionality. I haven’t even gotten to arguably the biggest draw of the package, which is that you can play these games with friends or family or even strangers across the globe. Obviously there are lots of free online chess and board game options, but this puts everything in a nice package within the safe boundaries of the Switch’s online service.
I enjoyed messing around with the Clubhouse games for a bit and playing some mancala and connect 4, but one game I didn’t enjoy very much was their version of golf, which is entirely from the overhead view and weirdly presents wind speed in meters per second, which is not a way that I think about wind and cost me a few strokes because of unexpected ball curving. It’s just not a great video game version of golf, and it left me wanting to play something a bit deeper and better. So I loaded up Neo Turf Masters, also available on the Switch, and played that for a bit.
I feel pretty confident that even if the Amico does end up releasing and doing well it will not offer a better version of video game golf than Neo Turf Masters. That’s not any slight on the Amico developers, but Neo Turf Masters was created by an exceptionally talented team during the height of the 90s arcade craze and caught lightning in a bottle. Its gorgeously detailed pixel art graphics, intense and exciting presentation, and finely tuned great-feeling controls make it a version of video game golf that hasn’t often been topped in the 25 years since it came out. The only games that have done it better have been high budget golf sims (not something the Amico will even attempt) or Sony’s Everybody’s Golf series, which leveraged the power of modern hardware and its own high budget (for the time) to create something that at least rivals the Neo Geo masterpiece. Neo Turf Masters is available on Switch for $8, though, and that’s about the price that Amico games are targeting. The Amico can argue that it’s not competing with Nintendo’s $60 Mario Golf game, but it is competing with at least hundreds and arguably thousands of old arcade and new indie titles available on Switch at a much lower price point, and it’s not clear how it can.
I think that the Amico makes two massive mistakes that have doomed it, and which compound one another. The first is its price point. By charging almost as much as a Switch for a much less capable machine with much less brand recognition it makes itself the Great Value version of a product that exists but without actually having great value. Imagine going to the store and seeing the store brand peanut butter on the shelf next to Skippy, only it cost 80% as much and came in a jar half as big (much less functionality.) Who would buy it?
The second issue is not being a semi-open platform. The Amico promises that all of its games will have unique content of some kind (originally it was that they’d all be exclusives but this was quickly abandoned as unworkable.) That highly limits what’s on the system. There are thousands of great indie games that could run on the Amico and if it was a port friendly development environment (which it likely is if it uses an old mobile phone chipset that developers are familiar with) it might be able to get some of these amazing games to bulk up its selection and give it more of a library. The Atari VCS is using this model and while it isn’t setting the world on fire it would have almost literally nothing to play if it didn’t have these ports. Atari is also supplementing its own game development costs for the system by selling those games on other platforms (with slightly less content) so it’s not stuck in the trap of having to make games to attract people to its system but only being able to sell games to the small number of people who come on board, generating massive development costs with a tiny market until it catches on. Even the mighty Nintendo had to learn this lesson and abandoned the idea of having a ‘siloed’ system with mostly unique games when it created the Switch. It actively courted ports from anyone who would put a game on its machine, and its status as a semi-open platform is in large part responsible for its success. Nintendo realized that even as one of the biggest game developers and publishers in the world it could not make enough games to support a modern platform, so to avoid the pitfalls of the N64 and Wii U (where you’d buy it for the Nintendo games but have nothing else to play) it filled its release gaps with bucket loads of indie games and last/current gen ports, and Switch owners happily devoured those offerings in between the bigger Nintendo releases.
Intellivision management looked at that hard won lesson that finally got through to the notoriously hard-headed Nintendo leadership team and said “nah, you had it right to begin with, exclusives only is the way to go.”
The Amico essentially has three arguments as to why it would be a better choice than the Switch. The first is based on things that aren’t on the system. It doesn’t offer T or M rated games and it doesn’t have complicated “core” gamer games. This argument doesn’t really make sense. The Switch has parental controls to prevent kids from accessing games with inappropriate content, and the mere existence of Fire Emblem on the platform won’t be an impediment to people who just want to play Animal Crossing and Clubhouse Games. How many Wiis were sold to nursing homes even though that platform also hosted Mad World and Xenoblade Chronicles. You might make some headway with hardcore evangelical Christians who object to the mere existence of Doom 2016 on any platform (demons! gore! Medkits that may contain covid-19 vaccines!) but the Amico doesn’t seem to be targeting that group, even though it’s arguably the console’s best bet. I haven’t seen any outreach to church groups and there aren’t any Sunday Funday Wisdom Tree type games announced for the console. If the team is smart they’ll make this pivot, but they haven’t yet.
The second argument is related but distinct; which is that the Amico will have a tightly curated game library, releasing one new game every 10 or 14 days, which will help avoid people getting overwhelmed by the massive libraries on modern consoles and also help developers by highlighting their games in a way the Switch or PS4/5 cannot. Nobody wants this. Anyone who is going to be comfortable with an online only game store is going to be used to picking through a flood of options to find the thing they want. They’ve all used Netflix and Spotify and a dozen other services at this point. There may be grandpas out there who haven’t used those things and are scared and confused by them, but they will also be scared and confused by the online only nature of the Amico, and even if they haven’t used Netflix they’ve probably dealt with a flood of content on cable TV. Artificially limiting your offerings is not good business in 2022; that’s why Nintendo abandoned this model and opened its platform. Developers, on the other hand, might like the idea of a captive audience, but not a tiny one if they have to develop extra content for it. You might get them on board if they could just port their Unity project to your platform with a couple people putting in a week or two to make sure it runs okay, but if you demand they add new modes or levels or anything else that requires considerable development resources they aren’t going to be interested unless you can offer them at least a hundred thousand potential buyers, and the Amico certainly can’t. The Evercade, a physical only system, also curates and releases a limited number of games (though its library is in the hundreds if you count every title on each mutli-cart) but because it packages pre-existing games in pre-built emulators it doesn’t actually require any development time beyond testing and tweaking emulation, which can likely be done by one or two people without a ton of work. The PlayDate does have an all exclusive library, but it keeps development costs dirt cheap by offering a very easy environment (it has built in development tools) and an intentionally weak chip with a black and white screen. This makes it an ideal platform for single-person passion project development. Selling the games via ‘season’ subscription also assures at least some audience for these super cheap to make games. Amico doesn’t do any of these things to ameliorate its problem of trying to get exclusive content for what will likely be a tiny audience.
The last issue with the Amico is where we get to their “Statement of facts.” Amico responded to Sam Mackovech’s Ars Technica piece with some combative claims about what he allegedly got wrong about their system, including the costs of the parts. In this response they cited the costs of the controllers and the LED lights on the system as two of the reasons why the cost of manufacture was more than what Mackovech claimed. I’m not going to speculate on the actual costs because it doesn’t really matter. What does matter is that the Amico’s controllers have apparently driven up the system’s price while not offering anything nearly valuable enough to justify charging almost as much as the Switch for it. I would hope the LED lights are not that expensive because they do even less and are likely to prove annoying for anyone who wants to play in a darkened room, but both these features seem to be born not out of necessity for any particular game application but because they seem like they would be ‘cool.’
Gaming consoles have a long history of including things that seem like they would be cool but actually don’t do anything of value. Popular history seems to have it that the Wii’s motion controls were cool and that’s what drove sales of the system. I don’t think that’s true. Both Sony and Microsoft tried to copy Nintendo’s success and both failed. The PlayStation 4 has motion controls and a touch pad and LED lights on the controller and with a very few exceptions the only uses those things have are in VR, where the motion controls come in handy and the LED lights allow the camera to track the controller. Other than those VR applications you only get a few gimmicks like shaking the controller like a flashlight in The Last Of Us and a couple weird experiments like Blue Estate, a light gun shooter that uses the PS4 motion controls to simulate a light gun and kind of sort of works. The Switch has motion controls and my main experience with using them has been in ports from the Wii and the Wii U, like the Super Mario Galaxy port where you pick up the star fragments with an on screen pointer controlled by motion. They even gave an option to turn off the motion controls in Skyward Sword because people don’t really want to use them. There are other applications, like gyro aiming in Splatoon and some other games, but motion controls are not a core feature. Meanwhile other features like the IR camera are used by almost no games, to the point where the Switch Lite doesn’t even include it.
The Nintendo Wii was successful because Wii Sports was a phenomenon, not because it had motion controls. A lot of people bought that console to play tennis and bowling and that was pretty much it. The system had a notoriously low attach rate because people were buying it just for the pack in and then not buying anything else. You can’t replicate the Wii’s success with control gimmicks, only with must have games. Amico’s big controller in the screen gimmick has been tried twice before, once by the Wii U and once by the Dreamcast, and neither of those systems were successful because the gimmick seems cool but has limited applications. You see the same thing with current gimmicks. Both the Switch and the PS5 have advanced rumble features that were used to great effect in launch titles (1-2-Switch and Astro’s Playroom) and then mostly ignored. For all its hype there are very few people talking about the Dualsense a year after launch. People might like the controller fine, and they may appreciate some of its features, but it’s not driving conversation or sales.
The games we’ve seen so far seem to utilize the Amico controller in gimmicky ways, often doing things that other controllers could also do. The controller shows you the color of your ship in Astrosmash. The PS4/5 could do that with its LED. The controller lets you know which oyster will have the next pearl in Shark Shark!, and that’s something that could be accomplished via HD rumble. Showing the dice on your controller screen before you roll in Farkle and then transferring that roll to the screen is kind of neat, but it’s also Farkle. That’s something you can physically play with a few dice and a pad of paper. Wii Sports let you play baseball and golf and boxing in your living room. Clubhouse Games packs dozens of games into a portable system that can be played on an airplane or in the waiting room at the dentist, and adds online functionality so Aunt Gladys can play with you from 3,000 miles away. Is there really much call for even a kind of neat version of video Farkle you need to gather everyone by the TV to enjoy? I’m not saying it’s pointless just that it’s not exactly a system seller.
And that’s what the Amico lacks. A reason to buy the system. It has some games that look bad and some that look fine and even a few that look pretty good, like the version of Breakout by the talented team that made the Bit Trip games. It has some gimmicks that have been tried before without a lot of success. It’s not particularly attractive on price, it’s not an open platform that will attract a wide variety of games looking to be bigger fish in a smaller pond, it lacks basic features like online gaming and it has precisely zero killer apps. Astrosmash looks fine for what it is, most likely, but Xbox Games With Gold is giving away Space Invaders Infinity Gene right now and I can’t imagine that Astro Smash will be able to compete with that or any of the other ‘retro reimagined’ games that have come out over the years and are available on various consoles.
No console maker has been able to go it alone when it comes to development for a very long time, and those that have tried have failed and have opened up their platforms. Gimmicks like LED lights and simple touch screens on the controller aren’t going to change that, especially when there is no killer app to show them off. Video games are common place enough that everyone who wants to play them can find an accessible way to do so, and you’re not going to sell a $250 machine to people who just aren’t that interested. One thing I’ve noticed is that everyone who is excited for the Amico plays all kinds of different games and consoles, and most of them are collectors. They’re interested in a new iteration on something they already have lots of access to. They don’t need the Amico to pursue their hobby but they’re interested in it because they’re hobbyists and they like weird and obscure ideas for the same reason that a lot of film buffs like obscure low budget films; it’s something different and creative and cool in a format they love. But nobody ever tried to sell a special DVD player that would only play films made by Troma, and if they did it would have been a massive flop, even if it had come with some kind of special gimmick like smell-o-vision. The economics for media production, where extra copies can be made for at most a dollar or two, are very different from the economics for electronics. You need some kind of plan, generally involving either leveraging pre-existing content to keep development costs down (Atari, Evercade) or intentionally creating a machine that’s very cheap to make games for (Playdate.)
The Amico’s plan is a cheap touch screen on the controller and excitement over a 2022 version of Shark Shark! How do I set my LED lights to skeptical?