Amiibo Was The Second e-Reader Card

by Doc – Owner, Founder, e-Reader Doctor Doesn’t Roll Off The Tongue

Alright folks, here’s a collectible item depicting a Nintendo character or product that, when scanned into a game, unlocks exclusive content that enhances or changes the gameplay experience:

Alright folks, here’s a collectible item depicting a Nintendo character or product that, when scanned into a game, unlocks exclusive content that enhances or changes the gameplay experience:

The first item is, obviously, an amiibo. One would anticipate seeing a picture of an amiibo at “”. The second, however, is much older. That’s an “e-reader card“. The concept is identical – you scan that sucker in, it gives you things in the game. But the history behind it is very, very different, and makes for a great analysis of Nintendo history.

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What is the E-Reader Card?

Near-Field Communication (NFC) technology is one of the main focuses of the more recent Nintendo consoles. The Wii U’s Gamepad had its NFC sensor for amiibo, the New 3DS had a sensor under the touchscreen, and the Right Joy-Con and Switch Pro Controllers had its NFC sensor in their respective locations for the Switch. This technology is in these controllers solely for the purpose of amiibo – nothing else uses it.

The Nintendo Gamecube wasn’t so lucky. The Gamecube was hindered by the technology of its time, and didn’t have access to NFC – but Nintendo figured out a way around that. All it took was a Game Boy Advance, some cardstock and a plastic scanner.

E-reader cards functioned like dirt-cheap credit cards, complete with a reader. You’d plug in the $20 e-reader scanner to your Game Boy Advance cartridge slot, plug in your Game Boy Advance to the Gamecube with its respective cable (if you were playing a game like Animal Crossing that had e-reader functionality), and scan in your cards. The cards had a binary stripe on it that was effectively a printed file, the scanner read the binary file, and the game would add that file to its memory.

This is how games like Animal Crossing were able to have e-reader capable NES games like Ice Climbers on a card. NES game files are about 4 KB, and you can fit 4 KB of binary on a magnetic stripe with ease – so the card was literally a physical ROM of Ice Climbers, or whatever other content there was on the card.

Why Didn’t It Work?

When you consider how cheap it would be to produce what is effectively a trading card, it doesn’t make much sense as to why the e-reader never took off. After all, lots of popular GBA games had e-reader functionality that was actually pretty good. All five Pokemon games had e-reader functionality, alongside Animal Crossing and Pokemon Colosseum. Its lineup wasn’t exactly lacking considering what the GBA had in store.

But Nintendo made an error: the technology required licensing, and licensing is expensive. Even if Nintendo had properly supplied the cards countrywide (we’ll assume everyone reading this is American), their profit margins would’ve been pretty limited. In addition, there was no internet tutorial back then to teach people how to use e-reader cards, and they’re not exactly intuitive – especially when you’re trying to use them with Animal Crossing or the Pokemon games, where you have to get to the end of the game to be able to use them. So people didn’t know that they could buy these cheap cards and have a bit more fun out of their old games.

The e-reader scanner, new in box.

How Amiibo Solved These Problems

Take two, we have amiibo on the scene. It’s classic Nintendo wanting to reuse an idea, but this time they did it properly, and it’s proven quite successful. So why did amiibo succeed where the e-reader had failed?

Collectors are Crazy People

Nintendo has become much better at their marketing schemes, and the comparison between the e-reader and amiibo launch is a great example of that. When Nintendo announced the e-reader, it mostly did so in magazines and through the Internet. These were typically sufficient to grab people’s attention, but visuals are limited, and visuals are what sells.

Amiibo, however, are immediately eye-catching. There’s something significantly more interesting about a seemingly die-cast high-quality figure than a simple playing card with a stripe on it. The colors pop. The stand looks a bit odd, like something out of a carnival. The detailing, even on the early waves of amiibo, is accurate to the original characters. It was the same function, but amiibo are a different breed.

This caught the attention of collectors, who to this day are still madly in love with collecting amiibo. Collectors can keep a brand alive, as they’ll buy just about anything that you put out if it feels in line with the brand, and amiibo has certainly benefited from collectors.

Wario collecting his Bayonetta amiibo, colorized.

Recognizable Characters

Mario is Mario. Samus is Samus. If you’re a fan of Metroid but still don’t care for amiibo, you’ll probably still want an official figure of your favorite space hunter lady. That’s where amiibo succeeded – unlike a card, you can immediately tell who the character is, and show it off to your friends. It’s a much more physical depiction, being a physical figure and all.

Let’s also not forget that, thanks to the inclusion of Smash Bros, some characters had figures made that will likely never see official “love” from Nintendo again. Do you think we’ll ever see more Mother 3 merchandise from Nintendo? We don’t even have EarthBound on Nintendo Switch Online, let alone Mother 3. Fans jumped on this, because it really is a lot of character’s last chances.


Nintendo did a much better job announcing amiibo than they did with the e-reader. I would dare say there was no way it could’ve been improved, actually. Nintendo:

  • Announced it at the most-watched game event of the year, allowing them to show off the visuals
  • Made full use of the modern internet capabilities like game press and social media to spread its impact as far as possible
  • Planned it for release alongside the console-selling Smash 4, which was one of the most anticipated games for the Wii U and 3DS, and one of the best-selling.

There was really no better marketing triad: the visual aspect of amiibo got people’s attention, Smash created headlines, and the internet spread the news far and wide.

One of the few images of the rarest e-reader card in existence, the Kirby e-reader card. This was given out at E3 2002, and then destroyed.

The Legacy of the E-reader

The legacy of the e-reader lives on in several different ways. Amiibo is the clearest one, for sure – but it impacted other, more popular products as well. Don’t forget that the e-reader cards are, basically, pre-Internet DLC. We can see some of the ways this shaped Nintendo’s DLC practices by comparing e-reader functionality to their future DLC.

  • Animal Crossing made villager-specific cards a regular occurrence with New Leaf
  • Pokemon used “downloadable” events like the Eon Ticket in later iterations with Wi-fi events
  • Super Mario Advance 4: Super Mario Bros 3 pioneered downloadable Mario stages

It may have been reduced to a footnote in Nintendo’s history, but you can’t deny that the e-reader is a great footnote to learn about.


1 Comment

  1. Funny thing is I own an E-Reader – still do. Still have all the cards I bought for the thing. It means my copy of Super Mario Advance 4: Super Mario Bros 3 will have certain things the Wii U VC version doesn’t: like turning enemies into coins after hitting them with a Fireball, Turnips in every stage, and of course unlimited Capes.

    I’d like to also point out the whole AR card thing Kid Icarus Uprising did. There were smaller things like the cards that came with the system and later the Photos with Mario app, but nothing was as vast and interesting as Kid Icarus Uprising doing their own weird form of cards. I collected as many as I could with those too, although I have a website bookmarked that has a database including the ones that never made it out of Japan…

    But as far as the popularity of amiibo – I mean let’s face it: the only reason the things are still selling in the first place was because Target workers made a little oopsie informing people about the availability (or lack there of) of Marth, Villager, and Wii Fit Trainer.

    Mere days after the things launched people went into panic thinking Nintendo immediately discontinued the Marth, Villager, and Wii Fit Trainer amiibo. From there panic spread amongst the Nintendo communities. The fear of losing out on an amiibo was what lead to the Fabled GameStop crash of ’15 when people were trying to secure a Ness amiibo.

    Thing is, Target has a dumb system of saying when an item isn’t getting into their stores at the moment, that it’s ‘discontinued’ by the manufacturer – They actually did that with a brand of Orange Juice I liked, despite the fact that it was sold elsewhere and Target would later have it in stock a few months later.

    They still kind of say that sort of thing: when a new amiibo drops, and I ask about it, they still say “Wow, Nintendo is still making those things?” Although after the epidemic hit, they’ve all seemingly been made Online Only, which if I’ll be honest, isn’t my best method of buying these things.

    I will say though that success of amiibo varies, take say 2016 when there were multiple amiibo coming out, but no one really going for them, unless they were Smash Bros – like the Kirby series for Robobot: Target put those suckers on clearance no less than three weeks later when the other Splatoon amiibo released, and those were immediately on clearance. The Zelda amiibo themselves were plentiful, although likely snapped up by scalpers after the January Switch presentation, and then people made a huge outcry that they were “Required” for Breath of the Wild… Same with the Animal Crossing amiibo: so plentiful I could snap up multiple packs for a dollar (and I did, I wanted to complete my collection) but people cried out when they were making New Horizons, like – you had this opportunity…

    At the end of the day, amiibo was just a successful E-Reader, although the E-Reader WAS endorsed by Pokémon, which perhaps explains somewhat why Pokémon amiibo never became a thing (Not like they would be of use…) and why compatibility for the Pokemon amiibo that we do have is rather limited (Super Mario Maker’s Pokémon costumes don’t have any fanfare outside the non-amiibo 20th Anniversary ones) to nonexistent (Yoshi’s Woolly World and the idea that Pokémon would be too complex to make Yoshi skins for, yet the Fire Emblem characters are “easy”)

    Liked by 1 person

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