If your kids are enraptured by Skylanders or Disney Infinity—and/or are huge fans of everything Nintendo—then you may be eyeing a new set of interactive figurines as stocking stuffers this holiday season.

Amiibo is Nintendo’s answer to the immense popularity of those other games, but unlike those toy-centric forebears, the figurines of iconic characters like Mario, Link, and Peach aren’t tied to a single game or series. Furthermore, while they may look similar on the surface, the Amiibo figures aren’t currently used to bring playable characters into games. In Skylanders and Disney Infinity, you pop a figurine on the portal and that character appears in the game and is fully playable. With Amiibo, the experience is a little different, giving you access to bonus content and extra computer-controlled characters, rather than playable ones.

If you have a Wii U and your kids are into Nintendo’s original characters and games, here’s everything you need to know about Amiibo.

What Are Amiibo, and How Do They Work?

Amiibo figurines are small, plastic toys that have built-in near-field communication (NFC) chips that allow them to interact with select Wii U games. Each figurine is a statuette measuring a couple inches in height, with the character affixed to a black and gold circular base that houses the chip within. Individual characters are sold for $12.99 a piece in the United States, with 12 different figures available at launch this Friday, November 21.

Unlike with Skylanders and Disney Infinity, you don’t need a specialized base to use your figurines with compatible games, nor is there a starter kit required to get going. Instead, the Wii U GamePad already has the NFC reader built into it—it’s where the small rounded rectangular icon is located below the directional pad on the lower left side of the controller.

You place the Amiibo figurine on an icon on the Wii U game pad to get it to work.

You place the Amiibo figurine on an icon on the Wii U game pad to get it to work.

When a game prompts you to scan your Amiibo figure, you’ll place and hold its base against the icon until you’re told to remove it. This process typically takes a second or two, and the Wii U will recognize the specific figurine and react accordingly based on which character it is. Because each Amiibo figurine has a specialized chip within, you can store personalized data and bring customized in-game characters to use on friends’ Wii U consoles and games.

Which Figures Are Available?

As mentioned above, a dozen different characters are available in the initial batch, which is timed to release with flagship fighting game Super Smash Bros. for Wii U. Because that game brings together characters from a wide array of Nintendo games, and because it’s currently the best showcase for the Amiibo technology, the first set of figurines offers a broad assortment of beloved characters.

Mario, Peach, and Yoshi from the Super Mario games are included, as well as Donkey Kong and Kirby from their respective action game series. Three role-playing game favorites are also included: Link from The Legend of Zelda, Pikachu from Pokémon, and Marth from Fire Emblem. Four others are featured beyond those: Samus Aran from the Metroid action/adventure series, Fox from the Star Fox flight/action games, Villager from the Animal Crossing city simulation series, and the Trainer from fitness favorite Wii Fit.

Six more figurines will launch in December: Zelda from The Legend of Zelda, Luigi from Super Mario, Diddy Kong from the Donkey Kong Country games, Little Mac from cartoonish boxing game Punch-Out!!, Captain Falcon from futuristic racer F-Zero, and winged cherub Pit from action series Kid Icarus.

These are all the figurines scheduled for release in 2014, though more are in the works for next year.

These are most of the figurines scheduled for release in 2014, though more are in the works for next year.

A larger third collection of 11 Amiibo figures is set to follow in February 2015, most notably adding Sonic the Hedgehog and Mega Man—iconic characters from action games that aren’t Nintendo’s own. Other figurines in the set include Bowser and Rosalina from Super Mario, Toon Link and Sheik from The Legend of Zelda, and Lucario from Pokémon. Some figurines in the set are expected to be retailer exclusives, which sadly means you won’t be able to place a single Amazon order for everything, or walk into a single store and snag all of them at once.

Which Games Do They Work With?

Right now, Super Smash Bros. for Wii U is the big showcase title, and it’s where the Amiibo figurines offer their most functionality. Even so, it’s less involved than you might expect if you’re used to other toy-linked console games.

In Smash Bros, an Everyone 10+ rated multiplayer brawling game, you can tap your Amiibo to the GamePad to create a computer-controlled player that can be customized with various outfits and special moves. You’ll never be able to control the character yourself in battle, but you can add that fighter into matches and fight alongside or against it. Its player level will increase over time as it fights, and it’ll earn even more experience if you bring it into other Wii U owners’ games.

The other compatible game as of this writing is Mario Kart 8, an Everyone-rated racing game that was released earlier this year, but just updated to support Amiibo figures. In that case, the implementation is even lighter: if you tap one of a handful of supported figurines to the GamePad, you’ll unlock a special costume for your Mii driver to wear while racing.

What’s Ahead for Amiibo?

Hyrule Warriors, a Teen-rated combat game spun off from the Legend of Zelda series, is slated to receive an update by the end of November that enables Amiibo support. You’ll be able to use the Link figurine to access a special weapon, and Nintendo says that other Amiibo toys will be compatible to some extent.

Otherwise, a few more confirmed titles are due out in the months ahead, although the Amiibo implementation isn’t fully known yet. Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker, a puzzle-action game, is due out on December 5, while side-scrolling action game Kirby and the Rainbow Curse will follow on February 13, 2015. Another platform-hopping action game, Yoshi’s Wooly World, will follow sometime thereafter, along with multiplayer favorite, Mario Party 10.

And while Amiibo toys only work on Wii U for now, the Nintendo 3DS will join in on the fun in 2015. An NFC adapter will be released for the current handheld system, but an enhanced model called the New Nintendo 3DS is also expected out early next year, and will have an NFC reader built into the portable device. The 3DS version of Super Smash Bros. will be the first game to support the figurines.

It’s likely that we’ll hear more about additional games and figurines as 2015 rolls around. Both Skylanders and Disney Infinity have been massive moneymakers for their respective publishers, and while the initial Amiibo games don’t offer the most extensive interactivity options, Nintendo fans are buzzing to collect these toys. If they launch well, don’t be surprised to see some dedicated, Amiibo-centric games announced soon.

This article was written by

Andrew Hayward is a Chicago-based freelance writer and editor, and his work has appeared in more than 50 publications around the world. He’s also a work-at-home dad to a wild toddler.