E3 2011: Skylanders Hands-on — Your Little Brother’s Allowance Is Forfeit
Let’s call a spade a spade. Skylanders: Spyro’s Adventure is an unapologetic cash grab, a devious ploy to enrich Activision at the expense of thousands of children and their parents. That said, it’s also a really awesome game.
For $69.99, the company will sell you the game disc, three cute-but-cool Skylanders figurines, and a bizarre peripheral shaped like an electronic tree stump. There is no character selection screen in the game, nor is there save data. If you want to play as a particular character, you just slap it down on the USB-powered pedestal, and it pops up instantaneously in game. The technology that connects the two objects was a secret, but it worked splendidly, with almost no delay at all.
Here’s the cool part: All your in-game progress is stored directly to the figurine. You can take the toy with you to your friends house, and anything you earn there comes back with you, along with the toy itself. Nor does it matter that he has the game for PC and you have it for Wii — Skylanders’ peripheral is up to the challenge. To start a co-op game, just slap your favorite figurine down on the magic stump. When bedtime arrives, that three-inch hero can be placed safely on the bedside table, with your data slumbering safely inside it.
There will eventually be 30 collectible figurines (retailing for $7.99 each), and one assumes that Activision will release as many as they can get people to pay for. The seismic potential of the game on the nation’s Toys ‘R’ Us stores is hard to overestimate — this is a game that effectively combines Pokemon, Happy Meal Toys, and Mario Party.
Speaking of Mario, the game’s singleplayer levels are reminiscent of most post-3D Nintendo games, comprised of environmental puzzles, gaudy collectibles, and bloodlessly dispatched enemies. Despite these clear influences, however, the design was universally vibrant and inventive. Though it scaled well enough to Wii, the stylized, sharp graphics on the more powerful consoles did the game’s artists credit.
Character abilities, too, had me wanting to try out the various toys on offer, particularly a rock elemental-looking fellow named Prism Break. His basic attack allowed him to zap enemies with some sort of geological beam, but by hitting another button, I could plant a prism in the ground that refracted the beam into multiple parts, taking out a wider array of enemies. The other Skylanders and their combat abilities were all simplistic, but satisfying.
Gameplay was intuitive enough for younger kids but deep enough even for pre-teens, and there are lots of ways for characters to contribute to success. For example, an older sibling could complete puzzles while the younger breaks crates, though this might touch off a scramble for the loot. Because improving your character-cum-toy is the name of the game, each little upgrade is valuable.
The game also shone in competitive multiplayer, showing off an arena battle system that would appeal to fans of Super Smash Bros. Two Skylanders can square off in environments packed with cartoonish touches like spring-loaded launch pads and goofy power-ups. Though there’s plenty of room for good-natured button mashing, the mechanics seemed deep enough to support real expertise, and I laughed along with the reps as they finished off a tense and hard-fought battle against each other. Tired of a particular match-up? Just swap out the toys and go at it — no pause menu, no loading screens.
Until today, the phrase “game with toy tie-in” would have sent me running in the other direction. Especially if a publisher as avaricious as Activision were involved. Having played Skylanders, however, its clear that they’ve come up with a product that would have thrown eight-year-old me into paroxysms of joy. Discussing the game’s potential with my colleagues, I decided that I learned a valuable lesson today: Things that appear evil aren’t always actually evil.