You really have to admire the concept behind Skylanders; it’s one hell of a thing. Activision and developer Toys for Bob have taken the two ostensibly warring sides of children’s entertainment—action figures and video games—and brought them together into one unstoppable, undeniable vacuum on parents’ bank accounts. In retrospect it’s strange that it took this long for someone to work this out. Back when I was a grade schooler I spent most of my hard earned allowance on Star Wars crap, but then the prequels arrived and were a bitter but cleansing tonic against the toy collecting fever and I switched to videogames. They were smaller, easier to store, and you could get a lot more fun out of them.
But…what if you could take a toy and magically digitize it into a videogame? As many weary parents already know, this is the crack-for-kids hook of the Skylanders series, and its second installment, Skylanders Giants, has just landed on Wii U, courtesy of Vicarious Visions, and with a whole new lineup of figurines to buy. I’ve been given the illustrious task of reviewing the new game and by extension, the new figures and how it works on Nintendo’s new console.
Luckily, Activision was kind enough to send me an entire Christmas morning’s worth of Skylanders to throw at the game. I feel kind of guilty; if I were a squeaky-voiced tween I’d now automatically be the coolest kid in the neighborhood, but the best I can muster when I look at these little figures and their glowing portal is “eh, that’s kind of cool I guess.”
Skylanders Giants works exactly the same as last year’s Skylanders: Spyro’s Adventure, just expanded to accommodate new figures and abilities. You plug the Portal of Power (RFID reader) into one of the Wii U’s USB ports, two of which are conveniently placed on the front of the console, under a small flip-open door. Then you place one of the Skylanders figures on the portal and the game scans them into the program, spawning them into the level for you to control.
It’s a very simple setup that your kids will probably figure out in seconds if they don’t already know how it works, either from the previous game or the commercials constantly played on Cartoon Network. Personally, I’m interested to see if the developers end up using the Wii U’s Near Field Communication sensor for the inevitable sequels.
Once you have a figure loaded into the game, you’re ready to go…to a degree. Skylanders Giants has an elemental class system and each figure belongs to a different class. Like the original Skylanders: Spyro’s Adventure, the Giants starter pack comes with three figures: the giant life-type Tree Rex, the air-type Jet-Vac, and finally Spyro’s girlfriend Cynder, who is undead-type. These three are enough to get you started, and the game introduces the various mechanics with them.
At its core, Skylanders Giants is a pretty basic dungeon crawling hack-n-slash, very similar to X-Men Legends, Marvel Ultimate Alliance and Gauntlet before them. Each level is a fairly flat area where you’ll collect keys and treasure, defeat waves of enemies, locate hidden items and procure mission-specific macguffins to progress the story. Characters cannot jump, at least not at first, and must use strategically placed boost pads to leap up elevations like towers and cliffs. Various classes perform better in specific areas, encouraging you to swap between figurines to get class-specific benefits. As you collect treasure you can spend it on new powers and abilities for each character, or unlock new items to equip each Skylander individually.
The titular giants have a few advantages over the normal characters—they’re twice as big and therefore deal twice as much base damage, they can power through regular breakable objects simply by wading through them, and can directly remove obstacles like stone walls and huge boulders, things that the normal figures need bombs to deal with. That said, even on the hardest difficulty the game is exceedingly easy; enemies barely scratched me as a normal character and as the lumbering giants I could clear just about everything in my path. I know Skylanders is a kid’s game, but since when did game developers start underestimating kids? At the risk of making myself sound even older and more crotchety, I used to sweat through Mario or Sonic levels when I was a kid and nowadays kid games have me nodding off at the controls.
If things get too heated (or boring, considering how easy the game is) a second player can grab a Wii remote and Nunchuk and drop in for co-op play at any time. They need to place a second Skylander figure on the portal scanner, but it’s cool that the portal recognizes two distinct figures at a time. There are also some versus modes, but they are all typical competitive fare: a standard deathmatch, a ring-out, a hold-the-object mode and an item collection rush. These modes are par for the course but sadly only support two players, and don’t feature any of the innovative, asymmetric gameplay found in Nintendo Land; you play essentially the same whether you’re using the GamePad or a Wii Remote.
There is some more testing gameplay to be had: in the story mode, occasionally you’ll run into bosses and there are also timed challenge maps accessed in the game’s hub level. To be honest though I was surprised by how much Skylanders is a paint-by-numbers dungeon crawler; it’s the action figure gimmick that really makes it a unique experience. If you have a large collection of Skylanders figures that’s great, but if you don’t you’ll run into some limitations.
The three basic figures that come with the starter pack will get you through the main story campaign well enough, but Skylanders leverages a Diablo-style loot mechanic that requires you to have at least one figure from each elemental class. There are locked special areas, often in plain sight, that in no uncertain terms require a specific class to enter, and these areas usually contain the best loot. In particular there is a huge collection of novelty hats in the game (seriously, what is up with hats these days?) that alter and improve the stats of the character wearing them, and make the Skylanders look pretty silly.
Even more telling, there are literal commercials for other figures scattered throughout the environment. Need to get into a special area? Well, check out this trailer for such-and-such figure and his special moves and isn’t he cool and go ask your parents to buy him right now! Granted, if I were nine it would be pretty cool and I’d be jumping up and down with anticipation, but now all I can do is fold my arms and look askance at the screen. Remember back in the 80s, when PTA groups were complaining that most Saturday morning cartoons—G.I. Joe, My Little Pony, He-Man—were thinly veiled half-hour commercials for toys? Well, they might have had more ground to stand on if they were complaining about Skylanders.
The Wii U version has some aspects that make collection each figure more attractive. For instance it has stat-tracking for each Skylander. The GamePad screen displays your current character’s leveling progression and stats toward various areas, letting you stay updated on how they stack up against the rest of your roster at a glance. The GamePad also lets to swap to a current objectives screen as well and track mission progress—all pretty standard stuff but handy and convenient nonetheless. These stat-tracking features are available in the other versions but having them on hand, right on the GamePad screen makes your figures and their progress more immediate and personal.
Skylanders Giants is also one of the Wii U launch titles that lets you play it entirely on the GamePad. I can imagine this will be an especially attractive feature for parents, particularly with this kind of kid’s game; the repetitive action, sound effects and character voices are bound to grate on the nerves, so piping it all to the GamePad and putting a set of headphones on the kid playing it can offer some relief. One aspect I found annoying was that each figure has a little catchphrase they quip, every single time you put them on the portal; after hearing Cynder spout “bolts and lightning!” for the umpteenth time I wanted to set the little figure on fire and chuck her out a window.
This brings me to my main issue with this game, one that I think is entirely subjective—most aspects of Skylanders Giants are probably positively magical for a little kid but are merely redundant, repetitive and annoying to me. For example, every time you scan a new figure, it gets unlocked on an in-game roster. So why can’t I just pull up this menu on the GamePad and swap between characters whenever I want? Why do I have to stop playing, reach down into the increasingly cluttered collection of little plastic critters and drop Tree Rex onto the glowing USB scanner, and then sit through him growling “be afraid of the bark!” one more agonizing time?
Yes, a nine-year-old would instinctively surround himself with dozens of little plastic toys, lining them up perfectly as he sits down for a session of Skylanders Giants. It’s a sort of status symbol for him. But all that plastic simply clutters up my entertainment center, I have that hideous, kitschy, glowing portal scanner hanging off of my sleek new Wii U, and I’m constantly worried that my girlfriend will walk into the room and wonder what the hell I’m doing with all these toys.
Maybe I’m just too skeptical or frugal for my own good, but I’ve always had a reflexive resistance to any collecting gimmick attaching a vacuum to my wallet. I never got into Pokemon, even when I was a kid, and the whole toy/game crossover thing always struck me as a redundant middleman.
The problem here might also be a personal lack of interest in the source material. I just have very little enthusiasm for the Spyro universe or how Activision has expanded it to make it collecta-tastic. It would probably be the greatest thing since Quake if I were 12, or had at least grown up with Spyro on the PS1, but I’m 26, and that allows me to know a pandering money grind when I see one.
I can’t fault Vicarious Visions for giving the game some decent production values, at least. The vibrant color palette and smooth, cartoony animations makes Skylanders Giants eye-catching, but stare too long and you’ll easily spot some visual flaws. The game doesn’t look bad, per se, but it certainly doesn’t push what the Wii U’s GPU is capable of; simply put, it’s a launch title and it looks like a launch title, no better than what you’d see in the PS3 or 360 version of the game. As I mentioned previously the goofy voices of the actual Skylanders really got on my nerves, but some of the other voice work is funny and well done. I noticed Patrick Warburton as the bumbling ship captain Flynn, and even George Takei makes a cameo as an early boss, so kudos to the developers for finding some signature voice talent. The game’s music is fairly catchy and reminded me of the generic but fun adventure-platformer tunes that I remember from the early PS1 era, so that element was a little nostalgic for me.
At the end of the day, I feel a little guilty reviewing this game. Perhaps an adult, or at least a particularly jaded adult, isn’t the right person to review a game like Skylanders. All I can objectively say is that it’s a decent, if not spectacular, dungeon crawler that hits all the well-worn points of the genre with reasonable execution and charm. The naked consumerism of it all—and the gameplay inconveniences and contrivances it introduces—did unfortunately stick in my throat, and perhaps kept me from enjoying the experience to its fullest.
I’m not saying I’m above such influences—far from it. The game and movie industries live and die by nostalgia these days and it’s only a matter of time before somebody realizes that kids aren’t the only demographic they can tap—you just need to pull the right strings. If Nintendo were to develop a fanservice-sodden, Smash Bros-meets-Gauntlet Legends game that used the exact same gimmick, I admit that I’d spend stupid quantities of cash on the accompanying Metroid and Starfox figurines.
I can see this mechanic working for innumerable, highly nostalgic franchises with their own fandoms and niches: pewter D&D miniatures with embedded RFID chips, scannable cards that unlock new guns in an FPS or grant extra mana in a Magic the Gathering game. I’m especially dreading the inevitable, shameless Pokemon marketing campaign and its endless cards and toys. The emergent RFID and NFC mechanic is simply an evolved form of Nintendo’s ill-fated E-reader attachment for the Game Boy Advance. The technology has just caught up to the gameplay (and merchandizing) vision.
The storm of plastic and cardboard might loom on the horizon, hungrily eyeing an entire generation of nerds (me among them) and their credit cards, but for now Skylanders Giants is a kid’s affair. If you’ve just picked up a Wii U for the holidays and want something guaranteed to light up the eyes of any 5-12 year olds on your gift list, Skylanders Giants fits the bill. But beware: Skylanders is not a single purchase by a long shot, and that bill is sure to get longer and longer as the Skylanders craze grows.