Skylanders SuperChargers is the latest entry in Activision's billion-dollar Skylanders franchise, and when it launches Sept. 20, it will introduce the most important new feature in the series' four-year history: vehicles.
The three Skylanders titles following the original, 2011's Skylanders: Spyro's Adventure, each provided fans with new hooks of varying significance. In Skylanders Giants, the Skylanders got bigger. Vicarious Visions came onto the franchise in 2013 with Skylanders Swap Force, giving existing Skylanders the ability to jump and adding 16 figures with swappable halves to make for 256 new characters. Last year, Toys for Bob returned with Skylanders Trap Team, which brought digital characters into the real world.
"I think every year it feels like we're doing the biggest and best push toward innovation," said Josh Taub, senior vice president of Skylanders at Activision, in an interview with Polygon last week. "Each one of them, at that point in time, felt like a giant step forward."
That may be true, but over the course of a lengthy demo of SuperChargers on PlayStation 4, it became clear that the addition of vehicles — not just ones with wheels, but sea and air transportation as well — is a major leap for Skylanders, both the game and the toys.
The Skylanders' erstwhile adversary, Kaos, is up to his old shenanigans again in SuperChargers, unleashing a new weapon called the Doomstation of Ultimate Doomstruction upon the Skylands. It's a literal doomsday device that feeds on the sky itself and threatens to tear the realm apart. Thankfully, Master Eon prepared for this calamity by putting together a special squad of Skylanders with vehicles. It's up to these "supercharged" characters to save the day.
David Nathanielsz, senior executive producer at developer Vicarious Visions, walked us through a hands-off demo of an early level from SuperChargers. The Skylanders need to retrieve the Thunderous Bolt, which is located in the Cloud Kingdom. But the ruler of the area, Lord Stratosfear, has made a deal with Kaos, so our heroes will need to defeat Kaos' forces to secure the item they're seeking.
Nathanielsz brought in Stormblade, one of the new SuperCharger Skylanders, and went through some of the series' typical action platforming gameplay. The Cloud Kingdom lives up to its name, with thick mist obscuring much of the area and dissipating as you walk through it. You'll have to blow on storm horns placed throughout the level to clear the clouds away.
It's a beautiful place, evoking the utopias of antiquity with verdant terraces, hanging gardens and Ionic columns. And the dialogue is written in the vein of the best cartoons, with references and commentary that will fly over kids' heads. The people of the Cloud Kingdom are the one-percenters of the Skylands. One character notes that Lord Stratosfear "never trusted the underclass" before quickly stating, "No offense to you, of course." After you've cleaned up the level, that same individual says you're "a credit to your people."
Nathanielsz completed a basic guide-the-lasers-with-reflectors puzzle, then moved on to the level's first vehicle section, designed for a ground vehicle. Here, he brought in Hot Streak, a fire-type race car. SuperChargers will introduce a total of 20 SuperCharger Skylanders, and each one has its own associated transportation. Hot Streak is connected with a character called Spitfire, but every vehicle is compatible with all of the 300-plus Skylanders figures that have been released to date, so Nathanielsz began with Stormblade driving Hot Streak.
All you have to do in the driving section is get from the beginning to the end, avoiding obstacles and picking up gear bits along the way. You can spend those items on upgrades for your vehicle. Nathanielsz explained that SuperChargers also offers many alternate routes, and he showed us one that led to a collectible known as a "mod chest." Nathanielsz switched the modification inside, Volcanic Vents, with Hot Streak's existing engine. In addition to changing the appearance of a vehicle, mods alter attributes like speed, acceleration and handling. It's a rudimentary system that seems perfect for a youth-oriented game like Skylanders.
In the next vehicle section, Nathanielsz swapped out Stormblade for Spitfire. If you use a vehicle with the SuperCharger that it's associated with, the vehicle will be more powerful in the game and you'll unlock a set of special mods that's exclusive to the pairing. Spitfire, it seems, was born to drive Hot Streak.
The demo then skipped ahead to a water segment of the Cloud Kingdom level. You'll need a sea vehicle to play this part of the game; this kind of elemental gating is not new to the Skylanders series, and it's an easy way for Activision to encourage players (or their parents) to buy new toys. Activision representatives did note that you can play through Skylanders SuperChargers with just Spitfire and Hot Streak, both of which are included in the game's Starter Pack.
With 20 vehicles across three types — land, sea and air — Vicarious Visions came up with a wide variety for each kind of transportation. The studio began with one design focus: thinking of "every single type of vehicle you could imagine driving," according to Nathanielsz.
"It was that back-and-forth between, 'How many vehicle fantasies can we imagine?' And then, 'How do we deliver each of them throughout the levels in the game?'" he added.
Nathanielsz dropped in Dive Bomber, a submarine equipped with torpedoes. All seafaring vehicles in SuperChargers can both skim on the surface of water and dive beneath it, which makes the water segments of the game more interesting (and more challenging). We saw a boss battle against a device called a Storm Sequencer. It created waves in a pool — waves that Dive Bomber could leap off of, or dive into, in order to avoid the rotating arms of the machine.
The demo concluded with an aerial segment, for which Nathanielsz brought in Super Shot Stealth Elf. Eight of the 20 SuperCharger figures are returning characters, and this one is a SuperCharger version of Stealth Elf, a fan-favorite figure that debuted way back in Spyro's Adventure. She has a completely different upgrade path and new powers, and a unique appearance — "[fans will] feel like they're playing her for the first time again," said Taub. Nathanielsz used her with Sky Slicer, a fighter jet whose natural partner is Stormblade.
Super Shot Stealth Elf piloted Sky Slicer through a chase sequence, tracking down and destroying some transport ships while avoiding mines floating in the air. The jet can paint multiple targets and fire missiles, and packs bombs as well. Nathanielsz said Skylanders SuperChargers' sky sections will also include dogfights with 360-degree control over your aerial vehicle. While the game supports no more than one vehicle at a time, the Skylanders series' co-op play is still available: One player pilots a vehicle, while the other serves as the gunner.
The entire demo lasted less than half an hour, and according to Nathanielsz, it comprised about half of the Cloud Kingdom level. It's true that players will have to buy at least one sea and one air vehicle, in addition to the included Hot Streak, if they want to experience all that Skylanders SuperChargers has to offer. But if Vicarious Visions can maintain that kind of vehicular variety throughout the whole game, the extra cost may be worthwhile.
Skylanders SuperChargers' new figures are the series' finest-crafted toys yet, as you would expect, with fine details like a ladder on the side of Dive Bomber and silvery tips on Stormblade's feathers. Some of the vehicles even have moving parts — Dive Bomber's propeller can rotate, as can the wheels on Hot Streak. This is designed to facilitate playing with the toys outside of the Skylanders game itself.
"Kids have been playing with these toys off-portal for a long time, and we embrace that," said Taub. "It's that they want to experience their characters and bring them with them. And so this takes that to a whole 'nother level, with the ability to be able to actually play in a way that they play with other vehicle IP."
"All of that discovery and exploration is really fun for kids"
That's the kind of attention to detail that has kept Skylanders at the top of the toys-to-life market of video games: The genre has racked up more than $4 billion in sales of games and figures since the debut of Skylanders: Spyro's Adventure, and the Skylanders series is responsible for over $3 billion of that. Even in the face of competition from Disney Infinity, amiibo and new entrants to the market this year, Skylanders continues to sell. That's without any ties to established brands or properties other than its own back catalog — no Star Wars, no Avengers, no Simpsons, no Lord of the Rings.
"I think kids really appreciate originality and creativity, coupled with high-quality experiences," said Taub, when asked why he thinks Skylanders has succeeded without tie-ins. He added that the lack of outside characters in the franchise means that every new figure is a surprise for players. Taub explained that for his 9-year-old son, much of the joy of Skylanders comes from opening a new toy and putting it on the Portal of Power to see what it does in the game.
"There's no preconceived notion of what [a character is] supposed to do or how it's supposed to act," said Taub. "All of that discovery and exploration is really fun for kids."