It was pitched as the reinvention of toys, but it turned out even that was an understatement.
Since its 2011 debut, Skylanders has become a multi-billion-dollar franchise with literally hundreds of merchandising deals. While Skylanders didn't invent the toys-to-life genre - games that use physical toys to load characters and levels into a video game - it did popularize it and kick-off a broader interest in the style of gaming.
Today, players can choose among the latest Skylanders title, Skylanders Superchargers; the third iteration of Disney Infinity, Nintendo's game-buffing Amiibo or Warner Bros. first , massive entry in this market: Lego Dimensions.
Each feature their own style of toys, own sort of gameplay, and specific sorts of characters. With four options, and hundreds of toys, we thought it might be a good idea to rundown what one can expect from each.
Below you'll find a breakdown of what to expect from the four toys-to-life games, the costs, the pros and the cons.
|Platforms||Nintendo 3DS, Wii U|
|Franchise||Mostly Nintendo, some third-party Nintendo game characters|
|Cost to start||A figure and one compatible game.|
|Cost per figure||About $13 to $17|
|Number of figures||About 80 released|
|What does it do||Unlocks new options in games, saves character data|
Late to the toys-to-life market, Nintendo unveiled its plans for the genre just last year. Instead of announcing a new game with its own plastic figures, Nintendo announced a line of toys that could be used to supplement a variety of games.
The amiibo make use of the near-field communication reader built into the New 3DS and Wii U. (There's also a NFC reader that can be purchased for use with the 3DS, 3DS XL, and 2DS.) Players tap the plastic figure on the NFC reader to unlock new characters, content and bonuses in supported games.
Currently there are dozens of games that support either the ability to unlock something with an amiibo or to store data on the figure from the game. A drawback of this multi-game support is that each amiibo can only hold save data for one game at a time. While the amiibo can unlock items from any game without impacting that save, saving level-up and customization data from one game on an amiibo will erase another game's save.
Nintendo's approach to the genre removes it, in some ways, from direct competition with the likes of Skylanders, Disney Infinity and Lego Dimensions, but it is still powered by the key concept of the genre: taking a colorful action figure and imbuing it with life through a video game. Like a majority of the figures in toys-to-life games, amiibo are more like little plastic statues then action figures. They have no moving parts, but are meticulously designed.
The magnificent art style and design of the figures coupled with the fact that most of the figures are based on beloved and sometimes rare Nintendo characters can make it hard to find what you're looking for at stores. And many of those hard-to-find figures fetch a much higher price online.
While Nintendo has promised to increase production and smooth out retail deliveries, the toys still have a habit of selling out. Fortunately, Nintendo has begun to re-release some of the harder to find figures. Nintendo is also expanding its line of amiibo to include more creative takes on the figures like Yarn Yoshi and amiibo cards.
While Nintendo's figures don't have a game of their own to play in, they are already supported by about three dozen titles between the 3DS and Wii U and there is promise of much broader support. Among the supported titles are some of Nintendo's most popular, including Super Smash Bros., Mario Kart 8, Mario Party 10, Splatoon and Super Mario Maker.
It also seems likely that given the massive success of the toys for Nintendo that an amiibo-focused game could be coming down the line. Most importantly though, Nintendo's unique approach to toys-to-life means that if you own a supported system, this is probably the most broadly appealing game in the genre, both in terms of style of gameplay and age appropriateness. It also means that getting into this particular flavor of toys-to-life is pretty inexpensive.
|Platforms||Android, Apple TV, iOS, PlayStation 3, PS 4, Wii, Wii U, Xbox 360, Windows PC, Xbox One|
|Franchise||Disney, Marvel, Star Wars|
|Cost to start||About $65|
|Cost per figure||About $15|
|Number of figures||More than 100|
|What does it do||Stores a character's level and health|
Inspired by the wonderfully creative toy box mode in the Toy Story 3 video game, Disney Infinity first hit store shelves in 2013.
Where most other toys-to-life games focus on delivering a massive, polished narratively-driven campaign, Disney Infinity features both campaigns and an open-world, build-what-you-want, franchise-mashing toy box mode. That does come at a cost though. The campaigns for Disney Infinity have increasingly become lighter affairs compared to the ever-growing depth of the toy box mode.
Each iteration of Disney Infinity brings with it new features to the toy box, new methods to make your own worlds, new campaigns and, perhaps most importantly, a new franchise (as well as support for all of the previous games' figures.)
The original Disney Infinity featured characters from Pirates of the Caribbean, The Incredibles, Monsters University, Cars, The Lone Ranger and Toy Story, as well as a number of characters from a wide variety of Disney movies and cartoons. Disney Infinity 2.0 delivered even more Disney movie characters as well as a massive roster of Marvel super heroes. The latest Disney Infinity is Star Wars-themed, adding characters from the first two trilogy of movies, and soon from the upcoming Star Wars: The Force Awakens. It also brings new Disney characters as well as the emotions from InSide Out.
Where Nintendo's amiibo make use of built-in NFC readers (unless you have an older handheld), Disney Infinity uses a USB-powered hub. The hub includes spots for two characters and a spot for a spot for a world disc. When placed on the hub, the character figures are imported into the game with their saved stats, while the world discs unlock playsets, or narratively-driven campaigns. The game also uses power discs that can deliver items, vehicles and power-ups to characters, or extra world building tools to the toy box mode. These discs can stack underneath a figure or world disc.
All versions of the USB hub, going back to the original, are still supported. That means that once you buy the game you can upgrade to the latest version at a discounted price because you won't have to pick up the starter pack, which usually include the game, hub and a world disc and two characters.
While the latest version of Disney Infinity has some of the best campaigns from the franchise, they still feel light and not as polished when compared to both Skylanders Superchargers and Lego Dimensions. The real power of Disney Infinity 3.0 is in its ability to deliver a robust set of relatively simple-to-use world- and game-creation tools to a game populated by a massive, beloved cast of characters.
Each iteration of the franchise also pushes forward key gameplay components like combat, driving and racing, and typically delivers new elements. With Disney Infinity 3.0, the game added sidekicks that could level up, and the ability to farm food used to level up those sidekicks.
The figures are some of the best in the genre, alongside Nintendo's amiibo. They're the sort that fans of the franchise might collect, game or no game. That said, they don't feature any moving parts, though the link between the characters on the screen and the one in the real world feels relatively strong.
The latest upgrade to the figures brought light-up lightsabers to a handful of characters, a sign that Disney might still be keeping an eye on Skylanders, a franchise that tends to make big, annual changes to its characters' physical properties.
Because getting into Disney Infinity means picking up a starter pack, it's not the most affordable toys-to-life game to get into. That said, it does support most platforms, including last-gen consoles, and doesn't require you to buy a new hub every year.
The middle-of-the-road costs combined with fantastic figure design and an eclectic mix of characters makes this one of my top choices in the genre.
|Platforms||PlayStation 3, PS 4, Wii U, Xbox 360, Xbox One|
|Franchises||DC Comics, The Lord of the Rings, The Lego Movie, The Wizard of Oz, The Simpsons, Lego Ninjago, Doctor Who, Back to the Future, Portal 2, Ghostbusters, Midway Arcade, Scooby-Doo, Lego Legends of Chima, and Jurassic World|
|Cost to start||$100|
|Cost per figure||Sold in packs that range from $15 to $30 each|
|Number of figures||About 20 different packs|
|What does it do||Lego that can be built and mixed and matched with a base that stores character and level info.|
The most recent entry in the toys-to-life genre is also the most obvious ... and most complex.
Published by Warner Bros. and developed by long-time Lego game creator TT Games, Lego Dimensions leans heavily on its Lego and Warner Bros. franchises and brick-to-game know-how to deliver a colorful and different experience to the genre.
The game already features 14 different franchises and an impressive line-up of actors reprising their roles including Elizabeth Banks, Will Arnett, Michael J. Fox, Christopher Lloyd, Liam Neeson, Chris Pratt and Elijah Wood.
The story behind the wide-reaching game has players taking on the evil Lord Vortech (voiced by Gary Oldman) in an effort to retrieve "foundational elements" (like Dorothy's ruby slippers and the One Ring). Players chase Vortech across the Lego Multiverse running into plenty of different franchises and characters.
The game's main story includes hefty doses of The Wizard of Oz, Lord of the Rings, Portal, Ghostbusters, Doctor Who and others.
The gameplay is the most robust found among the current toys-to-life entries, which makes the title both more welcoming to an older audience and also a bit more daunting to younger players. Instead of simply plopping your figure down on a hub and then forgetting about it to play the game, Lego Dimensions has you interacting much more with those figures, items and even the portal itself.
The game opens by walking you through the process of building the hub itself out of Lego. Throughout the game, there are moments where you are asked to build Lego items by following the instructions on the screen. (The packs that come with the game don't have any written instructions.) Most intriguing, though, is the portal itself.
The portal lights up in different ways and players have to use it to solve puzzles, activate powers and even protect the minifigs you're currently controlling from receiving extra damage.
Among all of the toys-to-life games, Lego Dimensions is the only title that actually treats its figures as toys during gameplay and expects its players to do the same. This is a big draw to the game, but also makes playing the title more complex and challenging for those younger players.
While Lego Dimensions' main story is the biggest draw of this game, the game also an open world in which players can explore and complete missions. And there are plenty of ways to expand the game once you've beaten the main campaign. All of those ways including buying the many different sorts of real-world packs that Lego sells for Dimensions.
Level Packs include a Lego minifig and two Lego items and unlock both an open world and a short narratively-driven campaign. There are six level packs released or announced to date: Back to the Future, Portal, The Simpsons, Doctor Who, Ghostbusters and Midway Arcade, with more to come.
Team packs include two minifigs and two items, unlocking both in the game as well as an open world based on their theme. For instance, Jurassic World comes with Owen Grady an ACU Trooper, a velociraptor and a gyrosphere and allows access to the Jurassic World open world for play and mini-missions. Four of these are out or announced.
Finally, there are fun packs which include an item and minifig. There are 27 of these packs released or scheduled for release.
Because Lego Dimensions draws both from Warner Bros. vast library of franchises and Lego's many existing properties and licensing deals, this game is the only in the genre that gives Disney Infinity a run for its money (perhaps even beating it) in terms of breadth of cast and stories. The game also has the most fully-fleshed out use of toys and games of the bunch.
There are some drawbacks, though. Because the game is peopled by minifigs and Lego-built items, storage can be problematic. The portal, in particular, is a pain to put away and keep from falling apart. While every other toys-to-life game features figures that can be scooped up and tossed in a real toy box, bag or plopped on a shelf, the Lego Dimension creations have to be handled with care. Fortunately, all of the creations for the game don't really need to look like they do in the game to function properly. The heart of the portal, stripped away of it's Lego-built loop of pieces and floor, still works without any of the decorations. Each minifig, gadget and vehicle has to be placed on a small circular lego stand which contains the actual game info. So if you lose all of the Lego parts and all that remains of your Batmobile is its stand, it will still function. That does strip away much of the illusion of the game, but it's a smart back-up for the inevitable loss of Lego pieces.
Because Lego Dimensions is so much more delicate, the portal so much bigger, I've found over time that it is the game I am least likely to pull out of storage to re-play. That likely won't be the case with everyone who picks up this game, but storage concerns are worth keeping in mind when picking up any toys-to-life game.
With that one exception, Lego Dimensions is probably the best fit for big Lego fans and those gamers looking for a bit more substance in their toys-to-life gaming.
|Platforms||iOS, PlayStation 3, PS4, Wii U, Xbox 360, Xbox One|
|Franchise||Skylanders (and a few Nintendo characters for the Wii U edition)|
|Cost to start||About $65 to $75|
|Cost per figure||Supercharger figures are about $13|
|Number of figures||About 350|
|What does it do||Stores character's health and level|
Skylanders may not have invented the toys-to-life genre, but it certainly popularized it and proved to other developers and publishers that the idea wasn't just ready for mainstream consumption, it was ready to become a money-making mega-hit.
Unlike any of the other major toys-to-life games out there, Skylanders is powered by a mostly new franchise. The original game was tied to Spyro the Dragon, but the franchise has long drifted apart from that early tie-in to the 1998 Insomniac Game. Now Skylanders is fueled entirely by the ever growing population of Skylands, a magic realm of floating islands and portals to the real world. Players take on the role of Portal Masters, who work with the Skylanders to protect the realm's Core of Light from evil, which in nearly every game takes on the form of Kaos, the game's man antagonist.
Initially, the franchise leaned heavily on the game's core concept of placing toys on a plastic portal and watching them appear in the video game. The graphics were mediocre, the storyline a little light and the adventure gameplay slightly repetitive. But with each new iteration, the franchise not only introduced new elements to the play (and lots and lots of new figures) but also improved upon those base elements.
Skylanders: Superchargers, the fifth installment in the franchise, is easily the best in terms of gameplay, plot and graphics. It also introduces some major new forms of gameplay to the well-established franchise.
The most obvious addition in Superchargers is the inclusion of toy vehicles that can be dropped into the game with the use of a new portal. The game's main campaign, by far the best to date, making heavy and clever use of those vehicles throughout the adventure to break up the experience and bring in new ways to play.
Perhaps more importantly the inclusion of vehicles also allowed the developers to introduce what feels like a second game to Superchargers: kart racing.
The game comes with four tracks and supports online and local co-op play. Players can hop into a race either from within the game itself or from the start menu. While the racing doesn't quite live up to the bar set by standalone racing kart games, like Mario Kart, it's still a blast to play and breathes a lot of post-campaign life into the game. Once beaten, the game also includes daily new missions that can be tackled, challenges and the ability to play the game's own in-world collectible card game.
Superchargers supports all of the previous games' figures, and for the first time, the previous game's portal will work with the new game. It's unclear if this will be true with future iterations, which would match a standard set by Disney Infinity.
Skylanders toys are well-designed, creative additions to any toy collection. With a few exceptions, each of the toy figures are entirely new designs with their own backstories. This gives the game's creators the sort of leeway none of the other toys-to-life games have to broaden the appeal of their figures. That means they can, for instance, create a colorful figure like Fiesta, an undead mariachi band leader that draws from the folk art of Day of the Dead. The result is a much more varied, eclectic mix of heroes for players to fall in love with.
The game is also the only in the genre that features figures that can serve as Nintendo amiibo. The Nintendo versions of the game have Donkey Kong and Bowser characters that will work both as Skylanders figures and as amiibo. A rotating base on the figures allow players to switch between the two, making for a cool addition to the game.
Superchargers' only competition for campaign play among the toys-to-life games is really Lego Dimensions, and those two games are so different in the way they behave and play, they can easily be seen as not direct competitors.
The real distinction between the two is likely going to come down to age. While Superchargers provides plenty of depth and fun for teens, it struggles to shake off the view that it is a game meant for tweens and younger. And that's the kiss of death for teenage gamers. If you're looking to pick up a toys-to-life game for a child, it's best to find out what their thoughts are on Skylanders before you make that decision.
Correction: This story initially said Skylanders Superchargers did not support the previous game's portal. That is not the case and the story has been corrected to reflect that. We apologize for the error.