Toys for Bob, the original developers of Skylanders (and a subsidiary of Activision), recently donated hundreds of Skylanders toys and products to The Strong Museum. The Strong National Museum of Play houses the International Center for the History of Electronic Games, and the World Video Game Hall of Fame.
“Skylanders is one of the most significant game franchises of the last decade, and this collection — which includes one-of-a-kind prototypes — shows how the franchise inspired an entirely new genre of play,” says Jeremy Saucier, assistant vice president for electronic games. “These materials will be used in future exhibits and be immensely valuable to researchers who want to study the genesis of ‘toys-to-life’ gaming.”
The donated collection includes more than 200 pre-production figures and portals, including hand-sculpted prototypes. Among the prototypes is the fist ever working Portal of Power. The donation also features 1,000 pages of records, such as artwork and production schedules. And of course, hundreds of retail figures and toys. As part of the collection, The Strong interviewed several staff members from Toys for Bob to provide video interviews and insight.
“We are very proud to have The Strong museum preserve the many stories and artifacts that went into developing Skylanders,” says Paul Yan, chief creative officer at Activision. “This collection exposes Toys for Bob’s unique maker culture and the scrappy inventiveness that went into trail blazing this unconventional marriage of physical toys and video games. Our hope is that making this history publicly available will inspire radical new ways to experience fun and joy.”
The Strong is an interactive, collection-based museum based in New York City, and one of the largest museums in the country. It’s home to the National Toy Hall of Fame and Video Game Hall of Fame.
If you’ve been wondering what the Skylanders developers, Toys for Bob, have been up to, here you go. Activision Blizzard and Toys for Bob have announced the Spyro Reignited Trilogy, containing HD remasters for the original trilogy of Spyro games. It’s coming September 21 to PlayStation 4 and Xbox One.
“We’re deeply passionate about staying true to the legacy of the original three Spyro games with the Spyro Reignited Trilogy,” said Paul Yan, Chief Creative Officer, at Toys For Bob. “We’ve poured a lot of love into making the personalities and worlds feel just like fans remember them, while also keeping the game collection surprisingly fresh with lush, high definition detail. We’re bringing back the Spyro we all fell in love with 20 years ago.”
The Spyro Reignited Trilogy includes over 100 levels with improved environments, controls, graphics, and cinematics. Each level has been faithfully rebuilt from the ground up, but with modern technology and improvements.
As an added bonus, the original voice actor for Spyro, Tom Kenny, will reprise his role in the Reignited Trilogy.
The original trilogy of Spyro games released in 1998-2000 on the PlayStation, making this year the 20th anniversary of the franchise. They were well-received 3D platformers during the Golden Age of the genre. The series continued into the next console generation as well as on handhelds.
Spyro then acted as the ambassador (and blueprint) for the Skylanders series, beginning with Skylanders: Spyro’s Adventure in 2011. The character maintains a starring role in the Netflix animated Skylanders Academy series as well.
The Spyro Reignited Trilogy launches September 21 on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. It has not yet been rated, but all previous Spyro and Skylanders games were rated E for Everyone.
Skylanders fans haven’t been feeling confident about the series lately. Activision announced last year that there would be no Skylanders 7 release, the first year a new Skylanders game hadn’t released since the series began in 2011. We’ve been given no new updates on the future of the once stalwart kid-friendly franchise.
Yet the series has not yet been officially canceled (unlike Disney Infinity) and a third season of the solid Netflix Skylanders Academy series is due to air later this year.
For now fans can revel in the sales of older games and figures. Whether you’re a newcomer to the toys-to-life series or a reminiscing veteran, we’ve compared all six primary Skylanders games and ranked them from weakest to strongest.
6) Skylanders: Spyro’s Adventure
New Gimmick: Toys to life!
Best Skylanders: Stealth Elf, Drobot, Cynder
Once upon a time, toys-to-life was a relatively brand new concept. Activision and Toys for Bob looked for a recognizable, kid-friendly gaming hero to leverage. Enter Spyro, the sassy but good-natured dragon, who helped pave the way for an all-new action series using physical figures as a unique form of DLC.
Spyro’s Adventure may earn points for being the original, but it just doesn’t hold up when compared to later entries. That’s more a testament to how well the series has steadily improved rather than any glaring weaknesses in the original game.
5) Skylanders: Giants
New Gimmick: Extra-large Giant figures
Best New Skylanders: Flashwing, Ninjini, Pop Fizz
A second Skylanders game the very next year raised a few eyebrows, but Skylanders assuaged many fears by seamlessly carrying over all previously leveled figures from the first game, creating an important precedent that cemented the series’ popularity for years. Out of all the games here, Giants is the safest sequel, not rocking the boat too much but still steadily improving on level and figure design.
The new Giants gimmick likewise wasn’t anything fancy. They were big, lumbering brutes who are almost more of a hassle to play than anything else, though the actual designs are fun, like Eye-Brawl who could detach his giant flying eyeball.
4) Skylanders: SuperChargers
New Gimmick: Vehicles and racing
Best new Skylanders: Stormblade, Splat, Spitfire
By the fifth entry, Activision was looking at other successful family-friendly series to add a whole new dimension to Skylanders. They settled on Mario Kart-style kart racing. It wasn’t exactly a demanded feature by fans, and the result was a ham-fisted addition that didn’t feel entirely welcome. Vehicle segments were both forced (land) and optional (sea and air) and ranged from traditional racing to vehicular combat, 2D exploration, and shoot ’em up brawls.
The Skylanders themselves played a diminished role during the often annoying vehicle segments, and the controls left a lot to be desired. The on-foot gameplay was still solid, and the figures were decent. While it was fun seeing new remixes of familiar characters, like a gun-wielding Stealth Elf, it meant less new characters overall.
3) Skylanders: Trap Team
New Gimmick: Trapping and playing villains
Best new Skylanders: Krypt King, Gearshift, Blackout
Ah, the inevitable Pokémon clone. For the fourth game, Trap Team lets you battle against a roster of fun new villains – and then capture them inside special trap crystals. Sold separately, of course. Playing as the villains was like a special powered-up mode and a lot of fun – particularly the way the captured villains taunted from the speakers on the portal itself.
You needed one of each trap element to play as all the villains, but you could mix and match them within their elemental types. Much speculation was given as to how the traps would be incorporated into future games, and the answer was, unfortunately, not very well if at all. Save for a few standouts the new Trap Master figures were generally disappointing, and requiring them to unlock everything in the game was irksome.
One standout feature that Trap Team added: tower defense survival mode. These were fantastic challenge modes, built for various levels of Skylanders, and a fun way to earn experience and level up outside the main game. They also played perfectly in co-op. For whatever reason, the mode was dropped in future games.
2) Skylanders: Swap Force
New Gimmick: Swappable figures that can mix top and bottom halves
Best new Skylanders: Roller Brawl, Free Ranger, Spy Rise
The third game in the Skylanders series was the first developed by Vicarious Visions, instead of series creator Toys for Bob. Like the annualized Call of Duty series, Activision would appoint two studios to keep up with the yearly output of new entries. Vicarious Visions created an excellent entry that provided some of the biggest, best level designs the series has ever offered. Plus you could finally jump, a first for the series that opened up the level designs even more. But the real treat was the incredibly cool swap gimmick.
In one what is unquestionably one of the neatest concepts in a Skylanders game, special Swap Force figures could be taken apart and mixed together to create unique combinations. It was fun to play around with the toys, and also created a lot of really fun and interesting combos in-game, supported by new challenge mini-games and dual elemental gates.
Swap Force also featured Time Attack and Score modes for providing challenging replay value, and was the last Skylanders game to include PVP arenas.
1) Skylanders: Imaginators
New Gimmick: Create your own Skylanders
Best new Skylanders: Kaos, Golden Queen, Ambush
It’s not fair to declare that Skylanders Imaginators was the first game to finally get it right, as each game had their strengths. But Imaginators combined a brilliant new gimmick, the best line-up of new figures, a fully realized loot system, and a more free-roaming overland map to create the best Skylanders experience yet.
The ability to create your own Skylanders was made possible by piggy-backing on Trap Team’s trap concept. Separate Crystals were sold that could house a single created Skylander. The Crystal determined its element, while you could select on of 10 different weapon styles. Within those parameters, you had multiple basic attacks, weapon attacks, and elemental moves to choose from as you leveled up.
All in-game rewards were tied to loot chests, which gave out new customization pieces, weapons, and skins for your custom Skylanders. There was an astonishing amount of loot to collect, making your Skylanders journey fun and rewarding, though they may suffer a bit from Frankenstein syndrome.
Imaginators couldn’t gotten by on that concept alone, but Activision also released the best wave of figures Skylanders had ever seen. The Senseis were all new, medium-size figures that had the best designs and gameplay we’ve seen yet, and the Villains let us play as our favorites from Trap Team as proper leveled figures.
Story structure and level design saw vast improvements as well. No longer were we stuck in a hub world, going through each level chapter by chapter. Now we could free roam around a board game-like overworld, exploring hidden secrets, taking side paths, and finding mini-games. It cannot be overstated how much this improved every aspect the game. If you can only play one Skylanders game, make it Skylanders: Imaginators.
At this point there are more discontinued (or on hiatus) toys-to-life games than ongoing. In the span of a year we went from most major game publishers wanting a piece of the surging toys-to-life pie, to suddenly being left with a grim outlook for the future of the genre.
The concept of “toys-to-life,” that is, physical figures with built-in Near Field Communication (NFC), began with a little known toy series called U.B. Funkeys in 2007. U.B. Funkeys was a PC game with cutesy figures designed by Mattel.
I’d never even heard of it, and it looks more like a toy with a gimmicky toys-to-life mode rather than a full-blown video game. Being PC-only appeared to cause lots of technical headaches and vastly limited sales, and it was discontinued in 2010.
The House That Spyro Built
Meanwhile Activision took a chance with developer Toys for Bob (who ironically originally pitched their toys-to-life concept to Nintendo). They used a similar concept as U.B. Funkeys, using well-made physical action figures armed with NFC readers along with a “Portal of Power” that digitally transported the figures into a vibrant game world. The entire concept was still commercially uncertain, so Activision slapped a semi-recognizable brand and character on top of it. Skylanders: Spyo’s Adventure was born.
Skylanders’ immediate success was at least partially due to the exciting novelty of the toys-to-life technology. But its staying power is owed to the quality of the figures as well as the solid, kid-friendly, cooperative gameplay. Skylanders included funny characters, simple puzzles, fast-paced action, and a light-hearted Saturday Morning Cartoon story.
Every year begat a pricey new Skylanders starter pack along with several waves of figures and bonus levels. Each game introduced new types of figures or concepts (you couldn’t even jump in the first two games).
The third game, Skylanders: Swap Force, was particularly noteworthy by adding swappable figures with interchangeable top and bottom halves. In many ways Swap Force represents the peak of both physical innovation and brilliant game design. Trap Team added Pokémon-style monster catching, while the most recent game, Imaginators, let you create your own digital custom Skylanders with multiple unlockable body parts and weapons.
Activision was able to leverage the series into a full-on kid franchise, saturating the Skylanders brand from everything to paper plates to an animated series on Netflix. Skylanders became the World of Warcraft of the genre, the one game that dominated its space and dared anyone else to compete with it.
Disney answered the call in 2013 with Disney Infinity, an unabashed Skylanders-like game that also used NFC figures along with a portal and 3D platformer-like gameplay. Anticipation was huge; this was basically a Skylanders game but coupled with the immense backing and popularity of Disney characters and series.
Avalanche Software produced three games in three years, each modeled after a major Disney property: Disney movies, Marvel, and Star Wars. Figures ranged from superheroes to princesses to obscure Tron characters, though there was some criticism for conforming such a wide variety of characters into a uniform art style.
Unlike Skylanders, Disney Infinity’s gameplay pushed more toward a Minecraft model. Players could build their own levels and content and share them online. The community that sprang up was impressive and some of the content and level designs were amazing and creative. Unfortunately official gameplay was limited almost exclusively to the playsets. Disney made the odd decision that only characters from that franchise can play in their own playset.
Between the two game series I vastly preferred Skylanders. Skylanders’ gameplay was much more RPG-like and the combat more fun and interesting. The level designs also felt more like an actual game.
Disney Infinity’s figures all controlled too similarly and simplistically, with only major differences coming with figures like Tinkerbell who could fly, or Star Wars characters with Force powers. The user-generated content was a really neat idea, but Activision wasn’t making money off of it, they needed to sell playsets and figures. If Minecraft + Disney couldn’t end up successful, what chance does anyone have?
We may joke that Nintendo is always a step behind the times, but when they enter a new market it’s almost always hugely successful (see mobile development, and Wii sales). Nintendo introduced amiibo figures in 2014 to immediate success. Unlike all other toys-to-life games, there wasn’t an actual game to go with the figures. Instead Nintendo uses its figures to unlock goodies in other games, such as costumes or extra levels or power ups in games like Mario Kart, Smash Bros., and Super Mario Maker.
This simple concept proved so effective that a New Nintendo 3DS was built with an NFC reader to accommodate amiibo scanning. Both the Wii U and Switch came with built-in NFC readers.
While not having a centralized game is bizarre, it’s proven effective in lowering the cost of buy-in. There’s no pricey $70 starter pack required; all you need is the appropriate Nintendo console. Nintendo’s recognizable roster of characters have proven extremely popular for collectors, despite their limited gameplay use.
Yet even Nintendo’s toys-to-life beacon is beginning to dim. Nearly 25 million figures were sold in the 2015-16 fiscal year, taking full advantage of then-popular game Super Smash Bros. for the Wii U. Super Smash Bros. used amiibo figures as RPG-like fighters you could level up.
But the first three quarters of the next fiscal year (ending March 2017) saw only 6.5 million amiibo units sold. No game since Super Smash Bros. has been able to effectively use amiibo figures beyond simply unlocking a costume or perk.
Many complaints have surrounded amiibo as little more than physical DLC you can buy for Nintendo games. There’s also the sadly typical Nintendo frustrations regarding limited supply. Amiibo figures are still popular (millions of units sold is nothing to scoff at), but without better game tie-ins like Smash Bros., the future doesn’t look good.
Everything Isn’t Awesome
LEGO Dimensions’ cancellation is equally upsetting, though probably the least surprising. Warner Bros. and Traveler’s Tales (TT Games) have been successful making fun, cooperative, family-friendly LEGO video games for over a decade. Creating a toys-to-life version, with actual LEGO toys, feels like a natural evolution.
LEGO Dimensions was released in 2015. It launched with a starter pack that took advantage of the popular LEGO Movie along with Warner Bros’ access to various movie franchises, everything from Lord of the Rings to The Goonies. They planned on a three-year cycle of expansion pack content. That’s a long time for an increasingly aging game that still supported last-gen hardware.
They would make it to the end of year two before the announcement hit this week. Figures and sets weren’t selling as well as they’d hoped, and any parent is all too familiar with how expensive LEGO sets run.
They banked heavily on blockbuster movie tie-ins, which didn’t quite pan out with big sets like Ghostbusters. I also question the target audience for LEGO Dimensions. Their tie-in franchises ran the gamut from The Simpsons to 80s stuff (The A-Team, really?) to modern kiddie cartoons. I can see kids being interested in Batman and Harry Potter, but Knight Rider and Gremlins?
LEGO Dimensions’ wide-net approach has proven unsustainable, and TT Games will return to making regular LEGO games, such as the upcoming LEGO Marvel Super Heroes 2.
The future of the genre looks bleak. The only new AAA toys-to-life game on the horizon is Starlink: Battle for Atlas, which was announced during Ubisoft’s E3 press conference. It will feature buildable spaceships that will spring to digital life by attaching directly to the controller. It has a tentative Fall 2018 release date, but Ubisoft is very aware of the current market of toys-to-life games, and there’s a chance this game won’t even see the light of day.
Lightseekers uses bluetooth technology instead of requiring a portal. It has a very Skylanders aesthetic but with fully articulated figures and AR cards that can be scanned in game or played physically. Both cards and figures are actually optional, and the mobile game is completely free to play. Only the two initial launch figures are available, however, and there’s no telling whether Lightseekers can ever reach the sales numbers of the once titans of the genre.
Amiibo figures are still being produced and selling millions, and Skylanders technically hasn’t been canceled yet. It’s entirely possible Skylanders will pull an Assassin’s Creed and shift way from an annual release schedule. Meanwhile season two of Skylanders Academy just hit Netflix, and a third season is in development for next year.
Toys-to-life games are an intriguing blend of toy and game and can be a lot of fun, particularly for families. I’ve enjoyed playing both Skylanders and Disney Infinity with my young daughter (she’s only recently discovering LEGOs). I particularly enjoy the progression of leveling up Skylanders figures over years of games.
The toys-to-life genre offers the rare kind of game that both of us can enjoy equally and excel at, despite our vastly different gameplay levels and experiences.
I’m very saddened and worried to see all these death notices pile up. It reminds me of another genre that was mined, exploited, and died all too quickly just a few years ago – rhythm games with physical instruments. Like that genre, toys-to-life requires pricey initial buy-ins and upkeep, and physical goods are not exactly cheap for companies to produce. I was hoping game publishers learned their lesson about over saturating a lucrative, but expensive market. Time will whether toys-to-life games will meet a similar wistful end, or find the right balance to remain a welcoming avenue for family-friendly gaming.
Available On: PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, Xbox 360, Xbox One, Wii U
Played On: Wii U
Skylanders introduces a new gimmick with each new generation, and this sixth game finally lets you build your own Skylander. Not only is this gimmick fun and rewarding, but the gameplay and character designs represent the best of what Skylanders can offer.
For most of its five year run October has been the month of Skylanders. This year October sees the release of Netflix series Skylanders Academy as well as the sixth game, Skylanders Imaginators. Activision Blizzard is celebrating with a month’s worth of promos and tie-in deals, beginning with free mobile app Skylanders Creator. Read More