I moved into my own apartment recently, and a significant part of that process has been ensuring that all of my collectible bullshit is accounted for. There’s a decent variety of stuff to go through, but a large chunk of my figures (no, they’re not toys, MOM) are Skylanders. One might say that I have an embarrassing quantity of them if I were at all embarrassed. With the faces of the characters fresh in my mind, I figured now’s as good a time as any to put a new Skylanders game at the top of my E3 wishlist and explain to you fine people why I love the series.
Bit of a disclaimer before I get into it: I acknowledge that the series, along with the “toys to life” genre it pioneered, may well be dead. When I started writing this article it was titled “Remembering Skylanders,” so I’m well aware of its current dormancy. But, to my knowledge, no one from either of the game’s main developers or Activision has confirmed that the series will not have an entry in 2018. Additionally, though the series had a yearly installment from 2011 to 2016 and did not have one last year, it hasn’t even been two years since the last Skylanders game. So, I see no reason not to exercise some optimism and hope for a new game in 2018.
For those who are confused, having somehow never heard of the games, here is a brief summary: Skylanders is a “toys to life” series, meaning that the characters in the game are represented by physical, collectible figures. In order to play, you must place a figure on the “portal of power” (a glorified plastic circle) for that character to appear in game. The games are a fairly basic beat-em-up/platformer/puzzler/just-call-it-action-adventure affair, with colorful graphics and dialogue written for children. So what’s special about that? Well nothing really. On the surface, the series appears to be a completely generic kiddie game with the associated figures tacked on to increase profits. Knack with toys, essentially. But when you dig a little deeper, you start to understand what makes these games so alluring.
Let’s start with the most controversial element of the series: the Skylanders figures themselves. It can be easy to dismiss the toys-to-life system as nothing more than paid DLC for an essential aspect of the game. Such an assessment would not be technically incorrect, but it only observes the game from one perspective: as a game. To its fans, Skylanders isn’t a game for which you have to buy figures. It’s a collection of figures that you get to play with in a game. Is this a childish viewpoint? Perhaps, but that’s a big part of the appeal. Skylanders is a chance to relive some of many people’s most fondly remembered childhood fantasies. Who didn’t want to interact with their toys on a more dynamic level? I distinctly remember talking to mine on many occasions, despite their inability to respond. Obviously those impulses are long gone, but Skylanders is able to recapture that youthful spirit in the context of a video game. Would the game be a more cohesive experience if all the characters were available in-game from the start, without the need for the physical shenanigans? Sure, but the series would lose its most creative, unique, and distinguishing feature as a result.
Even with an evocative concept, the figures would not be so enticing without consistently excellent character design. Fortunately, Skylanders has this in spades. Every character is completely distinct, and oozes personality and charm. The characters are divided into eight to ten (depending on the game) ‘elements’ that serve as themes for the designs, but even within those groups no two characters look even remotely alike. Within the “undead” element there is a guitar-playing werewolf, a Dio de los Muertos style skeleton with a trumpet gun, and (one of my personal favorites) a dark elf with a spear riding a skeletal ostrich. The characters are all fully voiced as well, many by well-known voice actors. Laura Bailey, Matthew Mercer, Tara Strong, and even Patrick Warburton have all lent their voices to the series. This kind of talent is entirely unnecessary for a game primarily targeted at young children, but it shows how dedicated both the publisher and developers were to injecting Skylanders with as much character as possible. This makes the game much more engaging and entertaining, and the toys all the more oh-so-irresistible.
That’s two boxes checked so far: a unique gameplay concept and highly individualized and enjoyable characters. The next big necessary piece to seal the deal is the game itself. This is where your mileage may vary significantly. The gameplay is divided into three aspects fairly equally. The weakest by far are the “puzzles,” if you’re willing to call them that. These parts are where the focus was obviously entirely on allowing young children to succeed. The puzzles are usually impossible to fail and have solutions that would likely be extremely obvious to all but the youngest children. This is the most disappointing aspect of the series not because it targets children, but because it treats them like idiots. Even slightly challenging puzzles can be an excellent way to develop a child’s critical thinking abilities, and they would have the added benefit of not being so trivial to older players. But I digress, the second aspect is the exploration. Each level is linear, but there are branching paths and hidden areas that reward a keen eye. These areas will net you plenty of generic collectible goodies, and are also one of the best sources of gold used to upgrade your Skylanders. These upgrades are critical if you intend to perform well in the final gameplay aspect: the combat.
The combat is why I play Skylanders. It’s the juicy, flavorful meat inside an otherwise fairly bland, ordinary sandwich. Every character has a completely unique set of abilities, upgrades, and combat quirks that makes using a wide variety of Skylanders an absolute blast. There are characters that teleport, dig underground, set up turrets, create whirlpools, summon minions, and just about anything else you could think of for a 3D brawler style game. My all-time favorite is Star Strike, whose main ability turns combat into an intense game of paddle ball. She launches a damaging orb with one attack and can reflect it with her secondary spin attack. The more times you reflect the same orb the more powerful it becomes. This creates a sub-game in each combat encounter with the goal of maintaining the strength of the orb for as long as possible. Each character brings diverse twists like that to every fight, making exploring new strategies against different enemy types endlessly entertaining. On harder difficulties it becomes critical to be efficient in combat, especially since Skylanders cannot be brought back once they are knocked out unless the entire level is restarted. This adds a substantial amount of challenge to a sometimes agonizingly easy game and gives the game a lot of replay value every time you purchase a new Skylander. You can call out the series for its cutthroat monetization strategies all you want, but they sure managed to make the additional purchases feel worth it.
For all of its triumphs, Skylanders has had plenty of missteps. Despite my attempts to defend the pricing strategy of the series, I will admit that the more egregious aspects of that strategy are likely what led to the entire genre’s downfall. Annual releases for any franchise are problematic. Period. No series benefits from that kind of suffocating oversaturation, especially one that asks players to spend so much money on every installment. Additionally, each new Skylanders game introduced some sort of gimmick, often requiring the purchase of the new figures to access all of the content in the game. This was harmless and ignorable in some years, and outrageous and infuriating in others. Overall, it seemed like Activision was more interested in wringing every penny out of the series as quickly as possible instead of creating something that would last. No matter how much effort the developers put into the games, there was no way a series with a focus on such a young demographic could sustain such an aggressive pricing strategy forever. Which, of course, has brought us to where we are now.
Despite the apparent (but unproven!) death of the series, I really want to hope for some kind of word on Skylanders in the near future. These games may be flawed, pricey, and childish, but they scratch an itch that no other series can scratch. Skylanders is a portal to your childhood, to a time when life wasn’t so complicated. When a new toy was all you needed to be happy, just in that moment. And while it’s definitely unhealthy to spend too much of your time living in the past, it doesn’t hurt when something can take you back there every once in a while.