While other toy-game hybrid makers are moving on from older Nintendo hardware this year, Activision has doubled down on Wii, 3DS and Wii U Skylanders with bespoke versions and cross-over dual action Skylander-amiibo. This year's Skylanders Superchargers novelty is a good one. The articulated vehicles not only bring a new level of action to the screen - along with much needed variety - but they also work great as toys away from the main game. In fact, with Lego Dimensions bringing buildable smart minifigures and these vehicles in Skylanders, Disney Infinity's static figures are looking a bit dated.
The vehicles come in three flavours: air, land and sea. Although you only get one in the Starter Pack it's good that you can still complete the game without having to commit to any extra purchases. Of course if you do buy additional vehicles this opens up more of the game, so the temptation is always present. There aren't elemental zones this year but to access all of the racing sections of the game you do need a vehicle for each of the ten elements. Kids would no doubt prefer it if the game let you access everything without spending more money, but at the same time it's important to tie content to the toy purchases if they are going to offer value. That is, after all, the driving force behind the franchise.
While Skylanders held out longer than its competitors in offering a Wii version of the game, this year things are a little different. While the Wii U version matches the other consoles for content and play-style, the Wii and 3DS games are tagged as "Racing" experiences and offer a Mario Kart-style challenge with local and online racing. Perhaps the biggest news for Nintendo owners is the provision of exclusive amiibo-Skylander crossover characters for Bowser and Donkey Kong. These not only look beautiful but are totally functional as both Skylanders and amiibo, changing their status via a switch at the bottom.
In the main game you progress through a combination of on-foot and driving sections. The vehicles can be driven by any of the characters in your Skylanders collection but only the new Supercharger characters can upgrade and modify your ride. This opens up another big new aspect of the game; earning currency and spending it on new modifications is more fun than you might expect, and is cleverly balanced as well. Adding more power will also add weight which will slow acceleration, while lighter vehicles may end up with less grip or stamina. Finding the sweet spot is a challenge, but one that becomes very addictive.
The process of evolving your vehicles is great hook for the main campaign itself, but also gives you another reason to race against friends in the Karting mode. This racing aspect is included not only on the Wii and 3DS versions but all the other console versions as well. Kids are certain to lap up (no pun intended) the racing sections of the game, but will also appreciate the campaign's co-op aspect. Here, one player drives while the other takes control of the weapons. It reminded us a lot of Mario Kart: Double Dash and created a varied two-player experience that worked for a variety of abilities.
As mentioned, a big benefit of Skylanders over its competitors is being able to use the previous year's characters in every part of the game. Another good advancement in the value stakes is being able to use previous year's portals. Unlike Trap Team or Swap Force, Superchargers works with any of the previous Portals right back to Spyro's Adventures (remember him?). This combines with a game-only download purchase to make entry into the new Skylanders very cost effective. It's good to see Activision honouring the time and money spent on previous iterations of the game.
On this front, the move away from simply re-releasing versions of characters is also better value. This year we get some returning heroes but they are completely new in terms of look. Unlike wave 1, 2 and 3 reposed releases that only had one new power, the Supercharged Skylanders have a complete new design and fresh upgrade tree. The game itself looks fantastic on Wii U as well, whether played on the big TV or with the TV off and on the GamePad. Vicarious Visions has obviously worked hard on the implementation and although it seemed to take longer to load than the Xbox One and PS4 editions, the snap and sparkle of each level was worth the wait.
Assessing a game like Skylanders is always difficult. Different players will get different things from it. This year the combination of the articulated vehicles, the kart racer mode and the sensible approach to backwards compatibility create a game that is a lot of fun and great value. This isn't just another update to the Skylanders series, it's the moment the game properly comes of age both from the perspective of top notch gameplay as well as offering families exactly what they want in terms of value. Also, those amiibo-Skylanders are fantastic.