Noah J Nelson on Thursday, Jun. 9th
At first glance Skylanders: Spyro’s Adventure, coming from Activision this holiday, looks like any other action adventure game aimed at the kids and family market. Cartoony characters with simple moves explore a fantasy environment filled with traps and creatures. It even stars a character with a decade-plus long history: Spyro The Dragon, who made his initial debut on Sony’s original Playstation system. A new Spyro game would be news in the gamer press, but not of much interest beyond those circles.
Skylanders, however, only looks “normal” on the screen. The real magic happens off-screen.
Picture this: a skeleton soldier you control moves around the screen, attacking enemies. He comes to a trap: spikes that stick up out of the ground. He’s not fast enough to get through, but you know another character who is. Now this is the point in another game where you would hit the pause button and start messing around with menus until you found the right character to solve the puzzle.
That’s not how you play Skylanders.
On the table in front of you is a plastic portal, covered in magic symbols and glowing a pale, eerie light. Atop that portal stands a small figurine of the skeleton warrior. Pick him up off the portal and the game shifts view, waiting for your next move. You replace the skeleton with an archer toy, and that figure’s digital representation appears on the screen. This one’s a runner, associated with the fire element, and the portal changes to a red glow to match.
Skylanders erases the line between toys and video games, and in doing so opens up brand new possibilities for game and toy makers. Not only does each figurine determine which characters appear on-screen, they also unlock new areas and special challenges. On top of that each individual figure has a unique ID code, and can store information transferred to it wirelessly by the portal.
Players can customize their version of a figure’s digital avatar, altering their powers and giving them hats to wear. The figure remembers the changes. Take the toy with you to a friend’s house who has their own copy of the game and put your figure on their portal: your version of the character shows up on screen. It doesn’t even matter if your friend has a different game system, or is playing Skylanders on a PC while you play on a Wii.
This is a game where character really is king.
Every major game maker is delving into some kind of augmented reality gaming. Both Sony and Nintendo’s handheld systems can use their cameras and cards to overlay virtual objects on the real world. This runs into the other direction entirely, embedding a layer of information into physical objects which is then revealed by the technology.
Skylanders also offers players competitive and co-operative modes of play: something gamers are used to. Yet where the rage for the past few years has been on-line multiplayer, the figure based play of Skylanders gives players a reason to be in the same room together. It’s the promise of gaming as an enhanced form of imaginative play, and if Skylanders takes off it might just alter what the youngest generation of gamers expect from their entertainment for years to come.
As a geek who was raised on Star Wars and G.I. Joe action figures I can only imagine just how much more I would have coveted those toys if I knew that each of them contained the memory of our adventures together. That’s the experience that kids growing up with Skylanders have available to them.