Being the total gaming nerd that I am, it should come as no surprise that I consider the first gaming moments my children have as important milestones in their life. Two years ago, the youngest of my three had her first real gaming moment with Skylanders Swap Force, and I looked on with pride as she held the controller in her tiny little hands. She might as well have been taking her first steps for how sentimental I got about it.
We spent a lot of time on Swap Force together over the next few months, and her Christmas haul that year was dominated by Skylanders toys and accessories. When it came right down to it, though, she was far more interested in playing with the physical toys and I came away from the game feeling like it relied too much on the “toys to life” gimmick to cover up some fairly shallow gameplay. The next year, after a brief dalliance with Disney Infinity, she got momentarily interested in Skylanders Trap Team before discovering and becoming completely obsessed with Minecraft. Skylanders toys started collecting dust in a bin near our entertainment center, and I was starting to wonder if they would feature prominently in our next yard sale.
That all changed when my daughter dug out Trap Team about two months ago and started plowing through the game like her life depended on it. Suddenly, she was back into Skylanders with renewed passion, and if she wasn’t playing the game, she was playing with the toys. Why, you may ask? Turns out there was a new game coming out, and my wife and I were quickly brought up to speed on how amazing Skylanders SuperChargers was going to be: “Daddy, there’s going to be VEHICLES! Cars! Boats! Helicopters!” My jaw clenched at the prospect of playing another game in the series. Don’t get me wrong, I liked the previous two, but they felt a little empty like so many video games marketed towards kids can be. That said, I can’t seem to muster up ANY interest at all in Minecraft, and SuperChargers had, at least for the moment, made her forget about diamond pickaxes and Endermen, so I resigned myself to see what was so different about this year’s installment. My initial impressions were fairly optimistic, but once my daughter and I finally got to dig into the game, I started to realize that Skylanders SuperChargers was something pretty special.
Each year the Skylanders franchise has introduced a new gimmick to both the physical toys and the gameplay. Giants were larger scale figures and characters, Swap Force had special Skylanders that had interchangeable upper and lower torsos, Trap Team used little plastic totems that could ‘trap’ enemies which allowed you to play as the enemy characters; it was getting complex, and I suspect the reason why my daughter didn’t take to Trap Team right away was the complexity and how the feature created an abstraction between the physical and virtual. I expected the addition of vehicles to make things even worse, especially since SuperChargers had the daunting task of having to incorporate everything that came before it (Yes, four games into the series and every toy still works, though they had to get creative with how to incorporate those traps). Surprisingly, the opposite turned out to be true, as Vicarious Visions opted to gate sections of content off by the three vehicle types (Land, Sea, Air) rather than the eight element types or other convoluted toy requirements. In previous games these gates felt arbitrary, as the actual gameplay behind them never really varied that much. In SuperChargers, each vehicle type has two or three different types of gameplay associated with it, and the game mixes it up enough to make each area feel fresh and interesting. Mind you, the only kind of vehicle you really need to progress through the game’s storyline is a land vehicle – the core set comes with Spitfire and his trusty flaming race car Hot Streak, a “supercharged” pairing that allows you to modify the stats of the vehicle only when both are placed on the portal. Yes, there are constant reminders throughout the game of areas that can only be accessed via sea or air vehicles, encouraging you to go out and spend more money on more toys, but it should be noted that only two more vehicles are really needed to access this content, and for the first time the content is actually pretty compelling.
Skylanders figures have always been of superb quality, but it always puzzled me that they were never articulated or at least had some moving aspect to their builds. This hasn’t changed with the Skylanders SuperChargers figures, but the vehicles are another matter. Cars have turning wheels, helicopters have rotating blades, and submarines have moving flippers and rotating periscopes. At first I thought the difference in scale between the vehicles and the figures was a bit off-putting, but then my daughter and I raced the Hot Streak and Crypt Crusher cars across the kitchen floor and I realized that the size of the vehicles was perfect. The addition of vehicles on the Portal of Power, however, does introduce some interesting limitations that the game has to address, specifically when it comes to playing the game. A slightly larger base still only allows for one vehicle and two figures, and co-op play during the non-racing vehicle areas delegates one player as driver and the other as the gunner. Unfortunately, there isn’t a way to visually determine on screen which player slots into which role, and while it’s easily determined by mashing on controls, it was the only time I really felt a disconnect to what was happening in the game. Curiously enough, the game is unplayable if a vehicle isn’t on the portal at all, even during the platforming sections of the game, making this the first Skylanders game that requires a minimum of two toys on the portal at all times.
The vehicular gameplay is definitely the highlight of SuperChargers, and the kart racing component is almost good enough to stand alone (and in fact does on the Wii and 3DS side installments of the series, though I have not tried those). If you have ever wondered what Mario Kart would have been like if you were in a jet or a submarine, or could shoot at the other racers, look no further than this game. Up to two players can race against each other locally via split-screen, and unlike the story mode of the game, each player can choose their own character and vehicle by tapping them on the portal and confirming before the race begins. Online racing is as fun as you expect it to be, and Vicarious Visions – mindful of the fact that this is still very much a kid’s game – included a setting that only allows voice communication between you and the people on your friends list, making this the first game my wife and I are allowing our daughter to play online, much to her delight. Sadly, she’ll have to do it on her own, however, as online play only supports one local player at a time, a restriction that makes little sense and isn’t really distinguishable from the racing setup menus.
The Wii U experience
The Nintendo faithful get a special treat this year, as Donkey Kong and Bowser become the first ever licensed characters to appear in the Skylanders franchise. As Hammer Slam Bowser and his Clown Cruiser are only available as part of the Wii and 3DS racing only games, we were limited to taking Turbo Charge Donkey Kong and his Barrel Blaster motorcycle for a spin on the Wii U version of the full game. Admittedly, it was a little strange seeing this iconic character in the context of the Skylanders universe, but once Diddy Kong’s sidecar cannon made its first appearance, it was all we could do to keep from grinning from ear to ear. The Kong figure’s base allows you to toggle it from Skylander to Amiibo mode, and scanning it in via the gamepad on Smash Bros revealed that it’s treated as a standard DK Amiibo figure. Also, don’t bother trying to use the big gorilla on anything other than a Nintendo platform as you’ll get a discouraging message – we tried. Probably the most disappointing aspect of this team-up with Nintendo is the fact that you have to buy a whole other starter set for another platform to get Bowser and his vehicle, though I have to admit, I’d hate to pick up a single packed version of one of the figures only to discover that it wouldn’t work on my PS4. An unfortunate but necessary trade-off, and I encourage Activision to figure out a way for Wii U players to get their hands on the big bad turtle some other way.
As I said before, I’ve felt that previous installments of the series felt a little anemic in terms of gameplay. I have to say I was pleasantly surprised by how fun and engaging the main storyline of Skylanders SuperChargers was, primarily due to the thematic levels and unique mechanics associated with them. One level featured puzzles and battles that relied on the ability to grow or shrink the objects and creatures around you, which led to the theme of the next level that had your character grow to the size of a Godzilla monster tromping on the Skylands’ equivalent of Tokyo. The real surprise comes in how the vehicle-based gameplay is incorporated into these levels, with sections that alternate between you barreling down a track at breakneck speeds and slower paced arenas where you have to take down a wave of enemies or a boss. The air vehicle sections ramp up the difficulty a bit with intense dogfights, escort missions, and chopper rescue missions, while sea vehicle sections feature underwater diving exploration and naval battles. Each of these areas continued the theme of the level they were in, and one of the most striking of these featured vertically scrolling aerial combat up in the vein of the classic Xevious and 1943 arcade games.
Besides the kart racing and main storyline, there’s a ridiculous amount of side content in the game to enjoy as well. It’s easy to dismiss some of it like the character and supercharger challenges as filler, but the Skystones collectible card style mini games are a simple yet fun take on the Hearthstone/Magic formula. For your efforts you’ll receive coins, gears, Skystones, hats, trophies, vehicle parts… It’s actually a little overwhelming how many different collectibles and power-up types there are in the game, but the end result is that almost every action you take in the game is rewarding in some way, and those upgrades and power-ups are actually noticeable and relevant to what you’re doing. Tying all of this together is the new Portal Master Rank, and each new ranking brings with it a buff or special ability corresponding to you as the player rather than individual characters or vehicles.