Gaming Writer Ash Coles reflects on Activision’s Skylanders inaugural entry and how it influenced the Toys-to-Life genre

Written by Ash Cole
PhD candidate at the University of Birmingham, passionate about videogames and the gaming industry at large.

In 2011, the Skylanders phenomenon revolutionised gaming by introducing the world to the so-called ‘Toys-to-Life’ genre. For the uninitiated, the core gimmick of the game involved placing character figures (sold separately) onto the Portal of Power, transporting them into the game world for the player to control. Looking back, I can only apologise to my mum for the insurmountable fortune I made her spend on the thirty-two little plastic creatures introduced in the series’ first title, Spyro’s Adventure – but was it all worth it? I recently replayed the game from start to finish to determine if the magic holds up.

The Skylanders phenomenon revolutionised gaming by introducing the world to the so-called ‘Toys-to-Life’ genre

Remarkably, I was still in awe watching my figures come to life on-screen after placing them on the Portal, despite the use of near-field communications (NFC) technology to read the figure’s data being totally demystified. This is in no small part influenced by the presentation of the whole thing, wherein the screen zooms out to an ethereal plane and the character delivers a short battle cry before jumping into the fray. The vast majority of these characters are incredibly likeable, which also helps sell the ‘illusion’. The three included in the Starter Pack are all fantastic: gaming’s most iconic purple dragon Spyro, the anthropomorphic fish-soldier Gill Grunt, and the small gunner gremlin Trigger Happy. Personal favourites include ninja Stealth Elf and skeleton knight Chop Chop, but nearly every character invoked some level of nostalgic memory from back in the good old days.

Particularly impressive was the world-building present in the game

Particularly impressive was the world-building present in the game. Skylands, the vast collection of, well, sky islands, exhibits a surprising balance of variety and cohesion as you traverse them over the course of twenty-two missions. Somehow, the cyclops-ridden Crystal Eye Castle with giant cartoonish eyes on every door and spire, feels well within the same universe as the underground ancient-tech Arkeyan Armoury, or the muddy trenches of the troll Battlefield. It was not only my figurines being transported to a mystical world, but also myself, the player. While the story is basic, it serves its purpose as a vehicle to fully explore what Skylands has to offer. This originality is why Skylanders always appealed to me more than competitors like Disney Infinity (2013) or LEGO Dimensions (2015) and continues to elevate Skylanders above such games to this day.

Perhaps the biggest downfall of Spyro’s Adventure is its level design and gameplay

Conversely, perhaps the biggest downfall of Spyro’s Adventure is its level design and gameplay. At its core, Skylanders is a dungeon crawler, implementing some platforming and puzzle-solving elements. The dungeon-crawling is pretty good – characters almost unanimously have satisfying movesets with diverging upgrade paths, adding an element of customisation that helps distinguish your figure as your own. Enemies are also as varied as the level themes, ranging from cannon-fodder Chompies to elemental mages called Spell Punks and hulking Bruisers. Boss fights, on the other hand, are generally underwhelming, almost entirely consisting of arena fights with minions of the main villain Kaos. These minions are merely shadow versions of existing Skylanders and feel more like adverts to sell the representative character figure than real foes. Platforming is limited – the player cannot jump, so bounce pads and slowly-moving platforms form the extent of the platforming challenge. Puzzles are also lacklustre, with many levels burdened with slow and generic sliding block puzzles, which eclipsed my notice as a child but through the lens of an adult felt far more egregious. Gimmicks aside, the game still holds up fine, but heavily relies on the interactive element of the toys to transform it into something special.

Speaking of the toys, whilst thirty-two were made available, selling for roughly £8 each, a full collection was far from necessary to unlock everything the game had to offer. Characters were divided into eight Elements, for example Air or Tech, which would open specific Elemental Gates within missions. As such, after the three included in the Starter Pack, only a further five figures were required for game completion, costing roughly £40 more. Therefore, this aspect can be compared to the contemporary ‘Ultimate Edition’ releases seen in modern games, wherein content is locked behind a more expensive version of the game. Not to say that this is an acceptable practice in either case, but at least with Skylanders you get a nice little figurine to display too.

At least with Skylanders you get a nice little figurine to display

Overall, revisiting Skylanders: Spyro’s Adventure was nostalgic in all the best ways. The game held up incredibly well after all these years, some level design elements notwithstanding. I can see why publisher Activision cashed in on the game’s success with five sequels, but nothing good lasts forever, including my mum’s credit card, and the series ended with Skylanders: Imaginators in 2016. With the franchise finding a new home under Microsoft, we can hope for a new adventure in Skylands and to relive the magic of a toy that comes to life…

Watch the trailer for Skylanders: Spyro’s Adventure here:

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