Skylanders as a brand is designed so that you spend money. It’s transparent, and given the publisher of Skylanders: Spyro’s Adventure is Activision, the master of annual sequels, plastic peripherals and downloadable content, it should come as no surprise. But this should not detract from the quality of Skylanders as a game. The 3DS version, developed by handheld guru Vicarious Visions, is an excellent platformer.
Each copy of Skylanders is sold at a premium and comes with a plastic circular device called the Portal of Power and three plastic figures. The figures cannot be posed, but the sculpts are detailed and colorful. Each figure represents a character that can be used in-game by placing it on the Portal, and then aligning the Portal’s infrared port with the 3DS’s infrared port, upon which the character blasts onto your screen with panache. All levels, abilities and equipment for that character are saved directly to memory in the figure, which can then be used on any of the console versions or at a friend’s house.
The characters are elemental based, and this is where the ploy for your money comes in. The three included characters, the 3DS exclusive magic-element Dark Spyro, the fire-element Ignitor and the life-element Stealth Elf, only represent three of the possible eight elements. There are more than 30 figures all together, and while it’s wholly unnecessary to own them all, each character does play and handle differently. What is more worthwhile is pursuing the missing five elements because some areas in the game are locked off to certain elements. The game can be completed, and the vast majority of its locations visited, with only the included figures. But to see everything, you’ll need at least one character from every element.
It’s a lot of exposition just to set up a platforming game.
The 3DS version of Skylanders doesn’t share much in common with its console cousins, which makes it a worthwhile experience on its own. The story features a different villain, a disembodied glowing head named Hecktore, but still involves the player with a meta wrapper as a “Portal Master,” someone with the ability to summon Skylander heroes through a Portal of Power to save the kingdom. Portal Masters, of course, rescue these Skylanders from their department store prisons for the low, low price of $7.99 MSRP.
Structured like a traditional 3D platformer, Skylanders operates from within a idyllic hub which branches off into several themed worlds. Each world is broken into five levels, three of which are platforming levels and two of which are battle arenas in which waves of enemies must be survived.
The platforming levels lack the openness of something like Super Mario 64 or Jak and Daxter, but isn’t quite as linear as say Crash Bandicoot. A level run is pretty focused, with some opportunity to deviate and explore other paths. Each level has a distinctive beginning and a distinctive end, and I found myself really enjoying this more straight forward design. The pace moved briskly and the challenge, while not too great to accommodate the younger target audience, is reasonable enough that I, a longtime platform fan, felt accomplished. Each world’s theme looks terrific. Perhaps the only drawback to these levels is the fixed camera, which sometimes doesn’t like the idea of the player backtracking. The levels are quick and encourage replay, but sometimes I know what I want to do right now, and the camera doesn’t always want to let me.
The other level type, a “Horde Mode” kind of arena battle hurls increasingly large waves of enemies at the player, in additional to environmental hazards. It’s a nice change of pace from platforming, and it’s always good fun to button mash through bad guys. I do greatly prefer the platforming in Skylanders though. Combat is enjoyable and it’s a good time seeing how different characters handle and level up, but it’s pretty simple-minded. The platforming is the real star of the show. Even the final battle’s platforming segment far outshines its combat component.
Progress is made in standard fashion; by collecting sparkly knick-knacks in the levels, with a certain amount required to unlock the next world. Crystals are awarded by completing goals from a laundry list displayed before entering the level. The best part is that completing a goal doesn’t kick you out of the world a la Super Mario 64. Instead, you can actually rack up a whole mess of them before hitting the exit. It reminds me a lot of the first three Tony Hawk games which featured timed levels and similar laundry lists (and incidentally, we can thank Vicarious Visions for the handheld versions of those games too). I used to challenge myself to see how many goals I could cross off in a single run back then, and I enjoyed testing myself similarly in Skylanders. One such goal might be to collect a number of rubber duckies. In a clever attention to detail, goals like these result in a pile of rubber duckies outside the world’s gate in the hub. I can dig it.
One thing to note is that Skylanders is a little more brief than I would have thought. I finished the game with more than half of its 120-something Crystals within 5-6 hours. I’m not one to harp on a game’s length though, and I have to say that those five or six hours were some of the best I’ve played recently. I’ll take that over an uneven 12 hours any day.
It’s easy to be cynical about Skylanders. Its figures are obviously designed to make money and Spyro doesn’t look like the same dragon I grew up with, but it’s too much fun to become overwhelmed with negativity. It reminds me of why I started playing games in the first place. Simple, childlike joy. And it kind of makes me want to buy the elements I don’t have. Maybe that’s the trap, but making a game good enough that the player doesn’t mind parting with more money ain’t a crime.