Toys to Life: All you need to know about toy-video-game hybrids
Family video-game expert, Andy Robertson, looks at the recent trend in toy-video-game hybrids, and what they have to offer your family...
Toy-video-game hybrids are big news right now. These games, sometimes referred to as Toys to Life, represent a three-billion-dollar industry that leverages collectable toy figurines to access on-screen video-game characters and levels. It works so well because all you have to do is place the toy on a USB peripheral plugged into your Xbox, PlayStation or Wii U, and the character instantly appears in the game. Clever, eh?
Not only that, but as soon as you take them off, your progress is instantly saved ready for next time. Because the toy figurines can be used on any platform they're ideal for your kids to take round to their friends house to play there.
This also works well for dads, because the games are two player and often include comic book and movie franchises that appeal to both an older and younger audience — Back to the Future, Doctor Who, Marvel and Star Wars to name a few – so you'll be more than happy to play with the kids.
The toy-game hybrid trend was started by Activision with Skylanders, broadened by Disney Infinity a couple of years later, and this year sees the arrival of Warner Bros’ Lego Dimensions. Nintendo’s amiibo charts the same seas, but with figurines that function in multiple games.
This Toys to Life category extends beyond consoles to tablets and smartphone, with both Disney Infinity and Skylanders offering iOS versions. Anki Overdrive extends the toy-tablet gaming with physical robotic cars that bring the action into the real world. Disney Playmation stretches things further with Avengers, Star Wars and Frozen wearable tech for kids that creates physical play challenges.
This year’s game is Skylanders Superchargers, where you can add vehicles which enable players to unlock and customise fantasy modes of transport. A nice touch here is that the physical toys are articulated and more fun to use away from the video-game.
If you’ve already got Skylanders, save a bit of money by reusing your figures and USB Portal. There is a cheaper digital version you can use for a fraction of the cost. Also note that this game is still on the Wii so you don’t need to shell out on a expensive new console to enjoy it.
Disney Infinity 3.0
Disney have the Star Wars franchise this year, but aren’t resting on their laurels. The game has been improved in all quarters to make best use of the Star Wars brand. Also the collectable figurines for all the classic characters look amazing.
A key feature is the Toy Box game creator mode. This is great for dads and kids to enjoy creating their own video-game adventures, or perhaps just making up playground-style games.
Watch out though. At launch, the only way to get the classic Episodes (IV-VI) is via the expensive Saga Edition pack. If you wait a month it will all be available separately so you can choose just the bits you want. Again, there is a digital version to keep costs down further if you have the previous game.
Lego Dimensions is the new kid on the Toys to Life block this year. It combines the success of TT Games’ Lego experiences, physical Lego toys and the smart figure toy-game cross-over.
Publisher Warner Bros. has included an impressive array of franchises including Doctor Who, Back to the Future and DC Comics. This does come at a higher price, but with that you get real physical Lego toys and a substantial amount of different brands available straight out the box.
The best part of Dimensions is the integrated use of the Toy Pad USB peripheral. By placing the smart mini-figures on a particular colour coded part of the Toy Pad, players trigger a range of different effects (growing, shrinking, teleporting for instance) required for puzzle solving. It turns the Toy Pad from a simple reader into more of an interactive play tool.
Although amiibo look just like Skylanders and Disney Infinity, they work differently. These are exclusive to Nintendo games and hardware, and often have functions in multiple games. An important distinction is that while owning a Skylanders or Infinity figurine grants you access to play as that character, the amiibo more often brings the character in as a companion or opponent to play with.
Value wise, you don’t need to buy a big starter pack as Nintendo cleverly included the NFC technology in the Wii U game-pad. You can also purchase one character and then make use of him or her in different games.
One unexpected twist this year is the special edition Skylander amiibo. Bowser and Donkey Kong amiibo can only be purchased in special Skylanders Superchargers packs for the Wii, Wii U and 3DS. They function as both Skylanders and amiibos by twisting the base.
Finding the best games for you and your family can be a complex quest. Cost will be one driver, so avoid collecting all the figures in a range if you don't want to break the bank. Understanding which brands will appear in which game is also important. If you're a Back to the Future or DC Comics fan, then Lego Dimensions may well be for you. However if Star Wars and Marvel rock your family boat, then it could be Disney Infinity. Skylanders offers a less heavily branded alternative to characterisation, while amiibo leverage their Nintendo heritage.
Whichever you choose, playing together as a family is always the best way to maximise the fun and minimise the tears – as long as you sometimes let the kids win, of course...
Andy Robertson is a family video-game expert for broadcast and national press. He runs the Family Gamer TV channel on YouTube.