Just before Halloween 2011, Activision unleashed their toy/game hybrid Skylanders Spyro’s Adventure onto the marketplace. This Frankenstein experiment probably slipped under the holiday radar of most Gamers, a group so hardcore they get a capitalized category. It most likely drove parents batty as they competed with scalpers for limited product. And it definitely turned out to be a gold mine. Now Skylanders is back and “boomier” than ever as Skylanders Giants.

Was the lightning rod struck again to bring life to these plastic creatures? How does Giants work for Gamers, parents, and gaming parents? Let’s cast the bat signal towards the sky over Forced Metaphore Castle and assemble the elite Skylanders team of Kiddo, Mommy and Rob to find out why a seven-year-old is roaring around the house while making slow motion stomping noises, why it’s a great time to be a Gaming Dad, and why Mommy fears going to birthday parties (hint: it’s not keriophobia).

After the jump, abandon all fiscal hope, ye who enter here

As you may have noticed (when I bluntly pointed it out) I soaked up both the Gamer and parent constituencies just there. This is important because many grizzled videogame veterans might dismiss Skylanders Giants as a kid’s game because of its cuddly plastic toys. That would be a mistake. Not only because a towering suit of haunted armor that can dislodge its giant eyeball at will is a few shades short of cuddly, but also because of the core mechanics that designer Toys for Bob implemented.

Perhaps as a nod to the Star Control franchise, Skylanders is a fantasy action RPG where each character has unique abilities. One character might pull in enemies with a huge vacuum cleaner gun, another might disappear and leave behind spinning scarecrows of doom, or another might throw out a line of ice blocks that can be used as cover or kicked towards the enemy as a projectile. Each character has unique abilities that bring unique strategic choices. It is not unlike Diablo where every character is a bundle of unique abilities. If the difficulty holds (which it mostly does in Skylander Giants thanks to the new difficulty settings) then you have real strategic meat to chew on when deciding which ability set to use and when to use it. My Gamer side loves that.

Kiddo: “Bigger, Badder, BOOOOOOOOMIERRR!!”

Yes, my delightful example of why advertising works, I was getting to that.

I have always been a gamer. I remember those dimly lit mom-and-pop pizza parlors where I would wish for quarters as I stared intently at Gorf or Galaga. I remember Pong, Adventure, and wishing my family had a Commodore 64 (or any gaming machine besides the Odyssey II which was on clearance the day it came home) so I could play Moonraker.

I also remember my personal homage to “Cat’s in the Cradle” as I tried to get my father to pick up a baseball mitt or ride a bike. A few years ago, I met my girlfriend’s son from a previous marriage, and at that point I stepped into the role of father figure. Though I love him as my own, I don’t use the words “dad” or “son” for him. In time, that will be up to him. If you were to ask him about the day we met he would first tell you something unintelligible about Portland pools and muscle trucks, but then quickly tell you all about the two of us playing Star Wars Legos on a Nintendo Game Cube in a McDonalds PlayPlace. I remember that day like it was yesterday.

For these reasons, Skylanders is sublime to Kiddo and me. It —

Kiddo: “What does ‘sumline’ mean?”

Rob: “It means super awesome, crazy sixty thousand thumbs up.”

As he starts to just understand math and numbers he uses sixty thousand like my boyhood friends and I used googolplex.

Kiddo: “YEAH! ROOOAAR!”

He begins to stomp around again with his arm up imitating Tree Rex.

Skylanders Giants is a powerful cooperative experience for the gaming father (figure) and son (Kiddo). It is filled with stone pushing block puzzles, cooperative switch toggling, shared shooting of giant mech cannons, and other such family fun. The portal adds to this as well. The portal is an accessory you set a figure on to bring it into the game. The figure stores all upgrades and can be moved to and played on any platform. Our household has both the Wii and 360 version so we can move our characters between games. This also creates an urgent and tactile connection with the figure as one of us will franticly yell and reach to remove a character from the portal just as it is on the brink of knockout.

Kiddo: “Not my Giant, he—”

The rest is lost in the roared mimicking of Tree Rex’s photosynthesis cannon.

Ah yes, the Giant. Skylanders doesn’t have character classes, but the new Giants bring a sense of beef to the game. They take a heck of a lot of hits and they can kill lesser critters by just walking over them. My Gamer side though looks at these as a little lighter on the strategic side. I see them more as Dinobots.

Hasbro Employee: Sir, these Transformers are selling like hot cakes, we can’t keep them on the shelves.”

Hasbro Bigwig: “Yes but we need a way to sell to even more kids. Hey, my kid loves dinosaurs. Make it happen!”

Hasbro Employee: “Um, our lore is about mimicking modern day vehicles.”

Hasbro Bigwig: “Great. Dinosaurs and bots. Dinobots! Make it happen.”

In Skylander Giants there are also more videos to help with the immersion, longer levels (albeit fewer of them), more exploration/hidden items needed for 100% (rather than simply more figures to unlock obvious gates), the replacement of a Memory game clone with a much more interesting tile/card Skystones mini-game, and a wave survival mode in Arena. To talk out of the other side of my mouth a bit, some of the content (walker levels, ghost town, skystones) focuses a bit too much on story or one player’s actions. While good for breaking up the gameplay, it works against a design philosophy of action-focused content that players can return to with new figures to level up or play again.

Overall, it does feel like Activision was testing the waters with Spyro’s Adventure and they went full tilt on Giants to create a fuller featured game. That is why we emphatically agree that Skylanders Giants is —

Mommy: “Um, you forgot the pricing.”

Okay, so yeah, Skylanders is rough on the wallet. Like the George Lucas kind of rough on our childhood memories when he made the three prequels. The older Skylander Spyro’s Adventure figures can play in the new game and are called series one (S1). The newer reposed (orange based) series two (s2) figures have new attacks (wow pow), switchable upgrade trees, and bring all their series one brethrens’ heroic challenges. The last part is the real kick in the pants.

Challenges are extra mini levels that are unlocked to allow any figure to complete them to boost their stats, which you will want to do if you plan to play on the new nightmare difficulty level. All of the S2 figures unlock the S1 challenge of that figure, but the S1 unlocks nothing. Furthermore the new Lightcore figures of the older S1 line lack wow pow, upgrade switching, and challenges, offering only a once per level explosion and a glowing figure. Yeah, a Jar Jar kind of kick in the pants.

Mommy: “…and everything in general is more expensive. Moving from $7.99 to $9.99 or $11.99 for a lightcore pushes this out of birthday gift territory as most toy figures are at the $8 price point.”

Rob: “Candles!”

Mommy: “Not keriophobia!”

Okay, the price point thing is true. And most objectors to the monetization of Skylanders point out the explosive cost of physical “DLC”. This second point my wallet and I empathize with, but I want to point out something. Most map packs or story DLC costs $10 or so and offer a fairly limited increase of experience per dollar. A $10 figure in Skylanders though is similar to a new character class. It’s a new suite of strategic options that can be played across the content of the entire game. In Borderland 2 terms, I find the Mechromancer DLC a much better bang for the buck than a quest area. New ‘ability bundles’ just seem a much better use of “DLC” funds. But in fairness, there may be a cadre of former Rock Band fans who might disagree, pointing towards closets full of plastic instruments and drives full of paid-to-import songs. And I might feel the same if/when/how Skylanders series three hits.

Kiddo: “Tiny Buckets!”

That’s our Lego Rock Band band.

Mommy: “Tiny Buckets!”

For parents, this is a sure-fire hit. For Gamers, keep an open mind. There is something under the cuddly hood. For Gamer parents, don’t pass this up. Even as moths fly out of my empty wallet, I won’t look back. For the equivalent financial hit of a random event like a speeding ticket or a vet bill, Kiddo and I have something of immeasurable value to remember long after he’s rebelling against me as a teenager.

Mommy: “Price point!”

She sneaks off to continue completing challenges on her Stealth Elf while I’m writing this.

Kiddo: “Rob, we should play more Giants together. You can even use my Tree Rex.”

Rob: “Yes, Kiddo, but remember we have to work on our review to tell people if the game is good.”

Kiddo: “Sixty thousand, million, infinity thumbs up!”

Rob: “Yeah Kiddo, I really like this one, too. Four stars.”

4 stars
Wii

Rob Harvey grumpily resides in California with his cat Little One longing for the day he can return to the Pacific Northwest “where a person can experience, you know, actual trees, weather, and the color green”. He also continues to struggle, mostly in vain, for his graduate level education in philosophy to produce anything beyond obscenely expensive soul building. He posts on the Quarter to Three forums as Chaplin.