Any game that asks you to spend much more money than the average retail price raises a red flag. That’s why paid DLC has a bad rap. That’s why subscriptions in MMOs are tricky to sell. And that’s the biggest reason Skylanders has drawn so much ire from a large part of the gaming community (okay, that and Spyro, but it’s not like using the IP in Skylanders stopped Crash Bandicoot from getting one of the most anticipated platformer releases of this year). A game that asks you to pay $13 for every new character on top of a full retail price tag and more accessories can easily go off the deep end. And yet, when approached with responsible spending habits and a caution against the series’ greedier microtransactions, I believe this series is much more good than its reputation deserves. As someone very conscious over his money, I’ve wondered why I’ve taken that particular stance myself, since my vastly incomplete figure collection still easily surpasses the value of any pre-order DLC season pass.
Until I realized how simple the reason behind that stance is. Skylanders’ characters are one of its most outstanding and strongest selling points. I’m okay with paying extra money for the figures because I consider that money worth the opportunity to display characters like these on my shelves, not unlike how Amiibo collectors will order figures without even intending to use them in games. I realized that as I reflected on three main points I often found myself bringing up any time I casually discuss this series…
While one glance at my avatar will clue you in as to where my biases in character design lean, I stand by them. I like weird character designs. I like design philosophies that delve into the unusual and make use of that strangeness. For a setting that more or less functions as a Saturday Morning Fantasy Kitchen Sink, Skylanders is a series whose developers understand the opportunities they gave themselves, and it's very easy to see how imaginative these character designs are.
Let’s go over a few of the examples I have sitting on my shelf. We have Swarm, a giant bee man who can fire stingers from his arms and transform into a swarm of angry bees to overwhelm his enemies. We have Chop Chop, an honor-seeking skeleton/robot hybrid warrior. We have Scratch, a gryphon who fires lasers from her mask and performs a follow up attack by pouncing the laser’s location, like any cat probably would if she had eye lasers. We have Super Shot Stealth Elf, a ninja elf armed with a minigun that shoots daggers because why the heck wouldn’t a ninja want a minigun that shoots daggers. These characters and so many more are designed with such unusual, creative, and quirky charms that emphasize the whimsical and fantasy-oriented nature of the Skylanders series. They stand out as unique and creative individuals, even when compared against their competition from other big-name fantasy games. I love me a good Tales game as much as any Bandai Namco fan, but I can find human swordsman/fist-fighting protagonists in pretty much any RPG. If the poster boy for your game is a literal speed demon made of fire whose vehicle of choice is a hot rod, your creativity has won my attention.
This point might be as applicable to the rest of Skylanders as just the characters, but these characters are designed for an audience that has been relatively undernourished in recent years. The gamers of the retro era have aged decades, and with it, the core audience that the game industry attempts to market to. Most AAA publishers focus on games with teen to mature ESRB ratings, and while that isn’t going to stop many kids from shouting angry expletives at each other in the voice chats of Call of Duty servers, it does make games actually marketed at kids much more scarce.
I’m not making this point to refer to the game’s objective quality. I moreso am talking about filling a market that I believe deserves more attention (and I already believe that Skylanders is an objectively well designed beat-em-up for all ages, so it fits the “actually being good” requirement there). Outside of Nintendo and some niche indies, there are barely any modern developers willing to cater to that audience. So seeing the childishly imaginative and whimsical designs of the Skylanders is a welcome change of pace. To me, it feels heartwarming to see an original cast of characters capable of capturing a sense of childlike wonder and whimsy that has been relatively scarce in this current game industry.
Sure, we could take Invader Zim’s successful conquest of a civilization 100% seriously. I love a good story grounded in dramatic characters that deconstruct the implications of their premises. But is it a bad thing to instead use it as an opportunity to sprinkle in some more humor with comically shallow facades and overinflated ego trips as events spiral further and further out of the heroes’ hands? A similar principle is applied to the Skylanders themselves. Sure, about one eighth of everyone is Undead, but is that really a bad thing when they have the opportunity to use the powers of the dead to punch bad guys in the face? No matter what they do, every character in Skylanders is designed with one core purpose in mind; for children to have fun with them. And as long as these characters have been given appropriate care and effort towards that end, what’s stopping older audiences from having just as much fun with them? If you have my attention and promise me pure, whimsical fun, you have my interest.
Skylanders is a series that prides itself on its ability to sell you loads of characters. So what would be the point of roping you into collecting as many of the figures as you can grab if the figures don’t provide a strong incentive to use them?
Huh… after I wrote that, I got this feeling of murderous intent from the direction of the Amiibo on my shelf. Weird.
Technically deep games such as fighting games can easily make rosters even dozens of characters large feel diverse and meaningfully different, but Skylanders has some handicaps keeping them from going too complex; the game is designed primarily for children, and only 3 buttons are used for everyone’s individual moveset. Despite this, the staggeringly large playable cast of Skylanders have a wide array of unique abilities. While overlap obviously exists in any cast of 50+ playable characters, there’s very little sense of characters feeling even remotely samey, even in my collection of 13 figures.
Some characters like Swarm and Deep Dive Gill Grunt can activate alternate stances at the press of a button, substituting their remaining buttons for new moves as their attributes change. Others have abilities that synergize with their other moves, such as Star Strike, whose basic spin attack can reflect any projectile… including her own orbs and meteor strikes, which gain new properties upon being spun. Others can afflict the battlefield with their own effects, like Blast Zone’s trails of fire that damage enemies over time… and also bolster his own bombs if they are thrown through it. And many more such examples. By creating such synergies and added effects to each button, these characters are designed with a level of individuality that can rival the likes of your expected MOBA roster, yet their effects are straightforward and instant enough for even younger audiences to easily grasp how such abilities are helpful and satisfying to use. And likewise, they feel satisfying and rewarding to fight with in their own ways. By combining creative designs and simple yet varied beat-em-up mechanics, Skylanders are characters that appeal to the core of what kids want, and adults can empathize with that. They are fun to play with. They are fun to look at. They are fun to imagine with.
I will be one of the first to admit Skylanders is more of a money grab than I would like. Even when hunting for local discounts, I must’ve spent about $100 on characters alone. And yet, assuming I’ve made responsible shopping decisions during that time, I’m okay with that. Because every time I glance away from my computer screen towards my shelf, I get to see the figures of those characters sitting cheerfully, with energetic poses and wide grins on their faces. Characters that share my love of quirky creativity. Characters who are fun to play with. Characters that resonate with my whimsical heart. And I think it’d be awesome to see other large game developers adopt similar design principles as those used to make these characters. Figures or microtransactions not required.