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Spyro Skylanders is many things: a toy series, a range of games and a new concept. It also provides a new twist on the dream of cross-platform play, one which may finally provide children with a shared gaming lynchpin, regardless of their games system of choice.
When I was growing up, we all watched the same stuff. For my generation, we still speak in awed tones of The Mysterious Cities of Gold. It was a landmark series that we all watched at some point, partly due to the fact that it seemed to go on for far longer than any comparable show. What is apparent to me is that my generation's children don't have the same shared experience. The expansion of television into a wider market now means that many kids don't grow up with the same channels as their friends, let alone the same shows.
Gaming has always faced a similar problem. In my day you were either Spectrum or Commodore 64 - a demarcation in itself; these days there is a mixed economy of XBox 360, PS3, Wii, PC, 3DS and others. In an age where social gaming is so important and a player's own progress and achievements have risen to the same importance as merely sitting and playing the game, it seems that tackling cross-platform play has never been such a vital challenge.
Spyro Skylanders delivers an innovative and brilliant solution to the problem, as well as creating a toy range which could very well explode into a phenomenon. To summarise, Spyro Skylanders offers a range of games across many formats with a play style aimed at younger players. The game comes with a set of three toy figures, each of which represents an in-game character. Players choose which character to use by placing the toy on a special stand, the Portal of Power, which communicates with the game console. All of the player's scores and achievements as that character are then recorded onto the toy, like a sort of memory drive; the toy can then be taken to a friend's house, placed on the Portal Of Power for any other game system and the players settings and progress are imported.
It will be fascinating to see how the concept of toy play converges with videogame play, especially among younger children
If nothing else, it's a brilliant twist on the character selection screen. For less patient younger players, it's easy to see how scrolling through pages of characters at the beginning of a play session is far less preferable than simply grabbing the toy character that looks coolest and putting it on the mat. Similarly, by placing two toys side by side on the Portal of Power, Spyro Skylanders initiates a two-player game, either in co-op, or competitively in an arena designed to pitch the characters against one another. There's something so immediate and so brilliant about this concept that it seems remarkable it hasn't already be attempted by Nintendo for the Pokemon franchise.
And by alluding to Pokemon, we hit the other important factor: collectivity. While the standard package provides 3 toy figures (relating to good all-round types ideal for new players), the game actually supports 32 playable characters. Each of these have to be purchased via expansion sets, containing new toy figures and other items. It would be easy to overreact to this idea of buying additional content, except that the ground has already been proven with sticker books and trading card games. The key element here must be the price and how much of an investment is required to make the game a rewarding experience. With embedded technology, it seems a fair bet they won't be the cost of 5 large stickers and a strip of gum. In fact, at the time of writing, a three character set from Amazon is £17.99 while an expansion pack featuring only a single character but additional levels and content is £19.99.
With important data stored within, it no longer becomes possible to share figures. It seems to me that the biggest problem will be keeping track of whose toy belongs to who. In terms of the game itself, we have been assured that the three figures which come packaged with the initial setup are sufficient to complete the game. But will it become the aim to collect all 32, or is it about choosing favourite characters and expanding the game in a manner similar to DLC?
I fear its not something that is easy to predict. When and if these toys capture the imaginations of a young generation, children have a way of defining their own group understanding of how these toys are to be collected and shared/traded. Most of us have to hold our breath and wait for the hurricane: as parents, hoping that the game will encourage kids to stick to one or two treasured characters and as consumers, hoping that the hunger for completion boosts the economy on a wave of toy-purchasing.
It would be easy to overreact to this idea of buying additional content, except that the ground has already been proven with sticker books and trading card games
As a gamer myself, I'm keenly interested to see how the actual playtime will compete with the brilliant high-level design. I like the idea that I can play the 3DS and PS3 versions of this game and keep my character progression between them, even though they are games of very different design. What I'm less sold on is the idea that for any system on which I want to play this game, I have to keep another peripheral handy. I'm fast running out of room.
Whatever happens, Spyro Skylanders offers a very unique experience and it will be fascinating to see how the concept of toy play converges with videogame play, especially among younger children.
Spyro Skylanders is currently due for release on PS3, XBox 360, Wii, 3DS and Windows/Mac on the 14th October 2011.
With so many different perspectives it can be hard to know where to start - a little like walking into a crowded pub. Sorry about that.
But so far we've not found a way to streamline our review output - there's basically too much of it. So, rather than dilute things for newcomers we have decided to live with the hubbub while helping new readers find the columnists they will enjoy.
Our columnists each focus on a particular perspective and fall into one of the following types of gamers: