It’s hard to believe that it’s been less than four years since Skylanders debuted. This is a franchise that has so rapidly become a phenomenon that it’s difficult to imagine a world without it. While most trends aimed at children that quickly explode in popularity tend to fizzle out, Skylanders has managed to remain relevant and as popular as ever year after year. Even in the face of competition from LEGO Dimensions and Disney Infinity (which is especially great this year), Skylanders is still the undisputed champion of the NFC world. Heck, instead of competing with amiibo, Activision has simply brought Nintendo’s toys into Skylanders. With the fifth entry in the series set to debut later this month, we were invited to Albany to meet with developer Vicarious Visions and see just why Skylanders is poised to remain king in the toys-to-life genre.
It’s hard to ignore the corporate culture of Vicarious Visions. While it’s easy to feel swallowed up entering most large development studios like EA or Ubisoft, Vicarious Visions still very much seems like an indie studio. Not in scale, of course, as it takes up a large amount of real estate and features state of the art equipment and amenities to be expected from a large studio, but it still very much feels like an extended family. We talked to multiple members of the studio off the record during our time in Albany — large roles and small — and everybody genuinely loved working there. In fact it was hard to run into somebody who hadn’t been there at least five years and it’s easy to see why.
This is a studio that until recently predominantly produced handheld ports of major console releases, but they were oozing with passion (much like studio founders Guha and Karthik Bala) and in many cases surpassed their console brethren. The Game Boy Advance versions of Tony Hawk and Jet Grind Radio still hold up to this day, and they somehow managed to make Guitar Hero work on DS. Yet with such a decidedly solid track record, the studio wasn’t given the chance to shine in a starring role until 2013’s Skylanders Swap Force. That release proved strong enough that Activision decided to switch to a Call of Duty type development model, with Vicarious promoted to a lead developer alternating yearly with original developer Toys for Bob. As such, Vicarious is back at it again this year with Skylanders SuperChargers, a release so jam-packed with content that it could be separated into multiple games.
Demonstrating the sheer tenacity of Skylanders, over three-hundred toys have been created since its 2011 launch. There’s no signs of slowing down as twenty new characters and vehicles have been introduced in SuperChargers. More impressive is the fact that each of the characters are worthwhile and Vicarious hasn’t come close to reaching “let’s just put eyes on a Pokéball” territory. As Barclay “Buck” Chantel (Art Director) and Rob Gallerani (Lead Character and Vehicle Designer) described to us, the process is quite extensive. It begins with all the artists getting together and brainstorming what would be a cool Skylander to make. These brainstorming sessions result in hundreds of characters, which are then narrowed down to a handful of the best. They then focus on specific aspects and shape from there. Spitfire, for instance, is a Spyro-esque dragon who is determined to dominate the Super Skylanders Racing Circuit, but he didn’t originally have wings.
Interestingly enough, the art department isn’t departmentalized when developing Skylanders — they simply pair up a designer with an animator on a Skylander and let them synergistically produce their best vision of what a Skylander should be. As should be obvious simply by looking at them, these are hardly rushed. The beautiful bird Skylander Stormblade, for instance, originally had her head straight up, but along the concept stages her head was changed to be tilting. More interesting still, a young girl in a children’s focus group brought up the point that female birds typically have more muted coloring then their male counterparts, and the designers took that input into account and kept her predominantly one color. It’s attention to detail like this that has created characters like the mariachi-inspired Fiesta, an undead skeleton who is always the life of the party, or Dive-Clops, a heavily-armored deep sea explorer with an eye out for evil. Not only do these characters simply look great, but they were designed so that looking at them once could give an impression of how they function. Fiesta’s figure, for instance, has a giant horn so you just know he’s going to get into all sorts of boisterous trouble.
Shockingly, the vehicles are just as complex as the characters. These aren’t simple Matchbox cars Vicarious has stuck the racers in, but rather wonderfully complex vehicles that went through as much tuning as the characters that pilot them. Hot Streak is shaped like a dragon and has over-sized wheels made out of water. Crypt Crusher is a coffin on wheels and is the perfect fit for the Dia de los Muertos stylings of Fiesta. The physical representations of the vehicles are just as slick as the characters and feature moving parts. Anything with a wheel can be rolled, which will lead to hours of playtime for children with or without a television around.
Finally, as huge Nintendo fans, we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention the Nintendo additions this year. It hasn’t yet been deeply explained just how Donkey Kong and Bowser ended up on Skylands, but apparently they’ve acquired vehicles that can magically travel between worlds and decided to join the battle against Kaos and the Darkness (that’s right, Bowser is one of the good guys now). When adapting the iconic characters for the game — a series first — the designers originally thought Nintendo would be strict on how their characters were handled and first turned in more traditional concept art. It turns out that Nintendo are huge Skylanders fans and wanted their characters to be adapted in the same style, giving artistic freedom to create Vicarious’ version of Bowser and Donkey Kong (now dubbed Hammer Slam Bowser and Turbo Charge Donkey Kong) as if they were part of the series all along. The results are a perfect blend of both properties, capturing the basic essence of both characters while making them fantastical enough to stand as their own Skylanders. The vehicles of both are even more zany, with DK sitting in a mine cart and rolling on giant barrels and Bower blasting through the sky in an airplane with the face of his Koopa Copter that can shoot fireballs and even a Bullet Bill.
As the Wii U version of the game was based off of the Xbox 360 version, the PS4 and Xbox One versions are the premier editions, but it wouldn’t be surprising in the slightest if people purchased the 3DS and Wii U versions simply to receive the figures, which even double as amiibos. Senior Producer Nicholas Ruepp took us on a tour of Vicarious Visions’ Toy Creation room, which housed a 3D printer granting the studio the ability to be able to see their figure in the flesh without having to wait for factory prototypes. In this room we were able to witness the progression of the Donkey Kong and Bowser figures and boy are they detailed and gorgeous. We also got the first peek of the Dark Edition models and they somehow manage to be even more stunning.
Clearly the presentation of Skylanders SuperChargers is shaping up to be the most well-rounded yet, but the gameplay shines just as brightly. For the first time ever, players can control the aforementioned vehicles in-game, aligned by element and terrain type. These grant players unique abilities across the multitude of environments. Classic Skylanders on-foot gameplay returns — combat, puzzles, mini games, platforming and more — but is now augmented by vehicle-based adventure. Nowhere is the vehicular portion more pronounced then in Racing Mode, however, which is practically deep enough to qualify as a standalone title. Six race tracks are featured right out of the box for each of the two terrain types, Land, Sky and Sea. Land racing is kart-racing gameplay that feels like Mario Kart, Sea racing feels surprisingly close to Hydro Thunder (although the size of the race track is doubled as diving underwater is allowed and reveals a whole separate course) and Sky racing which feels like the under appreciated Freaky Flyers.
Players have access to a weapon as well as a special ability that drains a meter that can be replenished by picking up refills throughout the tracks. There are also random item boxes that can be collected that trigger a special ability. All six tracks are impressively designed and the mechanics are shockingly solid. All three racing types are tight enough to compare to the genre’s best and the mode is just plain fun. More content for this mode will be available outside of the Starter Pack, which should become necessarily purchases given how strong this experience is (we smell a spin-off).
Now in its fifth incarnation, Skylanders continues to impress. With a longer development cycle, Vicarious Visions has packed SuperChargers with content, with enough modes to keep gamers busy for months. The main game is as strong as ever, but the myriad of other things to do are substantial enough to completely divert attention from it. Add that to a storyline with moments of poignancy and some of the best-designed characters yet and Activision and Vicarious Visions have a clear winner on their hands. We’ll be diving, flying and driving deep into the final experience in the coming days, so be sure to be check back in the meantime (and it wouldn’t hurt to start locking in some pre-orders as well…).