The recent phenomenon of physical characters that interact with video games, labelled ‘Toys to Life’ by the industry, started with Activision’s Skylanders franchise in 2011.
Since then it’s blossomed into a lucrative market within the gaming industry and an expensive one for parents and gamers who find themselves having to fork out hundreds of pounds for new figures and playsets.
The four main contenders in the market are the latest Skylanders; Superchargers (with Skylanders Imaginators to be launched in October 2016), LEGO Dimensions, Disney Infinity 3 and Amiibo but what separates them apart and which one is best?
Kicking things off, Activision’s franchise was initially based on their age-old Spyro the Dragon licence, a favourite of original Playstation gamers. The game featured a unique range of creatures that had Earth, Air, Water and Fire powers. It came with a large USB-powered light up portal which contained an NFC card reader to read the various character toys you placed on the portal. Once in the game, they could be levelled up and used as a player-character.
This pretty much set the blueprint for all future Toys-to-life games and the later Skylanders sets were much the same. Each new set contained a new portal and disc. Skylanders Giants featured much larger toys, Swap Force featured toy parts that could be inter-changed and Trap Team allowed you to trap and use the bad guys.
The current Skylanders Superchargers uses much the same gameplay, adding vehicles in to the mix with driving sections of the game and races that can only be done with a particular vehicle type, meaning that you’d need at least one of each vehicle from the Air, Water and Ground based types.
Each pack comes with several figures, a game and a portal and Superchargers comes with a land-based vehicle as well.
The other figures and cars are all available separately or in multi-packs.
Skylanders packs are all forward compatible, ie: you can use older figures with newer packs but not the other way around. Each new version has a new portal and disc. This makes it the most expensive set of the Toys-to-life franchises if you want the full functionality of the traps in Trap Team or Superchargers, though the portals are inter-changeable.
Disney Infinity (now cancelled going forward)
The first Disney Infinity game arrived in 2013, hanging off the success of Skylanders. It focused on three franchises in the initial starter set; Monsters Inc, Pirates of the Caribbean and The Incredibles. The game also featured a ‘Toy Box’ mode which allowed you to build your own lands or download ones built by other people.
Other figures from Disney movies and cartoons were available separately, some on their own to use in the Toy Box and others with a special piece that provided a game world to play in.
Disney Infinity 2.0 took the Marvel franchise and provided Avengers characters and playsets in the starter pack alongside a new and improved Toy Box. Infinity 1.0 figures and playsets were not compatible but you could use the same portal and buy just the disc and figures separately.
The latest game, Disney Infinity 3.0, focuses on Star Wars The Clone Wars Animated Series, with other Star Wars sets and characters available. Other Marvel, Disney animated and Disney Movie characters are also available.
Each of the games comes with two or three figures and a set piece that lets you play the story mode for that set and unlock the Toy Box mode.
However, Disney have recently announced that they are discontinuing the game due to shutting down their game studios. The servers for the Toy Box and internet content remain up for now but there is uncertainty over their future.
The toys are the most detailed and best looking, in my opinion. Each franchise has a base with a different aesthetic but because all the figures are stylised in the same cartoon style they look good next to each other despite being from vastly different sources.
Unfortunately, in March 2017 Disney turned off the servers and so the online part of Disney Infinity, including sharing creations, has now been shut down. you can still play the playsets, though.
The portal used in all Disney Infinity games is the same, allowing you to buy just the disc and figures you need to save money.
Here’s where it gets more complicated! Figures from one franchise are not compatible in the other franchises, so you can’t use Monsters Inc in an Avengers world, for instance.
The toy box mode allows you to use any figure from that series or earlier (so Toy Box 3.0 can use 1.0 and 2.0 figures but the Toy Box in 2.0 can’t use 3.0 figures).
In addition, Disney have released several stand-alone packs; Speedway and Toybox Takeover for Disney Infinity 3.0, which can be used with all figures, as well as a Marvel Battlegrounds story pack that can be used with all Marvel figures.
Warner Bros is the newest company to enter the Toys-To-Life genre with LEGO Dimensions. So far there has only been one pack. The Starter Pack contains Gandalf from Lord of the Rings, Wildstyle from the LEGO Movie and Batman, as well as his Batmobile. It also contains a portal made of LEGO, which needs to be built as part of the game, and a game disc.
Dimensions is the most versatile of the games as the packs cover everything from Back to the Future to Scooby Doo and The Simpsons.
Packs are separated in to;
Level Packs – These contain an actual story focused around each franchise. They feature a character, vehicle and special item
Team Packs – These don’t have a story mode but open hub areas for free play and contain 2 characters and a vehicle
Character Packs – These contain a character and vehicle. Like the team pack, they can unlock a hub world for free play.
The latest wave of packs looks like it will cover the new Ghostbusters movie, The A-Team and Adventure Time, among others.
The figures are all standard LEGO figures but often have a bit more detail than in other LEGO sets. Apart from the special blue bases with the NFC chip in, they can be played with alongside standard non-video game LEGO sets.
All the characters and vehicles can be used throughout the game in both the story and the free play modes. You will, however, need to own one figure from each franchise to have access to their hub world. Warner Bros have promised that you will not need a new portal for future versions of the game and all previous characters will work.
Nintendo’s own answer to Toys-to-life is an interesting one. Amiibos are mostly sold separately from games and there’s no one game that focuses around them all. Mario Kart 8, Animal Crossing Happy Home Designer and Splatoon are just three of the games to use Amiibo in some way and to confuse matters, only some Amiibo can be used with each game.
There are also a few downloadable Amiibo titles on the Wii U store that unlock mini-games and it looks as though Nintendo will keep expanding the use of the toys in current and new titles.
They’re all well made with Nintendo’s typical eye for detail and while most are based on Nintendo’s own franchises, there are Sega and Capcom game characters as well.
The Wii U and New 3DS have NFC built in, so there’s no need for a portal. On the original 3DS you’ll need to buy an Infra Red portal that can connect to the handheld.
There’s only one generation of characters but you can get several versions of the same character (such as Smash Bros Mario, 8-bit Mario etc) which only work with certain games. Each pack has details on the back of which game they’re compatible with.
Which one to go for?
Pros and cons of the 3 main choices are pretty obvious;
Disney Infinity has the best looking characters but you need to be a fan of the Disney, Marvel or Star Wars franchises to get the most from it.
Skylanders is not backed up by a famous TV or Movie franchise but the toys are relatively detailed and varied. It doesn’t have as much scope or variety as the other sets, though. As it was the first toys-to-life game it’s the most well established of the sets.
LEGO Dimensions is pretty much the same template as any of the other LEGO video games, so if you’ve played those you know what you’re getting. The franchises on offer are the most varied of all the games and the toys are actual lego, so kids can play with them alongside their normal lego.
Both Disney Infinity and LEGO Dimensions allow you to use the same game portal in all their games, saving money and issues with compatibility, Skylanders starter packs contain a new portal for each game set, increasing the cost of each package, but you can still use the older portals for the new games, missing out on the trap function for the last two games.
This will be subjective, obviously, but although Disney Infinity has the edge on toys it lacks the vast array of franchises that LEGO Dimensions has and Disney’s decision to shutter the Infinity brand has cast doubts on the game’s future. While Skylanders is a solid game that comes recommended, the cost of potentially upgrading the hardware each time does count against it.
Amiibo is a law unto itself, which is typical of Nintendo. If you own a Wii U and at least a couple of Amiibo supported games it does make sense to collect certain figures. Big Nintendo fans will probably want to collect the figures for display purposes, anyway.
Our recommendation would be LEGO Dimensions at this time, though all four of the Toys-to-life franchises have given us plenty of fun over the last few years.