A curious fad in the mid-2010s was that of the ‘toys to life’ genre. Rising to total market dominance almost as quickly as it was snuffed out, for a while you couldn’t wander into a game store without being greeted by a deluge of colourful plastic figures. The concept is simple: you buy a physical toy of the character you want to play as, pop it onto a supplied portal, and watch with childlike glee as they’re beamed into the game. Toy collectors and players alike were enamoured.
Understandably, companies soon realised the lucrativity of this, and the market reached total saturation by 2016. Here’s a look at the most notable efforts from this extortionate trend.
5 Starlink: Battle For Atlas
The very definition of ‘late to the party’, Ubisoft’s contender in the toys-to-life genre debuted in 2018 – a whopping two years past the date at which interest in it could generously be described as ‘muted’. As a result, it flopped spectacularly, and the game’s sets are difficult to come by these days. It’s a shame, because the title itself is rather good.
You play a deep-space pilot as part of the Starlink program, whose objective is to zoom across the galaxy; conducting research, battling ne’er-do-wells and just generally earning your boy scout patches.
The pilots you can choose from are a wacky bunch. Mason, who’s bundled in with the starter kit, is as milquetoast as they come – but then you’ve got the assassin Shaid, the empathic robot Judge, and Kharl, an intelligent lizard thing, to name a few. Nintendo Switch players could even pick Fox McCloud, a bit of crossover awesomeness that doubtless buoyed sales on that platform.
Sadly, it wasn’t enough. So little confidence did Ubisoft have in the toy collecting aspect that they made it mostly optional, allowing you to purchase digital versions of the characters and ship parts instead. And while assembling your own craft (wings, guns, and cockpits could be snapped off and on again, immediately reflected in the gameplay) was super-cool, having it mounted on the controller was clunky and cumbersome.
As a space exploration sim, Starlink soars; but as the death knell of an entire genre, it’s a somber experience.
The juggernaut that kicked off the entire toys-to-life enterprise, it cannot be overstated what a smashing success Activision’s Skylanders series was. Born of a desire to reboot the Spyro the Dragon series for the umpteenth time, developer Toys For Bob took a gamble: would consumers really respond to additional purchases after plonking down $70 for the starter pack? The answer was a resounding, cash-register-kerchinging “yes.”
Beginning with Spyro’s Adventure in 2011 – a misnomer if there ever was one, as you didn’t even need to play as Spyro – you assume the role of Portal Master of Skylands.
You see, the heroes of this world, the Skylanders, have been cursed into statue form by the villainous Kaos and sent to Earth. (And trapped in toy stores, and sold for 15 bucks a pop; but curiously the marketing left that part out.) Once freed and placed on the portal, you’ll navigate an assortment of action-platforming stages, with each zone tailored to a particular Skylander element – better hope you own one of that class, kids!
Cynicism aside, the gameplay loop is undeniably engaging. Battling, levelling up, and then dropping in-game cash for upgrades so you can do more battling and levelling up. Each subsequent title brought something new to the table. Giants, large figures. Trap Team, a talking portal. Superchargers, vehicles. Ultimately, six entries in five years proved to be more than players (and parents) could take – but the franchise lives on in the hearts of fans.
Never one to be left out of a moneymaking opportunity – and no strangers to toy manufacturing – Nintendo tossed their red plumber hat into the ring with a line of ‘Amiibo’ figures, and promptly cornered the market. Of the major toys-to-life brands, this is the only one that’s still kicking in any meaningful way, and it arguably owes that longevity to something that none of its competitors offered: versatility.
While Skylanders et al look neat, outside of the games they’re meant for, you can’t do a whole lot with them — unless you need a dust collector for your shelf. After all, all they’re really doing is unlocking content that’s already on the disc. Amiibo remedies this by not tying the figures to any one title; instead, they unlock cool little extras in a massive variety of Nintendo games.
In Smash Bros, they’ll let you save and battle player ghosts. Mario Party, use ’em as game pieces. Mario Kart, they give you Mii outfits. And so on. In this way, Nintendo has ensured the continued compatibility, and therefore relevancy, of figures you might have bought years ago. This, coupled with a constant stream of new figure releases, creates that “gotta have ’em all” mentality; meaning we won’t be seeing the last of Amiibo for some time.
2 Disney Infinity
It surprised absolutely no-one that a gigantic entertainment conglomerate like Disney wanted a piece of the toys-to-life pie. Particularly as they’d been trying to break into the mainstream video games empire for the better part of a decade, with a variety of failed projects like Epic Mickey and Disney Universe. Disney Infinity, then, promised to be the ultimate celebration of the Mouse House, enabling you to mash characters from disparate IPs together in a cacophony of chaos.
The Disney Infinity experience was broadly divided into two areas: Play Sets and Toy Box. The Play Sets were full campaigns for whatever series they represented (Monsters Inc., Cars, Pirates of the Caribbean, etc.) and were actually fantastic fun. The Toy Box, on the other hand, was Disney’s answer to Minecraft.
Given the right unlockables, and a certain degree of patience, you could build whatever wondrous world you could conceive. Want to see Woody and Davy Jones racing Lightning McQueen atop the Epcot ball? You could make it happen. There were hours of fun to be had playing other builders’ levels via the online mode, too.
Disney Infinity survived for three instalments, from 2013 to 2016. 2.0 introduced Marvel superheroes, while 3.0 brought Star Wars and an entire kart-racing mode developed by Sumo Digital. In the end, manufacturing costs sunk the project and Disney pulled the plug – but Infinity remains a nostalgic favourite for many.
1 LEGO Dimensions
LEGO Dimensions was by far the most ambitious of the major toys-to-life players. It aimed to take the Disney Infinity concept of crossover and elevate it a thousand-fold, without being limited to just the IP that Disney owned. Developer Travellers’ Tales courted any franchise they could get their hands on for this bad boy. You name it, it was in here: DC Comics, Back to the Future, Lord of the Rings, Portal, Scooby Doo, Doctor Who, Ghostbusters, Sonic the Hedgehog, Adventure Time… the list went on and on.
A major asset for Dimensions was that these figures (and accompanying vehicles) were made from actual LEGO, a well-established and trusted toy brand. Outside of the game, they could be incorporated into your existing LEGO builds with ease; but thankfully, they were pretty cool in-game, too.
The mashups Dimensions allowed were ridiculous. Nowhere else will you see the Doctor discussing jelly babies with Homer Simpson, or Sonic reminiscing about his time as a Werehog with Marceline the Vampire Queen.
The gameplay hanging it all together was the standard engaging TT LEGO fare, with platforming and hoovering up studs still the order of the day. By the final update in 2017, Dimensions was massive; offering 30 distinct worlds to explore, each with countless quests.
Unfortunately, costs driven up by the use of real LEGO, and the toys-to-life bubble bursting, did the game in – but many players still clamour for a digital re-release. It would certainly be a shame to have such a staggeringly bonkers project trapped on older hardware.
Next: Best Video Game Action Figures