First Skylanders, then Disney Infinity and now LEGO -- the video game sections of major retailers everywhere are slowly being taken over by toys. Which plastic portal of power should you be plugging into your game console? Let's see if we can help.
In a perfect world where no one needed to care about cost or shelf space I'd say get them all. I've been enamoured by the combination of toys and digital entertainment since Captain Power showed up back in 1987, and anything that encourages more of that is fine by me.
But it's not a perfect world and money is a factor, especially when it comes to investing hundreds of dollars in buying the games and collecting the figures now available across three major game franchises.
So we're going to break down the three latest toys-meet-games titles -- Disney Infinity 3.0, Skylanders: Superchargers and newcomer LEGO Dimensions -- to see which of your boxes they tick.
A note on Amiibo: Why am I not including Nintendo's wildly-popular Amiibo figures in this comparison? Because while those do interact with games on a basic level, they are more of a platform than a game in their own right.
Our physical interfaces with the games' digital worlds will live on long after we've stopped pulling Disney Infinity 3.0, Skylanders: Superchargers and LEGO Dimensions discs from their respective cases. Which colourful pieces of plastic come out on top?
If you're looking to acquire a gorgeous set of toys, look no further than Disney Infinity. The designers of Infinity toys have done an amazing job of taking a series of characters from a diverse line-up and reworking them to look as if they all inhabit the same cartoon world. The recent Star Wars releases in particular are just stunning, capturing the spirit of the franchise's iconic heroes and villains perfectly.
Skylanders toys have great sculpts, but close-up the painting leaves a lot to be desired. Take a look at the Superchargers version of Jet-Vac here -- the blue jacket with its blue straps and blue buckles and... well, it's just all blue.
LEGO minifigures are LEGO minifigures -- they each look lively for what they are and I love them, but if you're looking for dynamic display figures it's all Disney.
Winner: Disney Infinity
Both Disney Infinity and LEGO Dimensions utilise characters from existing properties, so you pretty much know what to expect when you place one of those toys on a plastic portal.
Skylanders figures, on the other hand, are unique creations that aren't bound by established rules or fiction. Repaints and variants aside, each new Skylander has a bit of mystery about it. Take Splat here.
I love her look, but I have no idea what she does yet. I have every intention of porting her into the game, but part of me would rather prolong the mystery for a little while longer.
And again, they are all original figures. A Disney Infinity or LEGO Dimensions designer starts off with a beloved character and just has to figure out how to make them fit a particular style. Skylanders toy designers get to create something entirely new, and the end results are often delightful.
Disney Infinity figures are statues. Some of the upcoming Star Wars figures light up on the portal (like Light Core Skylanders before them), but they are essentially very colourful army men.
The same goes for Skylanders figures. While some of the vehicles in the Superchargers line feature moving parts and rolling wheels, the characters themselves are just a step removed from those little naked children statues they used to sell at drug stores.
In terms of real-world playability, it's all LEGO Dimensions. Every LEGO Dimensions figure is a LEGO minifigure. Pop them off of their base and you can play with them the same way you would any LEGO figure. Every LEGO Dimensions accessory or vehicle is a miniature LEGO kit, capable of being broken down and rebuilt into a variety of different forms.
I love this, but I am a LEGO fan -- your children's mileage may vary. I was talking to my nephew about the game during Thanksgiving dinner and he said the only thing he hated was "having to build the portal." If your child is as much a jerk as my younger nephew, don't get them anything for the holidays.
Winner: LEGO Dimensions
If you're just buying the toys for the sake of collecting, then the choice comes down to personal preference. If I had to choose between one of the three it would probably be the LEGO offering, but only because I have several thousand dollars already invested in LEGO sets and bricks.
From there it depends on what I am collecting for. If I'm looking for some sort of investment I'd go with Disney Infinity, as its trio of iconic brands -- Disney, Marvel and Star Wars -- all resonate with collectors. If I wanted semi-surreal strangeness, then it's Skylanders all the way.
Ultimately I feel that collecting these figures for collecting's sake is doing one's self a disservice. Without playing the games, you're only experiencing half of the fun.
While the toys all blur together on the shelves during a late-night bout of holiday shopping, the Disney Infinity 3.0, Skylanders: Superchargers and LEGO Dimensions gameplay experiences are each distinctively different.
If you're buying for kids, know that each of the three is colourful, well-made and relatively easy to pick up and play. These are some of the kid-friendliest titles on the market.
It all comes down to what you or your young giftee is looking for in a game.
Before LEGO Dimensions arrived picking a winner purely based on gameplay was a much easier task. The Skylanders series has traditionally given players a rock-solid 3D platforming game (with more platforming elements introduced once the developers added the ability to jump in the third game, Swap Force.)
Disney Infinity has always offered a variety of themed adventure levels, but despite bringing on some respected outside developers to work on aspects like combat or driving, these adventures have always felt somewhat limited, extensions of its creativity-focused Toy Box construction mode rather than their own thing.
Now LEGO Dimensions has arrived, and while the core gameplay is the same as countless other LEGO games crafted by developer TT Games, creative use of the portal -- the base all three games use to interface with their toys -- gives it a bit of an edge. In Disney Infinity and Skylanders, once the toys are on their portal there's no need to touch them again until you want to change characters. In Dimensions the player is constantly moving their characters and accessories between the three different segments of the portal. Say an enemy casts a spell to trap Batman. The area underneath his figure on the portal turns red. To break the spell he must be moved physically to a non-red section of the portal.
It's really a tough call between LEGO Dimensions and Skylanders: Superchargers, the latter of which added land, sea and air racing to its repertoire. So I'm just going to cop out. If you crave straightforward platforming and racing, go with Skylanders. If you want to hunt for collectibles and use your portal like a chess board, go with LEGO.
Tie: LEGO Dimensions/Skylanders
Here's where Disney Infinity 3.0 shines. What the series lacks in pure gameplay it makes up for in spades with its Toy Box mode. Toy Box gives players the tools they need to create their own adventures -- terrain pieces, buildings, vehicles and more can be placed. Objects can be assigned behaviours via a simple visual programming tool that kids are more likely to pick up before adults. Players can create their own games within the game and share them online with the world.
LEGO Dimensions does allow players to break down their accessories and rebuild them into different forms, but these changes come with step-by-step instructions. For LEGO creativity, you'll have to stick to physical LEGO bricks.
Skylanders does not appear in this category.
Winner: Disney Infinity
There are many factors that influence how long someone plays a game -- time constraints, attention spans and such. One player may get to the end boss in Skylanders: Superchargers and call it quits. Another will buy every character that comes out and run them through the game until they have reached max level, earned every star, completed every goal and gathered every collectible. When I talk longevity, I'm addressing that second sort of person -- how much will the obsessive gamer have to do?
In Disney Infinity 3.0 that involves completing each adventure level -- there'll be three Star Wars levels come mid-December, plus a lovely little platformer based on the film Inside Out. There's a Marvel Battlegrounds set arriving in March of 2016 that will allow comic book characters to do battle. There are set pieces for the Toy Box mode to collect -- quite a few, really. Plus toy characters can be leveled up, each with a skill tree that can be used to tailor them to the players' play style.
All of that plus special Toy Box games, building custom levels, decorating and expanding their own mansion -- it has the potential to keep players occupied for quite some time.
That said, I often find that once I play through the core game sections, my drive to create and collect isn't quite as strong. Much of Disney Infinity's depth comes from the creative Toy Box mode, and that's not for everyone.
Skylanders Superchargers is packed with collectibles to find, characters to level up and vehicles to customise with upgrades and new parts. There's a central hub filled with places to explore, land sea and air races both offline and online, and each new character released offers a brand-new way to play through established content.
That said, this year's entry is a bit skimpier than previous ones. There are only 20 new characters, each with a corresponding vehicle. Instead of adventure packs featuring new levels, this year's packs unlock new racetracks, which is lovely if you're into the racing, not so much if you're not.
LEGO Dimensions is pretty massive, all things considered. Along with a lengthy story mode filled with secrets and collectibles that can only be unlocked via subsequent play throughs with different characters, each property represented in the game gets its own adventure level to explore. Adventure levels feature themed challenges, even more collectibles and really give players a chance to much about in their favourite characters' worlds. Certain properties, like Portal, Doctor Who and Ghostbusters (coming soon) even get entire dedicated gameplay levels. Characters in LEGO Dimensions don't level up, but each vehicle and accessory does -- three times over, considering each has three different forms.
I'd say LEGO Dimensions and Disney Infinity 3.0 are neck-and-neck in terms of stuff to do and collect. That said, I'm having a lot more fun doing and collecting those things in LEGO Dimensions.
Winner: LEGO Dimensions
And The Winner Is...
All three of this year's big toys-meet-games titles are worthy marriages of physical plastic and virtual polygons. There is no clear winner in this showdown -- I urge parents and players alike to read through the article as well as our reviews for Skylanders: Superchargers, LEGO Dimensions and Disney Infinity 3.0 and draw their own conclusions.
That said, if a friend or random person in the video game section at Toys'R'Us asked me which game to get this year, I would not hesitate to point them toward LEGO Dimensions.
Why? Aside from me being a LEGO maniac? Of all the big games released so far in the segment, it's the one with the most interactivity between toys and game. Each figure is assembled rather than just being freed from a plastic bubble. Throughout the game the interactive portal encourages play -- it's an active experience.
We'll check back in next year to see if Skylanders and Disney Infinity step up their toy game to compete or just keep on doing what's already made Activision and Disney millions and millions of dollars.