On the whole, console games aimed at younger family members these days come with toys attached. Whether that's Skylanders, which started the "toys to life" craze rolling, Disney Infinity or newcomer Lego Dimensions the basic formula is the same: purchase a starter pack to get the game in the house, then expand upon it over time by purchasing more toys.
The toy figurines are placed on a USB peripheral connected to the game console to unlock in-game characters and levels. Not only that, but progress made in the game is wirelessly saved back to the toy ready for the next play session.
Kids love it because there’s a strong connection between the toy character in their pocket and the on-screen adventures. They can even take their toy figures to a friend’s house and use it on their game, regardless of the platform.
Parents might not be quite so keen.
The issues for parents lie in the collectability of these toys. The games and toy-lines are designed to offer incentives for children to collect, if not all, many of the 30 or so figures released each year. As part of playing they will discover characters and areas only accessible with additional toy purchases, and they can be expensive additions.
But they can also be great fun for the child and offer value for money in a way that non-game-linked toys cannot.
So, making an informed choice about which of these games will offer best value for your family is a great way to ensure all parties are happy. Here’s what you need to know.
While additional toys and characters may seem essential to young players, the starter packs for each of the toys to life games enable you to complete the majority of their respective games with no additional purchases. This represents many hours of gameplay with no extra cost.
Therefore, it’s worth encouraging your child to exhaust the starter pack content before you spend too much on extras. These additions will then open up optional extra side missions and provide new characters to re-play the main adventure, but if your young ones have grown bored beforehand, you won't have spent unnecessarily.
The Christmas contenders
This year’s Skylanders game adds drivable vehicles in land, sea and air form. This adds a new way to traverse the levels and battle enemies — as well as the usual on-foot gameplay. A nice part of this is that the vehicles have articulated parts so that they function as well as toys on the living room carpet as they do in the game.
There are a few ways to buy Skylanders SuperChargers this year. If you have a previous version of the game (Spyro’s Adventure, Giants, Swap Force or Trap Team) you can purchase or download the game-only version and reuse your existing USB peripheral from the previous games.
If you go for a new Superchargers Starter Pack this provides not only a new USB Portal peripheral but also new characters and vehicles. There are some special Starter Pack versions this year, be sure you check whether your child wants the Nintendo characters that come with the Wii U, Wii and 3DS version or standard Skylanders that come in the other versions. Then there are the special edition Dark Starter Pack characters to consider — really only for those avid collectors and fans.
SuperChargers lets you use all your existing Skylander characters in the game both on foot and to pilot the vehicles but you do need one of this year’s Skylanders to customise and modify the vehicles which is a big part of the fun.
Buying second hand Skylanders characters is a cost effective way to greatly expand the experience. Additionally you can often find the previous Skylanders game discs being sold on their own, again offering great value.
Finally it’s worth noting that the 3DS and Wii version of Superchargers offers a different "racing" style game to the Wii U, Xbox 360, Xbox One, PS3 and PS4 versions. There’s also a tablet version of the game that can be bought either digitally or via a starter pack.
Disney Infinity 3.0
This year’s Disney Infinity game brings with it the Star Wars franchise. This will offer content for the first six films as well as The Force Awakens when that is released.
Again there are different ways to purchase the game this year. If you already have the Disney Infinity Base USB peripheral you can download or buy the disc-only version of the game. Most retailers will offer this bundled with a playset of your choice — that will be required to access the Star Wars adventures.
The Twilight of the Republic playset comes in the Starter Pack and offers content from Episodes I-III. The Rise agains the Republic playset is only available at launch in the expensive Saga Starter Pack on Playstation consoles and covers Episodes IV-VI. This latter playset and characters will be available to purchase separately a month after the initial release for other devices.
Additionally there is an Inside Out playset available offering an adventure and figurines for that particular Pixar movie. Marvel content is also expected around Age of Ultron and Ant Man although this is yet to be confirmed.
It’s important to realised that you can only use the Star Wars characters in the Star Wars adventures. The part of Disney Infinity where you can mix and match franchises is the Toy Box game creator mode. This stand out feature enables players to snap together their own worlds and create mini-games to play with friends.
This means that purchasing second hand characters is a little more limited. Also Disney Infinity 3.0 does not support the previous 1.0 and 2.0 playsets out the box. If your family has a strong connection to one of the previous franchises included in previous games (Marvel, Toy Story, Pirates of the Caribbean for example) a valid and cost effective option may be purchasing an older version.
This is the first year that TT Games and Warner Bros have embraced the toys to life genre. Lego Dimensions combines the popular game-play and brands of the Lego video-games with a Toy Pad USB peripheral that integrates well with the game and reads the special “smart” Lego minifigures to unlock characters and content.
The Lego Dimensions Starter Pack is a little more expensive than Skylanders and Infinity but offers proper build-able toys to play with rather than static figurines. The bases can be removed from the minifigures to enable them to integrate with your wider Lego collection — although care will need to be taken not to lose or mix up the small circular bases as without them you can’t access the related character in the game.
Another distinguishing feature is that all the the brands included in Lego Dimensions are available in the main experience without additional purchases. This provides an adventure that takes in franchises ranging from Doctor Who, Portal, Back to the Future, Jurassic World, The Simpsons, Jurassic Park, The Wizard of Oz, DC Comics, The Lego Movie and Batman.
Additional packs then offer more characters and extended levels. The Level packs cost a little more but not only add new characters but also further adventures for the related brand. It is worth completing the main game in the Starter Pack to get a taste for which franchises your family connects best to, then focusing on those for additional purchases.
The Lego Dimensions Toy Pad USB peripheral offers some extended game-play interactions beyond that of its competitors. By moving the figurines to different colour coded locations of the Toy Pad different interactions are triggered in the game. The teleporting, shrinking, growing and colouring techniques are used to great effect in the puzzle solving side of the game.
The variety of choices on offer this year is greater than ever. The research and details here are therefore essential if you are to make the right toys to life purchase for your family.
We've not even mentioned Nintendo's Amiibo range of characters either - partly because they aren't for any specific game, rather can interact with a large number of Nintendo titles. They also tend to be purchased by older collectors and game fans too.
As for the other sets, some will be driven by price and existing investment in figurine collections like Skylanders. Others will be attracted to the big name franchises like Star Wars in Infinity or Back to the Future in Dimensions. Being able to make your own games is a big benefit in Disney Infinity, as are the deeper Toy Pad interactions in Dimensions.
Whichever you choose, finding a game that will be enjoyed by both you and your children together will ensure you get good value out of it. It will also mean that you’ll be more able to say “no” (or maybe “not yet”) to inevitable pestering for more figurines at the supermarket checkout.