Plug and play
When Mr Kendrick Teo first read about Skylanders: Spyro's Adventure back in 2011, he was more fascinated by the technology used to create the game than by the game itself.
In the console game, players can buy and "insert" toy figurines into the game via a radio frequency identification (RFID) chip and reader.
The more toys a player buys, the more characters he can control in the game.
The 42-year-old senior operations executive recalled: "I was fascinated by the technology. It was very different from normal computer games. There were also many figures and I loved the designs."
He began by buying the starter pack - the game and three figurines - and one extra figurine. Now, after three years, he reckons that he has one of the most complete Skylanders game collections here.
He owns the original game and its three sequels, including Skylanders: Trap Team, along with every mass-market figurine released in between. At last count, he owned more than 290. With the addition of the new Mini Skylanders and the more than 30 Crystal Trap tokens for the latest version, Mr Teo has lost count of what he has and how much he has spent in the last three years.
Prices start from $22.90 for a figure.
The irony is that he no longer plays the Skylanders game. All his purchases are kept in mint condition in their original packaging.
Mr Teo is part of an audience that that made the original Skylanders the top selling video game of 2012. As of March, the franchise has generated US$2 billion (S$2.5 billion) in revenue. Publisher Activision has sold more than 175 million Skylander toys.
This success prompted Disney to come up with its own version, Disney Infinity, last year. It lets players introduce popular characters such as Mickey Mouse, Elsa and Anna (Frozen), Woody and Buzz Lightyear (Toy Story) and many more, into its game.
This year's version, Disney Infinity 2.0, revolves around characters from the Disney-owned Marvel Comics such as Captain America, Spider-Man and Iron Man.
Both the game franchises are proving popular with gamers and non-gamers here, said Mr Craig Soo, sales manager of Soft Source, which distributes both games here.
With Skylanders, each new version has sold better than the previous one, but there are more fans of the toy figurines than for the game itself.
"Last year, the Skylanders Swap Force starter pack saw a 5-per-cent increase in sales. But we sold 40 to 50 per cent more of the toys."
These days, it sells 5,000 to 8,000 pieces of each Skylander figurine.
While the Skylander starter pack is outselling Disney Infinity by 10 to 3, there is more brand recognition with Disney figurines.
Said Mr Soo: "The retailers here are replenishing more Disney Infinity toys, as there are more popular characters in the series."
But Mr Teo remains loyal to Skylanders, even though he concedes the Disney Infinity figures look impressive.
He said: "There are many Disney toys, but only one type of Skylander figures."
How the figures come alive
In the Skylanders and Disney Infinity console games, players place figurines onto a platform that is connected to a game console.
On Skylanders, the platform is known as the Portal Of Power. In Disney Infinity, the platform is called the Infinity Base.
The figurines from one franchise cannot be used on the other's platform,
Each figurine holds an RFID (radio-frequency identification) chip. The platforms are chip readers that detect the figurine placed on it and "import" the character represented into the video game.
Players control the character through a variety of adventures and are able to enhance the character's ability, skills and powers.
Information is stored on the figure's chip. So a player can take his figurines and use them on a friend's console. As the figurines already contain the attributes earned by the players on the RFID chip, they can be used on a portal connected to competing game console systems.
So if you own a PlayStation 4 console, your figurines can also be used for play on a platform connected to an Xbox One console.
Skylanders has three sequels. Skylanders: Giants was launched in 2012; and Skylander: Swap Force in 2013. This year's game is titled Skylanders: Trap Team.
Each new game introduces a new wave of characters, but would also accept older characters.
Disney's Infinity Base has three spots to place items on. There are two circular ones for characters and power discs, while a hexagonal spot is for a Play Set or power discs.
Rounded power discs are used to enhance a character, while the hexagonal discs offer enhancements for the Play Set.
A Play Set piece is a realm within the video game where only select figures can interact with.
For example, Sully from Monsters Inc. can interact with the Monsters Inc. Play Set, but cannot be used with the Cars Play Set.
As with Skylanders, all Disney Infinity figures are forward compatible, so they should be able to work with future games in the series.
But in both franchises, figurines from the new games cannot work on the platforms from earlier games.
Disney Infinity 2.0
$114 (Xbox 360; PlayStation 3; Xbox One; PlayStation 4, version tested)
When the Disney Infinity game was launched last year, there was no denying its similarity to the hugely popular Skylanders game.
To its credit, the House Of Mouse did its best to differentiate its game from Skylanders, a straight-up action game that involved an army of toy figurines.
Disney Infinity crafted its game in two parts. The Play Set portions were action-oriented gameplay environments with which players and their token characters could interact. The Toy Box was a virtual sandbox that gave players the opportunity to create their own worlds, complete with buildings, roads, trees and many more objects. These places are inhabited by well-known characters such as Mickey Mouse, Jack Sparrow, Mr Incredible and Queen Elsa.
The key difference? The Play Sets were controlled environments created for use only with specific characters. So Mr Incredible and his family, for example, can never enter Princess Anna's Frozen Play Set. But as long as you have the figurine, any character can populate the Toy Box world created by the player.
It is the use of these famous characters that gives Disney the edge. Consumers probably have no clue about the various elements and faces within Skylanders, but most of us would recognise blockbuster films such as Cars, Toy Story, Frozen and Pirates Of The Caribbean.
With version 2.0, Disney decided to focus on what is arguably its biggest money-spinner, Marvel Comics.
The new starter pack contains three Avengers - Iron Man, Thor and Black Widow. Players can purchase close to a dozen more characters as add-on figures (from $22.90 each), including Spider-Man, Captain America and the crew of Marvel's Guardian Of The Galaxy, fresh off their box-office triumph.
Not in the same play world
The premise remains the same. The comic characters can participate in the action game elements of the Play Set, and players can create their own environments in the Toy Box.
While this sounds great in theory, the game is geared towards children and not the young adults who might better appreciate this title.
Which comics-mad teenager would not want to re-enact iconic moments from the comics in the game, whether it is Captain America versus Iron Man from the Civil War storyline, or everyone versus the Hulk in World War Hulk?
The curious thing about version 2.0 is that while all the comic book characters are from Marvel, the game splits them up in different Play Sets along some bizarre lines.
So Nick Fury, Hulk, Captain America and Iron Man can be used in the Avengers Play Set; and Spider-Man, Venom and Nova, in the Spider-Man Play Set. But the game will not allow players to take any character from one set and use it on another set, even though all Marvel Comics characters inhabit the same world.
The Avengers fight Loki, while Spidey attempts to foil his arch-nemesis, the Green Goblin. Meanwhile, the Guardians Of The Galaxy have their own Play Set and are somewhere in space fighting Ronan The Accuser.
While Iron Man and The Hulk can enter Spider-Man's game, Groot cannot be used alongside The Avengers. The game designers must have forgotten that Spider-Man is a card-carrying member of The Avengers because the webslinger cannot be used in that Play Set.
Maybe this is due to the nature of the heroes and their abilities not fitting the environment of that Play Set. But should this not be left to the players to decide?
Why will Disney not allow players to determine that Black Widow is truly out of her league fighting alongside the Guardians in space, or that Groot is not able to fly across Manhattan?
And even when some characters can be used in another set, it is not automatic. Players must go through that particular Play Set with an established character and search for Crossover coins of the approved crossover character, to unlock the presence in the Play Set.
This is the exact opposite of Skylanders. In any Skylanders game, there is only one storyline, and any character you own, whether it is one you bought for the current game, or three years ago from the first game, can be used in the current game.
It is up to the player to decide if the skills and abilities from a character from two games ago is suitable for the new game.
In this sense, Disney Infinity 2.0 is actually selling players additional content disguised as Play Sets, and making them pick up more figurines.
Compare this to last year's game, where players picked up Mr Incredible, Jack Sparrow and Sully in the starter pack and had the luxury of having a Play Set environment for each character. This year, that Play Set has been reduced to just one.
Fun game for all ages
Gameplay in the Disney version is rather rudimentary. Spider-Man webs the villains. Iron Man has his repulsors and Thor has Mjolnir.
The variation in fighting styles for the various heroes is appreciated, but for the first few missions, be prepared to have your patience tested by simple missions that can have players tail someone, locate items and save bystanders.
A skill tree offers players the option of upgrading a variety of skills for each character, but overall, this game plays more like Lego Batman than Batman Arkham City.
Visually, the game is rather bland. On the PlayStation 4, there is no escaping the high-resolution cartoon-style drawings on display. The characters and environments look pretty simple and this translates into the figurines, which all look less detailed than Skylanders figurines.
That said, the game does have some nice touches. You can see Iron Man cast a shadow as he flies across the city and if he goes too fast, he can crash into the side of a building and cause some damage, before plummeting to the ground.
The voice talents deserve credit for the effort put in to give Iron Man, Spider-Man and other heroes plenty of their comic book and movie personality, which really shows.
As for the Toy Box, where players can create their own environments, share them and make them available for other players to download, its appeal depends on how much you like the Minecraft-style of games.
There are pre-set structures and checkpoints that make this world-building endeavour an easy one, but I am the type of gamer who prefers explosive destruction to creation.
Despite some misgivings about design and creative decisions, I find Disney Infinity 2.0 a fun game for all ages.
Most people, I suspect, will pick up the toy figurines because they are so well known. So Disney may have another blockbuster on its hands.
Skylanders: Trap Team
$49 (Dark Edition); $114 (PlayStation 3; PayStation 4; Xbox 360; Xbox One, version tested)
Activision's Skylanders game franchise has always been about selling the toy figurines. While this is somewhat apparent in its previous outings, it is now quite obvious in the latest sequel, Trap Team.
Here, players can trap the villain bosses that they defeat at various levels, by locking them up with Traptanium crystals. This is so that at any point in the game, a player can choose to play the game as the villain.
The catch? Traptanium crystals ($19.90 each) are accessories that players have to buy, alongside the new Skylander figurines. You need at least eight Traptanium crystals for the game, one for each of the eight elements used in the game.
The other catch is that all the locked elemental gates that could be accessed by Skylanders aligned with a specific element can now only be opened by the new Trap Master figures belonging to that elemental alignment.
And did I mention that the Traptanium shrines found throughout the game can be destroyed only by the new Trap Masters? Or that Trap Masters characters deal more damage to the enemy, than do regular Skylanders?
In other words, this is a great time to start on Skylanders if you have never played it before, since you can effectively start the game knowing that existing fans do not have an edge with their old toy collection.
But for fans of the series, it can be really bad, because Trap Team effectively negates the use of your existing Skylander figurines from the previous three games.
It can get confusing
Not wanting to buy eight new Trap Masters, I decided to see if my existing collection of 30 older Skylanders could make a contribution, but it was not easy.
Without a Trap Master to unlock elemental gates, I missed out on collecting many of the items that would have netted me an additional gold star for completing that level.
With 30 figurines to play with in previous Skylander games, it meant that I had 30 lives with which to complete each level. Every time I was defeated, I simply replaced the figurine with a new one and carried on without restarting the level.
But if my only two Trap Masters were defeated, I was, in effect, replacing them with much weaker characters, which made the level a lot more difficult to play through.
Luckily, there is plenty of variety to prevent a defeat. By trapping boss villains, players can toggle between a Skylander or a villain at any point in the game, thereby extending their chances of succeeding.
The catch is that you need to own Traptanium crystals for this.
Here is where it can get confusing. Any character in the game can defeat and trap a boss character. All trapped characters are locked away in a cage within the game. But when you want to bring along a trapped villain as a secondary character, you need a Traptanium crystal.
More play from older toys
Like every Skylander, any villain belongs to an element, so you would need an Air Traptanium crystal to trap an Air villain.
The crystal is inserted into a slot in the new Portal Of Power base and a neat part of the base is that it now comes with a speaker.
If you are facing a horde of enemies, the "trapped" boss in the crystal in your base actually speaks up and taunts you, to remind you that help is just a call away.
Sometimes, in the heat of battle, using a trapped villain gives you a breather, because the bosses have rather powerful attacks.
Unfortunately, you cannot play a villain indefinitely. There is a time limit. Trapped bosses are also played as they are, that is, you cannot upgrade their skills or abilities as you can with Skylanders whose skills can be unlocked and upgraded.
Personally, I do not see the need to own all eight crystals, although they do not cost much, and do supply an ideal backup force.
If you have never owned a Skylanders toy, may I recommend that you pick up the Dark Edition of the game, instead of the regular one.
For $35 more, you get an additional trap crystal unique to the set, as well as a bonus Trap Master.
All the characters in the Dark Edition are also Dark variants of their regular counterparts, which means they come in a different paint job and are harder to come by.
In terms of gameplay, the action is more elaborate than in Disney Infinity 2.0, but that is to be expected, since Skylanders started out years ago as an action game catering to a younger audience.
The addition of toy figures has boosted its appeal, although it lacks the brand-name recognition of Disney's competing franchise.
The Skylanders figurines are also more detailed than Disney's, and look less like simple toys.
While Skylanders has more figures and accessories to pick up, Trap Team is a complete game in itself and does not require additional investment to unlock content.
Its greater use of figures from earlier versions also means players get more gameplay from their older toys. The scope of Disney Infinity is more limited.
This article was first published on Oct 22, 2014.
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