Skylanders SuperChargers

Skylanders SuperChargers goes above and beyond the annual facelift to outdo itself in ways I didn’t think possible from a yearly kids’ game. It’s combined a kart racer with a familiar action-adventure campaign that changes the rules by regularly swapping between on-foot and vehicular sequences.

I’ll admit I had doubts about Skylanders moving into its fifth entry in as many years. It spawned a genre that’s proven too lucrative for others to ignore, and with amiibo draining the wallets of Nintendo fans, Disney Infinity adding Star Wars and LEGO Dimensions being the new kid on the block, but the most recognisable of the bunch in the toy department, Skylanders could have fallen victim to its own success. Happily, that’s not the case. The toys-to-life novelty has well and truly passed, but Skylanders continues to do what it’s always done best by tweaking the gameplay and being its own kids entertainment property that isn’t dependant on support material.

SuperChargers unleashes vehicles into the mix, spanning land, air and sea; and yes, that means more toys to collect and a different content gate. The Starter Pack includes a land vehicle, Hot Streak, and two characters, enough to get you through the main story, but not the side quests.

Previously, elements restricted content to encourage buying new figures. In SuperChargers, elements make characters stronger in a designated area, but don’t lock you out. Instead, you’ll need at least one sky and sea vehicle to play through the story properly – these sections can be skipped – and you’ll want a few characters. When a Skylander runs out of health, either continue with another figure or restart the level. All figures from previous games can get behind the wheel in SuperChargers, so there’s no need to break the bank beyond vehicles, but you’ll get a stat boost when teaming a new Skylander to their matching vehicle.

It’s still expensive, but this feels like a fair release model. Ultimately the Starter Pack is only the beginning, and you’ll need more figures, but a trio of vehicles with different functions is better value for money than convoluted element gates. They also expand the roster of racing tracks available in an entirely separate mode with a nod to Diddy Kong Racing.

The campaign is familiar, yet deviates more than expected thanks to the depth of this year’s twist. Like characters, vehicles can be upgraded through a skill tree and mods, which are basic enough not to overwhelm. Missions often begin on-foot, but swap in and out of a land vehicle, and optionally a sea or aircraft, as they progress.

While there is some quasi-racing in missions against enemies to conquer, these sections tend to evolve into delightful action-adventure sequences still inside vehicles. After hurling through a racetrack, you’ll complete basic puzzles and fight bosses from behind the wheel, and then continue on-foot. The brilliance is in never leaning on any of the three pillars – kart racing, vehicular adventure and foot platform-combat – by switching between all three at frantic pace.

The vehicle types are distinct and well tailored to their strengths. Air battles play like a simplistic Star Fox, including barrel rolling out of harm’s way, and underwater segments slow down the otherwise hectic adventure. These missions encourage exploration and taking your time in a welcome change of pace after racing through the preceding chapter at top flight. If you’re looking for more of that, there’s also a virtual strategy card game that can be played during downtime — not to be confused with Skylanders Battlecast, which is a mobile and physical card game coming soon.

The only blight on the revolving vehicle mission structure is SuperChargers assumes you have access to all of three vehicle types from the outset, but that’s not feasible for all players. It’s not always easy to see where to go next if you’re limited to the starter pack, as the optional air and sea segments command just as much visual attention as the mandatory land missions. But conversely, there’s no easy way to monitor which missions have been skipped if more figures are acquired later.

Regular switching between vehicles also makes controls occasionally problematic when trying to maneuver a vehicle through a tricky sequence. There’s no manual camera controls, but it often switches perspective from behind the car to a top-down view or from the side, almost like a 2D platformer, which can disorientate steering.

While the flashy vehicles steal the spotlight as toys, featuring moving parts to transition from collectible figures to playable toys, it’s the on-foot combat and adventure that keeps Skylanders at the top of its game. With Kaos back causing havoc in an elegantly nonsensical narrative, and an overconfident Flynn, with the booming voice of Patrick Warburton, and sassy Cali guiding you on the journey to defeat him, the story is cute, engaging and laugh-out-loud funny. It’s not designed for me, a 24-year-old bloke, to play alone. But like so many of the great animated films of the modern age, Skylanders has plenty of tame adult jokes for mum and dad to chuckle along to while playing the role of co-op partner or backseat observer. It also points fun as some outdated video game tropes for the babysitters.

Skylanders is still the king of bridging the generational gap with drop in/out co-op. Players are tethered together on land, as to not have one Skylander stray off the screen, and join forces in a vehicle with one player driving and the other shooting. Controlling separate characters can be problematic in kids’ games, especially if there’s a skill disparity between siblings, or mum is a total n00b, but these inevitable frustrations are washed away when both players are working together in a single vehicle. No more unplugging little brother’s PS2 controller.

Combat will feel familiar to returning Skylanders. There are no complicated combos, though attacks are getting more advanced with each installment, and unlocks are easy to manage. It’s a simple system based on using a couple of buttons to dish out melee, ranged and charged attacks. There’s a deep roster of enemies to tackle, all of them tastefully bested with the aura of victory rather than the implication of murder, earning basic experience points monitored under the massive health bar at the bottom of the screen.

Donkey Kong and Bowser guest star in the Wii U version of SuperChargers with their own vehicles. They also double as amiibo in Nintendo compatible games with the flick of a switch. The Wii and 3DS versions of the game don’t include the campaign and are only kart racers. However, you’ll need one of them to get both Nintendo characters. The Wii U version includes Donkey Kong and his kart, while the Wii and 3DS racing games include Bowser and his plane. To be really picky, there are also dark editions of these in different starter packs. The Nintendo Skylanders figures are not sold separately.

The environments, and in particular the introduction of new enemies, is spectacularly vibrant. Skylanders has always been a bright, colourful game, but the presentation now presents a genuine case for playing on PS4 and Xbox One over the last-gen or mobile versions.

Kart racing is integrated into the Skylander’s Academy, the hub world, or can be accessed directly from the menu. It here’s where you’ll benefit most from buying sea and air vehicles, as it expands the tracks and like any great kart racer, these are endlessly playable. While it’s no match for Mario Kart, it follows the same principles and is easier to learn with a better boost system and less rubber-banding or prevalence placed on items. As a side mode and not the primary component, SuperChargers is a fun kart racer.

The Final Verdict

Skylanders SuperChargers has surpassed my expectations. It remains a great kids games in its own universe, with a story to suit, that’s best played co-op with mum and dad or a sibling normally too advanced to team up with. This isn’t just Skylanders Racing. That’s a mode, but the blend of kart racing, action vehicle segments and on-foot platform-combat makes SuperChargers a blast from start to finish. The full experience still requires a hefty financial investment, but the three vehicle types are better value than previous content gates, and there’s even a nifty bonus for Wii U players.