All images are courtesy of Activision.
Skylanders SuperChargers is the fifth game in this collectible-toy/video-game franchise. Activision has previously introduced giant Skylanders, swappable Skylanders and trappable villains to keep earlier entries fresh. This year, the new spin is vehicles. SuperChargers' new toys include 20 elaborate craft capable of carrying the game's titular heroes across land, water or air. They also give players access to additional in-game content.
For owners of the Wii U version (as well as versions for the Xbox One, Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and PlayStation 4), Skylanders SuperChargers effectively includes two separate games: the classic Adventure Mode and the new Racing Mode (on the original Wii and 3DS, you only get Racing). Both of these can be played with the Wii U Gamepad, Pro Controller or an old-school Wii remote.
Along with vehicles SuperChargers introduces online gaming to the Skylanders franchise. In Adventure Mode you have the option to team up with a pre-registered friend online as well as locally, while in Racing Mode you can compete with up to three friends via the internet. Voice chat has also been included for those occasions when you need to communicate with another player who isn't in the same room.
Skylanders SuperChargers looks great partly thanks to flamboyantly artistic title cards that often make use of engine metaphors. There is also a neat twist to the story underlying Adventure Mode because it starts with top villain Kaos in control of Skylands. He has locked up anyone associated with the Skylanders, including their mentor, Master Eon, and cut off access to the portals.
Luckily Eon left his trusty Mabu assistant Hugo with instructions for contacting yet another secret squad of Skylanders who can save the day. What makes this crew special is their ability to add oomph to the game's powerful vehicles (which have presumably been stashed away in a secret garage during the four previous games in the series).
When the characters are on foot in Adventure Mode there isn't much that will surprise anyone with prior Skylanders experience. You work through exotically named locations defeating enemies, solving puzzles (including a new version of Skystones called Overdrive) and collecting treasure, hats and upgrades. Each location comes with bonus achievements, however, that require access to a vehicle and this does add a challenging new dimension to the familiar formula.
Similarly, there is nothing revolutionary about Racing Mode, which, in spirit, has much in common with Mario Kart. The racetracks course through Skyland's diverse landscape and unsurprisingly aren't designed to be as intense as those in real-world racing games. Starter Packs includes six tracks (two each for land, sea and sky vehicles) but more can be added by purchasing Racing Action Packs. The concept is unoriginal but competitive types will probably enjoy racing against other Skylanders heroes and villains (the latter are available in the RAPs) and competing with friends to climb the leaderboard.
Vehicle control is basically limited to steering and stop or go, which means the degree of hand-eye co-ordination required might exceed the capabilities many very young players. The good news is that vehicles are indestructible and anyone can derive perverse pleasure from driving them into or off things and performing stunts. Even with the Wii U's relatively limited processing power, the movement of vehicles is fluid and the game in general seems to be devoid of the kind of glitches that could scupper progress on some levels of Skylanders Trap Team.
Depending on your budget, the main downside to the introduction of vehicles in Skylanders SuperChargers is that they add to the cost of getting the most out of the game. As with the traps in Skylanders Trap Team, you have to have at least one of each type to unlock all possible achievements. Moreover, although any Skylander can drive a vehicle, only one specific character can supercharge their designated craft. From the most satisfying gameplay, therefore, it pays to get a SuperCharger with its corresponding vehicle. The price of each pair exceeds $20 at launch. Given that the Starter Pack itself is now around $75, that potentially puts Skylanders SuperChargers, like other toys-to-life games, out of reach of kids from low-income families.
On the subject of pricing, one welcome development to note is that Skylanders SuperChargers does not require it's own specific Portal of Power. If you have a Wii, Wii U or 3DS portal from an earlier Skylanders game, you can use it with a Portal Owner's Pack, which can be downloaded from the Nintendo eShop (or corresponding online stores for other consoles). This includes the game and virtual figures. This is effectively a digital Starter Pack and is a cheaper option if you already own a portal from a previous game.
One, albeit minor, disappointment with SuperChargers is the lack of new characters introduced with the new game. One of the pleasures I get from every news Skylanders game is seeing how inventive the designers at Vicarious Visions have got with its titular heroes. One of the features that makes Skylanders' collectible toys more than just a cash cow is the level of imagination that clearly goes into the clever and often witty designs and names of the characters. This year the introduction of vehicles and rehashing of several previously established Skylanders means there are few new faces.
Luckily, some diversity is added to SuperChargers' character roster by store-exclusives, such as Best Buy's Steel Plated Smash Hit (left) and Activision's traditional seasonal specials. The latter include Frightful Fiesta timed to be available for Halloween (below). There are also the usual Dark Edition and Eon's Elite variants (including a welcome return for Ghost Roaster). Added to these are two amiibo-compatible Nintendo crossovers - Donkey Kong (in the Wii U Starter Pack) and Bowser (in the Skylanders Racing Starter Pack for the Wii) - each of whom has their own vehicle.
Donkey Kong is included in the Wii U Starter Pack in place of Spitfire, who comes in the Xbox and PlayStation Starter Packs. In gameplay he looks and feels like a Skylanders Giant as he lollops along and thumps enemies with his barrel. Progress can feel sluggish when he's not in his vehicle but the character is nicely animated and doesn't seem out of place in the Skylanders universe.
Unfortunately, the novelty of Donkey Kong is really the only bonus Skylanders SuperChargers gets on the Wii U. As with so many third-party games, this one doesn't make full use of the console's unique features. The gamepad displays objectives but little else and it's a shame that Activision hasn't exploited its motion sensor as a navigation aid in the way that Nintendo has in games such as Splatoon. Perhaps the only real advantage of the Wii U version is that it does provide the option of limited mobile gaming because SuperChargers can be played on the gamepad if you stay within range of the console and a Skylanders portal.
Although it is becoming increasingly expensive to keep up to date with Skylanders via the traditional Starter Pack route, the game's developers can't be faulted for their efforts to keep the game fresh, fun and in line with social gaming trends. Activision's introduction of vehicle toys that can be just as much fun when played with out of the game as they are in it is a smart step.
Moreover, Skylanders' wacky Racing game adds some welcome variety to a familiar formula that now faces stiff competition from LEGO Dimensions and Disney Infinity in the toys-to-life genre. Given that Activision now has to fight harder for our dollars, the big question is, what will they think of next?
TMR score: 4/5
NOTE: Skylander's SuperChargers for the Wii U was supplied by Activision for review upon request.
This article was edited on October 22 to add more details about the Portal Owner's Pack.