Skylanders ups the ante this year with the biggest addition the series has ever seen—vehicles. Really expensive ones, as it happens. As a result, they’ve also changed the structure of the game in ways major and minor. The odds are good that if you’ve been playing the rest of the series, Skylanders: Superchargers won’t be where you stop and that’s a relatively good thing.
Crass commercialism aside, Superchargers is pretty fun, just like the rest of the series. The mix of over-priced physical product and a genuinely solid and kid-friendly action game has worked wonders for Activision’s bottom line, but also put them in the position of having to figure out just how much to change the game up each year.
There have been bizarre attempts—like the ill-advised Swap Force, where the premium figures came apart, leading to parental rage and confusion over finding severed bottoms and tops everywhere—but adding vehicles feels like a natural progression. There are three types—land, sea and air—and to explore every section of each level, you’ll need at least one of each. In fact, if you lose the car-type land vehicle that comes with the game, you can’t really play at all. The sea and air segments are optional (yet still part of the main plot, unlike previous side missions) and completing both side missions in each level is the only way to earn a three-star rating for the level.
This is a pretty radical and, frankly, overtly money-hungry way to go. Prior games gave players one star just for beating the level, but the other two were for actual skill-based achievements, such as not dying and completing the level under a specific time limit. Here, you’re merely rewarded for having spent money. This is a noteworthy step back for the series, although Activision probably thinks it’s a grand way to sucker players into spending as much money as possible.
The other issue with the vehicles centers around the bizarre control scheme. In straight up linear races, the driving/flying/boating is fine. Superchargers offers a very basic, serviceable driving mechanic akin to classic arcade racers with no interest in pesky things like physics and real handling. That works here, given the goofy nature of the overall Skylanders world.
The problem comes during free driving areas where the control scheme feels utterly unnatural and unresponsive to either one’s thumbs or logic. Ostensibly, the craft should go in the direction you point the analog stick instead of more logical left/right steering, but driving is woefully unpredictable and damn near unplayable at times. Even after I figured it out, controlling the vehicles always felt haphazard and frustrating, with no refinement at all.
The other area where the game refuses to improve is the camera, especially when playing co-operatively. It’s too easy for one player to get stuck when the other moves too far away. Instead of letting the camera pan out further, now holding the left shoulder button down teleports you to the other player. It’s a band-aid solution to a problem that has haunted the game since the beginning.
For all that, Superchargers still understands the things that work. The levels and characters are diverse, surreal and gorgeously cartoony. There are some truly creative, if not flawless maps here—such as an area connected by portals that send the figures to different perspectives like walls and ceilings. Another fun level shrinks you down to the size of an ant, while a sadistic gardener unleashes evil bugs and tries to fry you with her magnifying glass. A brief series of retro twists on Skylanders is probably the highlight, where the game emulates old school platformers and shooters. Boss battles are heavily vehicle centered, which is an improvement from the traditionally weak boss battles of the series. Even with the questionable steering controls, these segments of fast-paced driving and shooting are far better than the plodding boss battles of old.
If there’s one particular area where the overall story line (absurd though it might be) is getting way too long in the tooth, it’s the continual insistence on using the diminutive and annoying villain, Kaos. Last year’s Trap Team finally moved away (at least partially) from this shrimpy and pathetic “lord of evil”, but his constant failure, whiny dialogue, and absurd schemes just feel trite. Here’s hoping Activision retires him for future game and comes up with a real villain.
Overall, Skylanders: Superchargers is certainly fun. The level design is creative and visually interesting, the variety of characters and attack styles is immense, and the addition of vehicles adds a lot to the mix. Superchargers isn’t deep or particularly innovative, but the combat works and it’s a great cooperative game to play with the kids. Activision did, finally, add online play and Nintendo owners can feel smug thanks to the addition of Nintendo characters like Donkey Kong and Bowser (who is bizarrely and cruelly included as an exclusive only in the original Wii version). If you don’t mind shelling out yet more money for the new figures, Superchargers is probably the best Skylanders game yet.
Jason D’Aprile has been covering games and entertainment for the last three decades across a variety of platforms, many of which are now extinct. In addition to covering gaming (both obscure and otherwise), he also writes a bit of the odd fiction and tries hard to avoid social media.