What Is "Toys To Life"?
The term "Toys To Life" properly belongs to Activision as a trademark of the Skylanders franchise, but like so many catchy and useful trademarked terms (see also: "Xerox," "Photoshop," and "Google") it's become a catch-all phrase that people use to describe a category rather than a specific product. The toys-to-life genre includes Skylanders, of course, but also its competitors: LEGO Dimensions, Disney Infinity, and (to a somewhat lesser degree) Nintendo's amiibo line.
As the name suggests, toys-to-life products involve using physical figures to interact in different ways with video games. The idea of expanding a video game experience into the real world is nearly as old as games themselves; Nintendo made that concept the centerpiece of their NES launch 30 years ago, and classic Infocom adventures for personal computers shipped with interactive "feelies" (physical goods that tied into themes and plot points of the game) long before that. In the '90s, games like Barcode Battler and Monster Rancher used common household objects (barcodes and compact discs, respectively) to allow players to add content.
However, it wasn't until 2011 that someone took the next logical step and created a line of toys specifically for the purpose of tying in with a game. Toys For Bob's Skylanders, published by Activision, took the 3D action and platforming of the dusty Spyro the Dragon series and freshened it up by allowing players to summon other characters into the action by placing different microchip-equipped figurines on a USB-powered "portal" that plugged into the console. It was a clever idea on multiple levels. The figures and even the portal were console-agnostic, and each figure had its own built-in memory, so players could take their leveled-up heroes to a friend's house to play. Meanwhile, the figure line allowed players to pick their favorite playable characters while appealing to the collector mentality built in to the video gamer mindset.
Skylanders became an instant hit, and instant hits beget instant imitators. Before long, Disney had brought its considerable character lineup to bear on the market with 2013's Disney Infinity, followed by Nintendo with last year's amiibo launch and, most recently, LEGO Dimensions. That's a lot of different ways to extend the video game experience onto the toy shelf... and it's also potentially a lot of money to spend on little plastic critters.
Unless you're fabulously wealthy—in which case, congratulations!—you can probably only afford to get hooked on a single toys-to-life line. But which one? Each has its strengths, and each suffers its share of weaknesses as well. There's a lot to take in, and we hope our guide can help you sort things out!
- Page One: The Basic Options
- Page Two: The Figures, Compared
- Page Three: The Licenses, Compared
- Page Four: The Games, Compared
- Page Five: The Costs, Compared
- The Verdict
The Basic Options
This feature concerns the four major toys-to-life lines: Activision's Skylanders, Disney's Infinity, Warner's LEGO Dimensions, and Nintendo's amiibo. Here's the high-level take:
- Developed by: Toys for Bob/Vicarious Visions
- Published by: Activision
- Debut: 2011
- Games: 6 (Skylanders: Spyro's Adventure, Skylanders Giants, Skylanders: Swap Force, Skylanders: Trap Team, Skylanders: SuperChargers, Skylanders SuperChargers Racing)
The O.G. of toys-to-life, Skylanders evolved out of an attempt to reboot the Spyro franchise and has since grown into its own thing. Ironically, despite not being directly attached to any pop culture franchises, it has the highest production values and presentation quality, with top-grade voice actors like Patrick Warburton taking on major roles.
- Developed by: Avalanche Software (with Ninja Theory, Sumo Digital, United Front Games, Studio Gobo)
- Published by: Disney Interactive
- Debut: 2013
- Games: 3 (Disney Infinity, Disney Infinity 2.0, Disney Infinity 3.0)
Disney immediately saw the potential in Skylanders vis-a-vis its own impressive slate of intellectual properties, and each Infinity sequel has expanded the series' reach to include a new Disney acquisition: Disney/Pixar in 2013, Marvel in 2014, and most recently Star Wars.
- Developed by: Nintendo
- Published by: Nintendo
- Debut: 2014
- Games: 1 with mandatory amiibo functions (Animal Crossing: amiibo Festival), 16 amiibo-compatible titles to date
amiibo is the oddball in this lineup; to date, Nintendo has only made one game that specifically requires amiibo (the obviously named amiibo Festival). Otherwise, amiibo exist independently of specific games, offering a wide array of features that vary from title to title. This makes amiibo paradoxically the most limited yet most versatile toys-to-life product available.
- Developed by: TT Games
- Published by: Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment
- Debut: 2015
- Games: 1 (LEGO Dimensions)
The most recent entrant in the market takes the long-running kid-friendly LEGO action games and bundles interactive LEGO figurines and mini-vehicles into the mix. The only real question is, why did it take them so long to arrive at this very obvious product?