“Toys-to-life” is such a weird name for a genre. Mildly creepy, too, like the tagline for a horror film about a doll that harbors the soul of a serial killer. But it’s the name that stuck, and so it’s the one we use to indicate we’re talking about figures with embedded wireless chips that can talk to nearby video games. Typically, pairing these physical toys with software pulls the figure into the game, unlocks special features or stores info about someone’s play style. Also they give gamers and parents a panoply of new things to buy…
Here’s a brief rundown of 2015’s four leading toys-to-life contenders, with breakdowns of what they offer, how much they cost and what you’ll need to get started. (Note that the prices listed here are suggested retail—starter packs in particular—tend to sell for significantly less.)
Disney Infinity 3.0
What it is: A sandbox mashup of Disney’s best-known properties, including characters plucked from a multitude of Pixar films, a surfeit of Marvel superheroes and all things Star Wars—past, present and future. You start with a Play Set modeled on a Disney world and bundled with related characters (each one offers story-based gameplay), then can move on to Toy Box mode, where you’re given a set of tools to dream up your own world and play rules.
What’s big this year: Two words: Star Wars. It may be called Disney Infinity, and it clearly benefits from the company’s traditional properties, but this year, it’s all about the Reys, Finns and Kylo Rens. If you want the only toys-to-life experience that plugs into the thunderclap that is J.J. Abrams’ Star Wars: The Force Awakens, your options narrow to just this one.
How it’s unique: Toy Box mode, an unparalleled creative tabula rasa that lets players pull nearly any Disney Infinity series character into an open-world building tool and create their own games.
Who it’s for: The game has an ESRB rating of Everyone 10+; slightly younger players should be able to handle the Play Set story gameplay, while slightly older ones will derive the most from the enormous creative potential of Toy Box mode.
What it runs on: PC, PlayStation 3 and 4, Xbox 360 and One, Wii U, iOS, Android, Apple TV
What you need to get started: Disney sells a Starter Pack for $65. This includes the game, the figure base and Twilight of the Republic Play Set (Anakin Skywalker and Ahsoka Tano). You can alternately buy the Star Wars Saga Bundle, which includes all of the above, plus the Rise Against the Empire Play Set (Luke Skywalker and Leia Organa) and Boba Fett figure for $90.
Figure cost: $14
Other costs: Additional Play Sets sell for $35 and include Twilight of the Republic (Anakin Skywalker and Ahsoka Tano), Rise Against the Empire (Luke Skywalker and Leia Organa), The Force Awakens (Rey and Finn) and Inside Out (Joy and Anger); Power discs let you add or upgrade character abilities and sell in sets of four for $10; Toy Box expansions add pre-built game content to Toy Box mode and sell for $20.
Backward compatible? Yes, and you can see with which figures in Disney’s compatibility primer.
What it is: The toys-to-life game that started it all, a story-driven platforming romp with light roleplaying elements centered around a bunch of quirky characters (the eponymous “Skylanders”) who do battle with a villain known as Kaos. Players place figures on a physical pedestal (a “portal of power”) and can then access them in-game.
What’s big this year: Vehicles join the cast, allowing players to mix and match aerial, land or underwater vessels with figures (some have optimal pairings) and race along obstacle courses that dovetail with the traditional action-platforming areas. This year’s also momentous because Nintendo’s allowed Activision to use two of its iconic characters in the series, Donkey Kong and Bowser.
How it’s unique: While the basic action-adventure platforming gameplay of Skylanders hasn’t changed much over the years, the figure-vehicle pairing and related land-sea-sky raceways are unique among this year’s toys-to-life contenders. The Nintendo figures also offer unique switchable Skylander/Amiibo functionality, meaning they can be used with the Wii U version of Skylander Superchargers as well as other supported Nintendo Wii U and 3DS games.
Who it’s for: The game has an ESRB rating of Everyone 10+; slightly younger players should be able to play the game at its lower difficulty settings.
What it runs on: PlayStation 3 and 4, Xbox 360 and One, Wii U, Wii, 3DS, iOS
What you need to get started: Activision sells Starter Packs for $75 that include the game, a portal, two figures and one vehicle. To play with Nintendo’s figures, you’ll need the Wii U Starter Pack, which also sells for $75 and comes with the Wii U version of the game, a portal, one Skylander, Donkey Kong and the Barrel Blaster vehicle. Alternately, Activision sells a meatier Dark Edition for $100 that includes the game, a portal, two figures and two vehicles. There’s also a Wii and 3DS Starter Pack that sells for $75 and includes the game, a portal, two figures and one vehicle — note that this version only supports racing, and the main campaign isn’t included.
Figure cost: $13 (figures), $15 (vehicles)
Other costs: Racing Action Packs are available for $35, and include a figure, vehicle and race expansion.
Backward compatible? Yes (generally speaking). See Activision’s compatibility chart for specific details.
What it is: Not one specific game, but a stable of Nintendo characters designed to interface with multiple Nintendo Wii U and 3DS games.
What’s big this year: The same thing as last year around this time: Super Smash Bros. for Wii U, a massive Nintendo character brawler that remains the ideal showcase for Nintendo’s high quality figures.
How it’s unique: Amiibo work more or less the same as the other toys-to-life franchises, wirelessly interacting with Nintendo’s Wii U and 3DS handheld. But they’re unique in the sense that they’re designed them to operate with any Nintendo game that supports them. At present, for instance, Amiibo can be used with a dozen Wii U and 3DS games.
Who it’s for: This depends on the game, so age ranges run the gamut.
What it runs on: Wii U and 3DS
What you need to get started: Either a Wii U or 3DS, a game that supports the figures, and at least one Amiibo. Nintendo sells a few bundles that include a game and one Amiibo figure for $60.
Figure cost: $13
Other costs: None
Backward compatible? Amiibo are still first version, so this doesn’t apply.
What it is: LEGO’s debut in the toys-to-life category, developed by LEGO action-adventure game veteran studio Traveller’s Tales and starring characters from fourteen franchises, including DC Comics, The Lord of the Rings, Ghostbusters, The Lego Movie, The Simpsons, Back to the Future, Doctor Who, and Jurassic World. Like the other toys-to-life games, players place figures and vehicles on a conduit to trigger their appearance in story-driven platforming adventures similar to those in the other LEGO series video games.
What’s big this year: This is the game’s debut year, so simply its arrival.
How it’s unique: Both the figures/vehicles and game conduit must be hand-built from standard LEGOs, emphasizing the “toy” aspect of the game; build something alternate and you can unlock special powers (the Batmobile, for instance, can be rebuilt as a Batblaster, or Sonic Batray).
Who it’s for: The game has an ESRB rating of Everyone 10+; LEGO recommends players ages 7 to 14.
What it runs on: PlayStation 3 & 4, Xbox 360 and One, Wii U
What you need to get started: The LEGO Dimensions Starter Pack sells for $100 and includes Batman, Gandalf, the Batmobile, the LEGO Toy Pad, and the pieces necessary to assemble the LEGO Gateway.
Figure cost: The figures are included in the packs.
Other costs: Warner Bros. sells Level Packs for $30 (includes a character with vehicles or gadgets and a related game level), Team Packs for $25 (includes two characters with one vehicle or gadget for each) and Fun Packs for $15 (one character plus one vehicle or gadget).
Backward compatible? LEGO Dimensions is still first version, so this doesn’t apply.