PixlKids: Link vs. The Skylanders
Kids are, in fact, able to discern a quality title from a middling one.
A while ago, I made the decision, as most parents do, to involve my children in my hobbies. I did this by playing catch with them in the backyard, going to baseball games, playing video games, and most recently, writing a co-op review for PixlBit. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from the experience, it’s that kids will surprise you with just how mature their perspective can be, even if they aren’t able to properly articulate it yet.
This past Christmas, both the children and I received 3DS systems. Mine came with The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time 3D, and they received copies of Super Mario 3D Land and Mario Kart 7, which they played to death over the course of their Christmas break. It wasn’t long until they took an interest in what I was playing on my system and wanted to try it out for themselves. While they were familiar with Nintendo’s mascot characters on a general level, they had never played any of the Zelda games. I hesitated at first, afraid that if the game proved too difficult they may wash their hands of the franchise forever, but quickly decided to let them give it a shot and see what happened.
Much to my own elation, the boys and Link hit it off big time. At first the challenge did put them off, but they kept coming back and trying their hand at Ocarina of Time again and again. Eventually, they got it.
Now my boys eat, sleep, and breathe Zelda, and they’ve devoured every modern title in the series they can get their hands on. They practically stole my GameCube Collector’s disc with the NES and Nintendo 64 titles so they can play Majora’s Mask on the Wii. They hum the Song of Time while doing chores or just whenever they feel like it. Our conversations over the dinner table typically turn into discussing something they accomplished in whatever Zelda game they are currently involved in, much to my wife’s chagrin (Twilight Princess these days). They’ve even tried some of the older titles I have on hand, such as Link’s Awakening DX, Oracle of Ages, and Oracle of Seasons, although they seem to be unable to get into any of the 2D Zelda titles.
Before their fascination with Zelda was truly established, however, almost as soon as my kids wrapped up Ocarina of Time, one of the boys received Skylanders: Spyro’s Adventure (for Wii) as a birthday present. At the ages of 9 and 12, its E10+ rating put my kids squarely in the middle of what the ESA considers the game’s target audience. The packaging was alluring as well, featuring thin plastic windows displaying several Skylanders and the mystical portal the children would be using to drop said characters into and out of the game. He was also given a lunch box that came with an additional fourth Skylander of a different element than the ones that came with the starter pack. The tiny figures were meticulously designed and brightly colored. Even the dark, undead character looked adorable and fun. Everything screamed to me, “This is a title your kids will love!” Imagine my surprise when the box made its way into our living room and remained untouched on our coffee table while the kids played Zelda games for almost a solid week!
When they finally did set it up (with a little prodding from me), I was expecting them to be instantly ensnared. The game oozed the kind of entertainment I thought they would fall head over heels for. Cheesy jokes? Check. Colorful worlds? Check. Comically over-the-top evil bad guy? Check. Everything matched up tongue and groove with the types of shows they absorb for hours on a typical Saturday morning. While it did manage to hold their attention for a few days, it wasn’t long before they were back to playing Zelda and the Skylanders were never seen again. Should I have seen this coming?
We’ve got some great reviewers here at PixlBit, and as luck would have it, the same writer reviewed both The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time 3D and Skylanders: Spyro’s Adventure - Chessa DiMola. I selected a few choice statements she made in the review, but I encourage you to read the full article as it will help paint a clearer picture of just how attractive this game makes itself seem, despite having little to no depth.
The gameplay is as mediocre as it gets. Players control a Skylander throughout a bunch of different worlds, walk along a linear path, use one of four attacks to kill unbelievably weak enemies, get stopped mid-level to have an obnoxiously long, sleep-inducing conversation with some character, brawl some more, open a bunch of crates and chests for loot, collect a bunch of power-up stuff, and then return to the hub world to listen to more unending conversations until they finally make their way to the next level.
She also had this to say when discussing the game’s low level of challenge:
Now of course the natural retort is, “But this game is intended for children for goodness sakes.” Please. The target age audience has been playing Pokémon for years, and believe me, if they can handle all the intricacies of a modern Pokémon title, Skylanders is going to be a laughable walk in the park.
In what I think will become a repeated theme in my PixlKids pieces, kids are way more perceptive than people give them credit for. My nine year old spent the most time with Skylanders, almost a full week, while my oldest, who had just turned 12, went back to Majora’s Mask after only two short gameplay sessions spread over the course of two days. He quickly sniffed out exactly what Chessa was talking about and lost interest.
My youngest had a slightly different experience. Instead of becoming excited about collecting new Skylanders, he became frustrated when he discovered walled off areas of the game that he would have to either spend his allowance on purchasing a new character to access, or wait and request new Skylanders as gifts for upcoming holidays. He was even more annoyed when he discovered he only had as many “lives” as he did Skylanders characters. When one hero is defeated, the only way to continue playing is to plop another Skylander on the portal. I did explain the principles of leveling up, but unsurprisingly, he wasn’t interested at all in “grinding” his characters by going through missions he had already finished, and the game really offers no other, more enjoyable options.
Now, Skylanders is by no means a bad title. Chessa awarded the game three out of five stars, which I would agree with based on my own observations. The game’s biggest challenge was the fact that the children were being engaged on a more meaningful level by another game, in this case a Zelda title. Based on my observations, children enjoy being challenged and appreciate the feeling of accomplishment that comes from overcoming obstacles set at the proper level for them. Zelda sets the bar at around the right place for my kids, while Skylanders sets the bar far too low. Had they not been otherwise involved, Skylanders might have provided a good stop-gap experience of sorts, but with sessions of Zelda already going, the children didn’t need a title to hold them over until they discovered a better game.
I still don’t think giving the kids Skylanders was a mistake. The kids did play it, and they did get some enjoyment out of it, but they were both left wanting something more from the game. I have to second Chessa’s overall thoughts on the title. Skylanders is best suited to children who are inexperienced in the ways of action titles, and even then, once the novelty of the toys has worn off, the game will most likely be forgotten. That’s exactly what happened. The presence of Link only expedited the process. Maybe someday they’ll dig up Skylanders again, but I have no doubt that their infatuation with it will only last as long as it takes for another game of higher quality to come around and steal their attention.