What Nintendo could learn from Skylanders

As I mentioned in a previous post, I’ve recently – and belatedly — discovered the surprisingly great Skylanders, and have now morphed from embarrassed newcomer to up-front defender of the game (despite its ruthless, money-sucking business model). Truth be told, Skylanders is a brilliant and beautifully-crafted adventure, both on Wii and 3DS.

Having finished the 3DS version, I was several chapters into the Wii game, marveling at how polished and well-paced the thing is, when a frustrating thought cropped up:

Why didn’t Nintendo do this first? And — for crying out loud — why didn’t they use this concept for Pokemon?

Hindsight is twenty-twenty, but all the right pieces were there. Nintendo’s a company that loves rolling out quirky peripherals. They came up with the Balance Board, the Gameboy Camera and AR cards. With Pokemon, they’ve got one of the greatest franchises of all time STILL waiting for a full-blown first-class console adventure (and they’d already introduced the Pokewalker for Heartgold and Soulsilver). It pains me to think of Nintendo wasting time on the goofy “Vitality Sensor” while the Skylander’s creators were designing their magic portal and – I imagine – chuckling something along the lines of, “Holy crap, people are going to go nuts over this!”

Imagine if Nintendo had gotten there first. Imagine a bowl-shaped portal designed to look like the lower half of a Pokeball. On the tv screen, you control Ash as he wanders through a beautiful, fully-rendered forest. He’s attacked. You grab one of your plastic chip-equipped Pokemon, slap it onto the portal, and the fight begins. After the battle – just as happens in Skylanders – your Pokemon figure would remember all its gained experience and power-ups, so that you could use this leveled-up figure in anybody’s version of the game.

Imagine the software sales! Imagine the plastic figure sales! Imagine Nintendo raking in all that money!

Now, of course, it’s too late for Nintendo to try that approach. Activision did Skylanders right, and it’s succeeded so well that the Spyro spinoff now completely owns the toys-come-to-life-in-a-game genre – an untapped corner of the gaming world that nobody except Skylanders’ creators knew existed.

The moral? Maybe Nintendo needs to spend a lot more time nurturing and fully exploiting their awesome I.P.s and less time on Vitality Sensors and Nintendo Direct. They’ve been releasing outstanding games lately, with more on horizon; maybe they’ve already learned a few things.

At least Nintendo’s getting a piece of the pie; the Wii version of Skylanders is a first-rate rendition of the whimsical console hack n’ slash epic, while the 3DS received a unique, top-notch 3D platformer. The fact that all Skylanders figures can carry their data back and forth between all three major consoles and the 3DS is a pretty awesome situation; I can’t think of anything quite like it in the brief history of video games. I imagine Skylanders will – in the long run – help sell quite a few 3DS units to fans eager to take their toys into further adventures (and pick up the Dark Spryo figure) while waiting for this fall’s Skylanders Giants.

And – who knows – anything’s possible. I can imagine a near future where Nintendo and Activision could strike a deal to use Skylanders tech in a Wii U/3DS Pokemon epic. Yeah, when Krookodiles fly. It’ s a nice dream.

In the meantime, great cross-platform titles are good for everyone, and Skylanders is one of the best family games ever released. If you see the starter set (software, portal and 3 figures) for either 3DS or Wii marked down to the price of a normal game, I whole-heartedly recommend picking it up. You’re in for a great time. And, remember, you really can finish the adventure using only the three pack-in figures…you just can’t see the entire game world that way. Yeah, it’s a ruthless money-making scheme. If the game wasn’t so much fun, I might have been ticked off about that.