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It’s Time For Cute Controller Gimmicks To Make A Comeback

Highlights

  • Toys-To-Life gaming, like Disney Infinity and Skylanders, provided a unique experience by incorporating physical toys into gameplay.
  • The failure of certain gimmicks and high entry price for VR highlight the need for affordable and family-friendly gaming peripherals to make a comeback.

In the summer of 2015, curiosity compelled me in my local Walmart. There in front of me was the PlayStation 3 version of Disney Infinity 2.0, Disney’s take on the Toys-To-Life phenomenon that became popular thanks to Skylanders. I was worried I’d get hooked enough to buy all the characters, and, well, I was right.

The Toys-To-Life format of plugging in a “portal” that read an NFC chip on the bottom of a toy statue, allowing me to play as that character in-game, won me over. In my younger years, I remember stomping my feet on a Dance Dance Revolution dancepad and exercising with the PlayStation 2 Eye Toy. In my teens, my high school was crazy for Rock Band and/or Guitar Hero. Extra plastic toys to play your games with were a big part of gaming, going in different cycles for whatever was popular at that moment, and it’s a trend I think deserves a new iteration.

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Disney Infinity 3.0 Ultron Driving Cruella De Ville's Car

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Gaming has come a long way, especially when we’re talking about the stories and characters of the past decade, but the child-like part of my brain remembers video games are also toys. That’s what was so compelling about the Toys-To-Life genre for me, it unlocked the sensation of playing with toys that even my cynical and miserly self still connects with.

Skylanders Imaginators was also great, enough that I regret coming late to the series as it’s the only one I played. The Toys-To-Life genre felt like a natural evolution of the Dance Dance Revolution mat and Eyetoy, where extra enjoyment came from being physically involved with the controls beyond just hitting the same buttons every game has. The Eyetoy even allowed me to have fun getting basic exercise, a concept seen again by Nintendo with the Wii Fit series, which I also remember being pretty hot during my high school years.

Best PS2 Games Guitar Hero-1

Classics like Guitar Hero needed the guitar in your hands to get the feel just right and would not have become iconic without it. But there were also light guns, Wii Wheels, or any other controller toy you didn’t need for the game to work, but still wanted your grubby hands on. They sold themselves, even the cheap ones that melted after three uses, because added fun from turning a wheel or pointing at the TV instead of just hitting R2 adds a different layer, truly making you feel connected when done right.

Still, the problem with becoming a trend is that trends all die. Toys-To-Life took a nosedive in 2016 when Disney bowed out. Skylanders is on hiatus (Activision never outright confirmed a cancelation), and LEGO Dimensions (Warner’s experiment in Toys-To-Life) tossed out their original three-year plan and instead ended after two. Guitar Hero let rip its last riff years ago. With peripheral-based games, the fad effectively has to re-invent the concept if it wants to reach the old status quo.

Kinecting To Virtual Reality

Ring Fit Adventure: player jogging in an alien planet

Not every one of these gimmicks even managed to become a fad. Nintendo took two hits in a row (despite Amiibo outliving the competition), as neither Nintendo LABO nor Ring Fit Adventure made a splash. It’s interesting too, as LABO had appeal for younger children, but was notoriously a pain to set up and never hid the fact it was just cardboard. As for Ring Fit, it was supposed to be the successor to Wii Fit, making its forgotten status a bit shocking. Granted, I bought one, and it’s collecting dust…

Then there was Mario Kart Live: Home Circuit, where Nintendo sold little Mario Karts you controlled through an app, driving them around your living room. It was a cool idea, until you actually hit the carpet and played it.

Superhot VR Gameplay Screenshot

The Kinect came out before the death of Toys-To-Life (2010-2017), but its failure to retain audiences is worth mentioning, as what the Kinect offered is a prime example of why some peripherals fail. The Kinect was state-of-the-art equipment that tried to sell this generation-defining experience, something that would replace how you played games and change your outlook on gaming as a whole. Y’know, kind of like the Virtual Boy? Or even how some people talk about VR headsets?

Cost is an issue with this stuff. While buying Disney Infinity figures adds up over time, the PSVR 2 costs as much as the required PlayStation 5 it connects to. When I see videos of some of the very gimmicky VR games, it piques my interest the same way Skylanders eventually did, but I’m only so open-minded when $1000 (with console) is the starting fee.

Disney Infinity 3.0 Crystal Mickey In Crystal Hall Of Heroes

Peripherals aren’t entirely gone thanks to the VR headset, with the Oculus Quest the model for success there, but VR isn’t filling living rooms, nor cluttering shared TV space by families with kids (not least of all because the recommended minimum age for VR is 13). We can’t forget games like Guitar Hero and Skylanders made a cultural footprint by being games sold and loved by families.

And families loved peripherals for plenty of reasons. Easy to set up, easy to understand, and easy to share. It didn’t always matter that they kept making new toys you still had to buy, and that the kids would beg for. In fact, that was part of the charm. VR is too up-front expensive, and too “one-in-all” to reach this same market. PSVR 2 had a chance to bridge the gap, but its prohibitively expensive asking price (about 10x more than those silly peripherals of old) has put paid to that as a possibility.

There’s room for those toys to make a return. This is an open spot on the market that only Nintendo has openly tried to fill, but so far, not every piece fell into place. VR is nice and shiny, but what we need is cheap plastic toys you can pick up at your local retailer, something cheap enough for families and durable enough for their kids. It’s time for the cute little gimmicks to make a comeback.

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