I once read in Mad magazine, back when I was at the age where people find Mad magazine funny, a hilarious article about gifts you can buy for people you don’t like.
These were gifts that would end up causing the recipient to spend more money in order to use the gift — for example, a $100 gift certificate to a Cadillac dealer (prompting the recipient to buy a car he could not afford), or a $5 chip to a casino (which would encourage the jerk to go gamble away his life savings).
One of the gifts mentioned was a Barbie doll. Give one of those to the daughter of someone you don’t like, and the little girl would browbeat her parents into buying a matching Ken doll, plus the Country Camper, Malibu Dream House and all the other accessories — sending the parents into spending oblivion to satisfy their child.
This Christmas, I entered the video-game equivalent of this financial black hole. I gave my kid a "Skylanders" game.
I admit I’m late to the party here. Before the Christmas shopping season began, I had never encountered "Skylanders." But my kid had, at friends’ houses, and he wanted one (along with an upgrade from our old Wii system to the new Wii U) more than anything this Christmas.
The starter pack for "Skylanders Swap Force" — the third game in the franchise — was included in the bundle for the new Wii U console. You know the old joke about drug dealers, and how the first hit’s free? That’s what happened here.
The starter pack includes a platform and three game figurines. A player puts a figurine on the portal and then plays the game as that character. With "Skylanders Swap Force," the conceit is that a powerful volcano has split the Skylanders heroes into two parts — and the player can mix and match the tops and bottoms to combine powers.
Here’s where things take a turn for the pricey: There are 16 swappable figurines — ones with the mix-and-match tops and bottoms — and 40 more characters. The swappable ones retail for $15.99, while the others go for $9.99.
What’s more, some of these figurines are exclusive to certain retailers — Toys R Us, Walmart and Target. If you’re someone who, for example, boycotts Walmart on principle, how do you explain your moral stance to a kid who’s trying to fill out his collection?
To unlock every bit of the game on the disc — which, remember, you’ve already paid for — you need to use every one of those figurines. And if you can’t trade with your friends, you’re going to have to buy the things. This can run you, or your kid, into the hundreds of dollars.
This is an insidious business model, which may be why The Wall Street Journal wrote a rave review for "Skylanders Swap Force" that the parent company, Activision, posts with pride on the game’s website. "Activision already set the standard for this emerging genre with the first two ‘Skylanders,’ " the Journal’s reviewer wrote. "With ‘Swap Force,’ it has set a new one."
That may be great for Activision and its executives’ bonuses. But to make that kind of money by clawing at the piggy banks of children, to whom the game is marketed, borders on being evil.
Here’s one sure sign how evil it is: The Walt Disney Company is trying to get a piece of the action.
Last year, Disney introduced its "Disney Infinity" game, which works on the "Skylanders" model: a video game whose characters and settings are activated by figurines on a platform.
The difference with "Disney Infinity" is that the figurines available — and the ones potentially waiting to be sold — represent the product of one of the most lucrative franchise hoarders in the business world.
So far, "Disney Infinity" has introduced characters from Pixar’s "Toy Story," "Cars," "Monsters Inc." and "The Incredibles," along with Disney’s "The Nightmare Before Christmas," "Pirates of the Caribbean," "Wreck-It Ralph," "Tangled," "Phineas & Ferb," "The Lone Ranger" (they really had hopes for that one, didn’t they?) and, most recently, "Frozen."
Oh, and as of this week, there’s a limited-edition figurine of Mickey Mouse as "The Sorcerer’s Apprentice." If you want to buy it anywhere other than Walmart, you have to wait until Feb. 9.
And that’s not even conjuring with the other Disney characters still waiting for their video-game close-up. There are the Disney classics, like "Pinocchio" or "Dumbo." There’s a bevy of princesses, from "Cinderella" to "Brave." And there are all of Disney’s recent acquisitions: The Muppets, "Star Wars" and the Marvel universe.
Who wouldn’t want to pit Buzz Lightyear against Darth Vader? Maleficent vs. Galactus? Jiminy Cricket vs. Ant-Man?
The possibilities are endless. So will be the credit-card bills.
Here’s the thing: My kid loves playing "Skylanders Swap Force," and when he’s not playing it, he loves talking about the characters and the possible combinations he can make swapping them around. Is that kind of enjoyment worth the cost? We’re still figuring that one out.
Sean P. Means writes The Cricket in daily blog form at www.sltrib.com/blogs/moviecricket. Follow him on Twitter @moviecricket, or on Facebook at www.facebook.com/seanpmeans. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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