When I was 12 years old my favourite toys were a ragtag band of Marvel Secret Wars action figures.
They weren't much to look at, paint scratched and accessories misplaced. Of the thirteen figures released in North America, I'd only managed to collect six — Captain America (no shield), Wolverine (one claw), Baron "I Don't Know Who This Is" Zemo, Doctor Doom and two different versions of Spider-Man. I never got the Doom Copter, the Turbo Cycle or the Tower of Doom playset. That was fine. I didn't need them.
One of my shoes was all the Turbo Cycle I needed. Doctor Doom and Kang's vast criminal network was run from under my bed. A ruler propped up beneath my bedsheet formed an impromptu Hall of Justice (a preteen knows no copyright laws), during times when my sister's dollhouse wasn't available. My Colecovision Adam was a massive robot with coiled controller arms, battling hero and villain alike for my attention.
When I was 12 years old I was a superhero with the power to transform pieces of colourful plastic and ordinary household items into the elements of a grand adventure.
Now I am 41 years old, and while vestiges of that power remain, they're nowhere near as potent. I look at the toys on my shelves and they are just that — toys on shelves.
Disney Infinity's Toy Box is a portal that connects me with my younger self, using technology to replicate the magic I once wielded so effortlessly, and with the release of Disney Infinity: Marvel Super Heroes the effect is even more powerful.
Traditional kid-focused action figure lines start with a handful of figures and then pile on the playsets, vehicles and accessories. Disney Infinity: Marvel Super Heroes, AKA Disney Infinity 2.0, delivers a line of lovely (sadly non-articulated) figures, with all of the extra accessories delivered electronically via the video game portion of the program. Players place their action figure on a portal plugged into their gaming console and, voila, they appear in the game.
The mechanic is similar to that of Activision's popular Skylanders combination action figure and video game franchise, from which Disney drew inspiration, but there's a key difference. When a toy is ported into a Skylanders game, it becomes a video game hero, constrained by the laws of a constant, structured world with well-defined goals. When a toy is ported into Disney Infinity, it retains more of its essence. It's still, to a large extent, a toy.
Oh, there's a conventional game element to Disney Infinity: Marvel Super Heroes. The Avengers-themed starter set comes packed with figures of Thor, Iron Man and the Black Widow, along with a special piece that unlocks an adventure playset. Set in a colorful candy version of Manhattan, the playset houses a multi-hour adventure pitting the Earth's Mightiest Heroes against Thor's mischievous brother Loki, who has frozen the city and launched an all-out Frost Giant invasion.
Two additional playsets are being sold separately at launch. The Guardians of the Galaxy set features Star-Lord and Gamora as they attempt to save space sanctuary Nowhere from the evil forces of Ronin the Accuser. Meanwhile, in the Spider-Man playset, the eponymous hero and his space policeman pal Nova must stop the Green Goblin's symbiote invasion of a different section of New York. It's always an invasion with these people.
Disney Infinity: Marvel Super Heroes' playset adventures are an enormous improvement over those of the original game. While The Incredibles, Lone Ranger and Cars sets of Disney Infinity 1.0 were packed with playability, each felt meandering and purposeless, leaning heavily on repetitive mini-games and collectibles. They were less adventures, more collections of themed tasks.
Written by comic book creatures and leaning heavily on a revamped combat system that packs a truly satisfying punch, the new adventure packs feel much more solid. Though still plagued by repetitive side missions, the new combat system, revamped vehicle controls (thank goodness) and the addition of interior environments give them a real open-world superhero game feel.
Mind you these adventures aren't on par with even the worst dedicated open-world superhero game (looking at you, The Amazing Spider-Man 2). On top of the repetitive missions, each playset largely features varieties of a single enemy type. The physics are completely ridiculous, as one might expect from what's ultimately a pile of neatly-arranged digital toys.
None of the three playset adventures available at launch would make for a satisfying standalone product, which is fine — that's not what they're trying to be. They exist as a bridge between traditional gaming and a new, imagination-driven style of play. They ease traditional gamers into the experience with traditional story structure and familiar elements such as skill trees (also now available for all Disney Infinity 1.0 figures), fighting combos and super moves. Then they let the characters take over.
Captain America's shield sends cars flying through traffic. Iron Man and Nova fly at supersonic speeds along the sides of buildings, leaving destruction in their wake. Spider-Man swings through the city, web attached to nothing but justice. The Hulk smashes, and suddenly this adventure playset becomes an adventure playground and, hey — doesn't this game include tools to make your own playgrounds?
The Toy Box is where the Disney Infinity magic happens, more so in version 2.0 than ever before. It's here where the entirety of the Disney universe (sans Star Wars, for now) comes together in a blissful disharmony.
As in Disney Infinity 1.0, the basic Toy Box level begins as a simple rectangular plane of land, ready to be populated with purpose. An elaborate introduction sequence spells out some of the limitless possibilities. Would you like to race cars? Build a racetrack. Feel like constructing an elaborate 3D platformer? The parts are all there. Want to kick some butt? Easy-peasy. Do you want to build a snowman?
No, you cannot build a snowman. Okay, bye.
I suppose you could, if you really wanted to, build a snowman. And then you and a friend could use the Toy Box's simple drag-and-drop game programming tools to set up a scenario where Elsa from Frozen and Nick Fury have to defend the snowman from ravenous Frost Giants.
Disney Infinity 1.0 cultivated a massive library of impressive community-built creations, from simple artistic creations to elaborate mini-games. Judging from the community-crafted content already available at launch, Disney Infinity 2.0 will be no different. I've saved the treelike Groot's homeworld from invasion, survived the twisted landscapes of the mind of Mysterio, and ran the Incredible Hulk through a 2D sidescroller, all courtesy of clever and inventive players.
But what most pleases me in the new Disney Infinity 2.0 Toy Box is the options for the less inventive among us. I used to sit on that empty plane for hours, trying to come up with something cool to build. Now, instead of launching that empty Toy Box, I can create one pre-populated with random cityscapes, tree forts or race tracks. I can paint an area of terrain and have the game auto-generate these things as well. Or I can place helper characters on the ground and hover above like a god, watching my minions craft forests, villages, castles and more.
Each players also gets a new INterior, a home base of sorts which can be decorated in any number of styles. Adding new rooms and lengthy hallways to nowhere is a cinch (I trapped Hawkeye in a hallway with no exists, because Hawkeye). As the player's house expands, more non-player visitors arrive, offering helpful tips or interior decorating missions. It's an excellent way to flex one's imagination without straining too much.
It's easier than ever to create unique content, especially for those with less time on our hands than we'd like. Creativity is so time consuming you guys.
Now as magical as this all sounds, let's be real — Disney Infinity: Marvel Super Heroes is a game based around the sale of relatively expensive action figures. Each new figure costs at least £14.99. The playsets run £34.99. The starter kit is £57.99, and then there are a horde of blind bagged Power Discs — at least 40 for Marvel alone — each containing new textures, sidekicks, vehicles and equipment that kids will just have to have.
The game can be played with simply the starter kit, but from the moment it begins it's selling more toys, from the introductory video exclusively featuring figures not yet released, to the returning Hall of Heroes (now with corresponding Hall of Marvel Heroes), a fancy series of levels that slowly fills with statues as each new toy is added. Don't have a particular figure yet? Press a button to see a short ad for that figure.
It's all a little diabolical, but an obvious craving for consumer cash doesn't disqualify a product from the ability to deliver a magical experience.
For the young-at-heart Marvel fan, Disney Infinty: Marvel Super Heroes has the power to reconnect us with our smaller selves, those snot-nosed brats whose wonder-filled view of the world are the reason we fell in love with these heroes in the first place. For the actually young fan, it's a lovely way for them to play with toys without running out into traffic or getting into internet chat rooms filled with FBI agents or whatever it is kids do with their free time these days.
My son Seamus, one of a pair of twins, is developmentally delayed. He and his brother Archer don't communicate normally. If they're thirsty, they'll hand us their cups. If they're sleepy, they'll be incredibly fussy. They're in a special school, and more words come every day, but sometimes real father/son interaction feels so far away.
As I unpacked my Disney Infinity: Marvel Super Heroes toys and game for the first time, Seamus wandered over and grabbed Nova, running him about the room making little "whooshing" noises as I started the game. As I played through the introduction to the Spider-Man playset, he wandered over to the television, grabbed Spidey, dropped him on the floor and replaced him with Nova. For the first time in forever, I felt like we were speaking the same language. When he's 12 I'm totally getting him a set of old Secret Wars figures.
That's where Disney Infinity: Marvel Super Heroes really shines. Bringing together the young-at-heart with the just plain young, giving them common ground to play on.
Secret Wars toy image via CoolToyReview.com