Have you ever heard of Skylanders? You know, it’s that one video game that uses a physical base platform on top of which you place these little figurines, sold separately, who then appear on the TV screen. The whole idea of combining the physical and virtual with those little toys was pretty innovative, gameplay and marketing-wise. Starting in 2011, the series has received numerous sequels and spin-offs. In fact, they were so successful that other companies started imitating the core “toys-to-life” gameplay idea. Examples of these are Nintendo, with its Amiibo line-up, and Disney, with its game titled “Disney Infinity.” However, the game that actually pioneered this concept is often forgotten.
Launched in 2007 by Mattel, the company behind household names like “Barbie” and “Hot Wheels”, U.B. Funkeys blew my 8-year-old self away with its, at the time, cutting-edge technology. The only other real example of a “toys-to-life” game was R.O.B., a physical robot toy sold alongside the Nintendo Entertainment System in 1985. Of course, R.O.B. was nothing compared to the vastness of U.B. Funkeys.
To begin playing, one would first need to buy a starter kit which included the game, the main hub, and 2 other little figurines aptly called Funkeys that came in a variety of designs. Back in the day, this was a simple and cheap task as toy stores all over the country used to have ample amounts of these starter packs and individual Funkeys for sale. I remember starter kits costing around €20 and the individual ones going for €6. Now, however, you’d be hard-pressed to find something sealed for a reasonable price.
How this game worked was relatively simple. The main hub, shaped like a bigger version of the standard Funkeys, acted like the default player character called “U.B.” If you placed another Funkey in the hole on the back of U.B.’s head, you’d transform into them in the game. Why is this important? It’s because parts of the game are locked off until you have the corresponding figure. “Kelpy Basin”, for example, can only be accessed if you transform into a Funkey who’s indigenous to that region. So to enter, the player would need to buy either Glub, Tiki, Sprout, or Twinx. This, of course, was a smart way to ensure the player keeps buying more Funkeys as the game was pretty limited if you only had the starter pack.
The in-game explanation for this was wrapped up in the main campaign story of the game. To explain briefly, the events of the game take place in “Terrapinia.” A beautiful world with many different locales ranging from tropical islands to futuristic space stations all interconnected through high-tech teleportating machines. The Funkeys have enjoyed a peaceful life for years now. One day, however, a so-called Master Lox and his henchman tamper with the teleporters in such a way that only Funkeys indigenous to the world the teleporter connects to can travel through them. It is up to the player to take up the task of defeating Master Lox and returning Terrapinia to its previous peaceful days.
To be quite frank though, the story itself was never really the thing engaging to me. It’s just there to justify the business model after all. What really hooked me, though, was the exploration of this vast world. Maps were huge with many buildings and friendly Funkeys walking about. I have fond memories of clicking on nearly every thing that moved to see if I could interact with it. Buying a new Funkey, too, was extremely exciting. Other than access to other areas, buying a Funkey would also grant you access to their clubhouse. This clubhouse would then allow you to play the specific minigame assigned to that Funkey alongside an exclusive itemshop. These items could then be used to decorate the player’s abode, or crib as it was called in-game (which is a whole other treasure trove of content).
Sadly, the game was discontinued in 2010 basically killing it. I remember being devastated when I realized I couldn’t play anymore due to our family computer upgrading from Windows XP to Windows 7, as the game wasn’t even supported on the new operating system.
Dont be too sad, though, as the internet saves the day once more. A group of people who have been just as anamoured by the world of Terrapinia came together and somehow ported the main game over to modern systems. They even removed the necessity for the physical Funkeys by manipulating the code to allow players to switch characters with the press of a button. This is wonderful news, as the production of Funkeys halted all the way back in 2010, causing the remaining starter kits and individual Funkeys to skyrocket in prices. Click here if you want to try the game out yourself. I’ll be honest, it’s a tad dated, but I still think that there is pleasure to be had in playing a genre-inventing game.