Scribblenauts review

Scribblenauts
Scribblenauts

Write anything. Solve everything.

This is the ambitious premise of Scribblenauts, a Nintendo DS game developed by 5th Cell and published by WB Games. Scribblenauts is absolutely not an adventure game. It's not even really a puzzle game. In fact, its developers classify it as an "emergent" game—one with gameplay so different from anything else out there, it doesn't fit into a preexisting category. And they're right. Scribblenauts is entirely unique.

Scribblenauts is like a vast sandbox where you get to conjure up any object you can think of and set it loose in the world to see what happens. Although it completely lacks a storyline and the challenges it offers are very different from the puzzles adventure game fans are used to, this unusual game taps into the same problem-solving part of the brain that many adventures do, stimulating the same "use everything on everything" mentality we so often employ. In fact, although the gameplay is new, the experience has a lot in common with the text parser games the adventure genre was built on.

With a simple art style reminiscent of a children's storybook and an upbeat soundtrack that mixes a cheering chorus in with synthesized music, the world of Scribblenauts feels very much like a world with no boundaries, where anything can happen. You control Maxwell, a smiling little boy in a funny red hat, through a series of short stages that each present a problem needing to be solved. Using the stylus and an on-screen keyboard, you can type any noun you want, provided it's not a proper name or something dirty, and the object comes to life. (You can use the stylus to write the word by hand if you prefer, but due to the pitfalls of handwriting recognition, this is a much slower method.) Once an object has been spawned, Maxwell can use it, either by itself or in conjunction with other objects, to overcome obstacles and achieve his goal.

Unlike the text parsers of yore, which could be maddening in their insistence that they didn't understand perfectly reasonable words, Scribblenauts has a huge vocabulary, with the game recognizing a large array of flowers, animals, food, vehicles, tools, weapons, household objects, buildings, and people. The few times I tried a word it didn't know, a list of possible alternatives popped up that usually included a word or two that I didn't even recognize. Perhaps anticipating that players would inevitably be tempted to stump the parser, the developers clearly worked hard to build up the vocabulary, and my initial playing experience turned into a sort of hysteria as I reveled in all of the possibilities.

Unfortunately, as I soon learned, the large vocabulary doesn't have an equally large bank of behaviors corresponding to each word, so you can't always use an object the way you'd expect. For example, you can create a house, but you can't go inside it. You can put on x-ray glasses, but they won't let you see what's inside a closed crate. Wearing a bulletproof vest doesn't prevent an enemy from shooting and killing you. And so on. It's also rare for the objects you've conjured to be used with other objects or people in logical ways. If you give rice to guests at a wedding, they'll eat it instead of throwing it at the bride and groom. If you place a second version of Maxwell right next to a lever that needs to be pulled, he won't pull it. You can conjure a princess and put a frog in her hands, but she won't kiss it. People and animals will eat food, but a goat won't eat garbage.

Okay, maybe I shouldn't have expected all of these things to work. Even with such an expansive vocabulary, the developers had to draw the line somewhere. But the fact that interactions like these don't work exposes the puppet strings in the same way as a text parser responding to a command with "I don't know what that means," and makes this supposedly infinite world start to feel a lot smaller.

Even with these limitations, the developers have done a great job executing on their insanely ambitious premise. Scribblenauts truly is a game that gives you the power to "write anything," often with entertaining results, and I think many adventure game fans will appreciate the freedom. The ability to specify exactly what you want to use and have the game deliver it makes communicating with Scribblenauts far more satisfying than any other text parser game I can think of. The "solve everything" part... that's a bit more problematic. Not due to issues with the game's vocabulary or even with object behavior, but because of the game's jaw-clenchingly frustrating controls.

In this side-scrolling game, you control Maxwell by dragging him around with the stylus. Seems simple enough. The problem is, you can also move the objects you've conjured by dragging them around the screen, and sometimes when you're trying to move an item, Maxwell moves instead. Since stages are often set up with potentially dangerous obstacles in Maxwell's way (angry dogs, pits of boiling lava, etc.), a wrong move can be fatal. And if Maxwell is off camera when this happens, you might not even realize you've sent him stumbling into danger until it's too late to try and get him back out. Scribblenauts has no "undo" button; if Maxwell dies, you have to start over from the beginning of the stage. These are short stages, with each taking me only a few minutes to complete, but having to restart so frequently still takes its toll, especially as the stages and solutions grow more complex in the later levels.

Equally troublesome is that sometimes when Maxwell should move, he doesn't. An option to use the +Control pad would have allowed for more precise movements and probably saved a lot of frustration. Instead, the +Control pad is used to move the camera. This is necessary since most stages take place in an area that's larger than the touch screen, but when you move the camera, it doesn't stay where you put it. After a moment it automatically pans back to Maxwell, which I found annoying when I was trying to see what was going on in another part of the scene. I felt like I was constantly fighting for control.

The game's ten levels are each broken up into eleven "puzzle" stages and eleven "action" stages. Each level has a different theme, such as The Gardens (outdoor scenes), Metro (town locations, often involving people), Ancient (fantasy locations and characters), and Shoreline (scenes set near and sometimes under water). In addition to changing up the locations, new levels also introduce different types of challenges. For example, many stages are related to fire and ice in The Peaks, while the Outer Wild stages often require eluding a combative animal.

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Comments

AndreaDraco83
Oct 30, 2009

I wholeheartedly agree with every single point.

At first, it was really a “wow” experience, and I simply couldn’t stop play, inventing, experimenting, etc. Then, after forty or more screens, I found myself using always bridge ladders, winged animals or helicopters and the fun quickly wore off. Still, the game is outstandingly original and, if the developers had put more work into weaving the challenges together, or into making the gameplay less repetitive, Scribblenauts could have been a masterpiece. As it is, it’s only a good game that highly reward the player if he is creative and imaginative. And this is something that many adventures nowadays don’t offer anymore. So my advice for adventure gamers is still to buy it and try it: if the game stops being fun and spellbinding after thirty hours (or even more), this is still way more than many AG today. And surely there’s nothing out there like Scribblenauts.

Ninja Dodo Ninja Dodo
Oct 31, 2009

Good writeup. This game is a thing of beauty when it works, and rage-quit inducing when it does not. All it needs really is failure without death so you can keep trying.

I quenched the thirst of a man in a desert with a waterfall, distracted policemen with donuts and climbed a shaft too high to fly with a rope tied to a ninja, then used my jet pack for the last stretch as I sent my unsuspecting human anchor plummeting down.

Maybe if they do a sequel they can refine the object behaviours a bit with correct physical behaviour (a hook should hook and an anchor should not be as light as the rope it’s connected to) and add an option to lock Maxwell in place, or otherwise prevent unintended moves.

shezcrafti
Dec 29, 2009

A cool option would have been to include a rule that Maxwell cannot use the same objects more than once or twice.  There could be a notebook function that shows you every object you’ve conjured, and what their limitations are.  It certainly would require more critical thinking & creativity on the player’s part.  Perhaps we’ll see something like this implemented in Scribblenauts 2? Grin

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