Discussion Review: Scribblenauts Unlimited

Review written by Matt Litten & Stephen Byers.

ScribblenautsUnlimited

Matt: In the pantheon of genius gaming concepts that haven’t lived up to maximum potential, 5TH Cell’s Scribblenauts is one of the first games that comes to mind. On paper the idea of being able to type in any word and watch the string of letters instantaneously animate into a virtual object sounds magical, but through two DS games (plus another on iOS) the execution of that idea just hasn’t quite clicked. The first game succeeded because everyone fell in love with the concept, but for me it was too hampered by sloppy controls. The super sequel improved the controls and introduced adjectives to the game’s enormous dictionary, yet still fell flat due to rigid puzzles that stunted creative freedom and a general lack of structure. (I never played the iOS game so I can’t speak to whether it performed any better than the others.)

While the bloom is off the rose now some three or four years after the first game introduced its innovative puzzle mechanic, I would say that the series has finally come into its own with the latest installment, Scribblenauts Unlimited.

Available for 3DS, Wii U and Steam (Stephen and I will be comparing notes on the two Nintendo platforms for this review), Scribblenauts Unlimited once again stars the loveable tike Maxwell, who wields the power of his magical notebook to solve the everyday problems of those around him. The core game mechanics have not changed. Using Maxwell’s notebook, you jot down any person, place or thing and watch as it drops into the game world for our rooster-hatted hero to play with or give to some other non-playable character in need. You can still apply adjectives to objects and now, in a helpful addition, you can store regularly used items in Maxwell’s backpack to be pulled out without having to type out the words all over again.

Unlimited’s greatest achievement is that of its new world map structure. Previous Scribblenauts games simply gave you a bunch of individual puzzle challenges to pick from, but this time Maxwell gets to explore a large overworld in which all levels are connected together, with only brief load times separating one area of the map from another. Each level offers one or two main puzzle scenarios to complete for a full Starite, very similar in setup to past installments. However, the worlds are also now populated with NPCs who have random conundrums that need figuring out, as hinted at by dialogue clues that appear when you click on a character in need with the stylus. If you figure out the appropriate item to give these NPCs, they’ll reward you with a Starite shard, and with 10 shards you’ll assemble a complete Starite. Starites are the currency for unlocking new areas of the world map, too, so you’ll need a bunch of them to reach the end.

You can also pick up another 200-plus shards by completing bonus object puzzles from the pause menu. These have no direct relation to any puzzle within the world itself; there’s just a huge list of clues in different object categories that you can flip through and attempt to solve at your leisure. Any one longing for the random puzzle nature of the previous games will want to look here. It just so happens that these bonus puzzles also challenge the imagination and vocabulary more so than the main puzzles.

I suppose the biggest disappointment with the 3DS version, beyond the fact that it doesn’t even attempt to utilize 3D in any capacity (gameplay is all on the bottom screen so the 3D light never even comes on), is that, due to technical limitations, it’s missing the Object Editor, which is only the main new feature 5TH Cell spent much of its time hyping before the release. Strangely, it’s also missing the cameo Nintendo characters that are in the Wii U edition, even though the 3DS is a Nintendo platform. I still can’t figure that one out (though it’s obvious Nintendo just wanted some form of exclusive feature to lure gamers into buying into the Wii U hype.)

With that, I think it’s a good time to bring you into the discussion here, Stephen? What are your thoughts on Maxwell’s latest adventure and how it utilizes the fancy new Wii U tech?

Stephen: One thing that the Wii U version has over the 3DS version is that it looks better. This is probably not a big shock: as long as the resolution holds up, bigger is usually better. A rule is reproven here. Magic, thing-making notebook in hand, Maxwell will explore a cartoonish world filled with hundreds of items and people that look a lot like him with different hair. Because of the premise of the game, at any time players can generate an uncopyrighted and inoffensive object, and the world can begin to look cluttered with basic things if it is done too many times. It does not help that the art style on the cover is consistent throughout, rendering many objects d’action interchangeable. As colorful as everything is and even with the wide range of settings, the lens is slathered with the Vaseline of sameness, a flaw that can be gotten past to get to the core object generating nature of the game.

The gameplay is largely the same on all of the systems. I like to think of the puzzle mechanic as a sort of magical crossword puzzle that presents a problem or scenario, the crossword clue, and then leaves it up to the player to come up with something that might be marginally appropriate, the answer. The clue might be, “The nurse needs something to cut the rope” and then it is up to players with the tablet in hand to think of different things that cut. “Knife”, would be a pretty basic answer, so type that in and use the knife to cut the rope. But, it could have been “scissors” or “sword” or “axe” or “saw”, all of which would cut the rope. The fun comes in trying to think of a creative way to accomplish the task at hand, and seeing if the game has the bizarre tool in its dictionary. Thankfully, the game has a spell check feature which allows even the most functionally literate amongst us to enjoy the game.

Adding to the fun is the ability to use adjectives to modify words. In the above example, “sharp knife” could be typed in to create an object that looks identical to the regular, plain Jane kitchen utensil, but does a way better job separating the molecular bonds in the individual strands of rope from one another, or the life and body of an enemy creature. Being able to modify creatures and people with adjectives can also solve problems, not just generate weird things. Maybe someone is trying to avoid taking damage, generating a shield might help, but so could giving her the “armored” modifier. All of the appeal in Scribblenauts comes down to flexing your imagination against the constraints of allowed words in the game and experiencing the joy of having your thoughts given form and meaning. To put it another way, the fun is applied creation. There are a very large number of words, but eventually the game will not allow one to make the first thing that springs to mind.

The challenges, which might be a generous description given the low difficulty, are more like useful guides to help in this mind/game flexing. It is the difference between a gym with its specialized exercise machines and trainers to help guide calorie burners in the right direction and an abandoned farm with lots of spaces to run, heavy things to repeatedly lift, and lots of other ways to otherwise sweat, but zero direction. Direction helps fuel energy and objective goals allow for a sense of accomplishment. The proof of concept was at one point probably an empty space where users could create all the “orange pigs” they wanted and see how a rolling “gentlemanly tire” would interact with them, but that would be more of a toy than a game. By taking the idea of creating those simple objects with their mechanics and putting them into a world with problems to solve, Scribblenauts allows for an experience in imagination and creation unlike any other game that comes to mind. This is not a play room, it is a portable Home Depot and a platinum credit card where Max can buy whatever tool he needs for the job, or can create deliberately bizarre solutions just for the fun of it.

(Bit of a pro tip: if you want to have fun, it is almost always a bad idea to use the adjective “zombie” to modify any sort of animal. Or better yet, ignore this advice, try it once, watch the chaos where one undead abomination shambles forward to ruin and infect everything in sight, and then finally meander through the interface to try to find the reset-the-stage button. I think the developer might have swiped Max’s notebook and wrote “functional menus” instead of “intuitive menus”.)

The game has an object editor. If they have a mind to, players can create and share various objects with other players who have a Wii U. This allows players to create custom objects which can in turn be shown off at the Punctuation Plaza where players can see a selection of other players’ custom objects. It is not clear within the game – without popping up the manual – exactly to what extent objects can be edited nor is it necessary to use these objects to solve problems in the world. The whole editor seems unnecessary to me, but it might appeal to some who like the idea of making something weird and having it in the “real” world. Which should sound appealing, but remember that it takes ten to twenty minutes of menu fumbling to make said weird object to unnecessarily complicate the game in a way that may not work anyway. If they have a little brother, Wii U owners can also rock their local multiplayer which allows people with a WiiMote to manipulate objects generated.

All in all Matt, given your impression with the 3DS version, it sounds like if a potential buyer is truly console agnostic – meaning all of their portable systems are tethered to the couch, removing any possibility to take the fun on the go – the Wii U version is probably the one to get. It looks nicer and has a few extra features to add onto its side of the scale. While a radical improvement from the first, “the concept is neat, but the controls are horrible” game, there is no reason for anyone who played Super Scribblenauts to get this new entry in the series.

Matt: I have to disagree with the notion that anyone who played Super Scribblenauts shouldn’t bother with Unlimited. While the core values of the two games are the same, the addition of the world map and goal-oriented approach brings a sense of continuity to the experience that the previous titles simply didn’t have. Unlimited has purpose and structure whereas its predecessors just felt like interesting yet fruitless playthings, unfinished attempts at a great idea.

I have to differ with your impression of the game having a samey look as well. It’s disappointing that 5th Cell didn’t make any attempt at incorporating the 3D tech to give the colorful toon world an added pop of depth, but even in plain 2D the backgrounds are sharply detailed and the characters are cute as a button. The game world is a kingdom of diverse environs, from Egyptian tombs and snowy mountains to underground caverns and a sprawling cityscape. The NPCs have similar faces, true, but they all wear different costumes to distinguish themselves from Maxwell and each other. I never felt like I was seeing the same levels and characters over and over again. In fact, I think the game’s aesthetic is one of its strongest attributes. I think there is plenty of level and character variety to keep things fresh and the cartoonish art style is simpatico with the whole concept of creating objects from one’s imagination. Everything looks like hand-drawn doodles Maxwell scribbled into his notebook while daydreaming in class. I can’t think of a more fitting stylistic approach.

Honestly, my main complaint with the game is the way its main puzzles still seem content to have you get by with the most basic of solutions rather than strain your mental lexicon. When attempting many puzzles, I typically wondered to myself, “Do I type in the first word that comes to mind that isn’t very creative but I know will clear the puzzle quickly, or do I dig deep into my imagination and try to think of something more creative at the risk of running through ideas that aren’t as certain to resolve the predicament at hand?” The clues often make it too easy to use common, everyday items to save the day (and reuse the same common objects stored in Maxwell’s backpack) that it almost becomes a waste of time if you don’t travel down the path of least resistance. There needs to be a system of reward to incentivize thinking outside the box. I’m sure it would be tough for the developers to balance out, but it would be great if they could have found some way to reward players with varying amounts of Starites based on the complexity of their created objects, or at least something along those lines. The game is missing an extra little touch like this that would provide tiers of difficulty for players of different skill levels and better reward those players who take the time to come up with truly kooky concoctions.

Either way, Maxwell’s latest romp is a simple joy that whisks you away to a magical world where a creative mind and a basic understanding of the dictionary unlock endless puzzle-solving possibilities. Do you always need to flex your vocabulary muscle? No, not really, but the opportunity to push your imagination to its limits is always there, and when you do dream up a particularly inventive solution there is a childlike wonder that swells the heart and soul. I fear that we may see more of Maxwell in the future, but I honestly don’t see where the Scribblenauts series can possibly go from here. But if this does turn out to be the end of the line for Maxwell and his friends, I’ll be happy to wish him farewell on a high note.

Matt-BuyIt

Pros:
+ World map provides much-needed structure and cohesion
+ Puzzle solutions are virtually limitless (even if you don’t always have to be super creative)
+ Doodle-style graphics bring a childlike charm and wonder
+ Magic backpack makes it easy to whip out your favorite creations

Cons:
– Main puzzles are too easy to complete with simple objects
– 3DS version doesn’t use 3D at all and lacks the Object Editor and Nintendo bonus characters

Stephen: Maybe it is just a style thing, but I can’t fall in love with the art. Part of the problem is that it always felt like the characters were not responding to the action and frequently had a bemused, medicated smile on their face. The things struck me as similar because it never felt like anything was contextualized, nothing was special. A “fancy broom” is the same in one setting as it is in another. Granted, one might think that would be the case anyway, after all it is the same object, but that is the point. When the same things can be made again and again, and they always look the same, the objects blur into the background and become unimportant, removing any distinction which might otherwise be noticeable. Toss into that the fact that they are not highly detailed or striking in the first place makes the settings just that, a way for players to know where the action is happening. They are the set pieces in a play, where the action happens in the front. Other games, even 2D games, make the world feel alive and real. Scribblenauts Unlimited’s settings felt stiff and fake to me. Backgrounds aside, I think it’s undeniable the objects and characters do share a “distinct and consistent” look (a positive way to phrase “similar” or “same”).

I write that anyone who has played the immediately prior Scribblenauts game doesn’t need to play this one in the same sense that anyone that played Mega Man 4 does not need to play Mega Man 5. Sure Gravity Man’s stage with its shifting gravity was interesting, but mostly it was more Robot Masters, more powers and Beat, no new meaningful mechanics. Scribblenauts Unlimited does add a World Hub to easily navigate the challenges, but it does not appear that there was anything significant added to the core item creation concept like adjectives were from regular to Super Scribblenauts. This is the better of the two games, but I do not think it is enough of an improvement to plop down money for the game brand new for anyone but a fan of the series – who bought the game already anyway – or someone who has not played any of the earlier games.

It appears that certain dual-reviewers are in harmony on at least one point: this game is easy. Fall off a log, I know basic everyday items, I am functionally literate easy. It is possible to complete many objectives with the same items time and time again, with no requirement to really try to think outside of the box. Many of the objectives are simple and would not require a strange object or adjective to solve. It would have been great if there was the same set of scenarios but a hard mode that added additional requirements. Maybe something like “word must start with Q” or “using a phrase that has more than twenty letters” or even requiring players to punch in four closely related, solution objects before finally allowing the thing with similar functionality to be used. If 5th Cell had done that, then the normal mode could challenge and delight younger players and the hard mode could entertain the people that bought the game in the first place.

But there is no hard mode, and consequently Scribblenauts Unlimited can grow into a boring chore over long stretches of time. Still fun in short bursts, just not that great over the long haul like one would expect from a retail game. But, whether it is for five minutes or five hours, it is certainly a game worth checking out.

Stephen-TryIt

Pros:
+ Allows players to create their own solutions to problems
+ Large dictionary that allows for many strange and amusing objects to be created
+ Sound design is pleasant and unobtrusive

Cons:
– Not challenging
– Menus are sometimes difficult to navigate
– Game world does not feel cohesive, anything can be anywhere

Game Info:
Platform: Reviewed on 3DS and Wii U, also available for PC
Publisher: Warner Bros.
Developer: 5th Cell
Release Date: 11/13/2012
Genre: Puzzle/Platformer
ESRB Rating: E10+
Players: 1 (Wii U version has local co-op)
Source: Review copies provided by publisher

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About the Author

Matt Litten is the full-time editor and owner of VGBlogger.com. He is responsible for maintaining the day to day operation of the site, editing all staff content before it is published, and contributing regular news, reviews, previews and other articles. Matt landed his first gig in the video game review business writing for the now-defunct website BonusStage.com. After the sad and untimely close of BonusStage, the former staff went on to found VGBlogger.com. After a short stint as US Site Manager for AceGamez, Matt assumed full ownership over VGBlogger, and to this day he is dedicated to making it one of the top video game blogs in all the blogosphere. Matt is a fair-minded reviewer and lover of games of all platforms and types, big or small, hyped or niche, big-budget or indie. But that doesn't mean he will let poor games slide without a good thrashing when necessary!