Review: Scribblenauts

Scribblenauts.jpg Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve probably heard a lot about Scribblenauts. What was once an unassuming sleeper of a puzzle-solving game from 5th Cell (Drawn to Life, Lock’s Quest) blew up over night as sort of an underdog industry darling, coming out of this year’s E3 with perhaps more hype and anticipation than any other game on any other platform. But now that it’s out and I’ve had a week of scribbling under my belt, I’m flabbergasted (and immensely disappointed) by how much of a mixed bag it really is.

What I find so flummoxing about Scribblenauts is how it can be so unbelievably inventive, verging on masterpiece status one moment, and an absolutely dreadful, frustrating mess of a game the next. Yes, I said dreadful!

The best thing about Scribblenauts is obviously its concept. Scribblenauts is a 2D puzzle platformer in which you help a rooster-hat-clad young boy named Maxwell collect the Starites hidden throughout the game’s 200+ stages. Sounds pretty normal, right? But here’s the catch: to aid Maxwell in clearing the many confounding conundrums he faces on his adventure, you have to populate his world with the necessary tools by typing them into the game. Whatever word you type in immediately comes to life as a useable object in the game world. Need to reach a higher ledge? Type something like “ladder” or “trampoline” and you’ll be able to proceed. Or maybe Maxwell’s car has broken down. Simply summon in another car and a pair of jumper cables and you’re good to go.

Scribblenauts certainly lives up to its tagline “Write Anything. Solve Everything.” I haven’t seen an official count from 5th Cell, but recent reports of a “leaked” list of the game’s full dictionary say it contains nearly 23,000 words. The game recognizes virtually any noun you can think of, from everyday items like tables, chairs, books, cars, stoves and ladders to crazier items like shrink rays, blackholes, demon-summoning portals, dinosaurs and random character types like bloggers, zombies, witches, superheroes and even God, the almighty himself. Certain “grown-up” content is censored, of course, like alcoholic beverages, drug paraphernalia, explicit sexual materials and brand name products (so no, as much as you may want to you cannot summon forth a ShamWow, Snuggie or stick of Mighty Putty to help out poor Maxwell). But the game does register a robust arsenal of weapons, including but not limited to pistols, rifles, swords, axes and grenade launchers. The possibilities really are endless, so let your imagination run wild!

And that’s the main draw of the game. It’s fun and often laugh-out-loud hilarious to just sit down with your DS in hand and jot down words to see what happens when they spring to life and interact within the doodle-filled confines of Maxwell’s notebook. The concept and technology behind Scribblenauts is truly groundbreaking, and 5th Cell definitely deserves to be showered with praise for their constant pursuit of innovation.

But as brilliant as Scribblenauts is conceptually, the actual “game” part of the game is severely underdeveloped, almost unplayable at times even. Poor controls are the main culprit here. Instead of mapping Maxwell’s movements to the D-pad as clearly should have been done, 5th Cell tied all in-game controls to the touch screen (except for panning the camera with the D-pad). This is great for typing in objects and dragging them around the screen, but not so great when it comes to moving Maxwell where you want him to go.

Since manipulating objects and moving Maxwell are both dependent on tapping and dragging a stylus on the touch screen, the game becomes crippled by frequent recognition inconsistencies. If your stylus gestures are even a hair off point, you’ll accidentally wind up running Maxwell into harm’s way or moving an object you didn’t want to move.

These control woes aren’t much of an issue if you stick to the opening scene in which you are free to play “stump the dictionary” without any restraints or objectives, or if you and some friends try to stump each other by creating custom puzzles with the included level editor. But once you venture into the main Challenge mode’s 200+ stages with actual goals that must be achieved, the inaccurate controls regularly turn what should be a fun, easy-going, transcendent experience into one of mass aggravation as you wind up stuck in a rut of dying and retrying simple puzzles, typically through no fault of your own.

For me, Scribblenauts has become one of those games that sounds so much cooler when you watch it in videos or read or hear about it than it really is when you actually get to play it. Since E3 I’ve read countless stories about crazy word concoctions players have come up with to solve puzzles, and I’ve read many similar stories on forums and in blog comments since the game went retail last week. These stories always spark my imagination and get me so giddy to play the game, but then when I actually do play I regularly find myself getting more frustrated with the lousy controls than having fun with the game’s incredible word recognition.

Basically, you have to think of Scribblenauts as a toy, not a game. As much as it pains me to say this, as a game it’s just not that good. But if you treat it like a toy – a gimmicky little play thing you can pop in and fart around with for a while thinking up all sorts of crazy words to bring to life and attempting to stump the game’s dictionary – it can be loads of fun and is perhaps the most innovative piece of software you’ll ever play on your DS. Whether or not the clever concept is fun enough to compensate for the faulty controls, though, is a call you are going to have to make on your own.

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Pros:
+ Truly innovative game concept
+ Virtually unlimited solution possibilities
+ Ton of puzzles to solve

Cons:
– Lousy controls undermine the genius concept and much of its fun
– Loses its wow-factor fairly quickly

Game Info:
Platform: DS
Publisher: Warner Bros.
Developer: 5th Cell
Release Date: 9/15/09
Genre: Puzzle
ESRB Rating: E10+
Players: 1-2

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!