Review: Super Scribblenauts

SuperScribblenauts.jpg

5TH Cell’s Scribblenauts is a game that wowed players with its creative freedom and ambition, but faltered due to fundamental design flaws. The sequel, Super Scribblenauts, is now here, and in a weird turn of events, its successes and failures are the exact opposite of its predecessor. This time around, the gameplay fundamentals are sound, but the creativity and novelty of the game’s core word-based puzzle solving has been stifled by rigid puzzle designs.

But first things first: what is Scribblenauts? For those new to 5TH Cell’s wordplay party, it is an emergent puzzle-platformer built around the concept of “think it, write it, solve it.” The game throws over 100 puzzle scenarios at you, and it’s your job to examine each scene and use the provided clues to formulate a solution. Once you think you’ve found a solution, you open the in-game keyboard, type in the word, and poof, the noun you entered pops into the game world as an interactive object. If the generated objects combine to solve the puzzle at hand, Maxwell, the game’s rooster-hat-wearing hero, is rewarded with Starites and Ollars (the game’s currency). Scribblenauts and Super Scribblenauts are fundamentally the same in this regard, and both exude a playful spirit and imagination that fills your heart with a child-like glee.

In terms of playability, Super Scribblenauts is an unquestionable upgrade over the first game. The clunky touch-screen-only stylus controls have been supplemented by an option to play with standard D-pad controls, and the simple ability to independently move Maxwell with the D-pad and type and interact with the world using the stylus makes for a monumental playability improvement. The physics engine has been overhauled as well, so objects exist with more weight within the game world and react in a more controllable fashion. 5TH Cell also added a hint system through which you can pay Ollars to get a helpful clue for the current puzzle, and there is a fairly robust custom level editor. Sadly, though, without a central database for sharing custom puzzles on a mass scale, the editor doesn’t leave much of a long-term impact. You can share locally or online, but only with Friend Codes. So you still can’t log on and search for user-created content.

However, as much as the sequel has improved in overall playability, it has lost some of its inventiveness. Opposed to the first game’s more free-form puzzles which allowed you to formulate solutions with any combination of objects you could think up, Super Scribblenauts’ puzzles are far more restrictive and demanding, requiring specific objects in order to be completed. Instead of thinking outside of the box, you are forced to think inside of the box, and that’s not as fun as having unbridled creative control. Sandbox play combats this somewhat, but without an objective to work towards, the novelty wears thin rather quickly.

The game’s word recognition doesn’t seem as consistent as what I remember from the original Scribblenauts either. I recall being able to type in almost any word and watch it spring to life differently from every other word, rarely seeing the same thing twice. Maybe having already used up so many ideas on the first game has lessened my creative thinking this time around, but in Super Scribblenauts, it seems like the dictionary, although something like 800 words deeper, has been simplified to a point where different words of a similar theme now generate the exact same entity, and as I played, it seemed like I was seeing a lot of the same things over and over again even though I was punching in different words.

So, for example, in one puzzle in which I had to populate a university, the words ‘professor,’ ‘history teacher,’ ‘dean,’ and ‘English teacher’ all counted as a Professor of History, which doesn’t make a whole lot of sense at all. And unfortunately, inconsistencies just like this are commonplace in many of the puzzles.

The headline addition to Super Scribblenauts is the expansion of its dictionary to include adjectives (over 10,000 supposedly!) as a means of further modifying the nouns you populate the game world with to solve puzzles. Adjectives allow you to do basic things like alter the size, color and physical make-up of objects. So instead of spawning a ninja, you can create a robotic ninja or a wooden ninja or a purple ninja or a tiny ninja. And you can go even further by combining multiple adjectives to make your ninja a massive, robotic, blue ninja with polka dots. What’s also interesting is the ability to modify creatures with adjectives that alter their behavior, such as using words like scary, crazy, heroic, evil, heavenly, and so on and so forth.

But unfortunately, the addition of adjectives is more impressive in theory than it is in actual execution. Many of the puzzles seem to have specific adjectives in mind as requirements to complete them, and even if you come up with what you think are similar descriptors, the game doesn’t recognize them, and ultimately it becomes more of a guessing game of trying to come up with one of the words the game wants you to use rather than using your own imagination to solve the problem at hand. And that goes back to my earlier point about how the game forces you to think inside the box the developer’s have set in place for each puzzle.

Because of this, your freedom to experiment is limited, and that creative freedom was what made Scribblenauts a hit despite its control woes. Another problem is that many adjectives don’t really seem to do anything. Like if I create a psychotic chipmunk, it is exactly the same as a plain chipmunk, except it has a thought bubble over its head with a horned devil face inside. Its reactions to other beings in the world change as well, but not in a truly meaningful way. All of these things once again equate to a game that is ultimately a victim of its own ambitions.

But for all of its untapped potential, Super Scribblenauts, like its predecessor, is a playful puzzler that fulfills the role of a favorite toy you can pull out at any time and extract some level of enjoyment from, and it shows enough flashes of brilliance to warrant recognition. It’s the type of game that is easy to nitpick at and feel disappointed by based on the hype and promise of its premise, but one that ultimately succeeds at being fun to play.

TryIt.jpg

Pros:
+ Core word-based puzzle concept remains unique and fun to play
+ Control and physics enhancements make a huge difference
+ Playful presentation

Cons:
– More restrictive puzzles limit creative thinking
– Adjectives don’t add as much to the game as expected
– 5TH Cell’s innovative concept still doesn’t quite live up to its full potential

Game Info:
Platform: DS
Publisher: Warner Bros.
Developer: 5TH Cell
Release Date: 10/12/2010
Genre: Puzzle/Platform
ESRB Rating: E10+
Players: 1-2
Source: Review copy provided by publisher

[nggallery id=1498]

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!