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Scribblenauts (DS) artwork

Scribblenauts (DS) review

"Thereís a cat stuck on the roof. Itís been there for hours, yowling its lungs out. Itís almost as annoying as its owner, a young girl whoís too lazy to get it herself. Thatís why Maxwell is here; heĎs a problem solver, and itĎs your job to supply him with whatever he needs. Itís not really a question of if youíll get little thing down, but how. You could always get a ladder and end it quickly. Perhaps you could tempt it down with some catnip. Or a mouse, for that matter. Theyíre obvious, ..."

Thereís a cat stuck on the roof. Itís been there for hours, yowling its lungs out. Itís almost as annoying as its owner, a young girl whoís too lazy to get it herself. Thatís why Maxwell is here; heĎs a problem solver, and itĎs your job to supply him with whatever he needs. Itís not really a question of if youíll get little thing down, but how. You could always get a ladder and end it quickly. Perhaps you could tempt it down with some catnip. Or a mouse, for that matter. Theyíre obvious, boring choices. What about wings, or a jetpack? Even a helicopter, though that is kind of overkill. Why even bother with the effort, anyway? You could always just set the house on fire and force the cat to leap for its life. Itís a little risky - the girl might end up with fried fur for a pet - but itís a chance well worth taking. Itís not like the collateral damage means anything; the objective is to get the cat down, no questions asked. Thatís all that matters.

So, what do you do?

Thatís what Scribblenauts is all about: figuring out how to complete a given objective by any means possible. Doing so grants you the Starite, a star-shaped item that automatically ends the level when you pick it up. Sometimes itís in plain sight, but heavily guarded; you might have to cross seemingly impossible gaps, dodge bullets, or press switches to enter different areas within the stage. Other puzzles arenít as straightforward, either; each stage comes with a hint towards the objective youíll need to complete before the Starite appears. It could be anything, from outfitting an upcoming rock band with instruments, transporting bad guys to heaven, to saving a couple of innocent bystanders from an oncoming horde of zombies. Thereís a steady increase in the difficulty level and complexity of the puzzles. By the time youíve gained access to all the levels - there are well over two hundred, which is impressive given their variety and unique designs - youíll be ready for anything.

Youíll have everything you need, too. This gameís most important feature isnít its insane levels, but items you summon to complete them. Scribblenauts boasts an in-game dictionary that spans thousands of words. Just type it into the onscreen keyboard, and itís all yours. Weapons? Everything from a pistol to a nuke. Vehicles? All kinds, even if there are more useful forms of transportation. People? You can call out anything from a generic Cop to a Skin Care Specialist. Capitalists, communists, murderers, terrorists, muggers, ninjas, pirates, cannibals, cavemen, priests, atheists, writers, artists, doctors, bloggers, fan boys, and anyone else you could probably think of. That goes for Internet memes as well; just try typing in Philosoraptor, Anon, or even Ďlol wutí. Thatís aside from the higher-end stuff, like God, Satan, Death, Cthulu, Medusa, manticores, krakens, dragons, dinosaurs, manbearpigs (seriously), and a slew of other epic characters. Youíll undoubtedly find some item omitted, but at least youíll have more than enough to work with.

You wonít need to use everything, though. Despite having so many potential ways to complete a level, you wonít necessarily have to be creative. It might take some experimentation and a few glances into an encyclopedia, but youíll eventually figure out the most practical items, even if they donĎt look it. Youíd probably never guess how a pegasus, a shrink ray, or some rope could be so helpful. Once you find an especially useful item (the black hole is ridiculously broken), you might rely on it too often to complete later levels. You could have some amazing scheme in mind, but after seeing it fail too many times, you might just give up and go back to some other tried and true method. Considering how you can have only so many items at once (your limit is conveniently displayed as a meter on the top screen), youíre going to have to figure out which tools are most effective. Not to mention how each level has a set standard for the amount of summons you use; one puzzle might expect you to use two items, while another could have ten. That plays a huge factor into how many Ollars (bonus points) youíll be allotted once youíve completed a puzzle; the fewer items you use, the better.

That rule doesnít just apply to your high score, either. Considering how many items you can have on the screen at the same time, itís best to keep things as simple as possible. Not for the sake of efficiency, but the severely flawed control scheme. While the directional pad and buttons are used to manipulate the camera, everything else is done with the stylus. You tap on an onscreen keyboard to summon an item, drag it to wherever itís supposed to go, tap on characters or targets to interact with them, press down on the screen to have Maxwell move, pick up something, remove an item, etc. Thatís fine for simple puzzles, but it becomes a serious problem in latter half of the game. For example, you could be standing on a ledge over a bottomless pit, and you have to save a character on the other side of the level. So you make a helicopter, then try to drag it over Maxwell. But the game doesnít read that youíre holding the chopper, and Maxwell merrily leaps off the cliff. Try again, and this time you manage to get him inside. You press down on the screen to get things movingÖbut you tap too close and Maxwell commits suicide for the second time. Try again, and maybe you get over to the other side of the level. Since you canít control the descent easily, the helicopter drifts too low, lands on your targetís face, and goes careening into the abyss. All because the control scheme is utterly flawed.

Itís nothing game-breaking - any level can be completed with enough patience and do-overs - but it makes the gameplay needlessly annoying. Putting up with the problems has its benefits, though. As you amass Ollars for completing the levels, you can use them to purchase more of the gameís content. Youíll spend the majority of it on new areas; there are ten sections in the game, and each is divided into twenty two puzzles. Given the sheer amount of cash youíll have to dish out to unlock the last few places, youíre going to have to complete nearly everything beforehand. Once youíve reached every level, youíll probably spend your leftovers at the Ollar Store, which sells you different avatars for Maxwell and background music. None of it is worth noting - the soundtrack is nothing more than a bunch of lighthearted, easygoing beats - but at least itís there to peruse. You can also view your Merits, which are awarded like console game Achievements. Beat a level without killing anyone? Thereís a Merit for that. Same goes with using new items, or even setting stuff on fire. Thereís nothing particularly interesting, but at least itíll keep completionists busy.

The real meat of the game isnít its unlockables, though. After youíve conquered every stage in the game, youíll spend most of your time in the Level Editor. This mode allows you to craft your own puzzles and stages from scratch. Youíre given control over every item in the in-game dictionary; who or what appears, what weapons or tools are used, who defends or attacks whom, and the standard amount of items you think itíd take to complete an objective. It might seem a little unwieldy at first, but a little effort and creativity could create something great. If youíve crafted something especially impressive or challenging, you can share it with your friends via online multiplayer. The game uses the Friend Code system to connect gamers, which means youíll have to exchange another convoluted string of numbers to get things going. The online level trading system is pretty straightforward, though some mini-games or additional downloadable content would have evened things out.

The online features probably wonít be enough to keep you hooked. Instead, youíll spend most of your time messing around with the dictionary and coming up with the craziest summon possible. A lot of effort went into the design and interaction of these items. Try putting a halfling, a wizard, and a ring close together. Or a pirate and ninja, for that matter. When you ask for a nihilist, the menu will make you differentiate between aggressive or passive characters. Typing ĎPsychoí or ĎPsychopathí makes the difference between a knife-wielding ex and a masked villain. Not everything is specific, though; pyromaniac and terrorist have the same unshaven, Molotov cocktail-wielding avatar. Same goes with revolver and magnum, or anything else in that particular style of firearm. Itís understandable; given the amount of words crammed into the game, a generalized sprite makes things a lot easier. Since the dictionary is so extensive, the game had to sacrifice its graphical presentation as a whole. Everything is drawn with simple movements and plain designs. Even the most impressive avatars are just a bunch of blandly colored shapes stuck together. Itís the little stuff, like Godís lightning punches and the communistís fear of money, that make it entertaining. Scribblenauts has its charm, even if itís not the best-looking game the DS has ever seen.

Nor is it perfect. The premise is as incredible as it is ambitious. A game that lets you summon whatever item you can possibly think up? On a handheld? Amazing. The sheer amount of levels and well-designed challenges will keep you figuring out different plans and discovering how extensive the gameís dictionary can get. Youíll have to put forth the effort, considering how much of your progress depends on the bonus points youíll get from solving a puzzle. Even if the unlockables and online features are kind of generic, the Level Editor will keep you busy. Not to mention all the time youíll waste messing around with all the items. Itís wonderful stuff, but the controls drag it down from being truly great. With so many inconsistencies and awkward handling, it kills a lot of the fun. Itís not horrendous, but itís an annoying problem that could have been easily fixed. Regardless of its flaws, Scribblenauts is a fine title. It may be over-hyped, but itís still worth playing.


disco's avatar
Community review by disco (September 13, 2009)

Disco is a San Francisco Bay Area native, whose gaming repertoire spans nearly three decades and hundreds of titles. He loves fighting games, traveling the world, learning new things, writing, photography, and tea. Not necessarily in that order.

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fleinn posted September 19, 2009:

:D good review. Well done focusing on what the game plays like, instead of explaining how great your think your own imagination is. It's a bit long to "just read through", and there's a.. double break of some sort, after the semicolon, that I had to read five times before I understood what you meant. ..about how using few items was a good idea. It was a good point, but should be simpler. :p (wow, I really like this criticism thing. So easy).

Anyway. It's still a billion times better than most professional reviews I've read, short and long, imo. ..I still don't know what age- group actually likes this game, or who buys it, though. hmm.
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zippdementia posted September 19, 2009:

It targets the 20-30 year old age group. That's really the only age group that can appreciate Cthulu fighting the Numa Numa guy.

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