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Scribblenauts (DS) artwork

Scribblenauts (DS) review

"The capability to create hundreds of entities isn't particularly impressive when 80% of the game can be mastered with less than a dozen. Developer 5th Cell must have forgotten that most gamers seek degenerate solutions and will keep using what works. Great games become more difficult and build on their own mechanics until you've accomplished far more than you originally expected. Scribblenauts works in reverse — the game becomes easier and less stimulating as it goes on."

Scribblenauts is a nice idea. At heart, it's a puzzle game. Sometimes the puzzle is "how do I travel from point A to point B?"; other times, the puzzle is "how do I chop down that tree?" Each level begins with a different hint, but onscreen avatar Maxwell's objective is always the same: find the Starite!

Consider the "ugly duckling level". Reunite the ugly duckling with the swans, and you'll receive a precious Starite. Of course, there's a hitch; you've got to protect the birds from a hungry cat. Using the shoddy stylus controls, you could pick up the cat, walk over to the lake, and drop the poor feline in, you heartless beast! While the cat sits in the water mewing, it should be easy enough to jump up to the hill, pick up the ugly duckling, and . . .

. . . uh oh. The hill is too high to reach! No matter how many times you try, Maxwell simply cannot reach the top. Tap the notebook icon with the stylus, and a keyboard appears; type out the words "JET PACK" and a jet pack pops up onscreen. Maxwell can then strap it on, fly up to the duck, and carry it back to the swans. Mission accomplished!

Play the level again, and it kicks into Advanced Mode. This requires you beat a stage three times in a row, using three different solutions. Sure, you can still use the jet pack the first time. You could also type the word "CRANE" and use a giant construction machine to pick up the duck and drop it amidst the swans. "PEGASUS" is a more fanciful option. If you're feeling saucy, you can summon "CTHULHU" and frighten the duck off its perch . . . assuming the nefarious lord doesn't kill the bird first.

It's gratifying to watch your mind's creations (devious or otherwise) come to life and accomplish in-game objectives. Even the title screen entertains; it's just a big, open room that lets you imagine a world and watch it work. Create a Communist, and he'll charge towards the Capitalist with murderous intent. Summon a vampire and it turns the communist into an undead ghoul. Use the stylus to type out "VAMPIRE HUNTER" and a replica of Vampire Hunter D hacks the bloodsucker to death. It was all pretty cool -- like a virtual playground for my imagination -- until the game stopped predicting what I wanted to happen.

I created a Hydra. I created Hercules. The legendary warrior lost the battle.

I created George Washington. I created a cherry tree. Then I gave George an axe. Sadly, there's not any more to the story than that. You can't issue orders; summoned characters do whatever they want. George didn't want to do much of anything.

When the game stopped predicting what I was thinking, the magic began to fade. It was no longer a fantastic world of pretend; it had become just another game with its own set of limited rules. The game's 200 challenges were intended to keep players' minds churning out new concepts, but a few important classes of items quickly become apparent:

Deadly Creatures: Slime, Ooze, Murderer. These will eliminate troublesome obstacles while still letting you earn the "No Weapon!" merit.

Small Flight Items: Wings, Jet Pack, Rocket Pack (yes, the game actually considers Jet Pack and Rocket Pack as two different solutions even though they look and behave identically). These let Maxwell fly anywhere on the screen, and he doesn't have to worry about getting stuck. Jet Planes and Pegasii have trouble navigating tight passages.

Connectors: Rope, Cable, Cord. Sometimes it's good to tie two things together . . . or to tie something to yourself.

The capability to create hundreds of entities isn't particularly impressive when 80% of the game can be mastered with less than a dozen. Developer 5th Cell must have forgotten that most gamers seek degenerate solutions and will keep using what works. Great games become more difficult and build on their own mechanics until you've accomplished far more than you originally expected. Scribblenauts works in reverse -- the game becomes easier and less stimulating as it goes on. For a puzzle game, that's the kiss of death.

If you're looking for a quick diversion, Scribblenauts' title screen will give you that. If you're looking for a bunch of bite-size challenges, Scribblenauts will give you that, too. What the game won't provide is an enduring, rewarding experience.

But it was a nice idea.



zigfried's avatar
Staff review by Zigfried (September 30, 2009)

Zigfried likes writing about whales and angry seamen, and often does so at the local pub.

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If you enjoyed this Scribblenauts review, you're encouraged to discuss it with the author and with other members of the site's community. If you don't already have an HonestGamers account, you can sign up for one in a snap. Thank you for reading!

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zippdementia posted October 01, 2009:

Man your reviews have been excellent lately, Zig. Quick, precise, easy to read, covers the important parts of the game... I definitely think you're this site's best all-around reviewer. Sure, individual pizzaz may be able to oust you in a tournament, but you are the Honest Hercules.

Now just hope someone doesn't type in Hydra.
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jerec posted October 01, 2009:

This game was talked about so much on GameFAQs prior to its release. Since it's come out, I've barely heard anything about it.

"Oh my God. Scribblenauts is going to be the best game ever! It comes out soon. [time passes]. Err, yeah. It was okay for a while. I guess."

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darketernal posted October 01, 2009:

Well, up to last week it was still on the top ten message boards posted in on Gfaqs. But yeah, I agree, it becomes cumbersome after some time when you find the same solutions to various problems. That and the controls are nothing short of horrid. It shouldn't be that much of a problem since every level can be solved with the right solutions in a matter of minutes, but it's still beyond me why you couldn't control Max with the D-pad and make the camera static that you can move it and leave it as you want.
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Suskie posted October 01, 2009:

This is an extremely well written and informative review that nicely outlines what I think gamers are anticipating in a game like this. I've been on the fence with this one for a while and I've finally settled on simply avoiding it. I do hope they make a sequel, however. The idea is too good to simply give up on after the first try.
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zigfried posted October 01, 2009:

Yeah, the controls are kind of screwed but that's not what really kills the game. I think the game could really benefit from a stronger limiter (forcing players to think of more out-of-box solutions) or an expanded setting that demands a larger variety of item types to solve the puzzles.

Thanks for the feedback, everyone!

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aschultz posted February 08, 2010:

Stumbled across this late, but the conclusion about what people look for in puzzle games has me left thinking, "geez, why didn't I notice that?"

As good as I want to think I am, I still always try the cheap way out.

This is a really good review by itself and also because it's probably going to tweak me a while not to find the degenerate solution, so to speak, in any future puzzle game reviews I may want to take a crack at.
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radicaldreamer posted February 08, 2010:

I'm curious as to what you mean by a "degenerate" solution.
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aschultz posted February 08, 2010:

Degenerate means something dumb, trivial, quick and short, in a logical context. Part of this is laziness and part of this is actually a good algorithm. If an obvious/previous strategy doesn't quite work, the question is how to tweak it so it does?

Another example of a degenerate solution is


Degenerate solutions are x,y = 1,0 -1,0 and 0,-1. You can see why people always look for those first. They do give a boost for other things.

Regenerated may be the next step--but basically, experienced puzzle gamers try to cheat up to find easy ways through the board, or ways they'd already seen. If a strategy that worked on level 7 works on level 28--even if 28 just sort of repeats 7 a few times--then level 28 doesn't count as a "new" level and is really just 7 repeated. Then it does not add to the depth of the game.

ETA: an example of a degenerate solution of a review would be:

I played Block Busters for ten minutes. I got to level 5. Up to four was hella easy but I think you need a new button or something for level 5. No way! That gets in the way of pure thinking. Plus there was no cool colorfull tutorial?! 1/10.
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radicaldreamer posted February 08, 2010:

Thanks, though I actually meant to direct that to Zig and his use of it in the review.
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zigfried posted February 08, 2010:

The game can be beaten through repetition of the same solution (or rather, set of solutions). The first time, the solution appears quite novel; but the effectiveness of using that same solution over and over, just swapping words like "killer" for "murderer", is what makes it degenerate. A set of virtually unlimited potential is reduced to a few elements. To tie into the formula that ASchultz just posted, people look for the quickest solution -- which is, in Scribblenauts' case, the thing that worked the prior time, the time before that, and the time before that.


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