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Super Scribblenauts (DS) artwork

Super Scribblenauts (DS) review


"If a puzzle gives you too much trouble, the game has a hint system in place. You can pay virtual currency to unlock new tips that supply varying degrees of assistance. Sometimes, the best hints will flat out give you the answer, which may disappoint some. It's not a big deal, though, because most stages can be repeated. The only way to get a gold crown for such stages is to play through it three consecutive times while using different phrases on every attempt."



There's an older John Candy comedy called "Delirious" in which Candy's character, a soap opera writer who lives in the big city, suffers an accident before waking up in a hospital within the fantasy world he wrote about each week. That's interesting enough, since it allows for the exploration of many a soap opera tripe, but things get more interesting still when he discovers that his typewriter has survived the trip to that fantasy dimension. It can now be used to set up desired scenarios for him to live through (which he tends to mess up interesting ways). Hilarity ensues.

Super Scribblenauts, the second game in the young DS series, is like that John Candy movie but different. The most important difference is that Maxwell, the youthful protagonist, can create items on the fly as he works his way through scenarios that most definitely are not of his own devising. He comes at things from the other end, then. Instead of prepping a perfect event, he responds to an imperfect one with the proper phrases. It's as close as gamers will ever come to being soap opera writers with magical typewriters. As you might imagine, it's also quite a bit of fun.

When the original Scribblenauts arrived, consumers met its concept with open arms but were less enamored by the execution. Many critics ultimately wrote it off as an earnest attempt at realizing some fairly grand ambitions that fell short of its goals due to technical limitations. Super Scribblenauts comes a year later with the advantages that time and additional programming efforts afford it. The result is the sequel that the first game should have been. There's polish, there are dozens upon dozens of puzzles, you can use adjectives and there are two control schemes that make it easy to control Max with the d-pad while entering words on the stylus that will cause goodies to materialize from thin air. Things still aren't perfect, but they're close enough that the imaginative gamer can have a ball.

There are two ways to play Super Scribblenauts. The first doesn't even require starting a game file. From the title screen, you can tap to bring up a screen that shows Max standing on a grassy plain. Then you can tap the touchscreen to create phrases and they will spring to life on the screen with Max. You can have a lot of fun in that environment, but the opportunities for interaction are rather limited unless you're willing to create them yourself with props.

Once you're ready to start challenging yourself, the game has a proper tutorial that eases you into things. Then you can tackle constellations, which really are just sets of puzzles. As you solve each puzzle, you'll reveal new ones and those will form designs across the level selection skyline. Solving every last one of them will take quite awhile, particularly if you take the time to master each of them.

Puzzles are interesting because they force you to think outside the box and they reward you in satisfying ways once you do so. It's one thing to create a steak and watch it sit on the ground next to Max. It's another thing entirely to drop it in a pen and watch a tiger run over to eat it, allowing you to flip a switch so that the tiger is then trapped and sectioned off from the hyena that you're trying to move around without incident. There usually are limitations in place so that you can't simply go for the most obvious solution. If you try to solve the puzzle by using a bomb to blow up the hyena, for instance, you'll fail because someone is looking out for the furry predators.

If a puzzle gives you too much trouble, the game has a hint system in place. You can pay virtual currency to unlock new tips that supply varying degrees of assistance. Sometimes, the best hints will flat out give you the answer, which may disappoint some. It's not a big deal, though, because most stages can be repeated. The only way to get a gold crown for such stages is to play through it three consecutive times while using different phrases on every attempt. Sometimes that just means dreaming up a few synonyms, but there are other instances where you may have to come up with an entirely different strategy. There's a real thrill that comes from doing something that 'breaks' a puzzle so that you can solve it more swiftly than its designers clearly intended. Even the most complex challenges often have a simple solution if you can just think along the right lines.

Super Scribblenauts is the perfect candidate for a road trip because of its quick payoff. Often, puzzles can be solved in a minute or two, if that's what you have the time to do, but the game is also compelling when you have a larger block of time to kill and you want to go back to truly master a particularly devious stage. There's even a full-featured custom level editor so that you can create new challenges for yourselves and loved ones to tackle.

With all of that said, though, there are limitations. Of course there had to be, given the portable hardware's processing power and memory constraints, not to mention the epic scale of the concept. This is a game where you can create almost anything, after all. The 'almost' is the part where the game ultimately falters. If you have an extensive vocabulary, it's frustrating when you come up with the perfect solution for a puzzle and then watch as a red line is drawn through part of your most excellent phrase. To be fair, there are thousands upon thousands of available words in the game's database (all of them associated with pictures), but some fairly obvious ones aren't included in lieu of rather obtuse alternatives.

Some of the omissions owe more to the game's E10+ rating than they do any technical limitations, which occasionally leads to comical inconsistencies. The developers are okay with the player having a gun. You can create a baby and a gun, then use the weapon to shoot the baby. You can even summon Cthulhu to do your bidding. That's about as dark as things get, yet when a puzzle comes that asks you to identify items that you might find at a crime scene, blood is not accepted. Nor is anything vulgar, obviously. If OJ Simpson had committed a crime in Scribblenauts, he could have gotten an acquittal without an expensive attorney because there would have been no bloody glove.

Ultimately, though, the limitations that prevent Super Scribblenauts from morphing into a truly limitless adventure aren't a big deal and they're easily understood. The biggest hindrance of all is really the player's own imagination. That's quite the accomplishment for a game that fits on a cartridge not much larger than a quarter. Consider the game an obvious purchase for anyone who is looking for something different from the norm, or for a parent looking for a safe way to foster creativity and ingenuity in a child. It's a good investment for pretty much anyone, in other words. Is there a synonym for that?

Rating: 8/10

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Staff review by Jason Venter (December 22, 2011)

Jason Venter founded HonestGamers in 1998, and since then has written hundreds of reviews as the site's editor-in-chief. He also is a prolific freelancer with game reviews, articles and fiction available around the Internet.

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