Easily one of gaming’s most ambitious titles in recent history, developer 5th Cell’s Scribblenauts had effectively created a large fan following from the moment it was announced. Since that day, the title went on to be the only handheld game to ever win multiple E3 Best of Show awards (let alone just one) from multiple outlets. Could a game that sounded so exhilarating, so fresh, so innovative and so fun have what it takes to satisfy the insane amount of hype and publicity that it had managed to build? No, not exactly, but how could it? Even when the game stumbles in a few key regards, I can confirm it’s still one of the most exciting and not to mention “fun” titles on Nintendo’s DS system, a feat that only a few developers have and will ever manage to achieve.
If you’ve happened to click on this review without any prior knowledge of Scribblenauts' premise, then ponder this: your objective is to complete a small task to collect a starite, essentially a small star object that must be retrieved in order to progress through a stage. The catch, and what drives the appeal for the title, is that you can write down any word imaginable (sans proper names, places, vulgarities and the like) to help capture a starite. It can be a simple, yet concurrently a magnificently difficult experience, especially when you factor in that winning depends on your own creative drive for each and every stage.
It’s up to you to figure out how you’re going to fetch each starite, and while you can do so in whatever way you may choose, it’s important to stay under or near each level’s par number, the recommended number of summoned objects that it should take to complete a level. Completing a level underneath par, and earning “merits” (the game’s own achievement system) by creatively conquering stages, will yield more “ollars” for players, the title’s currency that allows you to buy future stages and an abundance of goodies ranging from new playable avatars to soundtracks. Buying stages and items in other instances may feel somewhat like a cop-out for a bad gameplay system, but in Scribblenauts you can’t help but feel it’s a perfect fit for the title, and coupled with your own creativity, it’s what will keep you hooked for each and every stage the game has to offer.
Before we go any further, I think the drawbacks of Scribblenauts need to be addressed before we begin to dissect what the game does right, with a large part of it all factoring on dicey controls. What players will notice when they boot up Scribblenauts for the first time, and before any object is summoned, is that Maxwell (Scribblenauts’ “main character/avatar”) can only be controlled entirely with the touch screen. At first, this doesn’t matter, and as a matter of fact, it sounds promising. Instead of relying on the D-pad to get Maxwell everywhere with one hand, while holding the stylus for the touch screen gameplay mechanics, just point and click in the direction you want Maxwell to go with the stylus for a simpler and much more streamlined experience. If Maxwell needs to use an item you’ve summoned, just drag it to him or point at it with the stylus a la RTS-style and Maxwell will go straight to that item and interact with it. The D-pad and face buttons are all leftover for camera control, solidifying what should be a simplified control set-up that should work great.
Of course, just because it sounds great on paper doesn’t translate to great execution, and the controls in Scribblenauts assuredly don’t work as well as they should. For one thing, touch screen controls aren’t as responsive as expected, meaning that at random times during gameplay the touch screen won’ t register your stylus. Just as an example, let’s say you summon a black hole. That black hole won’t be part of gameplay until you touch it and drag it to your desired location. So there it is, you’ve summoned it and you put your stylus down to move it, but instead of moving the black hole, the game registers your stylus touch as trying to move Maxwell and he starts to move in a direction that not only were you not telling him to move in, but in a direction that may hold another object that hurts Maxwell, causing him to lose unnecessary damage (this can even result in retrying the whole stage if enough damage is lost).
In a similar manner, when the camera pans away from Maxwell in any direction and he is no longer on the screen, it will only stay where you have panned it for about three seconds before it quickly darts back to where Maxwell is standing. In many instances it’s likely you’ve summoned an item and just tapped the screen to drag the item when the camera darts back to Maxwell and the touch is registered as you trying to move Maxwell in an unwanted direction. Other gripes with controls are the same old problems that this method of control has been known to cause for a while now, with Maxwell either not jumping when you need him to or even jumping over and off of objects when you’ve simply pointed the stylus next to something like a cliff that you expect Maxwell to merely stand on, instead of flying over it. Sure, none of these occurrences “ruin” gameplay per se, but it would still be an understatement to say they don’t happen very often. This can make an otherwise great method of control feel clunky at times, and can make an otherwise enjoyable time an increasingly frustrating experience.
With over 20,000 items to choose from, you have to hand it to the guys over at 5th Cell who had the drive to really try and make your own imagination the only limit in gameplay, but with the sheer size of words included comes a drawback – game testing is nearly impossible, and it gives way to the other major issue the title stumbles over. Most of the time, you’ll be amazed at the crazy content and “cause and effect situations” if you will, that were stuffed into the title. Large predators in the animal kingdom can be easily swayed in your favor if you summon a swab of meat, jetpacks and other mechanical objects sputter to death if wet, and with a sprinkle of garlic a vampire will immediately dissolve into ash, and so on. To put it bluntly, it’s nothing short of amazing. But in light of all of this, objects can interact with other objects in ways they shouldn’t. Physics oddities like tying a chain to a box shouldn’t result in the box shooting all over the screen. Lastly, while it’s nice to have an astonishing number of items to work with, more should have been done to make each item interactive, as some not only do nothing if interacted with, but you can’t even perform elementary tasks with them, like throwing them. Scribblenauts doesn’t escape its own small share of technical glitches either, with the most glaring of them all being the - thankfully optional - letter recognizer. And while it only happened three times, that’s the most a single DS title has ever frozen up on me, perhaps a downfall that can be attributed to the massive amount of information the game stores and is processing at all times.
Now, if what you’ve been reading so far has started to give you some second doubts as to whether or not Scribblenauts was just a nice title that featured a novel game concept, but which didn’t quite live up to snuff, then stay put – let me explain why that’s not so. When the title is rolling on all cylinders and playing as it should, you will be having the type of fun you have been anticipating since the game was first revealed, no questions asked. Gameplay is split into “puzzle” stages and “action” stages, with the former requiring you to solve a particular problem in order to get your starite, and the latter usually challenging you to get from point A to B (where the starite is located) in a variety of ways. Just about every stage requires you to summon some sort of object to “win”, whether that means you need to use something that will give Maxwell the ability to fly so he can soar past obstacles or finding a way to cap off a newly wed’s wedding day by thinking of and creating two objects that you would normally see at a wedding. When all is said and done, there really is nothing like the feeling that you get when you realize only your own creative juices can stop you from completing a level. Whether it’s the hilarity that ensues when certain objects interact in unexpected ways or the usually stellar level design that compliments each task, the game offers some of the most refreshingly crazy gameplay concepts that gaming has ever seen, and it’s all a hell of a lot of fun to take part in even if you throw in some of the aforementioned hiccups from time to time.
Although it’s hard to describe exactly what the gameplay feels like to experience, I can’t stress enough just how cool it is to essentially have the game hand over the reins to you and say “Hey, do whatever you want to beat the game – it’s up to you.” It’s creative freedom that’s no doubt breathtaking, and any time you can merely just mess around in a game without actually trying to complete a task, something is definitely going right. With over 200 appropriately-tuned-for-complexity stages waiting for you to solve (when you’re not goofing around), it’s likely Scribblenauts will be the only game to occupy your DS for quite a while. If all of that still somehow isn’t enough to satisfy you, a mediocre WiFi-enabled level editor is also present for those patient enough to labour under an annoying interface and lack of options, but something tells me the normal gameplay, which should last you at least around 15-20 hours at bare minimum, should suffice.
To compliment the stellar stages that accompany the title, some satisfying tunes are sprinkled throughout each and every one of the 200-plus stages. Each clocks in at about two or three minutes, but thankfully somebody over at 5th Cell knew that it’d be a bit nauseating listening to the same few tracks for so many levels that they decided to create over 35 catchy, rhythmic, and almost “retro” (in a 1980s/90s kind of way) sounding beats that compliment the cheery atmosphere that embellishes the game. That atmosphere is easily most apparent in the art style that takes a very colorful and simple approach to the world and everything you decide to occupy it with. It won’t win any awards for the prettiest visuals, but there’s same great animation hidden away in there, especially certain objects like helicopters where the object has several moving parts that make it up.
Back when the DS was first announced, people asked Nintendo’s Shigeru Miyamoto what exactly the “DS” in the name’s title stood for. He responded saying that while in a sense it can stand for “Dual Screens”, he also said it stood for “Developer’s System”, in which he meant that the DS was a system where developers could create new and innovative experiences by utilizing the handheld's unique features. The more I continued playing Scribblenauts, the more I couldn’t help but think this was the type of game Miyamoto was talking about years prior. The game doesn’t always get things done in the prettiest fashion, and as a matter of fact, if Scribblenauts is the birthing of a series, there’s more than a fair share of items to improve on in many areas. But the way in which the title utilizes the hardware it’s built for to substantiate some of the most original and superbly fun gameplay concepts the DS has ever seen is simply breathtaking. If there’s so much as a spark of creativity in you, then I have no doubt that you will find something to like about the game. Just don’t expect to be hooked without a few annoyances along the way.
Scribblenauts - Review
By Alex Machuca, October 4, 2009
Scribblenauts - DS
Presentation - 8.5
Gameplay - 8.0
Value - 9.0
Gameplay - 8.0
Value - 9.0
To find out more about gamrReview reviews, visit our rating system page.