When I first heard about Scribblenauts, I was super excited. A game where you can summon anything from a little pad of paper to solve puzzles and save the world? Including krakens and dinosaurs and Long Cat? And you wear a funny looking rooster hat the whole time? I was pretty much sold on the concept and art style alone.
The months that followed were almost painful. This was one of the first DS titles I had been looking forward to in such a long time and yet the release date was so far away. The internet provided a few videos from E3, displaying such grand things such as “God VS the Kraken”, and some artwork including a scene with the main character, Maxwell, riding a velociraptor, holding a sword to fight zombies from the future, as seen here:
Fast forward to late September, a birthday package arrived with me containing some shirts, a new umbrella I needed, and Scribblenauts. I started the tutorial, where it explains the controls, how to summon things, the way to beat levels, what items you can ride and how to do so, how glue and adhesives work, and other important things. I cruised through it, went to my classes, and played all during lunch.
When you first turn on the game, it takes you through the usual opening credits before dumping you off with Maxwell in a mock-forest level (by summoning things you unlock different worlds for your start screen to begin on).
You have the option to oblige to the game’s will and hit the start star on the bottom of the screen, or you can see where your curiosity and wonder leads and hit the journal in the upper corner and conjure up all the creatures and items you’ve wanted. I would also estimate I spent hours just summoning things on the opening screen, because there are so many things you can make! While Scribblenauts does not have everything ever, you can summon a select choice of nouns that are not offensive, vulgar, proper nouns, that sort of thing, that will entertain and amaze. I remember typing in “love” and my magical notebook gave me an anatomically correct heart. The games other summons, include everything from Cthulu, submarines, freeze rays, teleporters, God, death, everything, and nothing.
And then I began my journey with dear Maxwell and his silly hat. Each world has twenty-two stages; half are puzzle based, half are action based, though I felt there was no real difference between the two. When you are in a world, you will start off with the puzzle stages, but if you hit the little explosion tab in the bottom right corner, it changes over to the action puzzles. When you begin a world, only the first level of the action and puzzle stages will be unlocked. As you beat levels, you will unlock the other levels of that world.
In the first puzzle level of world one, you are brought to a forest with four people: A cop, a chef, a fireman, and a lady doctor. At the beginning of each level, you are given a hint to help you complete the level successfully. In this one the hint reads, “Give two of them what they would use in their hands!” Easy enough, right? So I could make a gun for the police man, a frying pan for the chef, a hose for the fireman, and a stethoscope for the doctor. I’d be over achieving and going over the level’s par amount of items. Every level has a par amount of items it thinks you should use to solve the level. Use less, you get more points upon beating it, use more you get less points for making too many mistakes.
As soon as you solve the puzzle, the Starite you’re after appears, it falls, Maxwell grabs it and swings his arm in a windmill of joy, signaling the completion of the level. Alrgiht! You’re scored on the Par number of items, Style for how cool you are at doing the level, the time it took you from when you started until Maxwell grabbed the Starite, and this grand total adds up to the number of Ollars earned. Now I know what you’re thinking, Ollars is a terrible rip off of the monies used in this game. Well, you’re right. Ollars are the only currency in Scribblenauts in which you can buy many things from new worlds, music to play for the whole game, or different avatars for Maxwell to be. You also get merits usually, which are more or less the achievement badges when you do something new and exciting in the game, like conjuring a new item you’ve never made before, or using lots of rope to solve your puzzle, like Candlejack mig
Every level you go into is rated on a scale of one to four stars, one being the easy “give this person what they need” kind of puzzle, four being the equivalent of stopping a time bomb from going off in the White House and you forgot wire cutters. You also have the option to play levels you’ve already cleared to get a genius achievement, which means you’ve successfully completed the level three times with all different items. I’m not an over achiever or anything, but I found myself stepping up to that challenge a few times, and it was fun.
The first few worlds were indeed fun and quirky as I expected, especially due to its strange world layout. I made scuba tanks so I could swim under water, I fed animals the noms they wanted, I air lifted patients to hospitals on the tops of mountains. I could solve any problem because I had the power to summon anything. The thing is, there were so many things I could use to solve the levels, I found myself sticking to a few choice items because I knew they would get the jobs I needed done. I often had repeat use of wings, the jetpack, the infamous tyrannosaurus rex, sharks, rope, and helicopters. It’s not that I didn’t WANT to come up with other things to use and solve the puzzles, I just knew if I had to go over gaps, wings would get me there, or if a bear wanted to eat me, the tyrannosaurus would eat it first. Half of the items I used didn't function in a way that I found useful, so I just stuck to what worked. And making items itself was an easy thing, making them do what you want was the difficult part.
To make things appear out of thin air, contrary to the first law of thermodynamics, you hit the little journal tab and type in what you want to make. No worries if you don’t know how to spell your item, Scribblenauts has a sort of spell check system where if it doesn’t recognize the word you put in, it will ask you if you meant one of three new options similar to your word. If a word has more than one meaning (when you type in fan it will ask you if you mean the tool or the person, not that those are entirely different) it will give you both and you can go from there. Once the item has entered the Scribblenauts world, it kind of just hangs out in midair until you drag it with your stylus to wherever. While you have the item selected with your stylus, you can rotate it using L and R. You can drag the item onto Maxwell for him to wear or hold or wield, you can drop it on the ground, you can place it inside of a box, or you can drag it up into the trash can which takes the place of the journal tab when you have items selected. Items won’t always be what you want them to be, though, or function in the way you’ll want them to, like I mentioned not but a paragraph ago. Water won’t make lava harden, and neither will ice. Guns will only fire so many times. The people you summon usually just sit there and look dumb unless they need to drive something or they’re afraid of something else on the stage.
Because the game is solely dependent on the use of the stylus, it can get a little obnoxious, especially controlling Maxwell. The extent of his controls are simply ‘tap the area where you want him to go’ which will often result with Maxwell running into a wall until you tell him not to, or Maxwell falling into a pit of death because he didn’t feel like jumping (he can only jump if there is an obstacle in his way), or Maxwell getting eaten by a tiger because he accidentally got to close. Basically, anything Maxwell can do wrong he probably will because of the poor stylus controls. Let’s face it, we’ve all grown up with the D Pad, and while I give 5th Cell a pat on the back for trying something new, completely relying on the touch screen for controls was not their best move. Plus, all the D Pad did in the game was control the camera, which would snap back to Maxwell after a few seconds, which got annoying. The ABXY buttons functioned in a similar manner to the D Pad.
When I began Scribblenauts, all these minor faults were passable. The levels were easy enough that control problems or summoning things didn’t affect me enough to get overly frustrated. As the levels got more complicated, there would be times where I’d play a level, quit out because I couldn’t solve it in a few tries, went back to try again, turned off the game for a while, and went back again to actually beat it after much toil. I would say this happened merely a few times in the first few worlds… Once you hit around world 4 or 5, things start to get tricky. In worlds 6 and 7, I became to be more frustrated by the puzzles because a lot of them seemed impossible, and by the times I bought worlds 8, 9, and 10, I would often just go into a level, stare at it, and leave. I did on occasion try to do the impossible, see the invisible, but there was no way I could row row fight da powah. At all. I also found the level layout themselves getting stale. Don’t get me wrong, I love the Scribblenauts art style, but many of the layouts were small and there wasn’t much exploring as I thought a puzzle/action game would warrant. In fact, it felt like the game on a whole was just a puzzle game. The action portions, which I would assume included the racing and fighting challenges, were awkward and weren’t as action-like as I was expecting. From everyone I’ve talked to, I feel like I’m the only one who’s cared to play the game this much, and if you’ve gotten further minus FAQs please, let me know your secrets.
Hypothetically, if I was there to make changes, I would have done so! But I wasn’t, so here are few things I would have suggested. First off, I’d give the game a general plot. So you have a name, a notebook, and you’re getting Starite to complete the levels… But why? To what end? Is there a reason to the Starite? Is Maxwell using it to run the LHC? Does he need to collect it for a friend who likes it a lot? Unless Maxwell has a purpose (other than traversing the levels) in collecting the Starite, it leaves the game dull where there could have been something stringing us along for the game.
Second, give Maxwell a little more defining character than the hat and his trademark arm spin. I love the little guy, and I think he deserves a second chance if 5th Cell decides to ever follow up Scribblenauts. I don’t know what his deal is, why he has an excellently awesome notebook that can basically summon anything, and I kind of want to. I mean, he IS your main character and all, he deserves a little credit. Third, make some more exploratory levels, like the old school Mario games style of side scrolling. I think it would have been lots of fun having to create lots of objects to get through a less condensed level with similar amounts of puzzles to reach the end or the Starite than many of the ones presented by Scribblenauts, and if there was more of a story line I think this method of play would have fit better than if the story (or lack thereof) remained as it is. And finally, touch up the controls, make them slightly less stylus based. Maybe have an option where you can reverse the controls so the D Pad and buttons control Maxwell and the stylus controls the camera, just something so we have better control of Maxwell and the things he makes.
I would like to make it clear that I don’t think Scribblenauts is a bad game. I enjoyed it for the most part, and it was a breath of fresh air from everything else I’ve been playing ever. The only bad thing I will say is that I feel disappointed, maybe even slightly betrayed, by the results of Scribblenauts. However, I still applaud 5th Cell and friends for their game. There aren’t enough people in the gaming industry trying quirky new things like this. Scribblenauts will provide you a fun gaming experience that will entertain you for a while, depending on how much you want to get into it. For those of you who haven't played this, borrow it from a friend or rent it. It's worth a shot, but I don’t think it’s worth the money to own it forever and ever. Scribblenauts most certainly doesn't live up to my every hope and dream that I thought it was going to be, but there’s still a little part of me that giggles when I can make ninjas fight pirates, and then have the winner fight samurai, and so on.
In the end, Scribblenauts pulls off some great stuff. When finishing this review, I was listening to LoadingReadyRun cover this year’s Desert Bus for Hope, and Joel DeYoung from Hothead Games was playing for the children. Everyone was asking him questions, and one of them was if you have an idea for a game, what should you do? His advice was this: Make it, even if you don’t think you can make it fulfill your greatest vision of that game, because if you have an idea and you do nothing with it, what’s that idea worth? And if you do make your idea come to life, it is progress, and progress is a very valuable thing. 5th Cell may not have created a game that fulfills neither their nor our greatest visions for what this game could have been, but they made it, and for that I tip my hat. I look forward to their many future projects, with all of their progress in hand.