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October 5, 2009 / Joe Osborne

Scribblenauts [Review]

scribblenauts concept art

Ever wanted to be able to solve a problem using anything (and we mean anything) you could think up? Welcome to the ultimate sandbox game on the Nintendo DS, 5th Cell’s Scribblenauts. This quirky not-so-little number by the now famed developer literally allows you to create just about anything you could imagine to solve its hundreds of puzzles.

To break it down a bit, the game could be described as a series of critical thinking problems. Think of those word problems in your math classes, but subtract the boredom and numbers. Well, you do need to be mindful of Maxwell’s (that little dude in the rooster hat up there) par, or the number of objects you can create before losing the maximum available reward in Ollars, the currency in the world of Scribblenauts.

The game is separated into 10 worlds each containing 22 levels with 11 action stages and 11 puzzle stages (that’s 220 levels for those who don’t like math). The action stages present a Starite (the goal of each level) immediately, but require you to reach it using the notepad or type mechanic. However, the puzzle stages present a problem for you to solve, using the creation tool, in order to make a Starite appear. More specifics after the break.

scribblenauts screenshot 1

The action stages require quick platforming skill and weapons use becomes almost necessary in the later levels, which makes this portion of Scribblenauts appear designed toward the slightly more mature or action-oriented gamer. A stage requiring you to steal a Starite from a museum by dispatching guards wouldn’t be considered exactly kid friendly, but it’s all in good bloodless (damn) fun.

On the other hand, the puzzle stages only hint towards what needs to be done in order for the Starite to appear, which allows for critical thinking. It’s obvious this portion of the game was designed for the puzzle loving or perhaps casual gamer. Though, some casual gamers may be discouraged by the difficulties presented in the later stages (put on your thinking caps for this one).

Now, this isn’t to say that all players won’t enjoy both ends of the gameplay, which is presented non-linearly. If you amass enough Ollars, which are used to buy access to worlds, outfits for Maxwell and the library of music tracks, you could easily get to World 10 before even touching down on World 5. That’s if you play both the action and puzzle stages of each world, which is also a good way to calm down after an especially frustrating puzzle stage.

scribblenauts screenshot 2

The visuals, for the most part, are cute and cheeky. 5th Cell’s idea here, one could imagine, was to create a world much similar to how a child would make it: some of mommy and daddy’s printer paper, crayons, scissors and push pins (jeez, I hope this kid isn’t that young).

This idea of childlike creativity is expressed through every facet of the game’s design. Be it the introduction screen, which allows Maxwell to mess around with the writing tools without limitations, the world map which features some of the most abstract themes positioned so close to one another or even within the games choppy (pun totally intended) visuals.

The design choices also seem to serve another purpose: space. Scribblenauts features more words than you can imagine, but that isn’t even the beginning. Each object interacts with its environment just about the way you imagine it would. Want to get rid of a shark in a pool? Just throw a hairdryer in there and you’re good (come on, you’d do it too). How about going Stephen Hawking on the whole stage? Just type “antimatter” and watch everything get sucked into nothingness. The amount of memory that takes up must be mind boggling.

When you’re finally done with the title’s 10 worlds, the level editor is a good place to go if you want to get more out of the experience. This is where Scribblenauts becomes somewhat mind blowing for a DS title in terms of user-generated content. The feature basically allows you to create your own levels using the templates provided by the 220 stages along with anything you can think up. You’re tasked with creating everything to the location of the Starite to the obstacles in between including non-player characters (NPCs) with which you can tweak their emotional presets. In other words, you can create allies or enemies for yourself or your target audience. Better yet, these levels can be shared via the Nintendo Wi-Fi Connection. One problem: it is Nintendo Wi-Fi, so expect a few hiccups along the way.

scribblenauts screenshot 3

However, this presents one of the game’s major issues. Because Scribblenauts allows you to use just about anything to solve a puzzle, but limits what you can do in terms of interaction with your environment by presenting limitation such as “no weapons” or “don’t harm the evil witch”. This creates either times where you’re literally sitting there staring blankly into the screen, thinking of what to create or resorting to a few tried and true methods of solving most puzzles (the helicopter and rope come to mind), which limits the creation of new solutions. This can be alleviated at times by using adjectives, but they’re sometimes ignored in the creation process. Typing “long rope” instead of just “rope” won’t make the rope any longer.

Another issue that comes to play in stages that require more platforming finesse are the controls. 5th Cell decided to map the camera control to the directional pad (or the ABXY buttons for lefties) and controlling any action on screen with the stylus. In terms of design philosophy, this totally makes sense: if the player is going to be creating solutions with the stylus, allow the player to follow through with these solutions using the same method. However, the problem comes in execution.

Controlling your character via the stylus becomes bothersome as you need to press the stylus in the direction you want him to run, swim or fly, which doesn’t allow for precision as you cannot directly control when and how exactly he jumps or flies. Also, if you’re attempting to manipulate an item you created from another end of the level by using the camera tool, the game sometimes interprets that as you trying to move your character. This can lead to failure not by poor creation choices, but through control error.

scribblenauts screenshot 4

More on control mechanics, Scribblenauts allows you to either type in your ideas or actually write them letter-by-letter on the bottom screen. Unless you have impeccable printing skills, go with typing and save yourself a few minutes of trying to scribble (I couldn’t resist) in an “R” that the game will recognize. This could become a problem if you’re hung up on being able to scribble things into a game named Scribblenauts.

In terms of audio, the title’s music successfully captures that feeling of being a kid again, but is briefly charming. After a while of hearing the same tunes in each stage I decided against breaking out the headphones for each play session and sound isn’t 100% necessary to get your hands on a Starite. Though, 5th Cell made an excellent choice to keep the younger audience interested as it’s pretty darn catchy.

The bottom line here is that 5th Cell have once again pushed the limits of their hardware of choice. Scribblenauts is deserving of every bit of acclaim as it has innovated what can be done on the DS, but falls short in a few spots that can make or break a game. However, if you’re looking for a game that finally allows you to solve a puzzle by using purely your imagination or to create just about anything, then look no further. Definitely try to play through Scribblenauts with a friend and compare your solutions to each of the games 220 levels. You will most definitely have a different approach to just about every stage. Kudos, 5th Cell, to showing us once again what the DS is capable of.

Other Stuff You Might Wanna Know:

Release Date: 09/15/09

Available for: Nintendo DS

Price $34.99

Rating (Buy It, Don’t Buy It, Rent It): Buy It

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