System: Nintendo DS
Genre: Emergent, Puzzle, Action
Publisher: WB Games
Developer: 5th Cell
Release Date: September 15, 2009
Scribblenauts is a perfect example of a game with tremendous potential yet unsatisfying execution. This DS puzzler presents a world full of possibilities, with the only limit being your imagination.
The goal is simple: you are given an objective, and you must find a way to complete this by writing in words, which then appear on screen in their physical forms. Let’s say, theoretically, that the “starite” (the item you need to get to) is on the other side of a lake. You can get there in a number of ways, of course. You could write in “boat” and take that across to the other side. You could get a pair of wings and fly over, or you could get a snorkel and swim across. This is a very basic example, but you get the idea.
There are a whopping 200+ stages in the game, evenly split up into “puzzle” and “action” stages. Puzzle stages require something to be solved, whereas action levels are more versed in side-scrolling platforming gameplay. Stages are ranked on a four-star difficulty system, so you have a good idea of how challenging a certain level will be. If that’s not enough, there is even an option to create your own level, or just mess around in a sandbox area and try out different words to see what they do. It’s incredible that 5th Cell managed to fit all of this into a DS cartridge, especially considering there are more than 10,000 words in its dictionary.
On the technical side of things, there is no doubt that Scribblenauts is impressive. Unfortunately, there are major issues that severely hamper gameplay. The biggest problem rests squarely on the control system. The main character, Maxwell, is a bitch to move around. You control him by tapping the stylus on screen, but he is very lackadaisical in his movements. I couldn’t even tell you how many times I tried to get him to move to a certain platform, only for him to fall off over and over again. It’s also difficult to pick up items and/or interact with them sometimes. There are moments where the “item taps” will register as an empty space, often creating situations where Maxwell falls to his death. This is all beyond frustrating, and it could have been fixed with a simple solution: just let the character be moved with the D-Pad! As it stands, the game only uses the D-Pad to move the camera from side-to-side. Everything else uses the stylus, which just doesn’t work as it should. Very disappointing.
There are also problems with the game’s vocabulary. While the sheer amount of words available is staggering, most of the puzzles can be solved with the same basic items. I found myself using the same words over and over again: jetpack, wings, cord. While the game begs for gamers to be creative, why would I want to take the time to type out something infinitely more complex, especially when the game rewards you for finishing a stage quickly? Simple, tried-and-true techniques seem to work best here.
Also, every word available comes in a one-size-fits-all package. There is no way to get a longer rope or a larger blanket. You have to work around the size that the game gives you. This causes seemingly logical solutions to not work at all, even when they should theoretically.
It’s a shame that Scribblenauts was released with so many inherent flaws. The concept is, frankly, brilliant, and it evokes powerful feelings to have the ability to write anything you want and have it appear on screen. There’s still a decent and playable game underneath, but I can’t help but feel that this game could have truly been something special. There is a sequel now available that claims to have improved controls, but I’m not sure I will bother with that one. As it stands, Scribblenauts is a technical marvel but a mediocre game.