A unique concept that occasionally suffers due to its ambitious scope
Chances are the ultimate dream of every single gamer out there is to witness the creation and release of a game that allows them to solve problems and kill enemies by using any method one could possibly come up with. While open-world games come somewhat close to that premise by giving players freedom of movement, and letting them go wherever they feel like and do whatever they want, they fail in providing a nearly endless array of problem solving methods, limiting players to the use of a handful tools or methods that have been thoroughly thought through and tested.
Scribblenauts is perhaps the game that comes the closest to achieving that utopia. While it may not possess the freedom open-world games feature, choosing instead to focus on straightforward scenarios that have, at most, four or five screens worth of length; when it is time to come out of tough situations, the game’s one and only boundary is indeed the players’ imagination. By itself, that proposition alone is enough to catch the eye of any gamer; however, even if Scribblenauts has a great share of utterly flooring successes, its sheer freedom also partially undermines it.
Scribblenauts is extremely simplistic in its presentation; like a good old-school game. There is no such thing as a plot. There is a boy named Maxwell and his unbelievable ability to materialize pretty much anything he writes on his notepad. And that is basically all one needs to know before jumping right into the many hours of head-scratching puzzles the game throws at its players. A wise design decision, after all, games from that straightforward bloodline demand no explanation or opening cutscenes in order to be enjoyed.
The game is divided into ten different worlds, with the first one serving as a quick effective tutorial, and within each one of them players will find a set of eleven puzzle levels and eleven action stages, amounting to over two hundred challenges. Each puzzle level presents a problem that players need to solve, such as “Cook a meal” or “Steal the treasure without harming anyone”. Meanwhile, action stages play like standard platformers; in other words, Maxwell’s goal is to go from point A to point B, clearing any obstacles that may appear on the way with a good share of inventiveness.
In order to beat the stages and acquire the Starlites, Scribblenauts’ answer to the poles of Super Mario World and the stars of Super Mario 64, players must use the virtual keyboard in the lower screen and write any word they can possibly think of, with some obvious exceptions such as trademarks, obscene nouns, celebrities, and others.
It sounds outrageous and borderline impossible, but it works like a devious technological magic trick. The game’s vocabulary features over 22,000 words and the AI programmed into the characters that can be summoned is nearly perfect. Place a police officer close to a thief and a fight will certainly begin, put meat close a lion and he will eat it, tie a chain to a helicopter and Maxwell will be able to rescue characters from doom. Mathematically, the possibilities are not endless, but they are so ridiculously numerous they might as well be.
Maxwell is controlled using the touch screen: by touching into a certain direction, he will move; by doing an upwards motion with the stylus, he will jump; and in order to interact with objects all that it takes is a simple tap on their sprites. The camera, on the other hand, is controlled with the D-pad, allowing players to scan through the entire stage without moving the character; and objects can be placed in the screen by dragging and putting them in an area where they actually fit.
Despite being overly simple, the controls will fail more often than not. It is very easy to tap an object just to have the game wrongly recognize the controls, making Maxwell inadvertently move instead – sometimes towards a pit of doom. The same goes for when players try to place an object or character in the stage and the game interprets the command as something completely different. The touch screen command recognition, so well-implemented in a myriad of DS games, is very off and it definitely gets annoying as the game goes by and the stages start to require more precision and good timing.
Another issue that is easily noticed since the game’s very start is the odd physics of each object. Some objects’ weight and density are far from behaving the way players will expect: ram a car into a larger heavier object and chances are the game’s collision physics will fail badly as you watch the bigger object be dragged across the screen in really weird fashion.
The physics problems become exceptionally troubling when players try to come up with clever solutions for the puzzles and the objects summoned fail to react the way they expect, leading to possible brilliant solutions being washed away by inaccurate in-game calculations that fail to replicate what would have happened in the real world. As a whole, while the behavior of objects and characters that are brought to life is spot-on, their physical properties are very poorly mapped.
While all these problems can make the game transform into a torturous experience, it is really hard not to be completely blown away by what Scribblenauts achieves. A concept that would be called an unreachable dream by many turned into reality through the hands of an ambitious team of talented programmers. The puzzle stages, particularly, are the blissful materialization of that joy, for they are invariably very satisfying and present an endless number of solutions to all conundrums that are posed.
Contrarily, the action stages can become repetitive down the line, as they are so open-ended that many of them can be solved by using a very small number of items. The truth is, though, that very inventive players will manage to look far outside the box and come up with delightfully farfetched solutions to the obstacles that set of levels presents.
As it happens with its gameplay, Scribblenauts’ technical areas somewhat suffer due to its ambition. The quantity of sprites and words that were squeezed into a Nintendo DS cartridge, including the different AIs for every single object that the game allows players to bring into the screen, is undeniably impressive. At the same time, it is easy to note that, visually, the game suffers due to that. The animations of the many different sprites are just average, and the game doesn’t look very impressive despite its great art direction. However, it all comes off as a worthy shortcoming that allowed the title’s complexity, which exists in its vast dictionary and collection of characters, to come to life.
The game’s songs, meanwhile, are extremely simple and limited in their numbers. Regardless of the world they are visiting, players will hear the same loop over and over again for as long as they are in the stages, which makes the already uninspired tunes even more underwhelming. Musically, Scribblenauts is a surprisingly generic title, a disappointing fact due to the game’s amazing personality and uniqueness in pretty much every other aspect.
On top of its mountain of content, Scribblenauts allows gamers to use a level editor to create their own challenges, but the concept ends up failing to realize its full potential; due to very limited options, players will find that most of their ideas for fantastic levels will not come into fruition. The lacking level editor, though, is compensated by a fantastic title screen, which basically works as a big sandbox where players can summon anything from the game’s dictionary and watch how it will behave.
In the end, Scribblenauts is a very ambitious project that suffers due to its massive scope. Although all of its shortcomings are extremely hard to ignore, the game is still very enjoyable and players with great creative minds will certainly have much more fun than those who are a little short on the inventive side. The game has nearly endless value, as levels can be replayed over and over again thanks to their immense array of solutions: it even awards players with extra points according to certain criteria that maps how inventive and efficient they were. Overall, it is a package that is recommended to pretty much everyone. It is a game that is easy to get into and its concept draws the interest of both gamers and non-gamers.