Review: Scribblenauts (Nintendo DS)

So. Scribblenauts.

You’ve heard of it before, hopefully, and maintained that fervent enthusiasm built up by award-show accolades and blogger-fueled glee. You might even have purchased it by now, tearing through the plastic wrap with wild abandon and dreaming of all the delightful treats contained therein.

You played it. And then you had the truth. Words distilled, a simple and sweet conclusion: Scribblenauts is simultaneously one of the greatest and most flawed titles of all time.

Want to know why? You bet you do. Click that little link there and we’ll get this show on the road.

For anyone unfamiliar with the game’s premise, here’s a short summary. You play as Maxwell, a kid with a rooster hat and the remarkable ability to create items at will. You, the player, can type in anything you might imagine and see it realized in front of you, dropping into a level to be manipulated at your will. You’ll use these objects to solve puzzles of every shape and size, earning cash rewards every time you put that noggin to use and reach the goal.

That’s it. Pretty simple, sure, but that’s usually a blessing. Scribblenaut’s huge draw is the amazing word bank contained within it, a testament to the artists’ painful determination to provide a cutesy in-game graphic for every noun imaginable. By and large, Scribblenauts’s dictionary is a source of wonder, able to summon a slick piece of art for countless things you never knew existed.

The puzzles, too, are fantastic battlegrounds for object warfare. They start simple: a girl and a house, her cat perched high up on the roof. Objective? Get the cat down. Solution? Summon a fighter jet, perhaps, and fly up to it. Or maybe you could summon some stilts and use the added height advantage to break out a fishing rod and reel the feline in. Not creative enough? You could always take my roommate’s approach and burn the house down, catching the cat as it fled the crumbling building. He’s a pretty swell guy.

About sixty puzzles later, however, the difficulty rises significantly. Picture, if you will, a wide grass field. A king (sitting astride a sheep, naturally) is barricaded within a fortress on one end, unable to escape until you pull the appropriate switch elsewhere in the level. Maxwell is situated in a cave sculpted into the earth below the field, a good distance away from said royalty. Problem one? The grass fires sweeping the plain between Kingsy and his destination, a large castle. Problem two? A large gap in that field just before the castle itself, which gives way to a short fall and then a pool of lava. Problem three? A dragon. Just a few feet from you when you start, unaware of your presence for all of its dedication to guarding that one switch you need to pull.

The solution here isn’t so simple. And the journey to it, though entertaining, painted a great picture of a beautiful game’s not-so beautiful flaws. Convenient, right?

First try: sniper rifle. I love me some dragons, people, but not when they’re in my way. Things go awry, however, when I try to tap the dragon for a final shot – the camera snaps back to Maxwell just before I can, hiding the mythical creature from sight, and turning a single tap on the screen into an invitation for good ol’ Maxy to dash forward and dive into the lava. Sweet.

Second try: Fighter jet. Sweet. In I go, and up I go, firing missiles on my scaled foe. He doesn’t care for ballistic fire, oddly, and makes a few feeble swipes back. I laugh, exultant, and then realize my plane can’t make it through the opening of the cave you start in. I tap lower, meaning to land and switch out my ride, until I accidentally tap the plane and watch as Maxwell abandons ship…into the lava pool. Sweet.

Third try: Wings. I’ll hover above the dragon and rain down mines. Sweet, right? Except Maxwell refuses to jump off the ground and take flight, turning my constant taps above him into what the confused kid deemed an RSVP to the lava party. Not sweet.

A lengthy example, sure, but one that suggests a pretty simple conclusion: the controls in Scribblenauts are terrible. It isn’t an issue for the simpler puzzles, but any complex combinations of objects are often doomed to failure simply because you can’t maneuver them the way you’d like. In the interest of keeping things simple, the developers made the game almost entirely controlled by the touch screen: objects, movement, and so forth. It sounds fine on paper, but in practice it’s a grueling exercise in trial and error, a morbid parade of accidental deaths and obscenities shouted at the DS’s diminutive screen.

The physical buttons and directional pad on the DS are used to move the camera, letting you scroll around the level to drop objects where you please. Again, it sounds fine, but in-game it serves as a constant nuisance. If you don’t keep a button pressed down, constantly keeping the camera in motion, it’ll wait a few seconds and then snap back to Maxwell, making object combinations elsewhere in the level more painful than necessary. Why can’t I scroll to another part of the map and just stay there for more than two seconds?

The issues are accentuated by the reward system for each level. Upon completion, you’ll be graded for a few factors, the cash reward depending on how well you did in each category. Time is one, awarding a speedy solver. Style is another, a pretty ambiguous measurement of how creative you were with objects. Par is the last, and probably my least favorite part of the game.

Each level has a recommended number of objects it can be solved with. Completing a puzzle using less will net you more cash for your efforts, encouraging you to use that stuff between your ears to come up with clever combinations. Again, it sounds logical, but in practice it puts a damper on the entire process. Puzzles soon become a constant chore of summoning that perfect item, thrilled with your own creativity, and then – often courtesy of the controls – watching as it fails miserably. And so you restart the level, still bent on coming in under par, wasting minutes on what amounts to be a minimal cash reward.

But here’s the thing: despite how depressing and negative that all probably sounds, Scribblenauts is still a wonderful game. The sheer size of the word bank is commendable, and the developers deserve massive props for giving you a digital playground and a big box of crayons to go nuts with. The actual gameplay isn’t perfect, particularly in the control scheme, and some of the design choices are puzzling at best, but one fact remains the same: there’s no other game on the market right now that lets you do so many crazy, zany things.

It’s amazing fun to create your own stories, to relate that astonishing thing that totally just happened when you tried to get the King to his castle (hint: it involves a tractor beam and dropping a big, heavy weight on that stupid dragon’s head), and for that reason alone the game is worth picking up. But it’s also wise to go in with your expectations tempered, knowing that Scribblenauts is an amazing, albeit flawed, piece of work.

And if you do buy it? A word of advice: it’s easy to get burned out going through the 200+ puzzles if you play by the rules. Screw par. Summon every item you think might help and throw caution to the wind, constructing elaborate and insane solutions to even the simplest of puzzles. You’ll have a hell of a good time for it, and isn’t that the point of games to begin with?

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