Genre: Board, Word
Platform: Nintendo DS, PSP (Reviewed on Nintendo DS)
When it comes to board games, in my mind, Risk is king. In second place, however, is Scrabble, which taps into my love for words and things I can actually occasionally beat people at. There are few times where I’ll turn down a game, and have spent many vacations sitting in a hotel room and a Scrabble board wasting time. While there’s obviously no lack of word games on handhelds, Scrabble, has only had one iteration, and it wasn’t too well received. Now, with a few more years under their belts and a better understanding of the system, EA has taken another swing at the franchise, and put out a new version of Scrabble on the Nintendo DS.
The core of Scrabble is…Scrabble. The game has been around in different forms for over 50 years, so there’s no reason to question the mechanics of the game itself, and the transition was fairly smooth. EA has done a fine job of taking advantage of the touch screen to create perfect controls for this DS translation, and there are few qualms about the way it was handled. The tiles adhere to the stylus’s commands well, and it takes but a double tap to zoom in to get a better look at the game board. The only strange presentation issue is the orientation of the game, which requires the DS to be held sideways, like a book. This isn’t an uncommon approach, and seems to be a hallmark of casual titles, but it really doesn’t seem necessary.
There are several different options before the game begins, but it essentially boils down to either playing it with the Dictionary turned on or off. With it off, the game emulates the traditional board game fairly well. There’s nothing besides the threat of a challenge to prevent anyone from putting “zqwfaat” on the game board, and there’s a sense of reward after every successful move. On the other hand, this is a bit rough when playing against the computer players, since they seem to be directly linked to the dictionary regardless of their difficulty setting. They’ve not once missed a step on calling me out on a word that isn’t in the dictionary, but seem to be consistently ready to put out words like “Eff” or “En” for “The Letter F” and “The Letter N.” Playing with friends, the option to smack them in the face and tell them to stop being cheap is available. Sadly, the DS doesn’t respond well to threats of physical violence. The other way to play is with Dictionary turned on, and the game actually will not let a non-word be played. It makes things very different, and creates an entirely new dynamic to Scrabble, one that might be preferred when playing against AI.
But, sadly, playing against AI seems to be the game’s main function. Despite local play being available, Scrabble lacks an online function, so it’s up to the player to find people to play with within 100 or so feet. At that point, it just makes sense to whip out the game board, since there is something to be said about playing with tangible game pieces. Obviously this can’t be done on a train or plane, but Wifi play should have been mandatory in this title, and it hurts severely without it.
Besides standard Scrabble, there are two other modes to quench the need for content. Speed Scrabble isn’t far removed from the standard game save for a timer, but Scrabble Slammers is a much different beast. The board is replaced with five cards that sit on the top of the screen, and instead of having a few tiles, players have a few dozen cards. The goal is to quickly make words out of the already laid out cards and the ones in your hand, trying to beat out the enemy in both wits and speed. It’s actually very un-Scrabble, since part of the strategy involves being extremely fast, but it’s interesting enough in its own right, and would have benefited by being stretched out a bit more.
I can’t help but think that Scrabble might just not be big enough to justify a video game on its own, and it wouldn’t have been a bad idea for EA to build some Brain Age functionality into the release. Give me a calendar, a daily goal of getting X points in any of the different modes of Scrabble, and an interesting interface that makes me want to come back and see my statistics. There is stat tracking, but it’s not very in-depth, and with a game so basic that it’s commonly played with blocks of wood I have to think it could have been fleshed out into a different, though similar experience. Without it, and without any online play, Scrabble should have been priced much lower, and isn’t worth the investment when there are so many other ways to play the game.