5th Cell is one of the few developers on the DS that anyone would likely refer to as renowned for creating creative experiences. With the wonderful Drawn to Life series and the magnificent Lock’s Quest, they’ve shown an astounding grasp of development for the system, second only to Nintendo itself. With Scribblenauts, 5th Cell attempts to take their knowledge of the system and game design to the next level, allowing players to control Maxwell – a young protagonist with the power of anything. By writing nearly any word, Maxwell can summon it into existence, creating limitless possibilities. To say that the game was hyped would be a tremendous understatement; it was craved, needed, and heralded as a Game of the Year contender in an already tight race.
Does Scribblenauts live up to the hype? That depends on what the hype was truly for. When most people see the game in motion, they immediately start shouting out words. “Type Megalodon!” they yell. “Write mailbox!” they scream. “Can you make an Axe Murderer?” they ask, and giggle when you create a murderer and equip him with an axe. 5th Cell programmed and supplied art for over 22,000 objects, and most of them do exactly what you’d think they do. Cats meow, keyboard cat plays the piano, long cat is long, and ceiling cat is always watching. Oh, and Spartans fight. Spartans might look a bit like barbarians, and plenty of other objects share assets at well, but the achievement of Scribblenauts is in living up to the promise of allowing players to write anything and solve everything. It’s right on the box, as plain as day.
There are limitations to what can be typed, and they’re given to the player immediately upon receiving the power of a Scribblenaut. Nothing vulgar, nothing copywritten, and no controlled substances. This might upset anyone who wanted to see The Incredible Hulk snort cocaine off of a giant penis, but it hardly works against the title. For every item that is banned, there are a few dozen that do the same thing, so while Superman might not be able to save the falling damsel, a generic Superhero can do a fine job. Don’t think that these restrictions actually cut down on what is possible with the game, though, they’re simply in place to prevent the game from getting a higher ESRB rating than it deserves. It’s still possible to chloroform a cop and then stab him to death; it’s just not possible to be drunk at the time.
However, typing in words and creating objects for the fun of it is only a small part of the actual game itself. In fact, that’s achieved on the title screen as well as it is in game. When it comes to doing something with the creations, Scribblenauts staggers a bit. There are about 220 missions in the package, split into two types: puzzle and action levels. Each themed world has both types, which differ drastically in execution. In puzzle levels, Maxwell is tasked with reading a clue and solving a problem, at which point a Starite appears and can be collected. They’re usually straightforward, with some as simple as “Give Santa Claus Something He Likes,” while others can be significantly more difficult. Action levels are even more cut and dry, with the only goal being to collect a Starite, which is usually stuck in some section of the level.
Issues arise early, when there are no reasons not to use the simplest known solution to a puzzle, which is drastically less fun than experimenting with different objects. Often, a logical solution works perfectly, but this is sometimes not the case. Things may not react perfectly, or might not be coded to respond to a certain scenario. Due to this issue, most levels devolve into pulling from the same small group of objects because, well, they’re simply the best for almost everything. If a dragon is guarding a key, it’s much easier to write “Black Hole” than it is to try and find a unique way to slay the beast, and besides being awarded a few less Ollars (Scribblenauts’ currency) for being unoriginal, there’s no punishment for using “Lasso” and “Jetpack” to solve almost everything.
This somewhat minor issue is amplified tenfold by what might be the Achilles’ heel of the Scribblenauts experience: poor controls. They’re nearly unmanageable, and it’s strange that a game with so much potential is nearly ruined by some of the most perplexing controls possible. It’s over simplified, with almost everything being mapped to tapping on the touch screen. This means that moving Maxwell and picking up a potato both require tapping, and the game seems to be temperamental, oftentimes randomly choosing which input to recognize. The difference between getting in a helicopter and walking off a ledge or picking up the helicopter is no different, and usually requires touching essentially the same area. It can be infuriating, and don’t even get me started on how unnecessarily difficult it can be to attach ropes to objects.
All of the control issues seem like they could have been easily averted. Why not control Maxwell with the d-pad? Because that’s mapped to moving the camera, an integral part of the Scribblenauts experience that, too, is flawed in execution. After an increment of time that can only be described as “slightly too soon,” it slowly moves back to Maxwell, oftentimes ruining a set-up for seemingly no reason. With so many unused buttons on the Nintendo DS, it’s confounding why 5th Cell put almost all of their eggs into the touch stylus, especially when the face and shoulder buttons could have lifted some of the burden from the somewhat imprecise touch screen. Having the face buttons move Maxwell and the shoulder buttons snap the camera back after it has been moved would have done wonders to improve the accessibility, precision, and entertainment value.
A rudimentary level creator is available, and gives basic tools to create fun little distractions for friends who have grown tired of the Challenge Mode. There’s no option to modify the actual levels themselves, so you’re stuck to the ones already in the game, and it’s obvious that the tools given aren’t nearly as in-depth as they should be. All of the game’s 22k+ items are available, and anything sentient can have its AI tooled with, but the actual value of the level creator is stunted by poor sharing support. Trading levels, be it locally or over wifi (via Nintendo’s wonderfully hated Friend Codes), is simple enough, though the lack of an online library to download the most popular or newest levels is a shame, since Friend Codes usually means half of the people who would play give up. It’s something that can (hopefully) be implemented in a sequel, and serves as little more than a tease this time around.
In order to flesh out the experience, a challenge mode is available, which allows players to replay all of the game’s missions under a specific stipulation: all items must be original. It helps keep things fresh, and forcefully ignites the creative juices to think of things more interesting than “Jet Pack” and “Black Hole” for every puzzle, but doesn’t really trump messing around in free play mode after the frustration sets in. Luckily, playing around in free play mode is plenty of fun, so that’s hardly a detriment.
Scribblenauts is a masterpiece. A flawed, frustrating, brilliant, masterpiece. 5th Cell has created an experience so unique that it simply cannot be ignored, and might be one of the largest leaps forward in gaming since textures were first wrapped around polygons. The in-game dictionary is as complete as could be hoped, completely living up to the promises of developers in delving something truly magnificent. That said, other elements of the game are dumbfoundingly awkward, and severely hinder what is an otherwise wonderful experience. Buy it, love it, hate it, curse it, sing its praises, Scribblenauts will run you through a gauntlet of emotions like puzzle games rarely do. Sadly, it’s usually for all the wrong reasons.