Scribblenauts Review

By Patrick Klepek - Posted Sep 15, 2009

5th Cell has been doing noteworthy work on the DS for years, but something about Scribblenauts is different. The premise is brilliant. Think of a word, type it into the game and -- voila -- it appears on screen. Zombies. UFOs. Swords. Tanks. Bacon. Tornado. Scuba Gear. There are more than 22,000 words in Scribblenauts' dictionary. The deceptively simple goal is to collect the star on the screen. How you collect the star depends on how you leverage the 22,000 options at your disposal.

The Pros
  • You feel like a god
  • Puzzle difficulty is partially in your own hands
  • 22,000 different objects to summon
The Cons
  • Easy to get frustrated, rely on same items over and over
  • Lack of control over Maxwell's movement
  • Randomness can sometimes be a bad thing

I didn't know what Scribblenauts was until a few months ago. I wasn't alone. 5th Cell has been doing noteworthy work on the DS for years, but something about Scribblenauts was different. The premise is brilliant. Think of a word, type it into the game and -- voila -- it appears on screen. Zombies. UFOs. Swords. Tanks. Bacon. Tornado. Scuba Gear. There are more than 22,000 words in Scribblenauts's dictionary. The deceptively simple goal is to collect the star on the screen. How you collect the star depends on how you leverage the 22,000 options at your disposal. But it's not exactly 22,000 solutions, either.

Scribblenauts

The Whim of a God

Scribblenauts looks and acts like a platformer, but it's not. You have very little control over what's happening on the screen. For example, you don't directly control Maxwell, the main character. You tap the screen and he sort of, kind of heads in that direction. Players are the equivalent of the A.I. director in Left 4 Dead, summoning objects with the whim of a god and seeing how the actions play out on the screen. Scribblenauts encourages, perhaps to a fault, user experimentation. A great many objects have unexpected results when dropped into Scribblenauts's sandbox, with 5th Cell's level designers constantly pushing you to pause and consider "what if?" What if I drop a black hole in the middle of the level? What if a shark could defeat a tank? What if?

It can be very difficult to make the same series of actions happen twice in a row. I learned to quickly accept that Scribblenauts acknowledges and embraces its randomness. You’ll also need to, or Scribblenauts becomes extremely taxing to play. But its inability to conform is also one of its charms, and the moments where Scribblenauts clicks -- the “just-often-enough” instances where you experience an "a-ha" moment and feel like you broke the game with your cleverness -- is where it soars. I couldn't stop smiling when my solution to a soccer-centric puzzle with a pesky goalkeeper was to simply summon a second goal post in front of the defender and lob the ball in. Success! Take a bow, me.

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Sometimes You Run Out of Ideas

It's not recommended to play Scribblenauts in a vacuum, however. The viral path of Scribblenauts's last-minute media success is actually key to enjoying the game itself. People would click to a new Scribblenauts preview or follow a live play session to learn about new words hidden in the game or different approaches being taken for a puzzle seen many times prior. When you're playing the game by yourself, there's none of that, which can force you to become mentally lazy. When you become mentally lazy, Scribblenauts is boring. There are a handful of items in the game (which I won't spoil) that can be reliably depended on in order to solve many of Scribblenauts' puzzles. There are plenty of other solutions, but if you don't need to be creative, why should you? There's no immediate reward, no online leaderboard to upload your solution to. Scribblenauts can be enjoyed solo, but its very nature seems to demand social interaction. Every time I finished a puzzle, I'd wonder how a friend might've done it.

Scribblenauts does recognize that not every gamer is going to be willing to deal with the game's love-it-or-hate-it approach to platforming by introducing two completely different sets of stages -- "puzzle" and "action" levels. Action levels involve much more time spent moving Maxwell around the screen and dealing with enemies, easily the weakest and most frustrating sections of Scribblenauts. Puzzle levels tend to involve asking the player to think of a word. You might be tasked with giving Santa something he would want but isn't on the screen or getting a baby from one side of the screen to his parents on the other. It's less about using the objects so much as it is summoning the right one. These were my favorite levels in Scribblenauts, mainly because I didn't have to deal with Maxwell flailing all over the screen since I couldn't assume direct control of him. There are equal sets of puzzle and action stages in each of Scribblenauts' 10 worlds, however, meaning there's more than enough if you strongly prefer one or the other.

Scribblenauts

What Really Matters

Warts and all, it's hard not to love Scribblenauts. For every puzzle I'd skip while scratching my head, another had me feeling like the smartest man on the planet. It's difficult for a puzzle game to balance challenge with personal accomplishment, but Scribblenauts succeeds enough times that it doesn't feel like an accident. Plus, it's hard to dislike a game where you can ride a dinosaur and summon black holes. I mean, c'mon.