Scribblenauts review


Scribblenauts is a new Nintendo DS game from 5th Cell. Yesterday was the early launch and I’ve spent quite a bit of time with the game. The overall idea of the game is that you can create anything just by typing in a word. You then use these objects to solve levels. The game’s ROM was leaked last weak and someone managed to dump a 22,802 word list. Many of these are aliases, but it still leaves 4,105 unique objects.

The game starts with a tutorial world. You move the camera around the level using the d-pad or buttons. The shoulder buttons are used to rotate objects you create. The stylus is used for everything else. You tap and drag to move objects. Use it to write or pick characters on a keyboard. Click empty space to send Maxwell there. Click an object to interact or shoot at it. Double click anywhere to fire a gun into empty space. This heavy use of the stylus feels a bit overloaded and many times you’ll find yourself trying to manipulate an object only to miss tap… commanding Maxwell to sprint into a pit of lava. The camera is also a bit annoying. No matter where it’s at, after a short period of time it automatically snaps back to Maxwell. This is a problem because you might be on the other side of the level trying to watch the outcome of a kraken and zombie fight.

The game has 10 unlockable worlds, each with a unique time/place theme. The worlds have 22 levels each that are randomly selectable (although you have to beat at least three to make them all available). These levels are divided amongst two game types: 11 “puzzle” and 11 “action”. Puzzle levels give you a hint at the beginning about what has to be completed to finish the level. Pictured above left is a completed puzzle that had the hint “Contain the corpse and put it six feet under”. First you had to come up with a coffin and then dig the hole for it. When you complete these requirements, a “starite” appears for you to collect, which ends the level. Action levels have the starite visible from the beginning and you must retrieve it by any means necessary.

For each level you complete, you earn a number of “ollars”. These are awarded based on the amount of time you take, stylishness, and how many objects you used compared to the level’s par. These ollars can be spent unlocking new worlds or on songs/avatars. You also earn merits at the end of level for classes of activities like not using any weapons, using an object for the first time, or having all the characters survive.

Summoning objects in levels is as simple as tapping the book in the upper right and typing in a word with the stylus. The game tells you during the tutorial that it has to be a real life physical object and that the word can’t be a place, proper name, suggestive material, shape, latin or greek root word, alcohol, race or culture, vulgarity or copyrighted. Despite the emphasis on “real” you will find a lot of mythological creatures like mothman, minotaurs, cthulhu, and satan along with fake technology like time machines and shrink rays. Once your object is on screen, you can rotate it using the shoulder buttons and place it in the appropriate position. You can interact with the various objects: firing guns, throwing balls, driving/flying vehicles, detonating bombs, etc. You can also attach objects to each other by various means. The tutorial explains how to use glue to attach objects, but it works for things like rope too. The number of objects that can be in the level at any time is regulated by a thermometer style bar that slowly fills up as you create. If it’s full, you have to trash some objects before you can create more. All of the objects that come with level are dictionary words too and you can use the magnifying glass to find out the proper name. If you misspell something, the game will suggest alternatives; this is a great way to find new objects.

Is this the game for you? Some people have described the gameplay as shallow because of the unlimited possibilities. It really depends on your personality; you have to take an active role in making the game fun. There are many levels that require moving an object/person from one side to the other. Most of these can be accomplished with just a helicopter and some rope. That would get you under par, but it’s not necessarily entertaining. The game mitigates this a bit by unlocking “advanced” mode when you finish a level. In advanced mode, you have to beat the level three times in a row without using objects from your previous solution. Pictured above right is a very simple case like this: The goal is to get the starite down from the tree and you can see the number of unique tools capable of doing this, but you could also use a ladder, woodpecker, or beaver.

I think Scribblenauts is well worth the $30. It has a minimum of 220 scenarios to get through and a massive word list. I think it has a lot of replayability too. I’ve run into a number of levels that just plain stump me (mostly because I’m trying to get under par). I’m sure with a lot more game time I learn more clever tricks to add to my arsenal and eventually solve these. If you’re playing just to beat the game, you’ll be dissatisfied. I know that summoning a flaming sword and riding a griffin might not be the most efficient way to solve a puzzle, but it sure is fun.

(I’ve not played with the level editor, but I’ve read that it only lets you add objects to existing levels and not create from scratch. I haven’t found any multiplayer besides level exchange.)

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