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Scribblenauts

There’s a cat stuck on the roof. It’s been there for hours, yowling its lungs out. It’s almost as annoying as its owner, a young girl who’s too lazy to get it herself. That’s why Maxwell is here; he‘s a problem solver, and it‘s your job to supply him with whatever he needs. It’s not really a question of if you’ll get little thing down, but how. You could always get a ladder and end it quickly. Perhaps you could tempt it down with some catnip. Or a mouse, for that matter. They’re obvious, boring choices. What about wings, or a jetpack? Even a helicopter, though that is kind of overkill. Why even bother with the effort, anyway? You could always just set the house on fire and force the cat to leap for its life. It’s a little risky – the girl might end up with fried fur for a pet – but it’s a chance well worth taking. It’s not like the collateral damage means anything; the objective is to get the cat down, no questions asked. That’s all that matters.

So, what do you do?

That’s what Scribblenauts is all about: figuring out how to complete a given objective by any means possible. Doing so grants you the Starite, a star-shaped item that automatically ends the level when you pick it up. Sometimes it’s in plain sight, but heavily guarded; you might have to cross seemingly impossible gaps, dodge bullets, or press switches to enter different areas within the stage. Other puzzles aren’t as straightforward, either; each stage comes with a hint towards the objective you’ll need to complete before the Starite appears. It could be anything, from outfitting an upcoming rock band with instruments, transporting bad guys to heaven, to saving a couple of innocent bystanders from an oncoming horde of zombies. There’s a steady increase in the difficulty level and complexity of the puzzles. By the time you’ve gained access to all the levels – there are well over two hundred, which is impressive given their variety and unique designs – you’ll be ready for anything.

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You’ll have everything you need, too. This game’s most important feature isn’t its insane levels, but items you summon to complete them. Scribblenauts boasts an in-game dictionary that spans thousands of words. Just type it into the onscreen keyboard, and it’s all yours. Weapons? Everything from a pistol to a nuke. Vehicles? All kinds, even if there are more useful forms of transportation. People? You can call out anything from a generic Cop to a Skin Care Specialist. Capitalists, communists, murderers, terrorists, muggers, ninjas, pirates, cannibals, cavemen, priests, atheists, writers, artists, doctors, bloggers, fan boys, and anyone else you could probably think of. That goes for Internet memes as well; just try typing in Philosoraptor, Anon, or even ‘lol wut’. That’s aside from the higher-end stuff, like God, Satan, Death, Cthulu, Medusa, manticores, krakens, dragons, dinosaurs, manbearpigs (seriously), and a slew of other epic characters. You’ll undoubtedly find some item omitted, but at least you’ll have more than enough to work with.

You won’t need to use everything, though. Despite having so many potential ways to complete a level, you won’t necessarily have to be creative. It might take some experimentation and a few glances into an encyclopedia, but you’ll eventually figure out the most practical items, even if they don‘t look it. You’d probably never guess how a pegasus, a shrink ray, or some rope could be so helpful. Once you find an especially useful item (the black hole is ridiculously broken), you might rely on it too often to complete later levels. You could have some amazing scheme in mind, but after seeing it fail too many times, you might just give up and go back to some other tried and true method. Considering how you can have only so many items at once (your limit is conveniently displayed as a meter on the top screen), you’re going to have to figure out which tools are most effective. Not to mention how each level has a set standard for the amount of summons you use; one puzzle might expect you to use two items, while another could have ten. That plays a huge factor into how many Ollars (bonus points) you’ll be allotted once you’ve completed a puzzle; the fewer items you use, the better.

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That rule doesn’t just apply to your high score, either. Considering how many items you can have on the screen at the same time, it’s best to keep things as simple as possible. Not for the sake of efficiency, but the severely flawed control scheme. While the directional pad and buttons are used to manipulate the camera, everything else is done with the stylus. You tap on an onscreen keyboard to summon an item, drag it to wherever it’s supposed to go, tap on characters or targets to interact with them, press down on the screen to have Maxwell move, pick up something, remove an item, etc. That’s fine for simple puzzles, but it becomes a serious problem in latter half of the game. For example, you could be standing on a ledge over a bottomless pit, and you have to save a character on the other side of the level. So you make a helicopter, then try to drag it over Maxwell. But the game doesn’t read that you’re holding the chopper, and Maxwell merrily leaps off the cliff. Try again, and this time you manage to get him inside. You press down on the screen to get things moving…but you tap too close and Maxwell commits suicide for the second time. Try again, and maybe you get over to the other side of the level. Since you can’t control the descent easily, the helicopter drifts too low, lands on your target’s face, and goes careening into the abyss. All because the control scheme is utterly flawed.

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It’s nothing game-breaking – any level can be completed with enough patience and do-overs – but it makes the gameplay needlessly annoying. Putting up with the problems has its benefits, though. As you amass Ollars for completing the levels, you can use them to purchase more of the game’s content. You’ll spend the majority of it on new areas; there are ten sections in the game, and each is divided into twenty two puzzles. Given the sheer amount of cash you’ll have to dish out to unlock the last few places, you’re going to have to complete nearly everything beforehand. Once you’ve reached every level, you’ll probably spend your leftovers at the Ollar Store, which sells you different avatars for Maxwell and background music. None of it is worth noting – the soundtrack is nothing more than a bunch of lighthearted, easygoing beats – but at least it’s there to peruse. You can also view your Merits, which are awarded like console game Achievements. Beat a level without killing anyone? There’s a Merit for that. Same goes with using new items, or even setting stuff on fire. There’s nothing particularly interesting, but at least it’ll keep completionists busy.

The real meat of the game isn’t its unlockables, though. After you’ve conquered every stage in the game, you’ll spend most of your time in the Level Editor. This mode allows you to craft your own puzzles and stages from scratch. You’re given control over every item in the in-game dictionary; who or what appears, what weapons or tools are used, who defends or attacks whom, and the standard amount of items you think it’d take to complete an objective. It might seem a little unwieldy at first, but a little effort and creativity could create something great. If you’ve crafted something especially impressive or challenging, you can share it with your friends via online multiplayer. The game uses the Friend Code system to connect gamers, which means you’ll have to exchange another convoluted string of numbers to get things going. The online level trading system is pretty straightforward, though some mini-games or additional downloadable content would have evened things out.

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The online features probably won’t be enough to keep you hooked. Instead, you’ll spend most of your time messing around with the dictionary and coming up with the craziest summon possible. A lot of effort went into the design and interaction of these items. Try putting a halfling, a wizard, and a ring close together. Or a pirate and ninja, for that matter. When you ask for a nihilist, the menu will make you differentiate between aggressive or passive characters. Typing ‘Psycho’ or ‘Psychopath’ makes the difference between a knife-wielding ex and a masked villain. Not everything is specific, though; pyromaniac and terrorist have the same unshaven, Molotov cocktail-wielding avatar. Same goes with revolver and magnum, or anything else in that particular style of firearm. It’s understandable; given the amount of words crammed into the game, a generalized sprite makes things a lot easier. Since the dictionary is so extensive, the game had to sacrifice its graphical presentation as a whole. Everything is drawn with simple movements and plain designs. Even the most impressive avatars are just a bunch of blandly colored shapes stuck together. It’s the little stuff, like God’s lightning punches and the communist’s fear of money, that make it entertaining. Scribblenauts has its charm, even if it’s not the best-looking game the DS has ever seen.

Nor is it perfect. The premise is as incredible as it is ambitious. A game that lets you summon whatever item you can possibly think up? On a handheld? Amazing. The sheer amount of levels and well-designed challenges will keep you figuring out different plans and discovering how extensive the game’s dictionary can get. You’ll have to put forth the effort, considering how much of your progress depends on the bonus points you’ll get from solving a puzzle. Even if the unlockables and online features are kind of generic, the Level Editor will keep you busy. Not to mention all the time you’ll waste messing around with all the items. It’s wonderful stuff, but the controls drag it down from being truly great. With so many inconsistencies and awkward handling, it kills a lot of the fun. It’s not horrendous, but it’s an annoying problem that could have been easily fixed. Regardless of its flaws, Scribblenauts is a fine title. It may be over-hyped, but it’s still worth playing.

7 out of 10

The author of this fine article

is a Senior Staff Writer at Thunderbolt, having joined in February 2005.

Gentle persuasion

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