Review: Scribblenauts (Nintendo DS)

scribblenautscoverScribblenauts
Publisher: Warner Brothers Interactive
Developer: 5th Cell
Genre: Puzzle
Release Date: 09/15/2009

Long before it became an overnight sensation after its stupendous showing at E3, Scribblenauts was a game I had my eye on. Developer 5th Cell made a splash on the DS with Drawn to Life back in 2007, and while I didn’t like it all that much, I felt there was merit to what they were trying to do. Then last year, we were treated to Lock’s Quest. As far as I’m concerned, it is one of the better games on the DS and didn’t get nearly the amount of press it should have. Anyway, it can easily be said that whatever they were cooking up next was a game I wanted to play.

By now, we all know that Scribblenauts is an unique and ambitious game. The concept at work here is solving puzzles and making your way through environments using anything you can think of. Pretty much any object in the English language, minus copyrighted material, vulgar language, and most proper nouns is in this game. So, if you were hoping on having Darth Vader battle Indiana Jones while you drive the Batmobile through Hogwarts, you might be disappointed. Still, the is 5th Cell’s most anticipated title and a chance at developer super stardom. Did their great idea end up being too big to contain on the DS, or are we looking at a potential GOTY?

Modes

Rather than have a story, Scribblenauts focuses more on and idea. Your goal in every level is to find or grab the Starite. There’s no reason or plot here. Little Max just really wants Starites, I suppose.

Right away, the first mode you’ll come across actually takes place on the startup screen. This is called The Playground. This is where you can just mess around creating objects and seeing how they interact. You can chose from about 15 different backgrounds, and you start out with one and unlock more as you type in words that relate to those backgrounds. For instance, if you type in “spaceship”, you’ll unlock the space level. You can’t die here, so it’s a ton of fun summoning all sorts of creatures, monsters, and even some deities in order to have them battle it out. It’s also a great way to figure out exactly what you’ll get if you type in words like “bridge”, “gun”, and “boat”. Since there aren’t variations, you’ll spend a lot of time here just playing around. After you’ve beaten Challenge Mode, this’ll pretty much be where you play.

Challenge Mode is the game’s main attraction. There are ten themed worlds, each with 11 puzzle stages and 11 action stages. (For those keeping score, that’s 220 levels included in the game.) You start out only with the first world, but as you complete stages, you’ll earn “ollars”, the game’s currency. You’ll be able to buy all of the worlds as you play without having to grind for cash, so it gives the game a sense of progression even without a story.

scribblenauts1The final mode is one that allows you to create your own levels. What you can do is pretty limited, but you do have the option of choosing behaviors for creatures you bring forth. On my first try, I had a dragon guarding a cage containing the Starite while a group of angry zombies would attack me on sight. You can also set up scenarios such as having that same Dragon be afraid of the zombies, allowing you to have some fun when you play them. The mode can be a fun thing to play around with, but since you can’t edit the stage itself all that much, it ends up being a bit underwhelming. You’ll be able to share these levels online, as well as download other people’s creations, so there are sure to be some good ones out there.

I like what the game does with its modes. My only problem is that there are certain limitations. You can only have a finite number of objects on screen, for instance. Sure, you can scrap things you don’t need to clear up space, but when you have an idea and find out that you need one object too many, it can be a drag. Still, Playground and Challenge are pretty much perfect for what the game is trying to do.

Graphics

With so many objects needing physical models, the graphics in this game were never going to be mind blowing. The dev team kept in simple with an interesting hand drawn aesthetic that permeates the entire game, and I enjoyed the way things looked for the most part.

What I didn’t appreciate as much were the animations. Again, due to the sheer number of things in the game, they couldn’t realistically give everything detailed animations, but a lot of things are a bit jerky at times. Living things are usually OK until they start fighting each other, which looks like they’re sort of wailing at each other mindlessly. Hits will knock them back with no visible sign of damage. When Max shoots a gun, his arms will swing dramatically. It just doesn’t look cool.

One good thing I can say is that I never noticed any frame rate issues. The game runs smoothly at all times, no matter what you summon. I say that’s a pretty good accomplishment in and of itself.

Audio

The music in Scribblenauts isn’t exactly what I’d call “good.” Its extremely light-hearted and occasionally even has little children saying things in the background. (Usually they’re counting.) However, it comes off a bit too sweet and usually ends up being annoying. Also, a lot of tracks just sort of blend together with each other. None of them stick out and none of them will stick with you after you’ve beaten the game. While technically there are a lot of tracks on the cartridge, the variety just isn’t there.

As far as sound effects, almost everything that should have a sound does, and most of them fit pretty well. A T-Rex will roar when it sees an enemy, a bomb will deliver a big boom when it goes off, and a car’s engine will sputter to life when you hop in. A lot of the sounds are used more than once for different things, but the number of sounds is pretty impressive and is some pretty good stuff for the DS.

Basically, the aural side of Scribblenauts is a bit of a paradox. When you’re creating things, the sounds they make when they interact is integral to your enjoyment of the game, but the music will either bore you or annoy you. The choice of whether to keep the sound on is one you’ll make often throughout the experience.

Gameplay

The main reason this review has been so delayed is because I am completely torn. On one hand, the game offers one of the most unique and clever gaming concepts ever created. On the other hand, it controls like complete and utter crap.

scribblenauts2Let me explain. Everything is done with the stylus. Everything, that is, except for camera control. You do that by using the d-pad to scroll it the camera over to where you want it. Let it go for a couple of seconds and it will snap back to Max. Since movement is performed by tapping an area, there are countless times where you’ll be about to tap something only for the camera to move. Once you’ve missed because of this and Max runs into a pit of lava, you’ll know true pain. In order to attack an enemy, you’ll need to tap them. When that enemy is a small rat or a bat that is buzzing around your head, this means you’ll almost never be able to hit them and you’ll be more likely to tap yourself (which unequips whatever you’ve got on).

Another big problem is the system for using glue and attaching items to each other. If you want to use glue or rope, you can only attach it in one of four designated spots. This ends up being the center of each side of the object. Any time you try to drag something along with a rope or create a certain shape with objects using glue, you’ll run into this barrier and won’t be able to do nearly what you wanted to. For instance, one of the most useful combinations in the game is calling out a helicopter and a rope in order to airlift an object from one side of the level to another. However, it’s way too easy to attach the rope funny, leading to things tilting at odd angles. At one point, I carried a guy right into a wall because of this.

The way things interact is very odd. There was a time when I needed to cross a stream. I built a bridge, and went to move over it. Somehow, Max kicked the side instead of crossing the bridge. This caused the bridge to get pushed forward and fall into the stream. I’m still baffled by the physics in this game.

The game does a lot of good as well. There is no end of joy in typing in random objects, seeing them appear, and then using them to finish a level. The level design is also varied and fun. One of my favorites has to be the level where the hint is “for massive damage.” If you haven’t been living under a gaming rock for the past few years, you can probably see a giant enemy crab figuring in here somewhere.

When it works, Scribblenauts becomes a kind of fun that few games can even aspire to. The problem is that the controls bog it down so many times that I can’t help but feel disappointed overall.

Replayability

With 220 levels to unlock and play, the game already has a good value in terms of content. Still, the game doesn’t stop there. You’ll be rewarded a gold star if you can beat a level that you’ve already beaten three more times. The catch is that you won’t be able to use items you’ve used before. Not only does this give you incentive for replaying levels, it also adds a nice bit of intrigue in that you’ll want to see just how creative you can be in solving these puzzles. Since there are thousands upon thousands of words in the game, your options can feel limitless as long as you put them together.

On top of that, the Playground mode and create a level mode are surefire time suckers than can put your total time with Scribblenauts into the dozens and dozens of hours. For the truly dedicated, I can see it lasting well over a hundred. For a DS game, this kind of lasting material to play with is truly unheard of. Unless you get in a funk of using the same items over and over again for each puzzle, you’re going to get plenty of bang for your buck.

Balance

scribblenauts3I think this game would have been better served if you couldn’t die. Given how combat works in the game, you never get a chance to recover from an attack. You see, a fight is basically two creatures flailing or firing at each other mindlessly. If you get into a corner, you won’t be able to react or even move. Also, the sheer number of cheap deaths you’ll incur at the hands of the controls is enough to make you want to rip out your hair.

Sometimes the game can be downright evil. There was a level in which I couldn’t move forward without tripping a wire and sending the Starite into a pit of lava. Naturally, I wanted to place something in the Starite’s way so that I could safely retrieve it. The problem was that there was no wall on the other side of the pit, and I wasn’t allowed to use glue or rope on any of the terrain. This meant that any structure would inevitably collapse and I would lose. It took me awhile to beat that one.

At the same time, the game can also be excruciatingly easy. Once you’ve learned a few keywords like “wings”, “god”, and “black hole”, you’ll be able to solve a ton of levels with just one or a few of them. I can’t tell you how many times I beat a level by flying a helicopter and attaching something to it by a rope. It was insanely useful. Another way the game is too easy is in some of the puzzle levels. These feel like there were made for kindergartners when you have levels where all you have to do is give the fireman something he would use for his job. It was a little insulting.

Overall, I wasn’t too pleased with the balance of the game. Then again, I realize that finding a good balance in a game like this is a near impossible task. I do give the dev team credit for the moments that work.

Originality

This isn’t the most original game I’ve played all year, but its damn well close.

The sheer number of objects to be found coupled with the unique way of solving puzzles makes this a game like none other. To be honest, I came close to giving this a perfect score here.

Just try and name as many games as you can that allow you to pull objects out of the air to solve puzzles. If you can come up with more games than fingers on your left hand, I’d be very surprised.

Addictiveness

The addictive nature of this game is very top heavy and very dependent on the type of person playing it. At first, you can spend hours upon hours pulling up as many items as you can think of. Then, you’ll actually start playing the levels and having a blast with those. Eventually though, you’ll start to get bogged down because there are items that are simply more useful than others that you’ll rely on time and time again. It’s a case where simple is often the best option, but for a game like this, it kind of hurts it.

If, however, you have the mental ability to overcome the instinct to use the familiar and tested, you’ll no doubt have a far more enthralling experience. Solving a puzzle one way, and then solving it in a completely different way can be some of the most exhilarating fun you can get on the DS.

Chances are that you’ll just grab a thesaurus in order to make your way through the game, but if you really give it a try, you can be in for something great.

Appeal Factor

There’s a reason Scribblenauts went from a mostly obscure title to one of the biggest and most anticipated titles of the year overnight. It’s a game that just about everyone can enjoy and just about everyone will want to play. Like so few games I’ve discovered, this one interested the most people. My friend, who scoffs at most DS games and has never shown any interest in them, was disappointed when I didn’t bring Scribblenauts when I saw him last.

What is it that bridges the gap? It’s that intangible desire to just keep creating things and seeing how they interact. I think the only people who aren’t going to get a kick out of this are those people who were expecting to be able to pull up copyrighted material.

Miscellaneous

scribblenauts4I want this game’s score to show one thing if nothing else: this game could have been truly great. In many ways it was, but the control issues bog it down like you wouldn’t believe. Personally, any time I started to get into a groove of being creative and having fun, Max would run smack into the gaping maws of a T-Rex, run into a giant spike, or manage to flip a helicopter over in midair whilst dragging an infant, as opposed to something actually heavy.

I can’t help but feel that 5th Cell should start farming out their ideas to more able developers. They clearly know how to come up with a dynamite concept, but like in Drawn to Life, they weren’t able to do Scribblenauts the kind of justice it deserved.

Part of that has to do with the game being on the DS. I love the DS like few other systems, but it isn’t powerful enough to do what the game is trying to do here. On the PC, I think this could have been one of the best games not only of this year, but possibly of all time. I’m not kidding in the least.

And that’s why I’m so disappointed with this whole thing. It could have been so much more. At least, with more competent controls, it could have been a much better DS game.

The Scores

Modes: Very Good
Graphics: Decent
Audio: Below Average
Gameplay: Mediocre
Replayability: Incredible
Balance: Poor
Originality: Classic
Addictiveness: Enjoyable
Appeal Factor: Unparalleled
Miscellaneous: Below Average
Final Score: Enjoyable Game!

Short Attention Span Summary:

diehardjackEnjoyable is an aptly chose score for this game, as you will almost definitely get a sense of enjoyment from Scribblenauts. It has a ton of content to deal with, fun and brain teasing puzzles to solve, and a unique hook that will suck you in and keep you going for hours at a time. If the controls weren’t so awful and what you create limited by pre-set designs for objects, the game would be far better than it actually is. I’m hoping this game gets remade for the PC and is allowed to flourish in the way that it could have.

Oh what could have been…

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