Update: I was unfortunately not aware of Shamus Young's severe criticism of Fallout 3 available here to link in the original piece and I regret that. It dovetails rather nicely with what I've written and it's much better executed than my piece. I strongly recommend anyone...
It is hard to put down innovative ideas in video games. For me, any breath of fresh air in what is sometimes a really stagnant game market is worth considerable praise in my eyes. One such game is came out this year is called “Scribblenauts.” A really ambitious title by 5th Cell Media, the game basically is a walking dictionary that allows your avatar named Maxwell to summon up any item you can think of.
The game is really straight forward, with three modes of play. The first is a puzzle mode that has you attempting to find a star somewhere in the stage and using summoned items to acquire it. The second type is a similar challenge level, which has you conjure up items to give to characters or to make the star appear. The last mode is a free play mode that has you summon items at will for the world, and watch the sparks fly.
The reason for this game’s great success is the fact that you can summon almost anything. Want some rope, type in rope on the DS screen. How about a monkey? There you go! Cthulu is even in the damn game, and that is pretty cool too. The fun is just thinking of items to bring up and toy with. You can enter any vehicle, ride any animal, pick up weapons and items and give them to people, shoot them, and so on. It is really fun on the basic level, and so damn addicting that you can mess around with the game for hours on end just to screw around with what you can summon. Innovation like this is awesome frankly; you can go for hours just summoning marines to fight an alien while you ride a tugboat in a lake of lava holding an apple. It’s totally random but also totally cool that something like that can happen in a game like this, giving a semblance of control to what you do.
Unlocking the challenge and puzzle modes is the “game” part of the aspect, and for the most part they are decent diversions and challenges to go through. There are, however, some flaws that sadly bring themselves ahead for the game in general that really hinder the game itself. For one, all of the puzzle/challenge levels have similar objectives. You usually need to summon a specific item or just use a rope and helicopter to get through a level, and for the most part the fun in challenging yourself is over through technical cheating. It really hampers the game that, while you can do anything to solve a puzzle, you can also use the same solution over and over to get to the goal.
Another major problem is the controls as well. I wouldn’t say they are broken, but they really are slippery and somewhat obtuse. For one, the stylus on the DS is the only real button; you use it to move Maxwell, grab items and people, and to type up words for the Mary Poppins Dictionary. For typing and grabbing it’s ok, but its moving that becomes a problem. Maxwell slips and slides like a beginning ice skater, which can lead to unfortunate deaths or pitfalls that can occur. It also makes grabbing items difficult at times. When reaching for stars, ropes, or other items from afar usually Maxwell just moves forward instead of picking up an item, which leads to problems in puzzle and challenge maps, especially in gaps of the level.
Fighting enemies is another problem too, especially due to the slippery controls. You can tap enemies that you want to fight, but again, it makes you move forward more so than it kills combatants. It’s kind of a shame too, the DS stylus is a powerful tool, but shucking the side buttons for extra control. It would of cut down on the slippery nature of the movement and it would of made the game run a lot smoother than it does right now. And this is a shame to because the innovation of the game is hampered by controls. It’s not a deal breaker by any means, but it is a noticeable problem that is hard to rectify in the end.
The game is also a damn cute one, in terms of graphics at least. It’s vibrant and has a distinct style to it, kind of like “Little Big Planet” pin ups. The design is nice and vibrant, although there are some limitations to the graphic qualities. Some items all look the same but have different names, but even then it is not the biggest let down in the game. The music however is kind of bland and loops, although it’s really inoffensive in the end, it doesn’t get in the way or becomes too much of a distraction, it just becomes a forgettable filler. Sound effects are decent though, especially for a DS title.
When it is all said and done, “Scribblenauts” is ambitious, innovative and fun, despite some really major control flaws that hurt the game more than it should have been. The graphics are inoffensive and the game aspect of the mode is exploitable, but the game is damn fun to play in the end. Make no mistake though; “Scribblenauts” is a neat idea that is worth a play for DS owners, and worth a buy out of sheer tenacity.