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Scribblenauts Review

Duke_Ferris By:
GENRE Puzzle 
PUBLISHER Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment 
E10+ Contains Cartoon Violence, Comic Mischief

What do these ratings mean?

The write stuff.

They say that “special” children need the most love, and that is exactly how I feel about Scribblenauts. When your crippled cousin through hard work and dedication manages to get out of his wheelchair and makes a few faltering steps on his own, it's a major accomplishment and cause for celebration. When you go to see your retarded niece compete in the Special Olympics, you don't care that she's not the strongest or the fastest or the prettiest; you're just so gosh-darn proud of her for crossing that finish line.

click to enlargeSo I love Scribblenauts, unconditionally, which is the only way you can love this game. It's just so pleasingly original, quirky, and full of surprising “Yay!” moments that it always brings a smile to my face, no matter how fundamentally, completely broken it is.

There's no real plot to Scribblenauts. The cute little main character in the rooster hat is named Maxwell, and for no particular reason, you must help him complete a series of 100+ challenges with the ultimate goal of obtaining the “starite” on each level.

Where this DS title really stands out - indeed, the very central gameplay mechanic - is that you can use the stylus to write in, or type on a virtual keyboard, nearly any noun you can think of and that object will appear in the game. You can then use that item to (hopefully) help complete the challenge. There are a few exceptions: nothing dirty, no drug or alcohol references, and no proper nouns or copyrighted items. Other than that, the lexicon is frighteningly complete - from an aardvark to a zipper, it's all in there. It may not be particularly useful, but you can even have ceiling cat watch you play, or keyboard cat play you out. Were you concerned that there might not be tridymite in the game? There is.

[Author's note: It's so terrifyingly thorough, it made me wonder: In what part of the world was this game made where there are no such thing as "pancakes", only "flapjacks"?]

click to enlargeThe challenges are broken into two categories: puzzle and action. In puzzle levels, you are give a hint and then the starite will appear when you have solved the puzzle. For example, it might depict a wedding and tell you to “celebrate the wedding”. After throwing rice (the bride promptly ate it) and tying a can to the newlywed's car, the starite appeared for me, and I was victorious. In the action levels, the starite is already on-screen, you just have to figure out how to get to it safely (or get it to you).

For those clever folks among you all who are now thinking “Why not just write 'starite' and win?”, you can indeed write "starite" and it will appear, but it is not the winning starite.

All of this is so creative and original that it's truly awesome, but this is also where everything breaks in a number of ways.

First, since you can place your summoned object anywhere on the level and then move them anywhere you want or get rid of them, you'll quickly discover some incredibly cheap tactics you'll use over and over again. Why bother coming up with creative ways of dealing with enemies when you can just make landmines magically appear under their feet? You'll type in “jetpack” so often, Maxwell should really just start with a jetpack on his back. So despite the huge dictionary, you'll find yourself using the same ten or so objects over and over.

Second, there are so many possible interactions between objects that the A.I. often responds in disappointing, weird, or just plain wrong ways, like the bride who ate the rice I threw. For example, on an early level (before I got cheap), there was an aggressive bee in my way. My solution was “beekeeper”, and sure enough a beekeeper appeared complete in head-to-toe beesuit. The bee then proceeded to p'wn the beekeeper. Screw that, just drop a mine on it.

click to enlargeThird, the physics are broken. Totally, completely broken. Objects are exceedingly difficult to manipulate, and bounce off each other in alarming ways. I have won (and lost) several challenges, not because of any cleverness on my part, but only because of incredibly lucky, accidental, physics glitches.

Fourth, the control is broken. Totally, completely broken. Everything, except for looking around, is done with the stylus, and Maxwell is very difficult to control as he tries to run to wherever you poke the screen. You might spend five minutes setting up a series of platforms for him to get across the level, only to fail because of the awkward jumping. Worse, you might just be trying to move one of your summoned objects, and Maxwell will decide you want him to run to it... straight off a cliff.

Despite all of this, I still can't help but recommend Scribblenauts. It's so unique, revolutionary, and positively delightful that it more than makes up for all its shortcomings. And with a built-in level editor and the ability to share levels with others, the challenges are nearly endless. If you're after something completely original for your DS, go ahead and write down “Scribblenauts” and make it appear.
B Revolution report card
  • Unique gameplay
  • Charming presentation
  • The whole freakin' dictionary
  • Cheap tactics
  • Broken physics and control

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