Scribblenauts Hands-On

We put our vocabulary to the test with a preview version of 5th Cell's upcoming puzzler.

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Currently scheduled for release in September, Scribblenauts is an innovative puzzle game in which creative thinking is key. Rather than present you with a problem and the tools necessary to solve it, Scribblenauts presents you only with a problem and a notebook. You then use that notebook to summon objects into the world, simply by writing them down one letter at a time. It's an ingenious and incredibly accessible system that we've been putting through its paces since recently receiving a preview build of the game.

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Scribblenauts' Challenge mode is divided into 10 distinct worlds, plus a University where you can play through tutorial missions. The tutorials get you used to summoning objects and do a good job of showing you some of the many ways that they can be used. You'll climb a ladder, dig a hole with a shovel, drive a car, fly a plane, and hit targets with a baseball and a ray gun. You'll also be introduced to more advanced techniques, such as one that might have you glue objects together. Playing through all 10 of the tutorials only takes a few minutes and, given that the controls are almost entirely stylus-driven and may take a little getting used to, it's time well spent.

The first of Scribblenauts' 10 worlds has a garden theme and, like all of the other themed worlds, is home to 11 "action" challenges and 11 "puzzle" challenges. Both types of challenge are played in the same way, but the objectives are different. In action challenges, your goal is always to guide the protagonist Maxwell to a star (known as a starite in-game) situated somewhere in the level, while in puzzle challenges, your objectives are different every time. For example, you might have to rescue a cat from atop a house or overcome hazards to pick flowers. Or--when the difficulty ramps up later on--you might have take out enemy soldiers before they destroy an allied plane or open up a coffin that's being protected by a vampire. Every puzzle has a par score that represents how many objects you should need to complete it, though the only penalty for going over par appears to be that you earn fewer Ollars (Scribblenauts' currency) to spend on unlockable extras at the end of the level.

Our preview build of Scribblenauts afforded us access to all 22 of the levels from the first world, as well as two levels (one action, one puzzle) from the remaining nine worlds. Beating most of these levels (even those from world 10) once didn't prove to be much of a challenge, largely because we happened upon a number of objects that made short work of a lot of the hazards and enemies the game threw at us. We'll resist the temptation to list all of our favorite go-to items here, but suffice to say, you can accomplish a lot with G-O-D on your side, especially if you also have access to a J-E-T-P-A-C-K and your firearm of choice. Deities, weapons, and the means to fly aren't enough to get you through all of Scribblenauts' puzzles, of course, and there are some levels that call for more creative thinking, even in our version with most of the later levels locked out.

Yes, that is an elephant with a rocket launcher.
Yes, that is an elephant with a rocket launcher.

Silver stars on the level select screen let you know which challenges you've already beaten, and you can turn those stars into gold stars if you manage to beat the same challenge three more times without reusing any of the same items. In theory, this should be where Scribblenauts gets really challenging, but in practice, we found that it's possible to solve a lot of the puzzles in much the same way multiple times. A level in which you have to knock down a pyramid of bottles without using firearms can be beaten by having Maxwell throw a baseball at the bottles, for example. That same puzzle can also be solved by throwing a basketball, a pool ball, a cricket ball, a football, or any other ball you can think of in exactly the same way. Alternatively, because Maxwell doesn't actually need to throw the item at all, you can just create an object and drop it on top of the pyramid as many times as it takes to knock all of the bottles over. Items we tried this with successfully included a demolition ball, a chair, a spine, a taxi, and a kiang. Perhaps a more interesting test on this particular level--an extreme example, admittedly--would be to figure out which items don't work.

There's no doubt that Scribblenauts' vocabulary is impressive, and it can be fun to enter random strings of letters just to see which three words the game will suggest as replacements for your gibberish. (That's how we came up with kiang). More impressive still is that, for the most part, every object you summon behaves more or less as you'd expect it to behave. Items have weight, serve the purposes they're designed for, are destructible, and--where living things (including those that are mythical) are concerned--behave differently. Though it doesn't always work, it's impressive how specific you can get with your item requests at times, opting for a police car or a clown car instead of just a car, for example.

The only limitations to solving a puzzle in Scribblenauts, it seems, are your imagination, your vocabulary, and a budget meter at the top of the screen that maxes out if you try to work with too many summoned objects simultaneously. The problem, at least based on time spent with our incomplete build, is that the game gives you very little incentive to be as creative as possible--the levels and the restrictions that arise from repeatedly using the same objects just don't demand it of you. Perhaps that's why it's so much fun to mess around with the title screen, which doubles as a sandbox. Here, you can summon any object you please and see how it interacts with other summoned objects. Can a raptor win a fight with a cyborg? What if the cyborg was armed with Excalibur? And what if the raptor was actually a T. rex? The answers to all of these questions and many, many more are just a couple of notebook entries away.

It's all about using your imagination and playing around with words.
It's all about using your imagination and playing around with words.

How long the novelty of using Scribblenauts to answer questions that have stumped scholars for centuries remains to be seen, as does the quality of the challenges that were unavailable in our preview version. We're hopeful that the finished game will offer more incentives to get creative with puzzle solutions, as well as provide incentives to beat each puzzle more than three or four times. A running total of how many times you've managed to beat a level without ever reusing the same item might be good for bragging rights or some kind of leaderboard, for example. We look forward to bringing you more information as soon as it becomes available.

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