Scribblenauts Review

  • First Released Sep 15, 2009
  • DS

This imaginative puzzle game will stimulate your creativity and delight you in spite of its imprecise controls.

There are very few games in which the biggest obstacle that stands between you and success is the limitation of your own imagination. In Scribblenauts, you have access to thousands of objects that can be summoned at any point using the in-game keyboard, and your goal is to push the boundaries of your creativity and vocabulary to solve the puzzles in whatever fanciful way you dream up. There are an untold number items, such as musical instruments, vehicles, prehistoric animals, cooking utensils, and deities at your disposal, and placing all these disparate pieces onscreen at one time and seeing how they behave and react to one another is outrageously fun. However, as entertaining as it may be to chase a monocle-wearing walrus across the desert on the back of the Loch Ness Monster, the crazy dynamics are not without problems. Many levels don't force you to push the boundaries of your creativity, level objectives are sometimes unclear, and the finicky controls will lead to a number of unceremonious deaths. But the overwhelming joy of this innovative puzzle game is able to overcome those issues, providing a jubilant experience that is sure to delight.

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Your goal in Scribblenauts is to collect the hidden starites in each of the game's 200-plus levels. The game is broken up into two distinct level types, action and puzzle. On the surface, the action levels look like a typical platforming stage. The hero Maxwell starts at one side of the level, the starite is located at the other end, and you must traverse the environment--crossing pools of lava, battling prehistoric beasts, avoiding hordes of zombies, and so forth--to grab your reward. You can conjure an object at any time, and trying to figure out the most efficient, or bizarre, way to reach the end is goofy fun. The puzzle levels are even better. Here, a question is posed and you must figure out which tools you need to use in order to answer it. For example, a corpse lies on the floor with four witnesses milling about, and you must figure out which of them is the murderer. Puzzles such as these require thought to complete. Taxing your brain for the often outrageous solutions is a blast, and trying to top your own idea with something even more fantastic is addictive and often hilarious.

The best part of Scribblenauts is using the massive dictionary to come up with all sorts of wacky ideas. Sure, you could ride a horse from one side of the screen to the other, but why settle for something so mundane? If you have a saddle and a mind-control device handy, you can summon Cthulhu to be your noble steed. When a herd of dinosaurs are bumming you out, you can call forth a superhero to put them in their place, infantilize them with a shrink ray, or just drop a meteor from the sky to trigger a convenient extinction-level event. This creativity is present in the many puzzles as well. In one level, you must transport three deceased criminals from the purgatory in which they currently reside to the pearly gates of heaven. You could construct a bridge between the two eternal planes, but why go through that trouble when an all-forgiving god will absolve them of their sins and transport them to the promised land?

That raptor is wearing a fez!
That raptor is wearing a fez!

The problem is, Scribblenauts doesn't always force your right brain to work very hard. There are definitely challenging puzzles, but for a lot of the levels, you can use a handful of tried-and-true methods to breeze to the end. There isn't a compelling reason to use something other than wings to reach out-of-the-way places, and you can quickly dispose of any enemy in your path with a vicious animal or two, so it's easy to fall into the trap of passing levels as quickly as possible, without taking advantage of the impressive resources at your disposal. There are a number of levels that require careful thought to complete, but many stages in Scribblenauts are so open-ended that you can use a huge variety of methods to pass them. This is great if you want to scratch your creative itch, but for those who just want to see the next level as quickly as possible, the puzzles are often so easy that there is little standing in your path to victory.

Furthermore, there are a few objectives in the game that are poorly worded, so trying to figure out exactly what needs to be done to achieve victory requires a lot of trial and error before something finally works. For instance, in one level, you must return Martian rock samples to an astronaut. For some reason, you can't just hand these minerals over to him, and it can be frustrating trying to figure out exactly what you must do to complete the objective. Other times, you can solve a stage without a logical reason why it worked. In one water-themed level, you are asked to rescue a man from a desert island. For some inexplicable reason, handing him a koulourakia (a Greek dessert) achieves this goal. These quirks don't destroy the satisfaction of passing levels, but it is certainly puzzling when real-world logic doesn't apply.

Just about everything in Scribblenauts is controlled with the stylus, and though you will usually be able to do what you want, a few issues crop up that will mess with your enjoyment. The most troubling issue involves basic movement. Maxwell moves wherever you tap the screen, and while it's a cinch to position him right at a cliff's edge or hover over a Tyrannosaurus rex in your helicopter, it's too easy to accidentally move him into harm's way. Because you are constantly tapping the screen to interact with objects, you can mistakenly order Maxwell to move, making him run into a pit of lava when you were trying to place a bridge over it instead. Furthermore, using a rope to attach two objects together, such as tethering a penguin to a hang glider so it can finally taste flight, is a real pain. The ultraprecision needed to connect these two objects is too unforgiving. These control issues can be overcome with a bit of patience, but these small problems can lead to more than a few deaths along the way.

Giving a bazooka to an elephant always ends in disaster.
Giving a bazooka to an elephant always ends in disaster.

There is a lot of content in Scribblenauts. With more than 200 levels to plow through, it will take puzzle veterans quite a few hours to see everything on offer. You get bonus points for completing levels with style, and you can earn a gold star if you reach an objective in three completely different ways. Although this system can be abused in some of the early levels, such as a fair stage in which you must knock down a stack of bottles (just conjure three different types of balls), many levels force you to completely change your method if you want to earn the accolades. And when you finish all the developer-made stages, you can make some of your own. The level editor reuses the environments of unlocked stages, but you can place whatever objects you want. The most interesting aspect of this creator is being able to set the temperament of the animals. If you want your puma to be docile or your goldfish to mimic a piranha, go ahead. You can share these with friends, either locally or online, which adds a lot of replay value for the devoted.

Scribblenauts doesn't quite reach the impressive heights its expansive in-game dictionary hints at, but it's an absolute blast despite its few problems. Scribblenauts fully embraces your imagination in ways few games can match, letting you call forth an unprecedented number of creatures and objects to help you overcome the many obstacles placed in front of you. The objectives are sometimes unclear and the controls will frustrate at times, but it's easy to look past these problems when so many possibilities are open to you. The staggering originality of Scribblenauts makes it a great experience and a memorable puzzle game that will have you laughing with glee while you frantically think up crazier and crazier ideas.

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The Good

  • A ridiculous number of objects and animals that behave realistically
  • A diverse array of puzzles that can be finished in many different ways
  • Loads of stages and a powerful level creator
  • Continually surprises and amazes with the overwhelming breadth of possibilities

The Bad

  • Serious control issues
  • Sometimes baffling objectives

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