You don’t have to solve - or even begin - the included challenges to fully appreciate what Scribblenauts is trying to do. Right after the opening credits slide show, you are greeted by Maxwell standing in a field with nothing to do but smile as he always does. So you give him something to do. Anything.
Type “pterodactyl” and he’ll have a prehistoric beast to ride. Summon a pirate and a ninja and watch the ultimate showdown unfold as Maxwell floats ten feet in the air on a magic carpet. Pit a god against Medusa to the audience of a panda on a unicycle. Laugh and smile as your creativity unfolds in what is possibly the most pure form of “sandbox” game and realize you’ve been doing this for an hour without even having gotten to the main menu screen.
Such is the joy of Scribblenauts, the latest DS release from developer 5TH Cell. By allowing you to type or write in essentially any noun that isn’t copyrighted or offensive, there is almost limitless fun to be had; that is, if you can get past the ever-present control issues - but we’ll get to that later.
With an alleged 22,000+ word vocabulary, there’s always something new and "OMG-that’s-included" to summon; in addition to your standard words, you’ll find Internet memes like keyboard cat and RickRoll; mythical creatures like Bigfoot and the chupacabra; and gaming references like NeoGAF and Giant Enemy Crab. The mechanic is extremely well-implemented and fun to play around with, certainly one of the most clever things to be introduced in gaming for some time.
You can enter words either by typing them in or by writing. In case you spell something wrong, it’ll offer suggestions, and if the item can have more than one property you can specify what you meant (“water” yields the choice of “beverage” or “environment”). There’s also a handy re-type button, so you don’t have to keep typing e.g. “grappling hook” in case you die.
The game is broken up into ten main worlds, settings really, each with 11 puzzle and 11 action challenges. Action challenges typically require you to clear obstacles and reach the Starite by any means, with puzzle levels asking you to complete a task to get one. Tasks can range from super-simple, such as giving Santa something he likes, to more complicated fare, like reuniting a penguin on an iceberg with its family on the other side of the stage while avoiding the killer whale in the middle.
Most of the time you can complete a stage with standard items (mattress, wings, pickaxe, plague and gun are problem-solving stalwarts), and it’s really up to you to decide how creative you want to get. If you need to clear out a room of people, summon a zombie and watch them get infected. Of course, then you’ll have to figure out a way to deal with a room full of zombies. Maybe send in a griffin and see what happens.
Beating stages earns you Ollars, which you can use to unlock new stages, music and a dozen or so playable avatars for if you ever get tired of Maxwell. There are also a ton of merits to earn and a full level editor that allows you to share levels, so the fun could theoretically never stop.
Movement is controlled entirely by the stylus. The face buttons and D-pad both control the camera, with the shoulders allowing you to rotate selected objects. To shoot and dig, you equip your tool and double-poke the stylus on the target area; if you want to move a summoned object, drag it to its new home. All-stylus allows lefties and righties alike to play, but it can best be described as inconsistent. When there isn’t a lot of action or planning involved, Maxwell’s movements won’t pose any problems. He’ll careen across the screen at the slightest tap and automatically jump over items to wherever you’ve sent him, roughly.
However, trying to navigate elaborate levels and traps makes the touch controls seem like they're the new mayor of Butt City. At some point Maxwell will decide to jump just-so or not stop where you intended, which will bring about his untimely demise and frustratingly send you back to the beginning.
Case in point: the top half of a wall on one level can be blown apart or burrowed through, and underneath on the same wall is a switch that opens a door you'll want to keep closed. So you equip Maxwell with a bazooka, have him step backwards to get a good shot and then double-tapped your firing target. The first four times will most likely end with him running towards the wall and hitting the switch, occasionally firing the bazooka when he reaches the wall, killing himself.
It’s almost enough to break the game at points like this. Playing slowly and deliberately can help, but these incidents keep happening. Sometimes you feel at fault, other times it’s beyond your control. It’s a shame how badly the controls can mar the experience, since the rest of the game feels so polished and charming.
Scribblenauts’ paper doll aesthetic gives a very playground-ish look to the world and can’t help but charm you. Characters and items are typically detailed enough in their portrayal, which must have driven 5TH Cell’s art team insane. Assets are occasionally reused for items that are similar in design or properties (most obvious in weaponry or smaller items, like rocket launcher and RPG), but unless you try to summon a lot of similar-looking items it won’t be a problem in gameplay.
Similarly, the soundtrack is very keen to play on the theme of childish imagination. It’s cheery, fun and fits well with whatever scenario you unleash, and summoned characters make appropriately simple grunts and groans; it sort of sounds like the melodies and noises you used to make whilst playing with your toys as a kid.
Scribblenauts, as an idea, should be applauded. It encourages creativity in every aspect, from the playroom aesthetic to zany puzzle solutions. While the package is innovative, polished and fun, often-terrible controls throw a clumsy wrench in the otherwise well-oiled machine and prevent this from taking on "must-have" status. Still, this isn't enough to derail a hearty recommendation; Scribblenauts will provide oodles of joy to anyone eager to use their imagination and forgiving enough to endure the often irksome control issues.