Ever since the series first debuted on DS back in 2009, Scribblenauts has offered something few games ever could: an experience limited only by the boundaries of your own imagination. Even up to Scribblenauts Unlimited on Wii U in 2012, the antics of Maxwell and his magical notepad have remained fresh and bubbling with potential. However, six years on, one cancelled game (the ill-fated, iOS-bound Scribblenauts: Fighting Words) and a change in developer later, and the Scribblenauts of 2018 is something far less enticing.
The same basic principle of Scribblenauts still applies - think of a word, type it into the game and voilà, it appears on screen. With a database of nouns that’s increased to a whopping 35,000 words (and their potential combinations), there’s still a pure thrill from thinking of a rare animal or seemingly insignificant object and seeing the game recreate it in cartoon form. However, Scribblenauts: Showdown never truly embraces the magic of its central conceit due to the shallow nature of its modes. It’s a party game, but one where all the party poppers are duds.
The classic narrative formula of old is gone, traded for a selection of mini-games that takes the fun of transforming the most random word that pops into your head and sucks the life straight out of it. There’s plenty of variety to the games you’ll play - swooping around a black hole in a rocket ship; smashing a piñata with a stick; catching your chosen noun on a platform as words fall from the sky - and you’ll shake your Joy-Cons and tilt your Switch along the way, but it’s nothing you haven’t done before in 1-2-Switch and the like.
The open-world story mode of the previous games has been dropped in its entirety, and in its place we have Versus, Showdown and Sandbox. Versus is a two-player mode where you compete against a friend (or against the CPU, if you don’t have any) in a series of party games. It’s fun, and ideal if you’re looking for a cute family-friendly game with a charming sense of whimsy about it, but it loses its appeal quickly.
Then there’s Sandbox, the mode that holds the closest resemblance to Scribblenauts of old. Available as a single-player romp or a two-player co-op experience, it’s split into eight themed sandbox-style levels with starites to earn, awards to win and objects to unlock. Talking of starites, these collectibles are now more of a currency for buying new levels and unlocking level-specific objects. You can spend them in the Sandbox Store, but once you get into each level you realise it’s just a tease for what Showdown could have been. You can explore each multi-tiered level, creating objects for NPCs based on the pictorial clues above their heads, but much like the Versus mode it’s a very shallow experience that barely taps into the depth of its imaginative potential.
Considering it’s in the title, Showdown mode is the centrepiece here, and it at least offers a little more meat on the game’s brittle bones. Supporting solo play against the CPU or local multiplayer with up to three other players, it works like a virtual board game where you deal and play cards, each with a certain mini-game attached and a certain number of moves forward/back on top. While it sadly falls back on those quirky yet unremarkable activities found in Versus and Sandbox, there’s some sense of strategy to be found from using boost cards to send your opponent flying backwards while you race towards victory. It's fun, but it’s just not Scribblenauts.
And that’s the feeling you just can’t shake if you spend any amount of time in this game. New developer Shiver has done its best to emulate the look, sound and feel of 5th Cell's classic formula, but it’s just that - a simulation of past glories, repackaged beyond all recognition. If this had been a harmless release on 3DS in its twilight years, Showdown wouldn’t have felt like such a wasted opportunity, but as a debut entry on Nintendo’s latest hardware, it’s just a collection of forgettable activities that squanders one of gaming’s few unique premises.
If you’ve played the series before, Scribblenauts: Showdown won't be the game you’re expecting. If you haven’t, you might be left wondering what all the fuss was about. Yes, it shares the name and the look of those previous games, but it lacks the all-important creative heart of its predecessors, and ends up being a by-the-numbers affair that goes through the motions in a shallow attempt to turn Scribblenauts' unique premise into a multiplayer party game. It’s certainly not the debut Maxwell and company deserved on Switch, and while its mini-game focus does suit the local multiplayer ethos of the console, it ends up feeling like a discount 1-2-Switch.