Review: Scribblenauts

The pen is not so mighty
By MITCH KRPATA  |  October 7, 2009
2.5 2.5 Stars


Scribblenauts | For Nintendo DS | Rated E10+ for Everyone 10 and Older | Developed by 5th Cell | Published by Warner Bros. Interactive
If knowledge is power, and words are the vessels for ideas, then the appeal of Scribblenauts is easy to understand. This is a game that takes your words and makes them real — at least, real in the gamespace. Whatever you can imagine, Scribblenauts can conjure. Simply use the Nintendo DS's stylus to write your word, either freehand or on an on-screen keyboard. The in-game noun dictionary claims to have some 20,000 words, or considerably more than the average person's vocabulary. And it's hard to stump: brand names, profanity, and references to drugs and alcohol are verboten, but the game kept surprising me with how much it seemed to know, such as the difference between an ordinary motorcycle and a superbike (specifically, bad-ass styling on the latter).

Scribblenauts just gets tripped up when it comes to what you actually do with all those nouns. Although there's not much of a story, the premise has you controlling a cute lil' cartoon fellow named Maxwell in a quest to collect "starites," which are sort of like the power stars in Super Mario games but even more useless. Still, a puzzle game needs only the most tenuous thread of an objective, and starites are as good as any.

Gameplay takes two forms: "Action Mode," in which Maxwell needs to find a way to reach a starite somewhere in the level, and "Puzzle Mode," in which he must accomplish a goal for a non-player character, like helping a shepherd protect his flock from a wolf. The game types are not so different, yet Puzzle Mode is more satisfying, because its levels take the shape of a story, however rudimentary. Still, both modes require the same approach, which is to use your imagination to solve the puzzles. Sometimes this is very easy, such as typing in the word "ax" when you need to cut down a tree. More-complicated puzzles soon require a more advanced approach.

It's here that Scribblenauts' weakness starts to show. In theory, anything you conjure can be used with anything else, and setting up complex interactions is the key to success. But nothing ever seems to work quite right. When faced with a troublesome bee, I half-jokingly attempted to call forth a bee-eater bird. To my surprise, the bird, with its characteristic bright colors, popped right up. It then demonstrated no interest in eating the bee. Instead, I shot the bee with a crossbow. (In fact, it was distressing how often puzzles could be solved by shooting, burning, or exploding them, but that may say more about me than it does about the game.)

Many logical interactions don't work right, lots of objects appear out of proportion, and pluralization confounds the dictionary. "Termites" baffled it, though I was allowed to summon a single termite the size of a shih tzu. Many puzzles require you to manifest and pilot a vehicle, and though you can ride in a hovercraft, a bobsled, or the space shuttle, the control scheme ensures that you'll never go where you want. The vehicles often flip over for no apparent reason.

Scribblenauts deserves credit for taking a chance on something new. Turning a player's words into interactive playthings is too intrinsically appealing an idea to abandon in future games. The title screen offers nothing more than a blank canvas for players to write whatever words they want, with no objective, and it's the most fun part. In that sense, Scribblenauts is a heck of a toy. But it's not much of a game.

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