16 Sep


The Nintendo DS is a curious and unique platform whose innovative controls are rarely implemented properly.  One developer, 5th Cell, the company behind games like Drawn to Life and Lock’s Quest, seeks to take advantage of the dual screens and stylus to create something truly original.  Which brings me to Scribblenauts.

If you’ve been even remotely acquainted with the independent development scene in the past year or so, or have any of those friends who think that games are art, then chances are you’ve heard something about Scribblenauts; a title touted by the developers and several publications as being one of the most innovative and revolutionary games on any handheld platform.

Expect many images to be perfect non-sequiturs.

Expect many images to be perfect non-sequiturs.

The general concept is that you can “write anything” and the object will appear in the game world. You may then use that object in any way you please.  For the most part, this is true, although the game does say that vulgarities or suggestive objects in addition to the intangible and copyrightedtitems will not appear in the game.  Beyond that, however, anything goes.  Well, almost anything.  I’ve already stumbled upon some words that didn’t work but the sheer number that did makes up for anything that’s missing.

There are 220 different levels that fall into two categories: puzzle and action.  Puzzle levels require you to solve an NPC’s problem or meet certain circumstances before acquiring the ‘Starite” that allows you to proceed to the next stage.  Action levels, on the other hand, put you at one end of a stage with the Starite at the other.  How you get the Starite is completely up to you.

However, I’ve found that the best part of the game is the title screen.  It allows you to create whatever you want without any goal and, furthermore, you can do it without even loading your game.  It’s the perfect way to experiment with different objects and have absolutely no boundaries.  Furthermore, you can make things even more interesting by creating your own levels though that feature takes a back seat to the object creation.

For the first hour or so, I was amazed.  I scanned the room to write down objects, trying to ‘break’ the game, but it kept on surprising me, conjuring up a loaf of bread when I wrote ‘pulla’ (a mildly sweet Finnish confectionary) and creating a little gladiatorial battle when I wrote into existence a pirate and a ninja.  Yet I was disappointed to discover that even though ‘Abraham Lincoln’ brought the 16th President into the game world, I couldn’t bring in ‘John Wilkes Booth.’  But it balances out when you glue a fishing pole to the head of a T-Rex and hang a piece of meat from the end of the wire to have him chase after it indefinitely.

But the game eventually has to stop being an interesting distraction and actually try to be a game and this is when things start to get iffy.  It seems that in their hurry to program over 25,000 words into the game that they forgot the thing has to be playable.  Now that’s a harsh statement—the game is, of course, playable but seeing as the gameplay is simple platforming, it shouldn’t have any glitches or flaws.  Platforming on a 2D plane has been perfected over the last 30 years, there’s no reason why we should ever be subjected to jerky and inaccurate controls.

The problem is that the face buttons and directional pad control the camera and nothing else.  Every other command is done with the stylus and it gets to be quite a pain, especially when the game tries (and fails) to detect small obstacles and automatically jump.  It’s a struggle to get your character where you want him to be and many times things just fly around for no reason at all.  While I doubt this will grate on the nerves of members of the so-called ‘Touch Generation,’ a simple reworking of the control scheme could have done wonders.

Though one might be tempted to take the easy way out and create Pegasus. Or a jetpack.

Though one might be tempted to take the easy way out and create Pegasus. Or a jetpack.

Furthermore, the NPC’s are colossally stupid.  There was one puzzle where you had to retrieve three flowers and put them in this hausfrau’s basket.  One flower is guarded by a bee, the other by a piranha, and the other is on a high cliff.  So to distract the bee, I create some honey.  Unfortunately, the NPC was hungry and decided to run after the honey despite the killer bee and ended up getting killed, forcing me to restart the stage.  And once I finally managed to retrieve her flowers, she decided to kick over the basket just as I returned with the third, forcing me to pick them up all over again.  Ordinarily, picking up some flowers isn’t that big of a deal but when the stylus is quite inaccurate and it’s a chore to place items into other items, the game stops being fun.

Scribblenauts is a novelty.  It’s a fantastic novelty that brings hope to the shovelware-heavy platform that is the Nintendo Dual Screen; it’s comforting to know that there are developers out there thinking outside the box.  But it’s a novelty nonetheless.  This one will last a lot longer than most and it will definitely keep you entertained, but such an ambitious project was doomed to disappoint on some fronts.

If you have a DS, it’s worth getting and you can get a lot of fun out of it, but it’s not something that will remain in the cartridge slot after the next big game comes out.  If anything, it’s an innovative and progressive experiment in gaming technology that will, with any luck, lead to more innovation and progress.

Published by: Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment
Developed by: 5th Cell
ESRB Rating: E for Everyone
Platforms: Nintendo DS
Release Date: September 15, 2009
Genre: Emergent, Puzzle, Action