ESRB Rating: E10+
Number of Players: 1
Publisher: Warner Bros.
Developer: 5th Cell
Release Date: September 15th, 2009
It’s uncommon for a lesser-known developer to have one critically-acclaimed hit, let alone three in succession. I speak of 5th Cell, responsible not only for the game being reviewed here, but also Drawn to Life andLock’s Quest. I’ve unfortunately not played the latter two, but working through the E3 2009 Game of the ShowScribblenauts has helped me understand why I have every reason to. 5th Cell’s latest fray on DS isn’t exactly a shining example of comfortable control, but the unbelievable degree of thought-provoking puzzle content more than makes up for those pitfalls.
It’s particularly humorous that many could very well spend hours on just the start screen. The game’s initial interface serves as pseudo-sandbox mode where you can call upon what makes this product so impressive to begin with – an unrivaled database of real-life objects. Approximately 20,000 items are available in the Scribblenautsuniverse, and every one can be summoned at the main menu. You can even change the environment displayed in the touch screen, and unlock more as you discover more and more objects. There are restrictions though. If any word you write or type for Maxwell (the red-hatted dude on the game cover) is copyrighted/trademarked, a proper name/place, drug or alcohol reference, or outright vulgar, Scribblenauts won’t budge. Anything else accessible in the database is fair game. Yet I wholly recommend the QWERTY keyboard over writing because the recognition software is less-than-cooperative. Nonetheless, I love that instead of imposing objects in their puzzle environments, 5th Cell made it so we can provide them to ourselves. It’s rare for player freedom to be a negative thing.
The goal of this puzzle adventure is very simple. Throughout more than 200 pre-created scenarios, close to 1000 opportunities arise to acquire Starites — little gold stars. Depending on the level type (puzzle/action), this is accomplished by satisfying a predetermined condition or contemplating how to reach a stray Starite, all the while letting your imagination run wild. Completing levels nets Maxwell a certain amount of “Ollars”, the game’s currency, which can redeem more puzzle areas, alongside songs and avatars for the stage editor. Acquiring Starites isn’t the only factor for your Ollar reward, however: par, style and time spent are important too. Every level has a preset par, or in other words, the number of objects that the game believes you should need at most to snag the gold prize. Using fewer results in bonus points, as does finishing quickly. The most attractive bonus comes from howstylish you are. It’s difficult to determine how Scribblenauts calculates this, but being crazy creative to obtain a Starite is rewarded. Levels don’t have to end after collecting just one star though; Scribblenauts actually encourages you to repeat each one three more times to gain the mastery distinction. The catch is that the three subsequent plays have to be done all in a row without quitting. You also can’t reuse words. Unfortunately that second condition can be circumvented rather easily, due to many objects having multiple words associated with them. For instance, the same “axe” can be pulled out with “axe”, “hatchet” and “fireman’s axe”. While later levels require you to rethink your entire strategy for each attempt at the Starite, the majority can be conquered with aforementioned methodology.
Nevertheless, puzzle level objectives are very fun to overcome, like: rescuing a cat stranded on a house rooftop; gathering flowers for a woman while fending off hostile creatures; and playing trick or treat with kids on Halloween night. The variety is incredible, and only possible with the database, as I believe 5th Cell could focus more on offering situations rather than setting up solvable puzzles on their own time.
It’s especially neat that objects you summon come with true-to-life physics and interaction. Balls can be thrown, vehicles piloted, animals ridden, etc. Unfortunately it can be extremely annoying to set up something insanely clever only to witness Maxwell ruin it all because of the clunky touch screen control. I wish there was an option for D-pad and button movement, because our little game character doesn’t move naturally. Holding the stylus anywhere to the left or right of Maxwell has him trot in that direction, but it’s painfully jarring. As it is, you move with the stylus [as I already explained] and the D-pad temporarily pans your view to a certain distance. I would’ve much preferred what I previously mentioned, but having the shoulder buttons manipulate the camera. Thankfully the rough control doesn’t spoil the experience, only proving an occasional hindrance. There’s another problem however. Despite the implicated belief that you’ have total command over anything you write or type into the scenario you’re working on, sometimes objects have a mind of their own. For example, if you consider pulling out a bee to attack/distract/scare someone, be prepared for that very insect to possibly rebel against you. Granted such an occurrence can also be your fault, but why should that be able to happen altogether?
Scribblenauts isn’t without gameplay hitches, but that doesn’t change how fun it is. You’re not limited to 5th Cell’s designs either; a handy level editor is available to be messed with. It is regrettable that players can’t go as far as the original team would’ve been able to, but every environment is available, in addition to those songs and avatars from before. The pain lies in the need to exchange Friend Codes with anyone you want to download creations from, though local wireless transmission is an option. This is no LittleBigPlanet, but at least the infrastructure is there for consumers to share their wacko concepts.
Finally, I originally expected to be less-than-thrilled with the presentation, as it’s no secret that the visuals are childish. Yet it didn’t take long to realize that their juvenile nature actually fits the Scribblenauts atmosphere and theme quite well. Everything looks goofy, and animates just the same. I truly understand 5th Cell’s chosen path. Their artists were probably making big bucks already, so unless you’re a developer too, it’s impossible to imagine shelling out for 20,000 drawn and animated objects. Plus, the final build likely wouldn’t have fit on the cartridge had the detail been much greater. The music fares similarly. The soundtrack repeats more than I would like, but the songs are incredibly charming and keep the game’s mood light-hearted and innocent. The basic effects also fit the bill just fine. Anything else likely would’ve sounded out of place, so props to 5th Cell.
Scribblenauts didn’t exactly catch us off-guard, but it really feels that way, and COE loves that fact. It’s a crying shame that it’s slated to be 5th Cell’s last release on Nintendo’s market-dominant handheld, but I’m sure the team is eager to take a crack at the consoles. They’re already underway in fact with a Drawn to Life for Wii. I’m certain the industry is excited to see what the company can pull off with their skills and data-driven concepts on the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. Until these times come, on-the-go gamers have plenty of puzzle action to be lost in for hours, whether they’re solving or providing something to be solved. There’s a reason why this effort won E3 2009 Game of the Show folks; support it!
Final Score (Not an average): 8.6/10