I am a grumpy, old gamer who lacks any sort of imagination. Well, at least that’s what I felt like playing Scribblenauts.
I bought Scribblenauts on its launch day, deliberately visiting a GameStop just to pick it up despite a lifelong proclivity for only playing new releases long after they’ve expired. What had caught my attention in this particular case was all positive press surrounding the game at E3 2009. Here was a game found at an insignificant, easily-overlooked booth at E3 being showered with “Best of Show” awards. It was made out to be the underdog hit of the year – an obscure handheld title developed by a small team that overshadowed even the console giants at the industry’s biggest conference. After reading Neogaf’s infamous Post 217, boldly stating that “There’s nothing you can’t do,” I bought my ticket for the hype train and became convinced that it would be the sleeper hit of the year.
When the game finally came out, I picked it up and played it fanatically for about two weeks. Then I put it down, and never touched it again. The cartridge has been collecting dust in its DS slot ever since. That is, until about a month ago when I picked it back up for the sake of the backlog and tried to beat it.
After playing it again, I came to realize that Scribblenaut‘s core fault is repetitiveness. What they claimed about the game was not necessarily false – you can basically summon forth any concrete noun that pops into your head. Everything from Cthulu to Ceiling Cat. You might imagine this offers virtually unlimited play styles, ensuring that the gameplay never gets old, but what they hide from you is that you are limited by the types of uses these objects actually have.
For example, if you need a vehicle, you can summon both a “rally car” and a “race car” just as easily. There’s no difference between the two objects uses though – both just act as cars that serve the same function. It’s the same thing with “laser gun” and “rifle” – they let you kill stuff. You can also ignore a significant chunk of the items that are completely useless, and this includes everything from the buildings (really no function beyond decoration) to household furniture (bookshelves, anyone?). Every solution is basically a variation on a similar set of items that will do what you need to get the puzzle solved.
And maybe you’re cool with that. I think it’s a fair counterpoint that Scribblenauts is meant to encourage left-brain thinking over right-brain thinking. That its the creativity that counts. Let’s take Post 217 as an example. The scenario that’s described – using a time machine to go into the past, mount a dinosaur, and then use it to defeat zombies is all theoretically possible in the game. It sounds like a lot of fun, and you will probably want to create that sort of elaborate solution for the first few worlds of the game.
But that mentality gets old, and you aren’t going to want to keep up that level of effort for all 220 stages of the game. What quickly starts to happen, then, is that you notice the most efficient solutions to each puzzle. You start to build up a library of quick solutions in your head that you know will most efficiently solve the puzzle. By the middle of the game, I knew the right items to summon for just about every scenario I encountered:
- Move something: Helicopter and a rope
- Platforming section: Wings, jet pack, or Pegasus
- Kill a monster: Summon a knight
- Kill a human: Summon a soldier (or superhero)
- Reach something far away: Lasso or fishing pole
- Remove an obstacle without hurting it: Tranquilizer gun or a ghost
Hell, when I started re-playing the game, my friend even advised me that the solution to most puzzles was “helicopter and a rope”, a phrase I found so true to life that I used it as the tagline for this review. I mean, there’s even a god damned screenshot of it on the Wikipedia page. To be fair, I did find a couple of unique surprises waiting for me. For example, summoning a sun would kill a vampire or neutralize a werewolf. Also, I discovered far too late in the game that an engineer would automatically pull switches for me.
Of course, I haven’t even gotten to the worst part of the game yet, which were the controls. Rather than mapping Maxwell’s movement to the D-Pad, as should have been done, everything is controlled with the stylus, including both movement and object placement. This makes the hazardous platform stages that comprise the entire second half of the game a complete nightmare. Missing the correct object on-screen with your stylus, even by a hair, confuses Maxwell into thinking you want him to move there. Thus he’ll hurtle himself into lava pools and bottomless abysses faster than you can sigh at losing ten minutes worth of puzzle solving trying to get your objects to align just right.
The amount of hardcore platforming in this game is downright inexcusable considering you can’t even control Maxwell directly – you literally need to point him where to go. This often means trying to guess how well he’ll actually manage a jump, or if he’ll merely fall to his death into a pit of wolves. What’s worse is that Maxwell’s jump is pitiful; often you need to aid him with the use of wings or a jet pack, and even controlling these manually is terribly frustrating. Between finding the right object placement, fighting the physics, and trying to solve the platforming puzzles, you’ll frequently find yourself stooping over your DS with your brow tensely furrowed, painstakingly handling your stylus so as to not click the wrong spot and ruin the level.
Now, I really hate to shit all over other people’s work, especially from designers cool enough to make a god damned Back to the Future level and even design themselves into the object database. But in my opinion, Scribblenauts is frustrating at best and downright unplayable at its worst. Sure, the concept is awesome, and you can imagine a game like this would be fun as hell. But when it comes to beating the game’s 200+ levels, it devolves into mindless repetition and wrestling with frustrating controls. This was simply one game I was happy to cross off the backlog.