How can you sum up Scribblenauts? Since its announcement, the game has been a veritable snowball gathering hype as it rolls down the gamer mountain - a game that lets you create anything, do anything, limited only by your imagination. This is the highest-concept game that's come along in a while, and on the DS platform it stands to reach a massive audience and potentially have a great impact on the way we play games as a whole. It's no doubt an important game, but how well does it capture its 'write anything, solve everything' tag-line, and is it actually a fun game to play?
There isn't really a story to Scribblenauts, as such, you just play as the dude in the rooster hat, Maxwell. He's got a notepad that lets him write down just about anything, and create it. He's only limited by words that may be suggestive, profane or copyrighted. When you first start up the game, the title screen is pretty much just a sandbox mode, where you can choose from a number of locations and just create whatever you want and see what happens. You can only create a certain number of objects at any one time, the limit measured by a thermometer on the top screen. For many gamers, you won't get past this first screen.
The amount of things you can create out of thin air is indeed, insane. You can create a shovel. An apple. A flamethrower. A helicopter. Plastic explosive. A ziggurat. Keyboard Cat. The Large Hadron Collider. The list goes on and on and on and on. There's also a level of interaction between these objects, so if you wanted you could create George Washington and a velociraptor and watch the inevitable outcome. You can equip characters with objects, so you could give a soldier a steak if you so chose. We've only just touched the tip of the iceberg in terms of what you could do, and this is just the title screen. Holy bananas. The creativity and open-ended nature of this game is simply marvellous.
You create objects by simply selecting the notebook in the top-right of the bottom screen, then using an on-screen keyboard or handwriting recognition to input your words. Out of the two, the keyboard is probably the easiest and quickest to use, as the handwriting requires you to write one letter at a time, waiting for each one to be recognised, but it seemed to work fine. Since we're talking about controls, we probably have to spoil the party a little bit early here and talk about one of the major frustrations with the title, which is that everything is controlled via the touchscreen. You can move the camera using the d-pad and rotate objects with the shoulder buttons but that's about it. To be honest, we're not sure what could be done to remedy the situation, seeing as GTA: Chinatown Wars showed how odd it was to switch between touchscreen and d-pad control almost constantly, but the solution they have here certainly doesn't work.
There are several problems with the controls. You move Maxwell by tapping an empty space on the screen, which he'll walk to (or fly to, if equipped with wings or a jet pack). You can pick up objects off the ground by tapping them, or make Maxwell drop an object by tapping him. Tapping another character can make them drop an object as well, and tapping objects can let you interact with them. You fill objects by tapping, shoot objects by tapping, empty objects by tapping, tapping, tapping, tapping, Amanda Tapping. The game just gets confused from time to time about what you want to do, meaning that you'll drop your wings when you meant to equip a gun, or you pull a lever when you meant to shoot an enemy with your flamethrower.
The main mode of the game is the 'Challenge' mode, which has ten worlds. Each of these worlds have eleven 'puzzle' challenges and eleven 'action' challenges, so that's over two hundred levels for you to sort through. The goal in all of these levels is to obtain a 'starite'. In the puzzle challenges, you're given a mission by the hint-box, which can be anything from 'feed this guy' to 'give the teacher what she wants'. Once you've figured out what you have to do, you'll be rewarded with a starite. In the action challenges, the starite is already in the level, and you just have to figure out how to get to it, with the hint-box giving you a suitable starting point. You get marked on how fast you completed the mission, how many objects under par you came (it's good to use as few objects as possible), and how stylish or original you were. You're awarded merits, which are given for things like using a new object, to using a rope or other specific object. You can also return to a completed level, and try to complete it in 'advanced mode', which means completing the level a further three times using original objects every time.
While there is a large volume of these levels, they do range in quality somewhat. All of them are quite small, which means that the puzzles are bite-sized and usually quite easy to solve. Because this is such a sandbox game, you can tackle problems however you want, which is both good and bad. If you're given a mission to clean up a park, you can create a black hole that just does the job for you within seconds. It's definitely fun coming up with new and inventive ways to tackle these levels, but the actual level designs themselves aren't necessarily that fun.
There is also a level editor, that's pretty cool, that lets you set up your own missions. The potential for this is pretty amazing, especially since you can share your levels online. Then again, you run into having to use this Nintendo friend code nonsense, so perhaps not. Nevertheless, we had a go at trying to make a simple level, and it actually worked pretty well. We made a level where to obtain the starite, you have to defeat Cthulhu by summoning God. It's a simple level, but we like it. In addition, through playing the game you obtain 'Ollars. These unlock all of the levels in the game, as well as letting you unlock music tracks and avatars.
Scribblenauts certainly has a wonderful art style, which is present in every item you create as well as all of the locations of the game. Everything has a cool storybook/cut-out feel to it, that's very charming and a big part of the title's appeal. There is also some fantastic and catchy music in the game, and some hilarious growls and sound-effects for the various characters and objects you create.
There's definitely a lot to like about Scribblenauts and we have no doubt that it's an important title. No other game has come close to giving you so much control over how you approach puzzles or challenges, but the fact that you can just have an enormous amount of fun just playing and creating in the game's sandbox mode is also incredibly refreshing. It's a game that promises a lot, and mostly delivers, but due to some frustrating controls, cramped and occasionally uninspired level and mission design, it's not quite the perfect game some were hoping it would be. However, that said, anybody with a DS who wants to test their imagination and enjoy a truly charming atmosphere would be a fool to pass this up.