Scribblenauts is a nice idea. At heart, it’s a puzzle game. Sometimes the puzzle is “how do I travel from point A to point B?”; other times, the puzzle is “how do I chop down that tree?” Each level begins with a different hint, but onscreen avatar Maxwell’s objective is always the same: find the Starite!
Consider the “ugly duckling level”. Reunite the ugly duckling with the swans, and you’ll receive a precious Starite. Of course, there’s a hitch; you’ve got to protect the birds from a hungry cat. Using the shoddy stylus controls, you could pick up the cat, walk over to the lake, and drop the poor feline in, you heartless beast! While the cat sits in the water mewing, it should be easy enough to jump up to the hill, pick up the ugly duckling, and . . .
. . . uh oh. The hill is too high to reach! No matter how many times you try, Maxwell simply cannot reach the top. Tap the notebook icon with the stylus, and a keyboard appears; type out the words “JET PACK” and a jet pack pops up onscreen. Maxwell can then strap it on, fly up to the duck, and carry it back to the swans. Mission accomplished!
Play the level again, and it kicks into Advanced Mode. This requires you beat a stage three times in a row, using three different solutions. Sure, you can still use the jet pack the first time. You could also type the word “CRANE” and use a giant construction machine to pick up the duck and drop it amidst the swans. “PEGASUS” is a more fanciful option. If you’re feeling saucy, you can summon “CTHULHU” and frighten the duck off its perch . . . assuming the nefarious lord doesn’t kill the bird first.
It’s gratifying to watch your mind’s creations (devious or otherwise) come to life and accomplish in-game objectives. Even the title screen entertains; it’s just a big, open room that lets you imagine a world and watch it work. Create a Communist, and he’ll charge towards the Capitalist with murderous intent. Summon a vampire and it turns the communist into an undead ghoul. Use the stylus to type out “VAMPIRE HUNTER” and a replica of Vampire Hunter D hacks the bloodsucker to death. It was all pretty cool — like a virtual playground for my imagination — until the game stopped predicting what I wanted to happen.
I created a Hydra. I created Hercules. The legendary warrior lost the battle.
I created George Washington. I created a cherry tree. Then I gave George an axe. Sadly, there’s not any more to the story than that. You can’t issue orders; summoned characters do whatever they want. George didn’t want to do much of anything.
When the game stopped predicting what I was thinking, the magic began to fade. It was no longer a fantastic world of pretend; it had become just another game with its own set of limited rules. The game’s 200 challenges were intended to keep players’ minds churning out new concepts, but a few important classes of items quickly become apparent:
Deadly Creatures: Slime, Ooze, Murderer. These will eliminate troublesome obstacles while still letting you earn the “No Weapon!” merit.
Small Flight Items: Wings, Jet Pack, Rocket Pack (yes, the game actually considers Jet Pack and Rocket Pack as two different solutions even though they look and behave identically). These let Maxwell fly anywhere on the screen, and he doesn’t have to worry about getting stuck. Jet Planes and Pegasii have trouble navigating tight passages.
Connectors: Rope, Cable, Cord. Sometimes it’s good to tie two things together . . . or to tie something to yourself.
The capability to create hundreds of entities isn’t particularly impressive when 80% of the game can be mastered with less than a dozen. Developer 5th Cell must have forgotten that most gamers seek degenerate solutions and will keep using what works. Great games become more difficult and build on their own mechanics until you’ve accomplished far more than you originally expected. Scribblenauts works in reverse — the game becomes easier and less stimulating as it goes on. For a puzzle game, that’s the kiss of death.
If you’re looking for a quick diversion, Scribblenauts‘ title screen will give you that. If you’re looking for a bunch of bite-size challenges, Scribblenauts will give you that, too. What the game won’t provide is an enduring, rewarding experience.
But it was a nice idea.