Game Review: Scribblenauts

September 17, 2009

Rooster-domed Maxwell has become the poster-child of innovation and imagination with a promising slogan of "Write Anything. Solve Everything." Those four words define Scribblenauts' premise: solve puzzles by writing nouns that spring to life with various attributes. It's time to see if there's any truth in advertising.

With over 20,000 nouns to conjure and 200 levels to solve, 5th Cell hasn't skimped on the game's content or core concept. As Maxwell, your job is to get an item called a starite in each level, either an action stage where you simply need to find it or a puzzle stage where a clue hints at some goal. Scribblenauts is really a puzzle game at heart, though guns and shurikens can open a lot of paths. The online component allows you to swap levels that other 'nauts have created in the level editor. A helpful tutorial introduces core concepts and nouns, like glue and rope.

The levels are clever, and some even parody video games from the distant and near past. Maxwell gets 'ollars upon completion of a stage, which can be used to unlock new thematic worlds, songs and avatars to play as. 'Ollar rewards are based on how few items you used, how much time you took, and how creative you were, though the criteria for the latter isn't super clear.

Solving a particularly difficult level for the first time is exhilarating, even if the 'ollars don't roll in as the word count and timer grow. While some puzzles will leave you flummoxed, a nights' rest is often all that's required for a solution to seep in. The action stages tend to be more about getting to specific spots or evading assaults, but their straightforwardness doesn't prevent them from being challenging--though you might sometimes fumble with the controls. A few magic-bullet words, like jetpack, or on a level with enemies, God, can help you brute-force your way through especially tough moments.


To officially beat a level, you have to solve it three times without reusing any words from previous completions. Getting through a level multiple times, though, can be more a case of hunting down a thesaurus than thinking laterally. Beating a level once can unlock more levels, while the hat trick gives the level a gold stamp, and you get merit badges for creative solutions and actions. Since you can replay old levels again and again, unlocking isn't particularly challenging, but helps pace the story-less game.

Maxwell's quest for starite is solid, with its unlocking structure, level variety and novel mechanic. The multiple solutions per level come across as weak, but just having so many levels makes up for you having to reinvent the wheel again and again.

If you're anything like us, the first you'll do in Scribblenauts is run through a list of dirty words. When you give up and try to move Maxwell around, you'll immediately encounter one of the game's biggest issues. You move Maxwell by tapping the stylus, while the d-pad and buttons allow you to scroll around the level before snapping back to the brave little Scribblenaut. The configuration allows equal access for southpaws, but makes controlling Maxwell an unwanted challenge. The stylus might be mightier than the sword for thinking up creative solutions, but for platforming, it sucks. Solving a cerebral challenge just to fail thanks to poor controls is counter to what this game is all about.

It does manage to transcend its control limitations, though. When a level is presented and you immediately know just the word, the game shines in a way like few others. During moments like this, you truly feel like you're the architect of your victory. And yes, Scribblenauts knows has a vocabulary worthy of the wordsmith warrior.


And while this is a game about nouns, it's really more about the attributes of the objects you summon. In short, the stuff you bring into being might not behave like you'd expect. You can use adjectives to modify some objects, but only select few-a large fire vent, for instance, is suitably larger than a regular one. A love potion, meanwhile, is just a potion. A helpful inspector mode that lets you see what things are called can crack open the game's internal dictionary, but you'll still stumble a bit when it comes to adjectives.

All that being said, this one of the few games where you can have an almost infinite amount of fun just mucking around in the title screen's sandbox conjuring internet memes and setting up outrageous scenarios. The concept works. The execution is just a little bit marred, but it's far from unplayable.

With so many words to represent, Scribblenauts does well to find a style that's efficient, clean and colorful. The flat polygons allow for a good level of animation, and the vaguely abstract cartoony look helps make sense of a world that can quickly be built on nonsense. There are definitely a lot more words than art, with lots of nouns summoning the same construction. Music is touch and go, and can't be turned off, which is too bad when attempting the same stage for the 97th time.


Scribblenauts is a terrific toy and a decent puzzle game. Its ambitions are bigger than the tiny screens that house it. The clumsy controls and ill-simulated nouns don't break the game as much as they fuel frustration, but as a toy and a portable game, Scribblenauts succeeds even if it doesn't exceed its big aspirations.

Reviewed on Nintendo DS.

Source: Warner