Riding on the back of a Tyrannosaurus Rex into a crowd of robot zombies: It's a pretty powerful image, one that taps into the basic instincts of most geeks and screams "Buy this game."
Scribblenauts is out to prove that it's more than just a clever, a really clever, game mechanic and that the "Write Anything, Solve Everything" puzzle game from 5th Cell is worth your money and a permanent spot in your Nintendo DS or DSi.
But does the game do more than provide gamers with a glorified visual, animated dictionary? Is it a game worthy of its own unique mechanic? Let see.
The Write Stuff: While Scribblenauts is a classic puzzle game at its heart, the thing that separates it from like titles is the ability to type or write just about anything they can think of (minus trademarks and profanity) and have it appear in the game. This staggering new mechanic, writing a word and seeing it pop onto the DS screen in cartoon form, is alone worth the price. The fact that you can then use these inventions to try and solve riddles or make your way to the game's Starites is all bonus.
Broad: Developer 5th Cell isn't saying just how many words are available for you to summon in Scribblenauts. All we do know is that there are more than 22,800 of them available in the game. And we're not just talking about words found in your typical dictionary. There are plenty of fun little surprises including Internet memes, urban legends, chemical compounds and even the intangible. This incredible, expansive word list, essentially all new toys that can be used to play and replay levels, is one of the keys to the game's success.
Deep: It's one thing to include tens of thousands of words and their animated counterparts in a game. But to define them, that's a whole other Herculean task. And the game does just as good a job defining, categorizing and animating all of these bits of pop culture, history, science, existence as it does in creating the list. Each summoned word has specific potential, likes, dislikes, history, weaknesses and strengths. It's staggering how deep the game can go.
Interactions: Finally, pulling everything together neatly is the game's ability to look at varying objects and decide how they might interact. The game knows that when the sun comes out a vampire turns to dust. It knows you can shoot a human to kill him or her, but not a zombie. But that's the easy stuff. The things that have been covered in countless books. But what about the bizarre, the unthinkable. What happens when you hand this world of possibilities, of limitless interactions over to a gamer? Hilarity, in my experience.
Take for instance a problem I ran into in the 150th or so puzzle I was working on. Confronted by an area teeming with West Virginia's legendary Flatwoods Monster, my initial thought was to take out one urban legend with another. So I quickly typed in Chupacabre. Only I mistyped it and accidentally summoned not the panther-like, blood-sucking lizard of Mexican lore, but the delicious Mexican snack, a chalupa.
Flummoxed, I dropped the chalupa in the hand of one of the monsters and summoned a vampire instead. The vampire quickly attacked the Flatwoods Monster who, seemingly confused by the treat she was just handed, began to swat at the creature with the chalupa. The vampire made quick work of her while I watched on belly laughing.
These are the moments that make this game sing. And they are plentiful.
Lateral Thinking: Because the game offers gamers an almost unlimited supply of objects, tools and creatures with which to tackle the game's riddles and puzzles, the way to solve any given problem is incredibly varied. To deal with this, on some level I believe, many of the game's levels feel like lateral thinking puzzles. Lateral thinking puzzles are the sort of brain twisters that challenge your preconceived notions and force you to approach problems in unique ways. I've long been a fan of these sort of puzzles, so it wasn't long into the game that I started to recognize their presence in many of the challenges I faced and the solutions I found.
Not only do these sorts of puzzles provide a more engaging experience, and certainly one better fitted to the nearly omnipotent powers of the gamer in Scribblenauts, they are also the sort of puzzles that children tend to be quite good at, expanding the game's potential audience.
Pop Culture: I've already touched on the breadth and depth of the game, but it's worth circling back to point out just how amazing it is that a game that includes the likes of worm holes, hydrochloric acid and Einstein, also includes the Keyboard Cat and Flatwood Monsters. This integration of pop culture makes the game feel that much more approachable and gives the developers countless opportunities to sneak inside jokes and funny asides into the title. That's the sort of thing that can win over a fan for life.
Charming Art: The cleverly crafted puzzles and amazing mechanic is backed by a delightful art style that makes everything, no mater how deadly, dangerous or disgusting, really cute. Tapping into this, the game even allows you to unlock different creatures to use as your avatar as you play through Scribblenauts. I went with a pirate.
Create Your Own: I was surprised to find that Scribblenauts also allows gamers to create their own challenges. The method of creation is startlingly easy. You essentially drop objects into a room and place the end-goal Starite. You can even assign moods or actions to creatures and people with a simple interface. The end result is a tool set that is easy to use and allows for fairly deep custom level creation. That's certain to greatly extend the game's life.
Touchy Avatar: The one major problem I ran into with Scribblenauts is a doozie: The controls. Unfortunately, the detailed, tiny animations and the need to control everything with the touchscreen don't combine very well. To move your main character around, Maxwell, you tap on the screen and he moves to that point. The d-pad, meanwhile, is used to move the camera around the screen. The problem is that if you're trying to interact with an object, like attaching a recently summoned rope to a boulder, and you accidentally miss that very tiny rope, you may send Maxwell running toward you... often with fatal results.
I can't tell you how many times I lost a level simply because an object moved as I went to tap it or I mistapped and Maxwell ran off a cliff. It's incredibly frustrating. It's so frustrating that it proves just how amazing the rest of the game is, because despite the annoyance I played through nearly all of it.
Word Confusion: This isn't nearly as bad as the control issue, but I was annoyed that my use of phrases sometimes resulted in what I wanted and sometimes didn't. Typing shark and robot shark, for instance, result in the same thing: A shark. But sometimes, that isn't the case. For instance there are both zombies and robot zombies. This issue is most annoying when you're trying to apply size or length to something like a rope or a rock and it works with certain words and not others.
In Scribblenauts you truly get as much out of it as you put into it. I found that many of the puzzles can be solved with pretty routine ideas. You can simply summon up a dragon and clear the room of monsters, or you could arm one of your monster foes with a Mexican snack and have a vampire attack. The fun is up to you.
While Scribblenauts is a well crafted puzzle game, its real power is its ability to tap into the soul of the Internet. Finally, someone has created something that puts our vast knowledge of the inane and arcane to use. I can proudly say that I know how to vanquish a griffin, what to summon when I'm confronted by Cthulhu, and why a river is handy when facing Nuckelavee, all without looking it up.
Embrace your inner geek, pick up this game.
Scribblenauts was developed by 5th Cell and published by Warner Bros. Interactive for the Nintendo DS on September 15. Retails for $29.99 USD. Solved 159 of the 231 levels included in the game's action and puzzle modes, including the last levels. Created a level.
Confused by our reviews? Read our review FAQ.