Scribblenauts: First impressions, and does it meet the hype?

Forte here. This blog is pushing daisies. I will revive it with some vidja game discourse. Yay!

So, Scribblenauts comes out in a few days. Anticipation is high, the air is thick with hype and… I already have it. The game has been leaked a few days early. Pointless ethical debates aside (yaarrr!), I think a detailed look into the game is in order. Was it worth the wait, and does it meet expectations? Those are the big questions. The game is highly ambitious by nature, and all previews have pointed to it being great. Let us dive in and see what all the fuss is about.

Before we begin, a primer for those who have been living in a cave for the past few months: Scribblenauts is a Nintendo DS game by 5th Cell, the makers of Drawn to Life (in my opinion, fairly blah) and Lock’s Quest (above average). Drawn to Life was also ambitious, in its own way, but I believe overall it failed to be a cohesive and enjoyable game. Scribblenauts is even MORE ambitious, and when early details arrived, people were mostly in a state of disbelief. A game where you can type just about any word in the dictionary to make it materialise in the game world. Too good to be true, overambitious, etc. The game itself is more or less a puzzle game, and in each puzzle you have to use your wits to come up with a solution for obtaining the ‘Starite’ at the end. Another worry is that it would just be too easy: when you can create any object you can think of, where would the challenge come from? Nonetheless, some people have already started calling it the best DS game ever.
Playing the game is probably a good way to find out. We begin by entering our names into one of two save files. I try out the handwriting pad, which feels pretty smooth, but nonetheless I stick with the keyboard for the rest of the game as I don’t have to worry about character recognition that way. We’re taken to the menu, which has five options: Challenge (the game itself), Level Editor (self-explanatory), Ollar Store (which lets you spend points you earn in-game on extras), Extra Levels (play custom-made levels), and Options (which lets you change the language settings, play one of the game’s songs, and also view your merits and avatars, but more on the latter two later). Onto challenge, of course. I should put a disclaimer here: as I’m going to be playing and solving some of these earlier levels, if you don’t want (some possible) solutions handed to you, you’ll probably want to skip my paragraphs after the tutorial and before I give my final thoughts.
World 0 is merely a few tutorial stages, detailing the controls. Everything is controlled via stylus and jumps are automatic. You tap and drag objects to interact with them and attach them to each other. Tap an object like a hammer or shovel to pick it up, and you can use it on breakable walls. Tap a vehicle to get into it. When holding a gun, tap another object to shoot it, or double tap anywhere on the screen to shoot in that direction. You can also attach certain objects to other objects, the tutorial teaching you how to attach glue to a painting, and then to the wall. Each object seems to have green dots which specify points where other objects can be attached. Some objects also have multiple functions, which are specified by little popups. Nothing too terribly difficult, but this is where the major flaw starts to rear its head.
(Something to go back and mention: the title screen is a playground where you can type whatever you wish. Pretty sure Maxwell is invincible on the title too. Neat.)

The level system is also explained here. Every level has a ‘Par’, which is the maximum number of objects you can use to solve the level. Going under par nets you more ‘Ollars’, the game’s currency. How much time you take to solve the level, and how much ‘Style’ you use to do it (its a little unclear what’s stylish and what isn’t, but basically, use more creative methods to solve the level to get more style points) also nets you Ollars. Finally, how you solve the level also gains you ‘Merits’, which are similar to achievements. Some example Merits are ‘Jockey’ (use an animal as a vehicle) and ‘Prodigy’ (complete a level 3 times in a row). You can repeatedly get merits by fulfilling them in levels, but under options it only lists whether you have gotten them once or not. Personally, would liked to have seen a count, so we could see how many times we’ve written a ‘New Object’.
Besides interacting with objects, there are two functions on the screen: one is a magnifying glass which allows you to identify the name of an object, useful for spawning that object yourself. The other is the meat of the game, the notepad. Writing a “real-life, physical object that cannot be: a place, proper name, suggestive material, shape, latin or greek root word, alcohol, race or culture, vulgarity or copyrighted” will cause it to spawn in the level. The clause isn’t entirely true, either: you can write proper names such as Abraham Lincoln and some others and they will spawn, and there is quite a range of things that can. Some odder stuff such as memes also made it into the game, actually: try writing longcat, for example. And typing in NeoGAF gives you the site’s logo, which you can oddly enough fly around.
There are two types of levels, ‘Puzzle’ levels where you’re given a hint to help you make the Starite appear, and ‘Action’ levels, which have a Starite at the end of the level that you can reach in any way you can think of. Each world has 11 of each of these types of stages, and the game has 10 worlds overall. Quite a fair amount.
Decide to start with Action. On to Action level 1-1, a Starite in a tree. Pretty straightforward. I decide to write a crane (vehicle, not bird), and tug it down (attach chain to Starite and back up) and grab it. That’s not the end of it, though. The level is solved, unlocking the next level, but you can go back to a level for ‘Advanced’ mode. In this mode, you have to solve a level 3 more times in a row, the catch being that you have to use objects you didn’t use before. This is where the real challenge lies. While for the most part, the regular round is fairly straightforward (though later on even that gets a little tricky), trying to solve the levels in creative ways is by no way easy, and the game shines in putting you in situations that need you to think creatively.
Going back to Advanced for 1-1, I create a rope and use it to lasso down the star. Piece of cake. Second round, I create a lumberjack, and give the man an axe. He does his job accordingly. Third round I decide to get in a plane, probably a bit excessive for a little tree, but I get the Starite down and clear the level. The plane, though, is a little unwieldy in its control, I must say.
And the control problems get worse down the track. Sometimes when you want to pick something up you run instead, when you want to run you jump and some things just plain control oddly. More on that later, though.
Puzzle level 1-1 is a little more difficult. You’re presented with a policeman, a chef, a fireman and a doctor, and all you need to do is spawn two objects that they ‘use in their hands’. As you can only hold one object at a time, this means pick two of them and give them something relevant. For the regular round, I give the policeman a gun and the chef some pie (it asks me to clarify whether I meant pizza or dessert). All four start crowding around the chef and I assume, sharing the pie, and the policeman lets a shot off into the air in happiness. Starite get! For the first Advanced round, I gave the doctor a stethoscope and the fireman a firehose. Accidentally attached the firehose to the fireman the wrong way, so it didn’t register, but I unattached it and the little guy grabbed it himself, netting me a Starite. Second round, I give the policeman a baton and the doctor a scalpel. Last round, I actually had a little trouble thinking of more objects (bit like writing block). I gave the chef a ladle, but I had to wrack my brains a little to think of something for one of the others. I tried typing in needle for the doctor, but it gave me a knitting needle. Rats. Tried typing in police dog and leash, and giving that to the policeman. Sort of had trouble attaching them, as there wasn’t much room for both the objects, but that didn’t register in any case. Finally thought of handcuffs. Rejoice!
Before I head to the next level, I decide to check out the Ollar store. You can buy songs (which you can listen to under options), and Avatars. Avatars are just alternate sprites you can swap out Maxwell’s sprite for, such as a zombie or a witch. I buy the pirate sprite and decide to switch to pirate (via options), because it seemed appropriate. Probably a good time to mention, to unlock worlds you have to spend Ollars on them, and I’m fairly sure you can do so in a non-linear fashion (i.e. buy any of the worlds you can afford).
In Action level 1-2, you are presented with a couple boulders, two buttons and three doors. As long as something is on the two buttons, you can access the level to the third door, revealing the Starite. More control problems. I figured for a 0 Par score, I would push both boulders onto the buttons. Scribblenauts does not like you pushing things. I jumped around like a madman and accidentally fell without the rocks once, having to restart. It’s possible I was doing it wrong, but I did try very hard to push the rock instead of automatically jump over it. Got it eventually. Advanced round 1, drop a cat and a dog on them, cause I can. Second round, type in Thomas Edison. Get a, um, dinosaur with a bandana. Absolutely no clue what it is, but it proceeds to maim me. Try again, and Abe Lincoln and Albert Einstein graciously sit on the buttons for me. Third round, well, having trouble remembering what I used. Again, I wish that the game kept track of what objects you used, for curiosity’s sake. Like a Pokedex for words. Anywho, I believe I wrote a rock (how imaginative!) and a golem (which gives me a robot instead of the rock golem I was expecting). And that’s that.
Puzzle 1-2 presents you with a butterfly. Butterfly net seems the obvious option, but its flying too high up. So I lasso it, and the Starite. Advanced round 1, I try to suck it in with a vacuum cleaner. Doesn’t work. Create a bee, which proceeds to beat the crap out of it. Teehee. Make a gun and shoot it. More teehee (come on, doesn’t grabbing the corpse count? Oh, dead things don’t leave corpses). Create another butterfly, just to see how they would interact. No reaction whatsoever. I stop messing around and make a trampoline, grabbing the butterfly on the way up. Advanced round 2, it’s a pogo stick instead of a trampoline. Final round, helicopter it up. Accidentally kill it with the rotor blades, whoops. Use the helicopter again, this time deftly jumping out and grabbing it on the way down (even with the hit and miss controls). Hooray!
Action 1-3. Land, sea and air, and a Starite on the other side. First round, create a dolphin and ride it smoothly under and over to the Starite. Controls quite well. Advanced round 1, create a mole, expecting it to dig through the breakable wall. Apparently it’s afraid of me, though; it runs in the other direction and takes a swim (can moles swim? Aren’t they blind? Maybe I’m being ignorant here). Make a pterodactyl instead, and fly over to the Starite. Again, a very smooth ride. Final round, didn’t think too hard about it, made scuba gear and grabbed the Starite.
The last level I’ll look at is Puzzle 1-3, as this is getting incredibly lengthy. This one was actually fairly straightforward. Ride down a ramp and jump over the sign left by the biker. Liked the touch of the supermodel standing at the end with a trophy. First round, made a skateboard. Sort of toppled over on the ramp a little, but apparently it didn’t care much as I still got the Starite. First Advanced round, rollerblades (yawn), though it corrects them to rollerskates. Second round, make a car, which also manages to topple over a few times, but it auto-corrects itself and I still get the Starite. Final round, a horse propels me over the ramp. I think animals must control a fair bit better than vehicles, from what I’ve tried so far.
Well, that’s all I’m covering, but I hope it gave you a good feel to the game you’re expecting, and whether it’s worth eating up. Personally? I think this is a staple title for DS owners, but I also believe there will be a group of people who hate this game. Why? Stylus controls. Not even reasonably done ones, either (I thought Phantom Hourglass had fine controls, but people still complained). They really should have used the face buttons for moving and jumping, relegating the stylus to moving around and writing objects. This would have made the game very fantastic. Nonetheless, as it is a puzzle game and not an action game, the controls don’t mar the creative and entertaining gameplay. Challenge exists, despite doubts, because of the Advanced levels that force you to think outside the box a little. And the game delivers on its claims, registering over 20,000 words (even though many of these create duplicate items, there are still thousands of unique objects; its fun just seeing them). The animations of the objects and creatures are simplistic and samey, as they use speech bubbles to convey moods; but this isn’t too noticeable or irritating, as you’re playing this on the DS, it’s perfectly adequate. DS game of the year? It’s possible. Best DS game ever? A nominee, maybe, but not a definite. Best game ever? The people who claim that are a just a little bit high.
Here is a picture of God with a top hat riding a chinese dragon:
I hope that gave you a little insight into the game and answered some of your questions; statements, questions, clarifications, or your own impressions, I encourage you to comment.
And a possible next in previews, if I get around to it:
Edit: Just an update to this post, turns out you can kill yourself on the title screen. Just use a nuke, or a meteor (there may be more). Thanks to the person that pointed this out.

About Safeer
What is Safeer? A miserable little pile of secrets. But enough talk, have at you!

3 Responses to Scribblenauts: First impressions, and does it meet the hype?

  1. Anonymous says:

    "Each world has 11 of each of these types of stages, and the game has 10 worlds overall. Quite a fair amount."That only makes 110 levels, but I've heard there are over 200.

  2. Imperatorzlarp says:

    Some little things:I do think 'rollerblades' is a copyrighted term. Crazy, right? Thought so as well when I first heard of it…I'm surprised to see how different your solutions are from mine. For example, in the first puzzle level I ended up handing the doctor various organs and the policeman a donut. I'm having lots of fun with all the variety.For your next preview… well… have fun getting that thing to run on the R4.Oh, and to the above poster: read his sentence again, very carefully. Especially the "11 of each" part.

  3. Forte Dante says:

    Yes, 11 Action stages and 11 Puzzle stages makes 22 stages for each world, which equals 220 stages. And you have to do them four times each, so it should keep you busy.Imperatorzlarp: Didn't realise the thing about the rollerblades. Apparently it's misused a lot, heh. And yes, there is a fair bit of variety (I like that you used organs), I should have challenged readers to use solutions without any of the items I used instead of putting a spoiler warning.I'll be having a look at M&L soon.

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