Every now and again, a game is released that blurs the line between educational software and mindless entertainment.
Most children of the 80's fortunate enough to attend a school that required both hands to count the decile rating will remember Granny's Garden, Dread Dragon Droom and the excellent Carmen Sandiego series. Even games that had no pretensions towards any specific education often taught a great deal about history or geography, like Civilisation, North & South, and Age of Empires. If you want someone to learn something, it seems, the best way is to make it fun.
Developers 5th Cell have grasped this concept of eduction-through-osmosis superbly with Scribblenauts. Originally shown at E3 this year to a rather unprepared media contingent who had to quickly fashion new "best in show" award trophies with Nintendo logos on them, the games theme is "Write Anything, Solve Everything". Using the DS touch screen and stylus, you do just that to allow the hero Maxwell to walk, swim or fly through a series of puzzles and gain a "Starite" token required to pass each level.
The concept is simple - if you can think of an object that might assist you in the environment, just input it, and it'll appear.
There are some limitations, naturally. Whilst it's easy to either write or type the word "cat" and immediately be presented with a cartoon-stylised version of a furry feline (which, much like a real cat, won't assist you to do a damn thing) attempting to persuade the game to provide you with Garfield won't work. Copyright sensibilities will always prevail. In addition, the word must be a noun, and can't be too suggestive either. An additional child-friendly inclusion is that any type of weapon can only have three shots, and graphic violence is definitely a no-no, so you can safely entrust this game to anyone in the family without fearing an inevitable John Campbell interview in which you'll have to utter the words "he was such a loving son, we just don't know what happened".
The game is divided between challenge levels, a level editor, a store where you can purchase additional content using in-game currency, and a playground environment with no goals other than to see how various objects interact with each other, and to generally spend hours trying thinking of objects the game won't recognise.
Herein lies the beauty of Scribblenauts. Most games out there are easy enough to fool, as it would simply take too much time for developers to cater for every possible action a player might take, however in Scribblenauts, this type of mischief is encouraged. Think of a noun that complies with the aforementioned stipulations and most likely, it'll be in the game as an object that can be used to interact with other objects in a realistic fashion. Think about that for a second - tens of thousands of words, tens of thousands of objects. So, just how many nouns do you know?
As it turns out, I don't know enough. Thinking of obscure nouns isn't as easy as it sounds. Rotunda, check. Lute, check. Ungulate. Lithographer. Megalodon. Blunderbuss. Mollusk. Time Machine. All faithfully reproduced. The latter even whisked Maxwell to a new level. Vague recollections of medieval history prompted "Arbalest" - a crossbow duly appeared. Fantastic. Even if you can't think of the correct spelling, the game can auto-complete or prompt you from a list of similar suggestions, which simply encourages you to view more strange and quirky objects you never knew about previously. Wait, what about Archaeopteryx! Oh damn, they've thought of that one too.
There's method to the madness - by completing levels more than once using different objects you can gain more points, and the more obscure the items are that you use, the higher the score you'll receive. There are a stack of achievements to unlock as well, which basically means that the unlimited wordplay is coupled with virtually unlimited gameplay. On a DS. Who would have thought?
Scribblenauts will be released in New Zealand in September, and we can't wait to get a final copy to really push the limits of the game. We'd previously assumed after the release of Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars on the DS that Rockstar would take out Game of the Year for this portable platform, but now we're not so sure. Scribblenauts proves that you don't need next-gen technology in order to produce a compelling and original title that can be enjoyed by everyone - a statement that should probably be Nintendo's company motto these days. No wonder they're doing so well.
Our thanks to Warner Bros. NZ for the hands-on time with Scribblenauts.