One of the things I criticize DS games for is a lack of innovation on such an innovative platform. The dual screens, the touchpad, the wifi, microphone (and now the cameras) are all begging for something a little out of the ordinary to spring up.
Occasionally, a developer gets things right, and we end up with a game that makes full use of the physical attributes of the DS, causing doves to shed tears made of tiny rainbows. Even more occasionally, a developer hits all the buttons of the DS hardware and couples that with an engrossing, challenging and down right wonderful game. Scribblenauts is one of those games.
Scribblenauts is a side scrolling puzzle game, handing out tasks ranging from destroying a rat infestation to restoring a lost lamb to its flock. As Maxwell the protagonist, you can leap and bound around the colourful scenery, and interact with key objects in the world. Nothing amazing there. Until, that is, you rip open your notepad and start scrawling. If you’re anything like me, frustrating parts in games are often cursed aloud – ‘If only I could just drive a tank through that!’ or ‘this game is in serious need of a jetpack’. Scribblenauts gives you the power to invoke almost any physical object you could ever dream of to help you out. It might sound outlandish that a tiny DS cartridge could hold the world’s physical properties for you to exploit like some giddy Pandora, but it’s true. With an estimated 15,000 unique items at your disposal, the game is literally bound only by your imagination.
Developers 5th Cell Media have opened a world of virtually limitless creative problem solving on the DS. When faced with challenges the game throws up, a quick grin spreads over your face as you conjure up solutions ranging from pedestrian to outright ridiculous. As Maxwell, you are given little more than a basic hint for each stage – it’s left entirely over to you to reach the goal (and the rewarding ‘Starite’ you receive for completing the level). Without giving too much away, a particular challenge involves saving a lost lamb from the hungry wolf across a river. Solutions I came up with ranged between a simple helicopter rescue mission to something resembling an acid flashback involving a colossal squid and a trebuchet. I found myself becoming more and more self-critical, disallowing the use of the jetpack when a more stylish solution could be found. Points are awarded based on style, speed, originality and ‘par’, which measures the number of items you needed to finish a level. These points (ollars) are used to open more advanced worlds containing more devilish puzzles. With over 200 levels to play through (multiple times, bonuses are added for replaying using unique strategies), the value of this game is unparalleled.
Scribblenauts brings back memories of mentally stretching titles of yesteryear, namely The Incredible Machine series. More than a few times in the course of the game you will find yourself stumped, stopped only by your thought process. How do you rid a restaurant of rats without using a gun, when too many traps would put you over par? How do you get past that nasty guard dog without injuring it? Oh, that’s right – you can do anything you want. Rats? Into the oven with you. Guard dog? Meet dog flu. Occasionally I was stumped beyond my wits, moving onto a further challenge and returning with vigour after quiet reflection. Scribblenauts showed me something scary about myself - years of playing games in a linear and limited fashion have soured my brain. After a few worlds have been unlocked however, you really get a feel for the freedom of the game. Need to scare some kids? Why not throw both Wolfman and a yeti at them? Ever seen God fighting a genie in a wind turbine? Thanks to this game, I have.
While the challenge mode of Scribblenauts is the core of the title, there also exists an action mode. This is a more freeform style of gameplay, focused on wanton destruction and having outright fun. Many of the thousands of objects in the game’s library will get good use here. Action mode also provides a bit of light relief when the hardcore puzzling begins to take its toll. The bundled level editor is fantastic, allowing you to create nefarious challenges for your friends (you can trade level designs via wifi). So much of the fun that comes with Scribblenauts is the feeling that you’re unsupervised in a limitless world. Occasionally the gameplay grinds to a halt while you learn who wins a fight between a rhino and a panda bear, just because you can. Coupled with the incredible dynamics of the physics engine and enormous scale of objects available are the delightful graphics and sound effects. The world feels light and fun, with each of the eleven themed worlds feeling distinct and equally well designed. The in-game music is well suited to the thoughtful and playful nature of the gameplay, with more available in exchange for your hard earned ollars.
As with any puzzle game, there are elements of legitimate frustration to be found in Scribblenauts. At times the fully stylus based controls are a little touchy, which can make delicate control of some objects seem unreasonably fiddly. This is something to bear in mind with younger gamers, who may also find the relative lack of suggestion in challenge mode difficult to deal with. My criticism of the game design stops there however, it’s really too refreshing and exciting to deride. Virtually any problem you run into when completing a level are able to be overcome thanks to the astounding scope of objects at your fingertips.
When this game peaked out from obscurity at E3 earlier in the year, I had a feeling it would grow up to be something special. That feeling was spot on, Scribblenauts is truly a masterpiece of game design, and possibly the best game released on any platform this year. An absolute classic.