Version tested: DS
Scribblenauts was magic: solve challenges by conjuring forth objects. Type in a noun, and the game would bring it to life – with many of its inherent characteristics intact. Toasters would toast, vampires would drink blood, economists would wear little suits and ties and tell you that you should have had a pension in place, like, a decade ago.
It just wasn't very good magic. The game's challenges tended towards the dull (make a packed lunch? I can summon fire trucks and zombies), the objectives were often quietly confusing, and the behaviour of some of the in-game animals you were able to create could very occasionally be a bit weird. Sometimes my T-Rex would eat everybody, for example, and sometimes he wouldn't. I have no use for a T-Rex like that.
Input was the biggest problem, however. Scribblenauts' controls were only marginally less awful than that time Arnold Schwarzenegger backed over his favourite dog while taking his Hummer to the carwash. (This really happened.) Forcing all interactions – character movement, object manipulation – onto the touch screen meant that messing about in 5th Cell's magical universe could be claustrophobic and clumsy.
Playing Scribblenauts was often a bit like that scene in Michael Crichton novels where scientists are faced with a material so toxic that they can only manipulate it by putting their arms into rubber gloves inside a little glass cube. Except it was like doing that underwater, with your shoelaces on fire, while an earthquake shakes the entire building. In open-air challenges it wasn't too much of a muddle, but when Scribblenauts moved indoors, you didn't want to be there. Tables and chairs would fly about, rope and glue would attach themselves to everything, and there wasn't even any place left to dump the fire truck or zombie you'd just spawned. Could you make a packed lunch under those conditions?
Guess what? Super Scribblenauts fixes all that. You now have the option to control Maxwell, your avatar, with the d-pad, leaving the stylus and touch screen free to handle everything else. It's transformative. Suddenly, Scribblenauts isn't awkward and irritating as well as intermittently wonderful. Suddenly, it's just intermittently wonderful.
The controls aren't the only things that have been fixed this time around. There's a new hint system in place, allowing you to buy clues for the rare occasions when the thrust of a challenge is a bit unclear. When asked to create an animal similar to a vampire, in other words, you'll be able to discover that it's the blood-sucking rather than the nice outfit the game's currently preoccupied with. Really, though, you should have worked that one out for yourself.
The challenges themselves have been given a bit of an airing, too. They can still be the weakest element of the game, to be honest, but the quality has certainly improved, with clearer objectives and a tendency towards slightly more imaginative scenarios. A lot of them are quietly witty, in fact. Tasked with giving a boy courage, you'll find a machine gun will do the trick. Asked to coax a lion to sleep, and you can either hide the sun behind some clouds or shoot the beast up with tranquiliser darts. Those would have been stand-outs in the original game and here they're both offered up in the first 15 minutes.
As with the first outing, one of the most reliable guilty pleasures Scribblenauts has to offer is how quickly things can get out of hand. The game's very first mission has you identifying the real Starite trophy from a range of likely packages bundled up in wrapping paper and lodged in the branches of a tree. I conjured a bloodhound to sniff out the genuine article, and then unleashed some fire to burn the tree down. Within seconds, the tree, the packages and a sofa I'd created by accident were all ablaze, and the dog wasn't looking too peachy either.
Such basic improvements aside, Super Scribblenauts' big idea this time around is adjectives. Alongside typing in nouns, you can now modify them and give them qualities. Take fridges as an example. Want a large fridge? A red one? Want it to fly or shimmer like a ghost? All four? The options aren't endless, but they're more elaborate than you'd initially imagine, and the game rarely skips a beat when offering up what you've just ordered.
The campaign does a decent job of bedding the enlarged vocabulary into the central suite of 120 new challenges, but in reality the new tools work best – and Scribblenauts still works best – as a pure sandbox experience. You check to see if something works, and then check to see how it works, and then generally set it on fire or attack it with vampires.
Adjectives aren't as much of a game-changer as simply fixing the controls turned out to be, but they certainly allow you to zone out with Scribblenauts a little longer. For a while last week, I just put wings on everything: wings on donuts, on gas masks, on velociraptors. After that, armed with a flame-thrower and wearing a spacesuit helmet and one of those children's inner tubes with a giraffe's head on it, I'd buzz through skies filled with flying velociraptors, handing out fiery justice – or injustice, depending on whether or not you were a dinosaur. When that got old I made ghosts. Then I made flaming circus animal ghosts. Finally, I made a bunch of headless golfers (adjectives allow you to spawn animals without certain limbs). Then I set fire to them.
Setting things on fire, eh? That's what's brilliant about Scribblenauts, yet it might also be what's holding back the game's missions. The lure of violent exploration is still stronger than the – admittedly improved – campaign mode; random acts of vindictiveness are still more fun than a lot of the challenge content. 5th Cell's clever tech has essentially allowed the DS to play home to a first-class animal cruelty laboratory. Luckily for everyone, it turns out that badger baiting is quite fun when no genuine badgers are harmed, and when you can jet off in a flying ice cream van the moment things start to turn sour.
It's this potential for invention that reminds you why a humble DS offering with divisive art has remained the title you show people when you want to demonstrate the power of videogames. 5th Cell's puzzler was always astonishing, then, but now it's enjoyable to play, too. That's nice. Whether or not you think Super Scribblenauts is a genuine classic depends on how much you like making dinosaurs attack each other, ultimately – but either way, it's unquestionably the game that Scribblenauts should have been the first time around.
8 / 10