Version tested: DS
Perhaps this is what people who don't play games think games are like. You must have had that moment where you're playing a game and there's a locked wooden door in front of you and an axe in your inventory, and your friend says, "Why don't you just smash the door down with the axe?" And you have to respond, "Look, just shut up, you don't know what you're talking about, OK?"
In Scribblenauts, if it seems like it should be possible, it's likely going to be possible. In fact, what Scribblenauts is capable of is so astonishing, so utterly complete in its collection of everything ever in the universe, it seems like it can't possibly be real.
Surely in a level which sets me the challenge of crossing main character Maxwell across some shark-infested water to reach the target Starite (the star shapes that represent your constant goal), it's not realistic that I can type in that I want an Ichthyosaurus, and then see whether it can beat the shark in a fight. Nor does it seem reasonable that I could tap in "PEGASUS", jump on the winged horse's back and fly safely over. It starts to get a little silly when I ask for a teleporter, step in, and find myself in an alien laboratory.
There is no question that Scribblenauts is an incredible achievement. Almost any item, object or animal you can think of, so long as it's not a proper noun (or rude, or alcohol, weirdly) appears after being typed - animated, and behaving appropriately. Create a spider monkey and he'll eat a banana. But a bulldog won't. They will fight, however. And it's specific - it's not monkey or dog. It's sub-species. You can ask for a tree, but you can also ask for an oak, maple or bonsai tree. Finding out who would win in a fight between a werewolf and a vampire can... Well, actually, that illustrates something else.
I'm putting off the bad news, and I have to get it in here before we go too far. Scribblenauts is not that great. In fact, much of this game is a mess. The puzzles vary between uninspired and simple and frustratingly obscure and fiddly, rarely finding the correct middle ground. The controls are nothing short of appalling. And there's nothing holding any of it together. But here's the thing: how long can you stay mad after this...
Pitting a vampire versus a werewolf is just the sort of experiment Scribblenauts invites you to try. Not because the game demands it but because if you're given a box of magic crayons and a big blank sheet of paper, you won't be able to resist. So create a vampire and werewolf, drop them into the level, and oh... The vampire exposed to the daylight immediately turns to a pile of dust on the ground. The werewolf, meanwhile, transforms into a regular guy. Because it's daytime.
The point at which it becomes really incredible is when you start telling your own stories. I was stuck on an early level where I couldn't get past a tornado, so in frustration I built a time machine. I got in and emerged in Medieval times. There was a king, a queen, a knight. I got on the knight's horse and rode until I met a princess. For the heck of it I made her a flower and gave it to her. Then I saw a hooded man to our right, who started attacking me. Wishing to be appropriate to the era I created a wizard who zapped the bad man for me. I then made myself a crown, because everyone else was wearing one.
But but but. It's so remarkable. The depth and scope and opportunities for amazing improvised moments are beyond belief. But that's all so horribly pissed up against the wall when Maxwell is so intent on killing himself.
In a mystery that will remain unsolved until the end of time, the developers decided to have Max controlled by the stylus. Click on the screen and he'll run there. They also chose to have everything else controlled with the stylus, from picking up objects, selecting characters, placing objects and moving the camera.
Which means, inevitably, every third click sends Maxwell running off in completely the wrong direction, especially when trying to click on moving objects. It is beyond infuriating. It's possibly the most wildly stupid design decision of all time. The d-pad is also assigned to moving the camera - something easily done by dragging objects to the side of the screen. If they had Max's controls on the d-pad, this game would be transformed. Inexplicably, a beautiful thing is made hateful so very, very frequently.
One particularly horrendous level, Puzzle 4-11, was left uncompleted after I died at least five times because while I was moving a rain cloud on the other side of the level, Maxwell decided to leap into a pool of lava. He can be forced to stay still, for instance by building a turret and sitting him inside it. That done, I then lost the level because rather than cross the bridge I'd built, the king and his sheep decided to kick it out the way and leap deliberately to their lavary deaths.
I started over, killed the dragon for the millionth time (chosen method: Kraken - the dragon killed God too easily), put out the fires (that's what the rain is for), and then gave Maxwell some wings so he could fly to the upper part of the level to build a different bridge. At this point the knight by the castle, who played no part in the puzzle and who I went nowhere near, decided for seemingly no reason to hurl himself into the ever-popular lava pit - and it was level over. Again.
There's another madly annoying thing that must be mentioned. Move the camera away from Max and it will very quickly snap back to him. This is ridiculous, meaning you have to holding the camera in place to execute anything complicated, especially when working on traps. And it means you'll always miss the best bits of fights as it cruelly drags you away. Again, a decision made seemingly to annoy the player, serving no apparent purpose.
There are two different types of level, Puzzle and Action. The former is endlessly simple, templates like asking you to help a duck reach its mother, but without hurting the wolf. Or figure out how to use a switch to open a door to reach a goal. Action levels are tougher and tend to require quicker thinking, or even fighting. You might be asked to stop a boat from reaching a pirate, using any means you desire. Each level begins with a quick tour of what's to see, and a hint explaining your goal. Then you're let loose to try anything you can spell.
Complete a level and you'll be awarded Ollars, the in-game currency, which can be used to buy access to more collections of puzzles (there's a mighty 110 of each type), or silly extras like costumes and music tracks. (Talking of the music, there's no damned way to switch it off, and its upbeat repetitiveness has just about driven me crazy.)
You'll also be awarded daft achievements based on the techniques you used to solve a level. You can then replay any of the 120 levels to complete it at the Advanced level, which requires completing it three times in a row without using the same objects twice. While doing the same thing three times in a row isn't exactly great fun, it does demonstrate the vast diversity available.
You can find a few ways to game it. Giving Maxwell wings gets you around all sorts of problems, and the lasso tends to offer a solution for all manner of issues. Lasso an object, then drag it behind you, tie it to a car, attach it to a helicopter. But then, that any of this is possible is pretty incredible.
There's also the option to create your own levels, again with only the distant limits of its and your vocabulary. You can decide the behaviours of conscious creations, and attempt to make the trickiest routes possible. This is done simply and well.
This is a game in which I killed a bee with a blue whale. It's one where jetpacks stop working if they get wet, and just blow out bubbles. Hippies are present to stop you killing ants. Reindeer can fly. When a rock, gun then rocket launcher won't work, it's time to pull out a black hole. You can create handcuffs and cuff yourself to another character. You can create a colossal squid and make it fight a bear. You can type in "portal" and an alien will jump through.
Scribblenauts is unquestionably a thing of wonder. But it's also a clumsily made game, with clumsy text (every level ends with the words "MERIT GET!", and then there's the gibberish sometimes contained in the clues), clumsy level design, and beyond clumsy controls. Oh, and an agonising tutorial that seems intent on denying anything the game is about.
I find it hard to believe anyone could play for more than six or seven levels before just typing in random things to see if they're there and whether they can beat Cthulhu in a fight. But then, doing that is utterly brilliant. It's like trying to wash the car and ending up having a water fight. The water fight is tons more fun than the car washing, but then you're wet and tired and it's time for tea.
7 / 10