There's a famous episode of The Twilight Zone called “It's a Good Life”, wherein a boy with omnipotent powers terrorises all those around him for his own amusement. Anyone or anything he doesn't like gets whisked away into an inescapable cornfield, or worse, turned into a jack-in-the-box. Scribblenauts Unlimited is a lot like that. The world may be your plaything, but getting your way all the time isn't all it's cracked up to be.
As with the last two Scribblenauts games, you play as Maxwell, a kid with a magic notebook that allows him to summon anything by simply scrawling it down. And much like the boy in that Twilight Zone episode, Maxwell is a colossal dick. In the opening cinematic he gives a hobo a poison apple just to please his own sadistic Prince Joffrey-like tendencies. Unfortunately for our perverse protagonist, this is no ordinary tramp but a mystic Drag Me to Hell-esque gypsy that puts a curse on Maxwell's sister which will turn her into stone unless he can gather enough "starites" by doing good deeds.
It's a good thing the rules of this universe are so ass-backwards that "good deeds" include feeding a hungry kid a poison candy bar (have I learned nothing?), giving a stork a dead baby to deliver and creating a cat for a lonely boy to play with only to kill his new feline friend a second later. I already had his starite shard, so what did it matter?
Initially, this is amusing. Livening up the town square with a life-size statue of Cthulhu is good for a laugh, as is helping a rampaging gorilla attain royalty by giving it a tiara, only for it to reenact King Kong's tragic demise. And when a panhandler needed some skills to make it in today's rough economy, I created a "professional beggar" out of thin air to show him the ropes.
Welcome to Scribblenauts, where the world is your plaything! The only restriction is your imagination. And copyrighted materials. And sexual innuendo. And blood. And anything deemed offensive for tykes by the ratings board. Actually, there are quite a lot of restrictions, but compared to other games it's still an unprecedented amount of freedom. As such, the Scribblenauts series has always been a great toy, but it's historically struggled to shape engaging challenges around its novel premise.
The first Scribblenauts fell victim to ropey controls and its open-ended design meant it was all too easy to get through half the game simply by manifesting a jetpack. At least it encouraged players to complete stages thrice without using any of the same objects, so that stretched one's thinking cap a little. Super Scribblenauts reigned in this approach by adding adjectives to the mix and creating challenges that required more exact solutions. Puzzles like coming up with "five things you'd find in a horror movie" required some mental finesse to sort out, even if what the game accepted as a solution was still a bit finicky.
Scribblenauts Unlimited is regrettably the easiest entry in the series yet, with the vast majority of puzzles being entirely rudimentary. A ghost pirate needs a crew, Mrs. Clause needs a companion, a hat thief needs to be baited by... a hat, perhaps? Sure, you can come up with sarcastic, yet acceptable solutions to these like a "dead navigator", "naked Santa" and an "ugly cap", but the novelty of this quickly wears off when the end result is the same.
"Welcome to Scribblenauts, where the world is your plaything! The only restriction is your imagination. And copyrighted materials. And sexual innuendo. And blood."
This extremely forgiving design is a shame, as in other ways Scribblenauts Unlimited is the most refined in the series. While Super Scribblenauts added adjectives, you can now edit these onto already existing objects. It's an intuitive addition, but it doesn't help the puzzles when you can overcome countless challenges simply by attributing the word "dead" in front of whomever's standing in your way.
You can also create your own word-items with their own unique attributes, such as a cupcake with an elephant's trunk that weighs as much as a building. Items can be shared with other users, but the interface for creating and editing is so awkward and cumbersome that only the most dedicated fans are likely to get much out of this.
This is also the first Scribblenauts game where you can alter your avatar, but this comes with its own uncomfortably sexist bent. As it turns out, Maxwell has over 40 brothers he can help out, and rescuing each grants the player access to them as an avatar. But why only brothers? And why was his sister punished for his misdeeds in the first place? Since Maxwell's androgynous, prepubescent body is gender neutral anyway, there's absolutely no reason why the player shouldn't be able to select a female avatar. There are options to design one, but requiring the player to do so is missing the point.
Elsewhere, the Wii U's dual-screen interface doesn't influence the game much for a single player, as it's significantly more intuitive to control with a stylus and touch screen. Peeling your eyes back and forth between the GamePad and TV every time you want to touch anything is more tedious than it sounds, so you'll probably stick to just the GamePad, in which case it becomes a handheld game that isn't portable. The advantage, of course, is that you can display what's happening on the TV, so others can participate vicariously.
This is where Scribblenauts has always been at its best. When I encountered the original Scribblenauts at E3 2009 it drew quite a crowd, with the DS's low-res screen being projected on a monitor above. Attendees would stand around tossing out suggestions and cracking up at whatever tomfoolery would transpire. Scribblenauts has always been a party game at heart, but it was confined to a tiny screen that was never convenient to huddle over. The Wii U changes that. (Though the option for other players to control objects is entirely forgettable.)
Taken on it own, Scribblenauts Unlimited is dull, simplistic, and devoid of challenge. What begins as an unbridled experiment in omnipotence swiftly devolves into a lackadaisical chore. It's still rife with warmth, humour and creativity, and the Wii U's TV support transforms the solitary snickering of previous Scribblenauts into a party game that's especially well suited to the young or inebriated. For this reason alone, I could see it becoming a worthwhile purchase from a clearance bin - but if it were chucked into a cornfield I wouldn't miss it.
Scribblenauts Unlimited is out now on Wii U, 3DS and PC in North America. The European release is delayed until 2013.