Scribblenauts Unlimited turns words into whimsy in many new ways, so why then does it feel rather empty? Dave Cook takes pencil and notebook in hand to find out.
The first Scribblenauts title launched on Nintendo DS in 2009, and became renowned for its charm, smart puzzles and clever use of word-play.
Super Scribblenauts hit Nintendo DS in 2010 and threw adjectives into the mix for the first time.
In Scribblenauts Unlimited, developer 5th Cell gives players more adjective options than before, with the ability to add colour and various other properties to objects. “Electrified Gorilla” anyone?
The game also includes a number of easter eggs from Nintendo’s Super Mario Bros. and The Legend of Zelda series. Try giving “Mario” a “mushroom” and have him face-off against “Bowser”. It’s rather neat.
“A fool thinks himself to be wise, but a wise man knows himself to be a fool.” Legendary playwright and poet William Shakespeare wrote this back in the 17th century and it applies to Scribblenauts Unlimited today, a game based almost entirely on the power of wordplay.
Although 5th Cell has tried to make a smart game by expanding its adjective mechanic, the end result is a title that – while as charming as ten puppies frolicking in a bucket of baby ducklings – is almost completely devoid of challenge.
Here’s a practical example: One area of the game takes place in a school, and in the corridor you come across a tough kid holding a geeky wimp hostage in a locker. Plucky word-smith Maxwell has to scribble down a word or series of words in his magic notebook to remove the bully.
In previous Scribblenauts titles you were often asked to use glue to bind objects together in order to reach higher platforms or build ramps for your “Rocket-Powered Skateboard” to jump across. This could then trigger some kind of mad chain reaction to dispel the pest. If stuck you could have simply typed “gun” and shot the bastard.
Here, you can simply attach an adjective to the bully to make him less threatening. Say, a “tiny” or “invisible” bully. Although expanded adjectives do let you give objects new properties, they water down the challenge somewhat thanks to the easy nature of the game’s puzzles. Both aspects seem to contradict one another and don’t really fit.
The game plays out in an almost open world fashion as Maxwell explores interconnected areas doing good deeds for citizens to earn Starites – glowing collectibles that will remove a curse placed on his sister. The message of helping others melted my heart like a brick of cheese in a microwave, but I never felt challenged.
The issue with Scribblenauts Unlimited is that there are no physics puzzles to be solved, no moments of “How the hell do I reach that Starite?” Instead you approach a quest-giver, ask them what they need and then you simply write down the thing they desire to earn a Starite. The more of these you earn, the more worlds you unlock.
Here’s another example: One of the game’s later missions sees Maxwell trapped in a space station patrolled by guard dogs. Your only objective is to dispatch them. Tossing a “bone”, creating a “cat” or hurling a “ball” at them will see them packing. Sure, you can have more fun with things if you use adjectives to make terms like “zombified cat”, but you’re only funnelled into this mechanic during specific quests.
There is the occasional self-contained challenge stage to reel the experience in a little but you’re still met with puzzles that ask things like, ‘Give me three things to make a makeshift fire engine’. Type “wheels”, “engine” then “hose” and you’re done. It’s a game that will challenge only the youngest of players.
It’s also as deep as your imagination is willing to go. But it falls into one of those tricky game development conundrums: why restrict a game that is supposed to be about the freedom of expression? Well, it would have made the puzzles more focused and challenging puzzles for one, as you can solve too many puzzles by just repeating the same terms.
On the flip-side, any game that gets young minds thinking openly about language while making it seem like less of a school exercise it to be applauded. So Scribblenauts Unlimited’s education merit for kids isn’t under question here, but if that’s the case, then why is the object editor so complex?
It’s a charming, very lovely experience to behold but Scribblenauts Unlimited is the toilet book of puzzlers. Why do I say that? Well sometimes you do just want to stare at a soggy, digestible Garfield book on the pan instead of War and Peace don’t you? There’s a time and a place for everything, just as there’s a demographic that will gladly accept this game with open arms. I’m not a part of it, but your kids will adore it no questions asked.
Disclosure: To assist with writing this review, Nintendo sent Dave a copy of Scribblenauts Unlimited on Wii U. No merchandise or advertising was offered or accepted. Also, as an update, Scribblenauts Unlimited was suppose to launch in Europe this Friday, but it has new been delayed.