Review – Scribblenauts

September 19, 2009 — Leave a comment

Originally published in The Daily Toreador.

Have you ever been playing a game and thought to yourself, “Man, if only I had a ladder I could just climb up this cliff”? Or, “If only I had a can of bug spray, these bees would be no problem”?

The premise of “Sribblenauts” for the Nintendo DS is to make all of those “what ifs” a reality. And it works extremely well.

While it has a rather cartoony, 2D look, “Scribblenauts” features one of the most complex and innovative gameplay mechanics in a long time. As the tagline says, “Write Anything. Solve Everything.” In order to solve the game’s puzzles and progress through its levels, you simply type in a word or phrase that you want in the game world, and it’s there.

When I say “anything” I really mean “anything.” The list of objects you can summon in the game exceeds 22,000. This includes commonplace items like “baseball bat” or “car,” but also lets your imagination run wild. Type in “chupacabra” and the mythical vampire creature appears. Type in “water park” and a water park is yours to place in the game world.

Anything goes, so long as it’s not copyrighted, vulgar or a proper noun. Though there seem to be a few exceptions to the last one, as typing “Einstein” summons a white-haired scientist, but for the most part you can’t type things like “Michael Jackson” and expect someone to bust onto the screen moon dancing.

The developers of the game obviously realized the potential for this system as a straight-up toy rather than a game, and as such the title screen doubles as a playground for you to simply summon objects and see what happens.

It may not be surprising that this sandbox area provides some of the most fun you’ll have with “Scribblenauts.” I’ve literally spent hours seeing how objects and characters interact with each other. For example, I’ve found out that Satan is afraid of churches, nihilists are afraid of God, and capitalists are afraid of communists.

I’m not joking. You can summon all of those things just to mess around. Vampires, jet packs, swords, bras, gangsters, UFOs, time machines… I have yet to find a single object (that isn’t a proper noun) that isn’t in the game.

So what is the game? I’ve spent a lot of time talking about the innovative writing mechanic, as that’s really “Scribblenauts’” main draw. However, there is also a very compelling puzzle game to be found here.

Gameplay is essentially divided into two types of levels: puzzle and action. In the puzzle levels, you are given a task with a hint about what to do. For example, one of the earlier puzzles simply says, “Reunite the cat with the girl,” and shows you a cat on a roof. Now, how are you going to solve the puzzle?

If you’re thinking simply, you can just summon a ladder, climb onto the roof and grab the cat. But there are far more interesting solutions to the puzzle. If you set the house on fire, for instance, the cat leaps off out of fear. If you summon a fireman, stereotypes run their course and the cat jumps safely into the fireman’s arms. Each of these and more is considered a perfectly acceptable way of solving the puzzle.

It really brings new meaning to the idea of playing a game your way, with no set boundaries.

The action levels work in pretty much the same way as the puzzles, except your only objective is to obtain an object known as a “starite.” How you get to said object is entirely up to you, and may require some thinking.

“Scribblenauts” has sort of come out of left field and surprised a lot of people, myself included. It wasn’t even on my radar until recently. But the innovative game mechanic and unbelievable amount of in-game objects is simply astounding to see.

If you have a DS, I implore you to at least give “Scribblenauts” a try. The puzzle gameplay may not be for you, but summoning random objects can be a blast in and of itself.

Britton Peele


Freelance video game critic for sites like GameSpot and GamesRadar. Amateur fantasy author.

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