Super Scribblenauts

Super Scribblenauts

Written by Cyril Lachel on 11/12/2010 for DS  

It's a shame we can't review games based on how much we want to enjoy them.  Just imagine how much more exciting my reviews would be if I was reviewing that feeling right before actually playing the game.  If that was the case, then Super Scribblenauts would be the game of the year.  It's a creative puzzler that is overflowing with potential.  The gimmick alone should be enough to pique most gamers' interest.  Too bad the gimmick isn't good enough to sustain an entire game.

The concept is genius.  You play a young red-haired boy going from level to level solving puzzles using words.  This young boy has a talent -- he can make everyday items magically materialize just by spelling it out.  This simple game mechanic allows the player to create literally tens of thousands of objects at the touch of a button.  If you can think it, the game can generate it.  This simple gameplay mechanic should lead to one of the most inspired puzzle games on the Nintendo DS.

If I seem hesitant, it's because I was burned by the first game.  The original Scribblenauts had everything going for it, but was marred by terrible gameplay and a general lack of polish.  Even worse, one could make a strong argument that the action levels were outright broken.  With so much of the game flawed, I finally gave up on Scribblenauts.  I hoped that the developers would take the constructive criticism and craft a better sequel, because the core game mechanic was that intriguing.

Thankfully 5th Cell was listening.  The company addressed nearly all of the standard complaints people had with the original game, crafting a technically impressive follow-up.  Players no longer have to put up with stylus-only controls, movement controls have been mapped to the D-pad and face buttons.  The developers also excised the broken action levels, instead featuring a more puzzle-oriented campaign.

Super Scribblenauts does more than fix the past mistakes; it also adds something new to the game mechanic.  This time around players are able to add adjectives to the object they are trying to make.  This gives players the ability to specify color and size.  And if you get really creative, you can make objects fly, turn them evil and modify them in truly horrifying ways.  I quickly discovered that adding adjectives was overwhelming; the mind boggles at how many combinations there are.

With the improved controls and cool new additions to the gameplay, it seemed like this series was finally getting it right.  And that's when the other shoe dropped.  It didn't take long before I realized that in addressing all of the first game's issues, 5th Cell ended up creating a number of brand new problems. What we're left with is yet another game with a lot of untapped potential.

The story is simple enough; you're tasked with solving a bunch of puzzles in order to fill in a series of star constellations.  Much like the first game, your mission is to figure out a way to earn the Starite.  As soon as you jump into a level the game will give you a clue, such as "Give your new friend a pet."  This allows you to open up the typing tool and spell out a word that would help solve the puzzle, including "dog," "cat" or "bird."  If the computer thinks that's an acceptable answer, then you're off to the next stage. At first I was really into the puzzle solving.  I wasn't limited to just making a dog, I could add color, size and shape to the object for my own amusement.  But once the novelty wore off, I realized that instead of playing a real puzzle game, I was basically just answering trivia questions.  Even if the game didn't ask me a direct question, I always felt like they were testing me on how many words and objects I could name.

In one level it will show you four different people, each with their own look and style.  The object here is to put on clothing, accessories and objects that would appeal to these four disparate characters.  That's all well and good, but it's not exactly the most exciting puzzle.  The fact that you are forced to perform this style of puzzle multiple times (even more if you're looking to get the highest scores) really drags down the good times.

There are some levels that do challenge you to use your imagination, but they are few and far between.  In one level you are tasked with helping a movie director add scary objects to the set.  The idea here is simple enough, come up with as many objects as you can think of, but add words like "spooky," "ghostly," "haunted" and "undead" as you can.  Even though this level is limited, at least it gives you some creative control over the game.  Too much of Super Scribblenauts feels like I'm being tested by a bunch of people who aren't playing by the rules.

It only takes a few puzzles to realize how limiting the game is.  Once I started thinking outside the box, I was met with firm resistance from the game.  Worse yet, the game is rarely logical.  The only times I got stumped playing Super Scribblenauts is when the developers threw logic out the window.  I would find myself staring at the Nintendo DS screen trying to figure out why the easiest answer wasn't the right one.   Why won't the alarm clock wake up the sleeping man?  Why can't I feed my dog a slab of meat?  Why won't the stranded man get in the boat?

As I kept slamming my head against invisible walls, I started to get a better understanding of what is really possible in the Scribblenauts world.  There's no question that the concept is great, but there's not enough logic behind it to offer a truly satisfying experience.  Although this game definitely hints at a bright future for the series, I couldn't shake the feeling that it's just not a good fit on the Nintendo DS.  I wonder if some of the logic issues would be resolved if it was working on something more powerful, like the PC or maybe even the upcoming Nintendo 3DS.

Another reason I would like to see this series migrate to the PC is simply for ease of use.  I don't care who you are, typing lengthy words on the Nintendo DS screen is far from ideal.  The game does offer a few shortcuts to keep the typing to a minimum, but there's nothing better than using your own real keyboard to speed things up.  When it comes right down to it, this is a minor complaint.  My real issue with Super Scribblenauts has nothing to do with the controls; it's the shallowness of the puzzle mode.

When you're not being suffocated by the game's lousy campaign, you can develop your own levels.  In this mode you're able to do whatever you want and really put the game's engine to work.  This is by far the most compelling aspect of the game, since it allows you to really use your vocabulary.  There's nothing better than typing in random internet memes and game characters to see what you come up with.

As much as I want to love Super Scribblenauts, I can't overlook its many faults.  It's clear that 5th Cell hasn't figured out the balance between open creativity and puzzle solving.  Here we're subjected to boring levels with only a few right answers.  The mediocre campaign sucks most of the fun out of the game, leaving us with yet another close call.  Maybe the third time will be the charm? 
Scribblenauts returns with yet another disappointing puzzler. 5th Cell manages to get the control right, but the terrible campaign and limited puzzles drag everything down. There are remnnants of good ideas here, but Super Scribblenauts doesn't deliver on its promise.

Rating: 8 Good

* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company for review.

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About Author

It's questionable how accurate this is, but this is all that's known about Cyril Lachel: A struggling writer by trade, Cyril has been living off a diet of bad games, and a highly suspect amount of propaganda. Highly cynical, Cyril has taken to question what companies say and do, falling ever further into a form of delusional madness. With the help of quality games, and some greener pastures on the horizon, this back-to-basics newsman has returned to provide news so early in the morning that only insomniacs are awake.
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