It's great to see something like Scribblenauts hit the market this year. There's been this recession thing happening. If you don't know what that is, it basically means no one spends any money and everyone gets bummed out. Companies that make products for consumption by the general populace don't tend to take risks, because what little disposable income there is floating around is hard to attract, so it's much safer to make something you know will sell (although the creators of the ill fated iSnack 2.0 were clearly using a recessionary business model no one is familiar with). I'm not an economist, so that's about where I have to stop explaining. But listen: Scribblenauts is not that product. It's not the same old, same old. Oh, you already knew that? Sweet.
For those of you living under rocks, volunteering for the last few months in third world countries, or living in Hamilton, Scribblenauts is new from 5th Cell and Warner Brothers Interactive Entertainment, and is a DS experience like no other. Developed exclusively for Nintendo's handheld, Scribblenauts puts you in control of Maxwell, and it's his job to collect the precious Starite on each level. The game has two main play modes, over 200 levels, and many of these have to be unlocked as you move from challenge to challenge. You can choose in each of the game's 10 worlds weather you wish to play through the challenge or action mode, and there's also nothing stopping you from alternating level by level.
So, is collecting Starites all you have to do? Well, yeah. In the action mode, the Starite will be somewhere on the level, surrounded by natural and man-made obstacles - trees, bodies of water, hills, hollows, roads, buildings, and all the trappings of the modern world. It's your job to get the Starite as quickly as possible, using whatever you think you need to in order to git 'er done. The big hook for this game, as you may know, is that there are tens of thousands of objects waiting for you to use. With one tap on the handy icon, you can move from the game screen to your notepad and type or write whatever you like. There's a few rules: no naughtiness (they call it 'vulgarity'), no alcohol, no brand names, etc, but otherwise you can push your imagination to its absolute limit.
(Our preview for this title came after a trip to Monaco to play the title under the watchful eye of a WB rep, and after spending more time with the day I am unhappy to report that the handwriting recognition in the notepad is just as rough as it was upon first impression. Sorry - it sucks. It would have been better to leave it out altogether. I am giving you this information as a service. You'll enjoy the game much more if you completely avoid it.)
Type it. Type whatever you want. Seriously. Is the Starite locked behind a gate which Maxwell can operate by standing on a switch? Well, he can only collect it if he leaves the switch, and that means the gate crashes shut. So... type rock. Put the rock on the switch. But if rock is too obvious for you, try bed. Try guitar. Try blender. If its an object that exists in the real world, then chances are its in this game, and you'll be able to use it in some way to get to the Starite. You'll need airborne vehicles to fly (or you could always use a jetpack), cars and trucks to move with real speed and submarines to plumb the depths of the game's many lakes, ponds and seas. Whatever the object or supernatural entity (there seems to be a lot of vampires, zombies, etc), just try it out and see if it appears. Then use it.
Objects have different interactions, so in challenge modes, where you'll be given a directive at the start of the level and expected to succeed to get the Starite, you need to think hard about how to use certain things. If you want to try and catch a bee with a net, you have to be careful to pick the right action: there's always a range of options. You can 'fill item', 'use', 'pick up' or a number of others based on what Maxwell is holding and what you need him to do with it. If you piss off a bee, he might sting one of the characters on the level you're supposed to be doing something for, and this can end your turn. The challenges are a lot of fun in this way. Because the objective of these levels goes a little further than 'get the Starite', there is more scope for error, and also for inventiveness. You also need to think ahead to what animals might chase each other, or worse, eat each other, to avoid things getting to chaotic.
Depending on how fast you get the Starite (remember - this is the main point of the 'action' levels and the by-product of beating the challenges) will depend on how the level is scored. The other factors are style, use of new objects, and scores for things like not using weapons. Your overall score earns 'Ollars' - the game's currency. These can be used to buy songs and avatars, each of which sell for varying amounts. Avatars include aliens, more zombies and vampires, and other such delights, which you can replace Maxwell with, for a bit of visual spunk. The songs can be chosen at the start of the game so you can vary the soundtrack as you go through - not that the standard tune is in any way offensive.
Scribblenauts also includes a level editor, for if the magic starts to run a little low. You can pre-write objects into any level in the game you have already passed, as well as put in humans and animals whose behaviour you can meddle with. This will undoubtedly extend the life of this title, which does tighten, rather, as the novelty begins to wear off. While your brain will be kept extremely busy with the challenges and the actions both, it does become apparent that once you've beaten a level with five or so different objects, you've sort of had enough. The par on each level will keep things spicy for a while - you get more points if you use less objects than the stipulated maximum - but I do worry about the longevity of what is an absolutely revolutionary game in all other respects. And there's the well publicised "complete" list of all the words in the game, that might also prove too tempting for some.
There are a few control issues with Scribblenauts, which do make it a bit frustrating at times. Moving objects around the screen can get tiresome, especially with large items like your zeppelins and hovercrafts. The game is very particular about where you can pop these down when you're not using them, and sometimes you'll be forced to drag the thing all over the place before you find an adequate spot. Maxwell can also be a bit of a drunken fool - running into walls over and over again, getting stuck in little depressions, and refusing to follow your stylus. What I do like is the movement of the camera, which is nice and smooth and can be controlled with the D-pad. This will help you scope out levels before you make those life and death decisions.
I must say I am quite taken with Scribblenauts' graphical style, which is cute, if a little patchy. Everything is hugely colourful and screams family friendly - they have even made things like flames fairly lovable. Certainly the keenest eyes will pick up a few imperfections, but like so many games on the DS, its important that the graphics in Scribblenauts are really just taken at face value and enjoyed for what they are. It really is amazing how many objects have been individually realised. For example, after hearing that 'monster' and 'Grendel' throw up the same sprite, I tried something a little more lowbrow: fish. I went for Cod, Mullet and Sardine - all of which came out looking different. Maybe there's a few double or even triple-ups, but when the attention to detail is in there for something like fish, you have to doff your rooster hat.
It doesn't seem like as much work has gone into the sound, but that's no cause at all for concern. The music is catchy and mostly unobtrusive (while you're nutting out problems, everything will fade away anyhow) and the effects for some of the game's objects are well put together. There are quite a few objects that appear on screen completely silent, but it hasn't lessened the game experience for me at all.
For my most hotly anticipated title of the year, I can say I'm not disappointed. No one will deny that Scribblenauts is a groundbreaking title, and DS owners everywhere should be extremely happy that they have been given the exclusive chance to own a piece of gaming history. Among all the worlds shooters, action adventures and fantasy RPGs, that a game like Scribblenauts should come and capture the imaginations of gamers and game journalists all over the world is truly delightful. It shouldn't matter what age your are or what kind of games you ordinarily play: you have to play Scribblenauts, because there is nothing else like it.