As I sit and reflect on my childhood memories, I sometimes find it amazing that I’ve been playing videogames as long as I have. It’s impossible to tally the amount of games I’ve played and/or finished but to say that I’ve experienced most all generations and platforms is an understatement. As with probably most of the current gaming community my age (23) and over, I’ve lived through practically all phases of gaming. Still, throughout all of my gaming years, I think one of the best feelings is to experience something completely out of left field, a game that defines a genre and strikes you with a sense of awe purely by concept alone. And, if you haven’t heard, Scribblenauts is the type of game that fits this description completely in concept through its insane depth and emphasis on creatitivy.
Winning multiple best of E3 2009 awards from various media outlets and wowing gamers that made a stop by Warner Bros. booth to actually check out games other than Batman: Arkham Asylum, the simplicity of Scribblenauts’ concept was enough to create as much hype as I’ve seen for a game in many years. By allowing for a new form of creativity in the gamer, the developers had created a concept unlike any ever contrived. However, I’ve noticed in my experience that overhyping a game (or anything for that matter) can only be more problematic than good and thus my anticipation was overshadowed by a small amount of doubt that the game might not live up to its award winning showing at E3. See, games are built more than on concept alone, where execution can separate a game from being just a brilliant idea to being a timeless classic. Could Scribblenauts meet the expectations of the millions of gamers in the gaming community or would it be remembered as just another game that lost its appeal from broken gameplay?
In case you’re unfamiliar with developer 5th Cell, let me inform you a little on their history. After spending its first 3 years as a mobile games company, 5th Cell wasn’t well known until their recent transition to a more dedicated gaming platform, the Nintendo DS. Since the release of unique games such as Drawn to Life and Lock’s Quest, 5th Cell has blossomed into one of the more successful new developers for the Nintendo DS. These games each redefined gaming on the DS through their creativity and left gamers and critics with two polished classics that could only be done on the DS (or a PC I guess). These games stand out to me as ones that you have to play at least once if you own a DS, despite the fact that Drawn to Life is by no means a perfect game and that Lock’s Quest is a little shy in the depth department.
Scribblenauts has continued the impressive résumé of 5th Cell titles on the DS but this time around, they’ve blown the concept of unique gameplay out of the water. If you haven’t heard yet, Scribblenauts allows players to think of nearly any generic, non-vulgar, non-suggestive object and bring it to life in this puzzle/platformer game. In a sense, the success of the gamer is entirely dependent upon the limits of his/her creativity. (For anyone not to get excited about a concept such as this, I’ve concluded that he/she has either never played a game other than from the Halo series or the person actually enjoyed the Virtual Boy).
Anyways, players begin the game in an over world hub where they can literally spend hours testing out their vocabulary against the game’s dictionary of literally tens of thousands of words. Though not necessary, this hub helps players to get an idea of some of the more helpful items they can conjure during their experience. I found myself playing this for quite some time before ever actually starting the main game (which is saying something if even the title screen is so addictive).
The game is split into 10 different worlds, each of which consists of two types of levels, ones of the “puzzle” type (where most of the emphasis is thought based) and ones of the “action” type (where most of the emphasis is on reflexes). The simplistic goal of each level is to use the items you conjure towards collecting the Starite in each level. In all, there are 220 levels, 110 of which are “puzzle” based and 110 of which are “action” based; thus, it needs not to be said that the game consists of literally 10-100s of hours of gameplay, depending upon your adeptness to solving some of the most sinister puzzles (believe me, this game is not easy).
Progression of the game is fitting where a lengthy tutorial is the first order of business and each subsequent world consists of a variety of levels ranging from easy to difficult. As you finish levels, your efficiency (# of items used, time to finish, etc.) awards you with a certain number of Ollars. These Ollars are used to purchase passage to subsequent worlds, songs for the music room, and avatars to use instead of Maxwell (the game’s main character). Thus, there is a lot to purchase in this game so retrying levels is obviously not frowned upon; in fact, the second time you attempt a finished level, you can try for a gold star which requires you to play through the level three times in a row using different items each time. Perfectionists will also enjoy the game’s 76 different merits, which are awarded for your actions within the game. These act as an awards system where players can earn different awards on each level according to their actions and the items they use.
The game’s overall depth is extended by the solid level editor. Players can use a number of backgrounds along with any items they wish to place on the level. I found these to be a little pointless, however, if you plan on playing through your own levels (why not just spend time in the over world hub placing whichever items you desire here?) but the ability to transfer levels locally or over Nintendo Wi-Fi is a plus. Still, though, the need for friend codes to transfer your levels feels a little ancient and kind of defeats the infinite possibilities seen in other online driven communities.
On paper, Scribblenauts would probably receive a 10. However, the execution of the game is what hurts the game so badly. I find that a game where using the stylus so much for input almost begs for stylus controls so I understand the developers’ thought process. But if you’ve read one critic’s opinion, you’ve read them all as the clumsiness of the game’s controls single handedly drives the game’s overall appeal downward; it is the yin to the game’s creativity yang.
Clumsy controls contribute to a massive amount of frustration throughout the entire experience of gameplay. Dragging and tapping make up all movement/interaction in the game with no other options for precise movement. For instance, Maxwell is moved to a position on the screen by tapping there; objects are brought into existence by dragging them to their desired position; these said items are activated, used, or interacted with by tapping and choosing from a menu of options. There are no advanced actions such as jumping or ducking and because Maxwell’s movement is not precise and it’s very easy to miss the target area you’re trying to tap, movement can be frustratingly difficult to pull off.
Many times I found myself retrying a level multiple times after discovering a working solution to the puzzle purely because the controls would prevent me from finishing the level. The “action” puzzles quickly became the more annoying puzzles in the game because of the gap between the game’s concept and its unforgiving control scheme. And, to add salt to the game’s already scarring wounds, it is not a quick process to get back to attempting the level (somewhere around 7-10 seconds between each attempt). Thus the clunky controls coupled with bulky level introductions make for a recipe of gamer frustration.
I find there’s no sense in criticizing a formula, however, without creating a few solutions to the problems mentioned by the critic. For one, the simplest solution would be to make the touch controls much more precise than their current form. This would possibly create a more forgiving control experience. Having the option for multiple control schemes would also lessen the pain; I certainly wouldn’t mind swapping between stylus and button controls if it meant I could have more control of Maxwell. Finally, levels would be much easier to navigate if somehow you could control the game’s time, for example. Maybe allowing players to rewind, stop, or play a level would make solving some of the difficult puzzle much more manageable and enjoyable, as well as make retrying a level much quicker of a process. These are only a few suggestions to solving the overbearing control problem in the game and I hope to see these implementations in a polished successor to the game.
I am with the majority of fans in being just a little disappointed with the execution of Scribblenauts. Such a brilliant idea could have produced an incredible game; instead, we’re left with something that is fun but oftentimes short lived due to the frustration of the gamer. Nonetheless, Scribblenauts is one of those titles that should be checked out by any gamer and if you can get over the clumsy controls, you’ve got one of the more creative games created in the history of gaming.