2009 saw the release of Scribblenauts.
The E3 sleeper-hit wowed critics with its ambition and potential, leading to its naming as the ‘Best Of Show’ by several major gaming websites. On release there were criticisms of the clumsy stylus-controlled character movement and the limited use of its nouns, but it still stood as an imaginative title and a worthy addition to 5th Cell’s understated DS catalogue.
A year later (almost to the day) comes the second instalment. As promised, Super Scribblenauts wears its biggest development proudly in its platform-appropriate prefix. Scribblenauts is now Super Scribblenauts, bridges can be conveniently large bridges and attractive pregnant Cthulus are not out of the question.
5th Cell are also not shy to present their game’s second biggest improvement. New players are asked on start-up whether they wish to control by stylus or D-pad, and once they have made the choice between playability and masochism they are immediately free to mine the games’ depths in the menu screen’s ever popular sandbox.
The association and experimentation on offer in this mode is as engaging as ever, but it’s actually in the previously criticised levels where Scribblenauts now truly showcases its expanded capabilities. Here, frustrating action levels take a back-seat as more wordplay-orientated puzzle levels encourage you to test the limits of the game’s dictionary. Through entertaining variations of missing-link puzzles you discover that Scribblenauts’ strength is not in its expansive vocabulary, nor the transformative effects of its new modifiers, but in the intricate relationships the designers have threaded between words. Scissors are recognised as the tools of a seamstress, SWAT vans as a policeman’s means of transport – no longer are you asked to find a round peg for a round hole, you’re now actively encouraged to challenge the game’s knowledge of round objects.
When Scribblenauts is in full flow it offers a smooth experience which allows you to deviate from often the obvious solution and still have your more inventive suggestions acknowledged. It falters only when you’re exploration leads you to bump into its invisible walls. Sometimes this is due to its over-protective censorship, where dinner table friendly words like ‘alcohol’ and ‘sexy’ are prudishly ignored, forcing older gamers to adopt a child’s vocabulary to progress, yet often even innocent words can escape the dictionary’s reach, restricting you to the game’s solution. Irritating blind-spots abound, where words like ‘adventurous’ are crossed through where the accepted ‘adventureful’ will lead linguists reaching for Scrabble dictionary. While minor details, the fact is the joy of the game is in the otherwise insignificant distinction between ‘paramedic’ and ‘doctor’ and when this small creative autonomy is removed the illusion of boundless experimentation is shattered.
Other complaints include the action levels which still stand as black marks on Maxwell’s record. The D-pad’s vastly increased control helps the navigation of them, but that only highlights that the real flaw is how unsuitable Maxwell is as a platforming protagonist. His flailings during finesse missions often lead to defeats that have nothing to do with your lack of invention and one wonders why 5th Cell included these levels at all. Small glitches where objects behave erratically can also hamper your progress but these do not completely ruin the addictive nature of the puzzle levels and the game can be eagerly ploughed through in a couple of hours. A good problem to have perhaps – especially considering the previous game, where interest waned long before the levels did – but it would have been good to see some of the depth of the mechanics included in the stages as well.
Super Scribblenauts’ slogan boasts ‘Create anything. Solve everything.’ and while the sentiment is exciting the reality is unfortunately more limited. What remains is an impressive toybox that delivers on the promise of genuine creativity better than any game this side of Minecraft. Owners of the previous iteration will find genuine improvements, albeit ones which stretch the boundaries rather than break through them. Hopefully 5th Cell will one day have the opportunity to add further complexity which will allow the concept to escape its simplistic format. As it stands Super Scribblenauts is an engaging title which sparks the imagination and invites children to play with words rather than pocket monsters. Hours of fun can be had playing in its sandbox, just be aware that you must stay in the playground to do so.