Because no beach party should be without a boom box, a giant hypodermic needle, and a sand-Velociraptor wearing a top hat.
It’s very easy to be initially dazzled by Scribblenauts. The first version of Scribblenauts was released on the Nintendo DS, and won several awards for it’s innovative game engine. The main concept of the game was simple: type in a non-proper noun, and see that object/creature appear before your very eyes! On top of that, a simple AI system allowed creatures to interact with each other. Want to finally settle the age-old ninja vs. pirate scenario? Type in “ninja” and place him on one side, then type in “pirate” and place him on the other side. Since both of these people are aggressive by nature, they will automatically start battling to the death. Want to make things interesting? Throw in a zombie or T-Rex!
So what if you want to make a giant zombie T-Rex? This is where the sequel, Super Scribblenauts, raised the bar by adding adjectives to the game. Using various descriptor words you can alter the color, size, attitude, and many other attributes of your creations. For instance, making a Velociraptor is generally a bad idea, as it will instantly try to kill you and anything else that moves on the screen. But typing in “loving pink Velociraptor” will make a silly-looking docile dinosaur that just wants to be friends. Adjectives added a ton more possibilities to an already massively sandboxy game, and is the key feature that convinced me to buy the game for my DS when it came out last year. While fun at first, the
DS version fell far short of it’s potential, and has been collecting dust ever since. Unfortunately, not much has changed in Scribblenauts Remix, a mostly bland iOS port that combines scenarios from both of the original titles while adding just a few new levels.
I’m not surprised that Scribblenauts Remix currently has 5 stars on the iTunes store. As I mentioned above, it’s very easy to initially be impressed by a game that lets you conjure whatever you want and play around with it. Considering that most people write iTunes reviews within the first few minutes of playing a game to try to be in the first few pages on the iTunes Store, I expect that score to decline a bit as people start actually playing the game. As a toy, Scribblenauts is awesome. If the game’s sandbox mode was released as a standalone app for a buck, I would buy it, and it would be well worth it. The replayability is literally endless. The idea of “this thing vs. this thing” is really fun, and often produces surprising results. Unfortunately, as a game, Scribblenauts has always fallen far short of it’s potential, considering the technology and gameplay elements that it introduces. This was the case with both previous incarnations of the game, and is also the case with this version.
Let me first say that my primary gameplay experience has been on the iPhone, but I have also played the game on my iPad. I’m glad that Scribblenauts is a universal app, because if you want a much better experience, you’re going to want to install it on an iPad. The iPad version looks fantastic, with crisp art assets that compliment the bright visuals and
cartoony backgrounds. Oddly, the assets for the iPhone version look like they were brought straight over from the DS version of the game. There is no retina support here. While disappointing, it’s not the end of the world, as Scribblenauts has a sort of 8-bit charm going for it on the DS, and that feeling comes through on the iPhone version much more than the iPad version.
My biggest iPhone complaint has less to do with the visuals, and more to do with the poor touch controls. Moving Maxwell from left to right is easy enough, as you simply tap the left or right side of the screen (there is no jump). There is a delay between tapping the screen and Max actually moving, but that’s forgivable, as this is not a platforming game that requires tricky timing. No, the biggest problem comes with something that is actually important to gameplay: selecting and manipulating objects/creatures you create. I constantly had issues with the game not recognizing what I was trying to select or drag on the screen, and this led to more frustrating moments than I can count. If your finger is anywhere near the protruding pause button at the bottom middle of the screen (an area where you will often be), you won’t select anything, but will accidentally pause the game. No, I don’t have fat fingers. In addition, when you drag your finger to fly around the screen, your finger will hit the edge of the screen before you’re done flying, causing you to constantly have to remove and re-tap the screen- that is, when the top GUI isn’t already getting in the way. The iPad version of the game, with four times the screen real estate, doesn’t suffer from these issues nearly as much, but they are still there.
Scribblenauts is what I would consider a “puzzle platformer” game. You are presented with a small area and a scenario, and it’s up to you to figure out which objects/creatures will help you solve whatever problem presents itself. The game will then judge whether what you created is valid as a solution or not. To be honest, this works pretty well for the most part, but when it doesn’t work, it’s really frustrating. In one scenario, where Maxwell is dressed as the tooth fairy, your
mission is to get a kid to fall asleep, then take his tooth and leave money. I typed in “tranquilizer gun” and shot the kid in the head with a dart- he fell asleep instantly. Awesome! I then grabbed the tooth and dropped the money, only to find that I had only fulfilled two out of the three objectives. When I checked out the hint, it was still focused on getting the kid to sleep. In order to pass the level, I had to restart and create a glass of “warm milk” to get the kid to sleep. A later mission asks you to find three objects that could be a specific color, and to paint them that color. Well, there are plenty of objects in the play area that “could be” a lot of colors, but if you don’t paint the objects the color the developers were thinking of, you instantly fail the level and have to restart. I spent about an hour on this level until I got lucky and was assigned an obvious color. It wasn’t fun.
The concept of Scribblenauts is fantastic. One would think that it would be a great opportunity to think creatively and find different ways of beating levels. The fact is, in many ways Scribblenauts actually discourages that kind of play. Oftentimes you will try something that “should” work in a real setting only to find that the game’s AI doesn’t recognize or interact appropriately. If I need to get a character across a lake, my first thought is to create a boat; but if I get in the boat and the AI character jumps to his death in the water instead, we have a problem. This is the core issue with creating a sandbox game; players aren’t going to always do what developers planned on them doing. That said, a good sandbox game should be open enough to allow players to approach the game from several angles. Scribblenauts sometimes plays like this, but when it doesn’t (which is more often than not), it’s a big let down.
My final complaint stems from an overall lack of polish in Scribblenauts Remix. Sure, the graphics look fine, and the animation is smooth, but there are little things that make this game feel like it was rushed to the App Store. The biggest tell to me is the inclusion of “Ollers” (in-game currency) that can’t be spent. That’s right, throughout the game you’re gaining money, and even after beating every single one of the 50 levels, there is no store to spend it in. In the DS version Ollers allowed you to purchase fun new characters and costumes, and added a light level of customization to the game. Not so here. Another oddly missing feature is any fanfare for beating levels, worlds, or even the game. In all cases you are simply taken back to the level selection screen, which doesn’t give you any descriptions of which level is which. If you wanted to replay a previous level, you have to randomly start levels until you found the one you were looking for.
All the negative aside, when Scribblenauts does work as you expect it to, it absolutely shines. More than once I was pleasantly surprised by the outcome of my creations, and while it wasn’t nearly as often as I would have liked, I had a few really fun moments in the game. One of these came in a level where I had to save two civilians who were fleeing from zombies. I immediately made a “large wall” to protect the people on the safe side. After this, I decided to create a T-Rex to eat the zombies – no go, because they turned the T-Rex into a zombie T-Rex! I then typed “God”, and a kind-looking old man with a white beard showed up. Before he could do anything, he got infected too! Luckily, he was a God-zombie, and he promptly lit everything on fire with his God-zombie powers. lol.
I will always applaud 5th Cell for stepping out and trying to create a truly creative sandbox game experience. It takes balls to make a game like Scribblenauts, and a helluva lot of planning and development. That said, so far none of the Scribblenauts games have lived up to the huge potential brought forth with a “create anything” game engine. The majority of the levels are either extremely easy, far too linear, or frustratingly difficult due to the world not reacting as you would expect. To quote my girlfriend “I felt like I was working Scribblenauts more than I was playing it.” It’s true, most of my time spent playing through the mission scenarios was boring and/or tedious. Generally, it wasn’t until the final set of “in-depth” levels (added for the iOS release) that things got interesting.
Scribblenauts may be worth buying simply for the sandbox mode, which works as a great time sink if you’re bored on the go or waiting in line somewhere. As far as the game itself goes, don’t expect to be challenged much, or pushed to solve puzzles in truly creative ways. I imagine that more than anything this game will be fun for younger kids, and could work as a great tool to help them learn about spelling and vocabulary while thinking creatively. I’m still waiting for a sequel that will actually take advantage of the huge amount of potential the Scribblenauts engine presents. While not a great game, I’m satisfied knowing that at any moment I can gleefully watch almost anything I can imagine battle it out on my iOS device. Robot Santa vs Zombie Satan? Done. Shiny Pink Triceratops vs Massive Ice Dragon? No contest. Scribblenauts Remix vs the TouchGen Star Rating?