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The most talked about DS game at this year’s E3 wasn’t another installment in a popular and established franchise, but instead a strikingly original title from the creators of the Drawn to Life series, 5th Cell. In the same spirit as their million-seller, Scribblenauts relies heavily on the creativity of the player. Armed with tens of thousands of words, you must solve puzzles that range from moving a cow off the road to saving people from a horde of hungry zombies. If you can think it, you can do it.
Players control the rooster hat-wearing Maxwell, a kid that always has a smirk and curiously wear shorts with long sleeves. Maxwell is thrown into hundreds of levels with one simple goal: find and obtain an object called a starite. In order to do this, the player must summon objects by writing them via a mini-keyboard or by spelling them out (trust me, it’s easier to just use the keyboard). Objects will then appear in the level to help, or in some cases, hurt you. The game boats tens of thousands of objects, and 5th Cell has done a remarkable job including pretty much everything you can think of. Practical objects like bridges, ladders, and boxes are in the game, but it also has every kind of obscure animal, vehicle, or instrument you can think of. The game is also filled with a lot of bizarre and nerdy objects such as internet memes (lol wut is a personal favorite), Lovecraftian monsters, mythological creatures, giant robots and everything in between. Is a helibackpack a real thing? It doesn’t matter, it’s in the game and can be quite useful.
Editor's note: Grant is a Scribblenauts freak and claimed this game months ago. Check out his first hour review of it to read about some of the early puzzles in detail.
5th Cell absolutely delivers when it comes to the sheer amount of things you can use in the game. Many objects use similar sprites, but it is genuinely surprising how many uniquely designed items are in Scribblenauts. The animate objects also have rather unique interactions, such as a vampire being scared of garlic. Part of the fun is seeing how creatures will react with each other. Throw a ring in between a Halfling, dwarf, and elf and see what happens. There are tons of little quirks and secrets that will garner some laughs, such as ink turning any object purple and using a mirror to decapitate Medusa. The game has a solid physics engine, so objects stack up and bounce off of each other accordingly. Sometimes it can be a bit wonky such as driving upside down, but it really adds a lot to the game. Scribblenauts is immediately playable from the title screen, allowing you to spend hours just playing around and testing things you might want to use in the actual levels.
Trying to stump the game and marveling at all the wacky things you can write is fun, but the real focus of the game is the puzzles. There are two types of stages: action and puzzle. Action stages have the starite already visible, and it is up to you to traverse whatever treacherous terrain 5th Cell tosses you in and grab the starite. Puzzle stages do not have the starite visible, but instead require you to fulfill a requirement before it spawns. A typical action stage will have you go to a hard to find area while fighting enemies ranging from witches to the Flatwoods Monster and maybe flip a switch or two a long the way. They are labeled action stages, but there is quite a bit of puzzle solving here and most of the action stages are not focused purely on combat or platforming. Puzzle stages require more thinking and are typically based around summoning more items that are more specific to the scenario presented. Out of the two, the action levels are usually superior, but the puzzle levels are still immensely entertaining. Most levels can be solved in under a minute, which encourages replay and allows players to mess up horribly without wasting too much time.
The levels are varied and have a great sense of humor. One level has you fighting enemies who look suspiciously like the Helghast from Killzone while Ceiling Cat looks on, while another has you recreate a scene from Back to the Future. Scribblenauts has ten worlds covering everything from a stunt park to the wilderness, and each level has eleven action stages and eleven puzzle stages, making for 220 total (although there are a few secret ministages that include the developers’ office). While the setting and goals for the level are different enough, there are some objects that can be easily abused. Most action levels can be solved with a flying mount such as a Pteranodon, glue, a lasso, a weapon, an invincible monster like a blob, an electric object to kill water foes, and a large bridge. While it is ultimately up to the player to decide what objects to use, it is simply too easy to cheat through many of the levels. Yeah, you could find some creative Rube Goldberg-esque way to get past all of these explosive barrels, or you could just use a black hole to suck them up. While 5th Cell should be praised for allowing people to solve the puzzles in a variety of ways, there were very few puzzles that truly stumped me. The puzzle stages can’t be abused as easily, but they still aren’t that challenging. To truly test the players, 5th Cell included an advanced mode that unlocks after you beat each level. Advanced mode levels require the player to solve the same stage three times, except objects used in one solution cannot be used in another solution. This is where the game can really shine, but once again you can abuse objects that are the same yet have similar names (glue/adhesive/tape, Pteranodon/Pteradactyl/Pterosaur).
Other features include a store to buy new avatars for your character and songs in the sound test, but the truly interesting mode is the Level Editor. You can pick any level in the game and then design it from scratch, using the level’s layout. That means you can only add objects and not adjust terrain, but there are hundreds of levels in the game so there should be a terrain close to what the player might envision. These can be shared with friends, but only via friend codes. This is a disappointment as it prevents the game from having a sizable online community that share creative levels that would probably garner a lot of buzz and attention like some of the more impressive levels in Little Big Planet.
The game has a simplistic but endearing art style that really adds to the light-hearted atmosphere of the entire game. Cthulhu still looks scary, but also a little cute. The music, which sounds like cheery anthems, also contributes to the game’s style. The soundtrack can be a bit monotonous as songs sound rather similar and as there are only about forty songs but over two hundred levels, you will definitely hear them more than once.
Another often talked about aspect of the game is the controls. They are completely stylus based except for the camera, which is controlled via the D-Pad. The controls are not as game-breakings as reported, as they were designed to tap where you want Maxwell to go instead of dragging them over the screen. Maxwell is fast and finicky, and he will jump to his death on more than one occasion. But once you realize that the game is not designed to be an action platformer, you will learn how to move objects and the main character. Attaching objects to other objects, such as a rope to a person, can be a pain as the physics engine can be a bit too gravity-defying. The camera can be a problem, as it can abruptly jerk back to Maxwell. You will enter this scenario more than once: you move the camera and want to place an object in a certain part of the level, but when you summon the object, the camera spins back to Maxwell right as you are about to touch and drag the item, causing you to send Maxwell running into lava or spikes or a polar bear. There are so many unused buttons that it really makes one wonder why 5th Cell would have such a clumsy control scheme. It is still manageable however, and is by no means something that would ruin the experience.
Scribblenauts is without a doubt of one of the quirkiest, most amusing gaming experiences since Katamari Damacy. It is the next big cult franchise, so prepare to see people cosplaying as Maxwell at your local anime convention. It’s been a long time since I was actually impressed by a game, and Scribblenauts managed to do that solely through its creativity and execution of its ambitious core idea. The game creates a unique conundrum as it’s only as good as the creativity of the player. Someone could summon black holes every level and quickly grow bored, while another would try the most complex and off the wall solution and find joy in beating even the simplest of puzzles. While not flawless, Scribblenauts is a fantastic entry into the Nintendo DS’s unique gaming library.