Michael Iantorno PhD Candidate, Game Designer, and Writer

Scribblenauts Unlimited Review

ScribblenautsThe original Scribblenauts was a fan favourite for the Nintendo DS. The title graced the handheld console in 2009 and became a sleeper hit for 5th Cell. Although the Nintendo DS had already proven itself at this point (thanks to early successful experiments such as Kirby: Canvas Curse), Scribblenauts consolidated the system’s reputation as a breeding ground for unique and innovative games. The franchise’s clout was tested last winter with the release of Scribblenauts Unlimited as a premiere launch title for the Nintendo Wii U. Reviews have been positive enough for me to try my hand at this new installment, albeit on the PC platform.

For those of you uninitiated to the series, Scribblenauts adheres to a misleadingly simple premise. The lead character Maxwell possesses a magical notebook. Any noun he writes in it immediately comes to life, and he can modify any existing object by adding an adjective to it. Using his syntactical prowess, Maxwell is tasked with solving a series of puzzles in his sunny carefree world. Asides from the omission of copyrighted and adult words, there’s really no limit to what Maxwell can conjure up. It’s apparent that the bulk of development time was assigned to prototyping the exhaustive library of nouns and adjectives, and the controls and aesthetics of the game have progressed little since the DS iteration.

The incremental improvements to gameplay 5th Cell has implemented have helped the game enormously though. Looking back, I can’t imagine how I managed the first Scribblenauts without a keyboard. Typing with a stylus on my Nintendo DS’s tiny touchscreen was serviceable but lacked precision, leading to many clumsy typos. A fully functional keyboard, as well as the pinpoint accuracy of a mouse, speeds up the game substantially. I imagine the Wii U controller offers a strong control scheme as well, at least no worse than typing on your average full-sized touchscreen device.

Scribblenauts

The graphics have remained virtually unchanged since the DS installment, but this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The simple paper cut-out aesthetic matches the innocent childlike demeanour of the game well, and the game runs smooth as butter on my six-year-old rig. This simplicity has also opened the door to a downpour of community additions to the game through the Steam Workshop. Scribblenauts Unlimited has only been released for a few months, and there are already hundreds of fan-created creatures, characters, and objects available through the service. Given the meaty fanbase the franchise has earned, the game’s Steam Workshop will no doubt continue to flourish in the future.

The other big addition to Scribblenauts Unlimited is the expansive open world. Previous titles in the series have been more or less linear, guiding the player along a rail of puzzles in sequential order. Scribblenauts Unlimited instead offers a series of hub locations the player can explore freely, ranging from bustling cityscape to prehistoric jungle to swashbuckling pirate ship. Each area has around ten puzzles to tackle, and the player isn’t obliged to complete them in any particular order. This change accommodates casual play much better than the previous model, allowing players to move on if they’re stuck on a particularly tricky puzzle or if they simply crave a change in scenery.

Not that the former scenario is particularly likely to happen; Scribblenauts Unlimited is an obscenely easy game. The long chains of Rube Goldberg-esque conundrums seen in previous titles have been supplanted by gatling-paced one-shot puzzles. Although the player is granted a nigh-infinite vocabulary to work with, often the simplest nouns and adjectives are the most effective. You’ll find yourself typing words likes fire, water, rope, and wings over and over again, eschewing more interesting words such as black hole, wizard, shoggoth, and helicopter due to the potential collateral damage these nouns might incur in the controlled environment of the puzzle. Granted, some of the puzzles in earlier titles were needlessly convoluted, but 5th Cell’s attempt to streamline the game has swung a little too far in the other direction.

Scribblenauts

Despite the lack of difficulty, there’s still a lot of fun to be had. Conjuring strange creatures and complex machinations on a whim is still a blast even if the puzzles rarely necessitate this level of whimsy. Hours of your life will doubtlessly disappear plying the limitations of your magic notepad, and the puzzles themselves will devour your free time in equal measure – albeit in fifteen minute increments. The game offers great value at its $29.99 price point, a price that is frequently slashed by 50% or more during Steam’s numerous completely outrageous sales.

Scribblenauts Unlimited is an easy recommendation. It’s a great game to unwind with at the end of a long day or between playing other more involved games. It may not be the most challenging title on the block, but its simple premise is still as compelling as it was when it was originally devised. Pick it up on Steam, the 3DS, or the Wii U.

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By Mathew
Michael Iantorno PhD Candidate, Game Designer, and Writer