The game where anything you think of can instantly be created onscreen is back, and now it has multiplayer.
It’s a familiar story for video games: amazing technology that seems almost impossible for the hardware it’s running on, and yet the game itself never manages to be quite as interesting or impressive. Scribblenauts’ tech isn’t focused on graphics but instead an interactive dictionary of over 35,000 words, which you can use to instantly create in-game objects which interact with the virtual world exactly as if they were real. As unlikely as it seems it all worked perfectly on even the lowly Nintendo DS, except it was never as much fun as it sounds.
Scribblenauts was first released in 2009 and took the form of a freeform puzzle game where you were given a fairly vague goal, such as protecting a picnic from ants, and left to figure out a solution (summon an anteater, for example, or build a wall). The trouble is it was usually more fun to mess around on the empty title screen, just magicking objects into existence – especially once the sequels allowed you to add adjectives like ‘evil smelly purple zombie dragon’.
But no matter how powerful the object creator got developer 5TH Cell was never able to create a sufficiently compelling game to use it. They haven’t been involved in the series since 2013 though, and so publisher Warner Bros. has brought on obscure developer Shiver to have one last try at making Scribblenauts a good game, as well as just a good idea…
The set-up here is certainly very different to any of the previous games, as the main Showdown mode is essentially a take on Mario Party, in that you and your fellow players have to move around a board game-like map and compete in randomly selected mini-games. Unlike Mario Party though there are less than 30 different games and it’ll only take an hour or so to see them all (they can also all be played separately in Versus mode).
All the games are two-player, and are split into Wordy and Speed types. In Wordy games you’re rewarded for lateral thinking, such as rubbish to throw into a black hole (the bigger the better), fast-moving animals for a race game, or objects suitable for stacking on a flying carpet.
Incredibly there’s only 12 Wordy games and the other 15 don’t actually use the dictionary at all. They’re so-called Speedy games, that make use of the motion controls and are worryingly reminiscent of the worst of Wii party games as you whack piñatas and blow up balloons.
Apart from the lack of variety in the mini-games, and their general inanity, one of the major problems with playing Scribblenauts on a home console is how much of a pain it is to type out words. You can’t use the Switch’s touchscreen, because it’s a multiplayer game, so instead you have to make do with a peculiar circular keyboard that’s very off-putting to casual gamers and a chore to use.
Given how many objects you can create Scribblenauts has always been a 2D game, which is perfectly understandable. The game’s always had a very floaty physics engine, that prevents any chance of the platforming being any fun on its own, but it still gets away with it because what your avatar is doing is never as interesting as what you can make it conjure into existence.
And that’s why the most entertaining part of Showdown is the eight sandbox stages, which is the closest the game gets to the originals. The sandboxes do have objectives (that go completely unexplained unless you buy hints) but really they’re just somewhere to mess around with your friend, and far more entertaining than the staid restrictions of the mini-games.
But then you’re right back to the original problem with Scribblenauts: once you’ve spent a while trying (and usually failing) to think up something the game can’t create you quickly begin to lose interest. The original games did their best to keep things going with lots of different puzzles, but Showdown is so short of content the asking price seems almost criminal.
But the most perplexing issue here is why Warner thought it worthwhile bringing the franchise back for such a cheap, lacklustre entry. This does nothing to fix the intrinsic problems of the earlier games and offers nothing close to the level of entertainment of even the original DS game. The writing has been on the wall for Scribblenauts for some time now, but this only underlines the flaws rather than fixing any of them.
In Short: One of the most ineffective reboots of recent history, with a game that seems purposefully designed to undermine the unique qualities of the Scribblenauts series.
Pros: The huge dictionary of objects, and the control you have over them, still seems like magic and using them in sandbox mode can be a lot of fun.
Cons: The multiplayer concept is horrible, with only 12 proper word games that you’ll be sick of within the space of an hour. The interface is awkward and discourages experimentation.
Formats: Nintendo Switch (reviewed), Xbox One, and PlayStation 4
Publisher: WB Games
Developer: Shiver Entertainment
Release Date: 9th March 2018
Age Rating: 12
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