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Review: Scribblenauts

Justin McElroy

There's this part I love in the movie Ratatouille where a critic says, "The world is often unkind to new talent, new creations. The new needs friends." It's something I always try to keep in mind and it's moved me to first, before we do anything else, celebrate what a staggering accomplishment Scribblenauts is.

It's a game where you solve simple puzzles with almost any object you can dream up (as long as it's not libations, licensed or lascivious) and every item acts the way you'd expect: bears chase honey and dogs chase cats. It's a game where you can spend hours just messing around to see what creatures can beat God in a fight (zombies: no; vampires: yes). As a technical achievement and as a toy, it's really brilliant. Scribblenauts is a thing of wonder.

Gallery: Scribblenauts (7/24/09) | 3 Photos

There are a couple hundred stages; half that provide a puzzle to solve and half that task you only with finding the "starite" that allows you to complete each stage. They range from the very simple ("refresh a stranger") to the slightly more complex, like when you're tasked with solving a murder. And if all those puzzles aren't enough for you, you can go on to create your own. The seemingly limitless vocabulary of the game offers an insane number of possibilities, often with hilarious results. A personal favorite: I was entreated to "Play ball" with a bat-toting baseball player. Though tossing a baseball at him worked just fine, applying an extra eyeball to my forehead and bum rushing him was also an acceptable solution.

You've no doubt started dreading the drop of the other shoe and, believe me, it was no less heartbreaking when it happened to me as I was playing. As fantastic and magical as it can be, Scribblenauts is hindered, even shackled at times, by some really baffling and awful design choices.

The biggest offender? Maxwell, your main character, is controlled by tapping on the screen where you want him to go, which means a huge loss of precision and plenty of unintended deaths when you're trying to tap an item and accidentally tap empty space. His movement should have been on the control pad, but the control pad is busy controlling the camera, which snaps back to Maxwell at the most inconvenient times, causing you to miss countless interactions that you've set up. Controlling Max with the pad and moving the camera with the stylus is a small change that could have resulted in a significantly more enjoyable game.

But that's not all. Puzzle hints are often frustratingly vague and, should you want to consult the precise wording, you'll have to start the whole stage over. Characters will routinely fail to cross gaps by hopping the one inch onto the bridges you've made for them, preferring instead to kick the bridges into lava, often leading to your death. Hooray!

Solving puzzles nets you "ollars," the game's currency, and the best ollar rewards come from solving the puzzle with the fewest items. Though perhaps the idea was to encourage elegance, it's far more likely to force the player into coming up with the most ham-fisted solution rather than the most creative or outlandish. Why try to force a hen to hatch an egg while you protect it from a dinosaur when you could just shoot the egg with a rifle?

It's not that Scribblenauts is ruined by these choices, it just makes the "game" part really hard to enjoy. Playing around and creating is great fun until the moment you start trying to work within the structure provided. That's when these problems occasionally bring all the joy and pleasure to a sudden, screeching halt.

As a game, it's frustratingly uneven. But as a toy – as a project that's so incredibly ambitious it's hard to believe it works at all – it's unequivocally "the new" and, as such, worthy of celebration and defense. I am, and will continue to be, in awe of Scribblenauts.

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