Scribblenauts: A Missed Opportunity

Yes, I know I said I wouldn’t be buying any more games until I’ve finished all of the titles lying around on The Mantelpiece, but I have an excuse, honest! Last week I went up to Yorkshire to visit my nan, so faced with a 5-hour trip each way, I thought I’d better charge up my iPhone with a few unplayed games before I went. Broken Sword: Director’s Cut was a no-brainer purchase as I’ve been wanting to play through it for years now, but I also spotted that Scribblenauts: Remix was floating around on the App Store for the measly sum of 69p – “I’d buy that for a dollar,” I thought, quoting the memorable line from RoboCop and later Smash TV, and also noting that 69p is approximately equal to one US dollar at today’s exchange rates.

Safely ensconced in the car passenger seat and winging my way up the M1, I booted up Scribblenauts to see what all the fuss is about. The Remix version incorporates stages from both the original Scribblenauts DS game and its sequel Super Scribblenauts, and it also lets you use adjectives, a key improvement that was made in the sequel. If you’re not familar with the game, the basic idea is that you have to help this little chap called Maxwell finish each level by conjuring up various objects to deal with the situations he’s facing. The clever thing is, you can type in almost any word, and whatever you type will appear on the screen and start interacting with the other characters. Type in ‘grumpy dragon’ for example, and all hell breaks loose as a foul-tempered lizard storms around the screen.

It’s a really clever system, and the most fun part of the game is typing in random words (‘possessed toaster’, ‘zombie fridge’) and seeing what pops up. Or even better, seeing who will win in a fight between God and a giant shark (perhaps surprisingly, the giant shark came out on top in that one). However, the way this amazing system is used in the actual game is dull, dull, dull.

Most of the levels take the form of puzzles, where it’s simply a case of guessing what you need to draw – probably the most tedious level in the entire game was one in which you were given a dressmakers dummy and told to conjure up three items of clothing to put on it. Yawn. Of course, I did my best to think up some natty threads for the dummy to wear (‘platform boots’, ‘rainbow kaftan’), but the actual idea behind the level is as dull as ditchwater. And although the dummy escapade was certainly the game’s nadir, most of the levels were afflicted with similarly uninspiring situations.

However, one level in particular showed the game’s true potential. In this level you were tasked with protecting a family from an approaching army of zombies, so suddenly you’re forced to quickly think on your feet and generate not only some form of protection for the family but also some way to dispose of the zombies (my solution: ‘spiked wall’ and ‘lawnmower’, natch). It’s a brilliant level because for once you’re up against a tight time limit, which generates a bit of tension, and you’re also forced to divide your attention between protecting and attacking in the style of the best real-time strategy games. Suddenly you realise the huge potential this game has – what if all the levels were like this? And what if rather than just zombies, there were lots of different types of enemies that all required different strategies to defeat? The possibilities are amazing… so why do the designers think it’s fun just to dress dummies?

In the end it’s a case of “clever idea, shame about the game”. What a pity, it could have been amazing…

[As dictated by Lucius Merriweather.]