Puzzle games come in many shapes, but few ideas are as endlessly creative as the one at the core of Scribblenauts. 5Th Cell, the studio behind this series, already earned their fame with Drawn to Life, an adventure game where players had to draw their own devices. With Scribblenauts they took it in a whole other direction; they decided to do all the art themselves and promptly drew every conceivable item in existence.
What is Scribblenauts
If you could have anything in the world at a moment’s notice, what would you pick? That question is at the heart of Scribblenauts, 5th Cell’s puzzle game series that tests players’ creativity and vocabulary. The core idea behind the games is that you play a little guy called Maxwell who has to collect Starites, with the first two games having no story, whereas in the third game he needs them to save his cursed sister. Starites are his reward for completing simple puzzles, which he solves by writing in his notebook what he needs to solve it.
Players literally open up this notebook and type in what they want to make, then move it around, give it to an NPC, or use it themselves. The first two games used mission select screens and were exclusive to the DS where they enjoyed limited popularity. With the third entry, aptly titled “Unlimited”, players entered small sandboxes where they could seek out missions themselves. This, the improved graphics, and the move to PC and the Wii U proved successful and Unlimited gained a lot more attention.
The series was then expanded further with a tie-in game called Scribblenauts Unmasked, which brought the familiar gameplay to the DC comic book universe. It was not reviewed here since it’s a side-game and I have never read a DC comic book in my entire life, but it received generally favorable reviews and isn’t far behind Unlimited on Metacritic.
Scribblenauts has creativity at its front and center. Each puzzle the player faces has multiple solutions, like asking players to set up a farm and create the objects and creatures needed to make it work. The challenge lies in the player having enough vocabulary to put the solution together.
This gives the game educational value for young kids developing their language skills and allows older gamers to have fun seeing how crazy of a solution the game will accept. The games are also easygoing, allowing players to progress with only a portion of any level’s challenges completed, but tossing a bone to whoever goes through the work to complete them anyway. This is mostly done so the games can include a number of tough puzzles and strange situations that a portion of the audience might not understand, such as the series’ ongoing fascination with putting Lovecraftian creatures in their levels or the infamous stage that asks players to re-enact a scene from Back to the Future.
The games are also filled with comedy, both planned and incidental. From the unexpected ways in which created objects can interact to the bizarre scenarios you end up in, these games made me laugh many times. I have participated in a duel between witches, held the line while civilians escaped a zombie apocalypse, and appeased the ghosts haunting a mansion. While these fantastic moments were spaced out with a few boring puzzles from time to time, you can easily skip those if you’re not after 100% completion and seek out the highlights.
Oh boy the controls in these games are terrible. While by the time Unlimited rolled around it became somewhat better, the series has always been tainted by Maxwell being an unstable protagonist, prone to randomly jumping around and knocking over important components of the puzzle. While a bother in the normal puzzles, this also made the “action” stages frequently unplayable, until they were all but phased out in Unlimited.
While it is admirable that this crazy idea for a game works to begin with, it is never fun when you and the game misunderstand each other and you can’t get it to make what you want or the item you get doesn’t quite do what it should. Because of that, and for many other reasons, you’ll often find it a little too easy to just default back to old and proven solutions for puzzles.
Despite the positive reception that Unlimited and Unmasked enjoyed, Warner Bros. opted to cancel a mobile game that 5th Cell was working on, leading to some nasty layoffs. Since then, the studio has been mostly silent. In 2015 they attempted a crowdfunding campaign for a free-to-play game, but only ended up raising a fifth of their $500,000 goal. Whether or not we’ll hear much from them in the future is up in the air, and if we’ll ever see Scribblenauts again is even more uncertain.