Scribblenauts, unlike its somewhat confusing title, is blissfully simple. Free of banal narrative distraction and overly complex controls, players step into the shoes of little Maxwell as he strives to tackle more than 200 puzzling situations across a succession of themed two-dimensional worlds, all of which offer glistening Starite rewards for Maxwell, and performance-based cash Ollars for the player. Could 'simple' be any more accurately defined?
Actually, yes it could, and a thorough gameplay explanation is required to fully convey that definition. Moreover, puzzles open with a gentle camera sweep across the level, followed by a helpful hint window that prods the player's incentive gland and helps spark the flames of invention. From here, the player need only bring up the game's touch-screen keypad and manually type in whatever the puzzle requires in order to complete it. See, simple. Or is it?
For example, one of the first puzzles dropped before the player places Maxwell in a desert environment containing a boulder, some dunes, a blazing hot sun, and a distressed young chap wandering about aimlessly - with the hint merely stating that the sun-soaked fellow needs to be refreshed. The obvious solution is to conjure up a drink, and entering 'drink' into the keypad will see a suitably refreshing cocktail suddenly appear in the centre of the touch screen. Using the DS stylus to drag the drink over to the dehydrated geezer prompts a brief interaction animation between drink and man, a few big gulps, a happy mood icon, and a Starite pat on the back for Maxwell.
However, that's not the only way to accomplish the puzzle's goal, and the application of creativity is encouraged as more and more exchangeable Ollars are on offer if players return to individual puzzles and solve them differently multiple times. As such, entering 'rain cloud' will successfully deliver the required level of refreshment, as will 'swimming pool' or 'geyser' or 'hose pipe' or 'shower cubicle' or 'sprinkler'. You get the idea.
With players successfully hooked by the basic gameplay of Scribblenauts (and you will be hooked), quick and easy solutions become gradually harder to come by as increasingly layered puzzles demand multiple items be brought into the game world and that players think so far out of the box they're no longer able to see the damn thing - but in a good way.
Again, by way of example, a later puzzle challenges Maxwell to return a lost lamb to its flock, which is made more difficult because an open expanse of water separates said family of sheep, with the flock on one side, and the lamb on a raised ridge on the other. And, just to add a little extra spice, a hungry wolf perches on the water's edge on the lamb's side. The obvious solution, which is to give Maxwell a gun to shoot the wolf with and then create a bridge, won't work here because any form of gunfire or explosion frightens the flock and the puzzle terminates prematurely. So, what to do?
After many, many, many, failed attempts and a long stream of mumbled expletives, this Scribblenauts player created a hot-air balloon for Maxwell and floated him across to the stricken lamb. Once hovering above the scared woolly wanderer, Maxwell was then handed a lasso before a quick stylus drag from lasso to lamb saw the Sunday dinner-in-waiting lifted safely above the snapping wolf's jaws, across the water, and back to its happy shepherd.
Surprisingly complex and massively challenging, Scribblenauts developer 5th Cell (Drawn to Life) has created more than 20,000 items for the game and has tweaked the gameplay with two different modes. Puzzle Mode awards the Starite upon completion, while Action Mode shows the Starite on screen from the start and tasks Maxwell and the player to simply reach it - which is not nearly as easy as it sounds.
Scribblenauts also offers up an intriguing Level Editor - a la LittleBigPlanet - that enables players to use unlocked theme templates to create, script, save and share new puzzles via a Nintendo Wi-Fi connection. Accessible and easy, the editing tool in Scribblenauts may never gain any significant user traction, not least because not many people will actually buy the game, but it's certainly a worthy distraction to combat those moments when the default puzzle worlds are threatening the player with an imminent cranial implosion.
While there's no denying the appeal of Scribblenauts in terms of its originality and mobile longevity, its delivery is not without flaws on a quite fundamental level. Specifically, items brought into the world may or may not be useful, and only stylus experimentation on the player's part will reveal how, say, a construction crane or a fishing rod can be used. Not having the game hold the player's hand by way of constant explanation is all well and good, but an arrow-based pointer system, colour-coded sections, or an optional related hint message would have been preferable to the frustration associated with often not knowing how to interact with items.
Trading on its concrete cute factor, we'll ignore the fact that Maxwell is somewhat twitchy and unpredictable, which can see him overreacting to even small stylus gestures, disrupting carefully placed items, or rushing to his demise while scurrying about environments. However, we can't really turn a blind eye to occasionally shoddy physics and dodgy collision detection, which rear up depending on how created items decide to interact with elements already located within the game world. Granted, these core deficiencies are not complete deal breakers, but they do blemish the game as a whole considering its seemingly bottomless pit of invention and its irresistible likeability.
Ultimately, what starts as a giggle-inducing breath of fresh air eventually gives way to such a near-insurmountable level of head-scratching challenge that many budding scribblers will slam shut the DS well before unlocking all ten of the game's themed worlds. That being said, those able to fully wring their imaginations and actively apply weird solutions will keep coming back for more in one of the year's most charming and rewarding portable puzzlers.