So…this is it. The last game that I will warn you about secretly sucking. From here on out, you’re on your own. And I must warn you: This is incredibly long. The main reason that it took me so long to get around to another secretly sucky game is because I had this monstrosity waiting in the queue and I had no way to edit down the bile. Every single piece of hate in this article is needed to fully draw out the unmitigated, unparalleled failure of this game. So sit down, grab some food, a large beverage, and a Sherpa Indiana guide because there is no easy way to navigate the atrocity you are about to experience.
Of all the games that secretly suck, Scribblenauts is without a doubt the sneakiest. It is a game so secretly sucky that it has snuck its way into nearly every DS-owning house across America and is right now rearranging your sock drawer and hitting on your girlfriend. The way the game industry had been hyping up this game, you would have thought it came packaged with the cure to the common cold and dispensed money and bacon at your every whim. It didn’t stop at just hype; nearly every single reviewer I’ve read has praised Scribblenauts so highly that it has made their children jealous and I’m almost positive that they tuck in their copy of the game at night and read it stories, tussling its hair until it falls asleep. Even GameCola, or “the most trusted name in videogame news” according to the New York Times, was at the front of the line when it came to lavishing praise upon the game. Our incessant celebration of the game eventually culminated in a year-end award for Scribblenauts as the best portable title in 2009, and a restraining order for us after we kept showing up at 5th Cell’s headquarters with flowers and threats that we wouldn’t be ignored.
I’ve never been able to reconcile what I had read about the game with what I had actually played. It was like I got a leaflet from someone offering me hollowed out bars of gold filled with Cadbury Cream Eggs, but when I went to pick it up I got a used napkin and a slap in the face. I still have yet to solve the mystery over what sort of hypnotic power this game had over the other reviewers, but all I know is that what I played was one of the single most banal, least interesting, and most frustrating games I have ever come across and would only recommend it getting it as a gift for someone whose heart you desperately wanted to break.
It is my every wish that what he is writing is a suicide note.
You play as a character named Maxwell, whose mother was a mutated mole person and whose father was a brick. He has a giant, unnaturally oversized oval head that is roughly the size of the rest of his body and makes him look like he’s suffering from the late stages of some sort of inoperable brain tumor. When he walks, his arms flail back and forth like he’s either an eight year old girl or had both shoulders ripped from the socket at some point in his life and the doctors never operated on him because his giant head kept slipping off the operating table. As this abomination of nature, it is your job to go around collecting starites because…well, just because. It usually isn’t a good sign when the entire story of the game can be summed up in a zoetrope, where this particular one could just feature Maxwell jumping up and down like a spaz before the zoetrope glitches and Maxwell passes through the floor.
The big draw for Scribblenauts was the promise you could write anything you wanted and then use it to solve a variety of puzzles. And here is the sole good thing I will say about Scribblenauts: It is ambitious. The promise you can write anything is largely fulfilled. The game has a dictionary of over 20,000 words, which is amazing considering how much time must have gone into animating everything they could think of. However, building a playground entirely out of pretzels is also ambitious, but this doesn’t preclude it from being a terrible idea. Ambition in game design does not equate to fun, which is particularly appropriate because fun is one of the few words that the interface seems to be unfamiliar with. Yeah, I kind of anticipated the developers wouldn’t be able to identify fun when they thought the dictionary would make a good game. We are free to create things to the limit of our imagination, but without a solid game built around it, this amounts to little more than having an incredible superpower, but only being able to use it to mow the law and wash the dishes.
The worst thing about Scribblenauts is that it features some of the most abysmal controls I’ve ever encountered in anything. A broken remote control car with only one wheel located inside a working washing machine has better controls, if only for the fact that it doesn’t run around and smash into other things you were trying to put together. Somebody making the game thought it would be a great idea to do everything with the touch screen interface, so the d-pad and buttons move the camera around, while the touch screen is used to do everything else. Move something around on screen? Touch it and drag it. Move Maxwell? Touch the screen. Attack something? Touch it. Grab something? Touch it. Anybody who isn’t suffering from some sort of traumatic head injury should be able to figure out why this is an awful idea, which makes me genuinely concerned for the well being of the staff at 5th Cell because for some reason this went completely unnoticed by them. It would be like making a fighting game where the X button kicks, punches, throws, and performs special moves depending on which context it is used, while all of the other functional buttons on the controller are used to adjust the brightness on the screen. This entire system leaves the game an absolute mess to control, making the game frustrating and almost unplayable. I can’t fathom how this passed quality control, and the most logical conclusion is that all of the play testers were from the 1800s, and were too shocked by seeing magical moving pictures on a screen to comment on the fact that it controls like a horse-drawn carriage where the horses have been replaced by a herd of feral donkeys and the carriage was actually a butterchurn with a wheel at the bottom.
Also, in a twist of fate I found particularly funny (in a depressing way), while 80% of the buttons on the DS seem relegated to controlling the camera, the camera itself is still a burden to manipulate. The thing scrolls obnoxiously slow, as if it was an old camera from another game that has gotten on in years and can’t move above the pace of a relaxing stroll. The levels aren’t even that big, but I still felt like I was stuck behind some elderly individual driving ten miles under the speed limit in a no passing zone. The camera also appears to be in love with Maxwell, because it gravitates right back to him if left alone for too long. Whenever I was trying to survey the area ahead and plan out what I wanted to use, the camera would get bored and want to go back to see how Maxwell was doing. I felt like I had the leash on an easily distracted dog, and while I was trying to walk it ahead, it kept on wanting to run back to the trash bins we walked past a couple of minutes ago.
I have no idea what is going on in these screens, but I guarantee no one is having fun.
Moving Maxwell is cumbersome by itself, as you do little more than give him a general direction to fling his body at, which he only takes as sort of a vague suggestion anyway. Add in any sort of difference in terrain or object in his way and Maxwell completely loses his mind, jumping up and down at the barrier like he’s throwing a temper tantrum. He also has a habit of sometimes completely overshooting the point you wanted him to go to, before running back and forth around it in what appears to be an effort to drive me to murder. This is just annoying in most scenarios, but if you were trying to get him close to a ledge, there is a chance that he’ll just leap over it to his death because he too is trying to escape the monotony of the game. Why I don’t have the option to control the game with the d-pad is completely beyond me, and I can only guess that the people working at 5th Cell are actually part of the American Medical Association and are trying to get people to give up on videogames and spend more time outside instead.
And all of this is just trying to move Maxwell by himself. Start trying to place objects around and you really have a party. Combining things is cumbersome enough, and made all the more entertaining by the fact that if you are trying to position an object and accidentally click on the back screen, Maxwell interprets this as a sign of you wanting him to come running to where you just tapped, and knock over everything you had been trying to put together. They could have just allocated the X button as the “mess up whatever you were just working on button” but as it exists as part of the touch interface, Maxwell will often play the role of hypercaffeinated bull in a china shop that is made out of china itself. And as there is no jump button, if you happen to have Maxwell carrying something he needs, tapping upwards to get him to jump results in him performing the desired action around 25% of the time, and the other percentage of the time spent dramatically heaving whatever object you wanted him to hold off of the nearest ledge with that soulless smile on his face like he is enjoying messing everything up. Oh, and clicking near Maxwell when he is riding a vehicle picks up the vehicle in question and makes him immediately vacate it with nary a care as to how large and monster-filled the pit below him is. So, if you happen to be navigating him through a somewhat narrow corridor (which you will) and you try to get him around some sort of impediment by tapping too close to where he is already positioned (which you will), he will jump off and kill himself out of spite for your poor navigational skills.
But, let’s say for the sake of argument that 5th Cell hired some folk to test the game, and that these people had full use of their eyes, hands, and mouth, and someone was able to communicate to 5th Cell that an entirely touch screen based interface is incredibly stupid when there are actual useful buttons all over the DS. And in this fantasy scenario, the designers for 5th Cell were all amazingly competent and designed controls that were so perfect and intuitive that even newborn babies and the elderly would have no problem guiding Maxwell around without having to worry about the touch screen doing its best to kill you at every turn. This still wouldn’t fix the fact that things don’t interact the way they should because most of the objects themselves are either incredibly glitchy or operate on some sort of bizarre logic that further solidifies my belief that the designers were on some pretty heavy medication when making the game. Apparently, most of the objects in the game are terrified of ropes, because attaching a rope to anything is a good way to summon whatever demon happens to be possessing it, at is is almost guaranteed to start moving. Placing things on top of other things or attaching two things together is a great way to ruin an afternoon, and everything in this game acts like it is magnetized. Things start vibrating and moving around all weird and nothing interacts as smoothly as it should. Of course, even if you do manage to set up whatever you are trying to set up, you still have to deal with Maxwell coming over and using whatever you want him to use without him just crashing through it.
Scribblenauts: All the fun of playing with 20,000 broken toys!
This doesn’t even include the variety of objects that act in ways that would make even the most open-minded of physicists burst out into tears. For example, you can stack multiple ladders on top of each other without even having to lean them against anything, and if you don’t see anything wrong with this I’d like you to stack two ladders on top of each other, climb to the top, and see what is the minimum amount of bones you can break in one fall. Buildings also act quite strangely, in that they inhabit the backdrop of the scene, so if you were hoping to drop a theatre on a movie critic you are out of luck. However, you can’t get anything to go in front of the building, and if you drag anything to place in front of it, the building just sucks it up because apparently the buildings are as ravenous as everything else in the game. And even if things do interact in the way they are supposed to, they only do so in the most cursory of ways. For example, people can only be scared, attack, eat, or walk back and forth, giving the A.I. a complexity only somewhat above that of an alarm clock. There are only one or two animations for interacting with the multitude of items in the game, so everything just looks very phony and slapdash. Fights commence by the two characters running up against each other with all the strategy of bumper cars until one disappears in a cloud of dust and failure. I blame all of this on the overambition of the developers, because when you have over 20,000 different objects to animate that can interact with each other, of course everything is going to look terrible and interact in a way that is either entirely superficial or completely broken. It would be like if you were assigned to learn a language, but instead you thought you’d just go out and learn every language ever spoken by man. Sure, the ambition here is impressive, but the fact is that everyone else is going to be able to speak their one language fluently while you only know two to three phrases for each, like “hello” or “where is the bathroom” or “excuse me, but my movement physics are terrible and I’m sorry for crashing through the ladder and into the lava”.
And this doesn’t even cover all of the glitches that can either instantly kill you, freeze the game, or propel you to the end of the level on accident. In one level with a moving airplane with a starite dangling from the bottom of it, I attached ropes to a house, and eventually connected it to the plane. Thus, I made I nice easy path by which I could go pick up the starite. However, my genius was apparently too much for the game, because it was so in awe that it just stopped working entirely. Repeated attempts did nothing to mitigate the awe, because it froze every time. I’ve had Maxwell run through tornadoes on accident, bumping up against it until the tornado finally got bored and Maxwell just phased through. These sorts of glitches occur far too frequently, and the rate at which it happens has to be an embarrassment to whoever coded this game. Certain things tend to fly across the screen, phase through walls, or move by themselves, and even repeated exorcisms performed on the game did nothing to quell the demons. There are just so many errors throughout the game that it starts to get rather funny, and I began to suspect I was playing some sort of informative game on how not to design. Like a bad B-movie, at least Scribblenauts provides some entertainment on the hilarious failure front.
If Scribblenauts were a movie, it’d be Sharktopus.
But let’s go even deeper into fantasy here. Let’s say that by some divine miracle, 5th Cell was staffed by thousands of the best game programmers known to man, and their boss was mercilessly cruel and denied them sick days and maternity leave. And in this dream scenario, everything interacted beautifully with each other, the glitches were completely removed, and even the most jaded gamer would be impressed by the intricacy of the game. This doesn’t change the fact that the levels are incredibly poorly designed and the game itself is downright boring. So even when the game is operating at its absolute best and you somehow get through a couple of levels without cursing the interface, the very best the game achieves is complete boredom, which I have to say is pretty depressing. There are 220 total levels in the game, but after a while they all start to feel the same. The action levels have you getting through a variety of enemies or mines or Rick Rolls to get to the starite, while the puzzle levels usually involve little more than bringing object x to person y, and sometimes you have to avoid thing z. The levels are all small and cramped, and reuse to many of the same concepts and ideas, causing the game to get stale almost immediately.
The objectives in some of the levels are sometimes ill-defined, and you can fail without having any idea why. Certain levels won’t let you kill anyone, and they only tell you that about a tenth of the time. There was one level where I had to get past a bully with a little girl, and the level was quickly solved with my handy puzzle-solving bazooka (not to be confused with my no-nonsense action-level-clearing bazooka). However, right before I move on to grab what I need, the failure screen pops up, probably just as confused as I was. Apparently part of the clear conditions were that I left the bully unharmed, but the game just never got around to telling me this. Things like that need to be clearly delineated, and you can’t just forget to include important details like whether or not enemies can be killed. So, then I got the bright idea of handcuffing the bully to a nearby vending machine, and in a move that pretty much epitomizes my experience with the game, doing so sucked him into the vending machine. I don’t know what sort of experience the developers had with handcuffs and vending machines, but apparently something traumatizing happened to someone at some point if this is how they think handcuffs work. I don’t see why this is any better, as now I’ve trapped the guy inside the vending machine, and unless somebody comes along and selects B5 it doesn’t look like he’s going to get out. So, all at once I got poorly defined objectives, glitchy interface, and bizarre interactions that work on some sort of logic inherent to only the developers at 5th Cell. Thanks for summing up my entire experience with the game at once, guys.
Contributing to the extreme dullness of the game is the fact that it is just way too easy. Having the ability to write whatever you need makes it feel like you have access to the level editor, and the game doesn’t really ever come up with any way to halt your process (other than the controls and interface). Almost all of the action levels can be solved by spawning a black hole of death to take out all the enemies and just sauntering over to the starite. By the fourth or fifth level, I figured out I could glue a bird to the starite and it would fly it over to me if led, and at this point I began to feel like I was cheating. I don’t think I’m particularly smart, but I breezed through all the levels without ever having to give it much thought. Puzzle levels are frequently solved by using Pegasus and some rope to carry whatever you need, and the diversity in goals is just not enough to keep the game interesting. So many solutions can be used over and over that the game just becomes routine. Death, Pegasus, rope, repeat. The basic concept here seems flawed; the challenge in most games is figuring out how to get through the levels using the limited resources provided by the developers. I feel like I have the ability to hack into the game now, and the levels have all of the difficulty of playing through a game with all the cheat codes on. It feels almost kind of cute when they put enemies in levels, like they didn’t figure out that giving us the ability to summon infinite creatures sort of makes the whole enemy thing unnecessary. I’m walking my pet Shoggath around the levels; why are the two Samurais considered an impediment? It’s like they entered me in a footrace, but then let me drive around in a car if I wanted and never let the rest of the competitors know they could use one too.
Here’s the solution to half of the puzzles in the game. You’re welcome.
There are a couple of other modes available, but neither is any fun. There is a sort of free play sandbox mode at the title screen, allowing you to put in whatever you want and seeing how it interacts with your other creations. When I first started the game, I fiddled around in here for the first thirty minutes or so, and it was literally the only time I was mildly amused by the game. It is pretty funny the first time you spawned a Yeti or a virgin, but the whole thing begins to wear thin when you try to make them do anything more than stand there and stare. Google also pulls out any image I search for, but I don’t think that it’d make a very good game. You can only spawn around ten things or so at a time, so there are some pretty strict limitations on whatever you’re trying to do. This whole thing just grows boring quickly, which is appropriate considering it follows the model of the rest of the game perfectly. There is also a create-a-level mode, but that thing is so badly butchered that it isn’t even worth mentioning in full sentences, so here are a bunch of words: awful boring clunky superficial minimal empty frustration.
All the fun of Scribblenauts, and 100% less likely to cause an aneurism.
Even the graphics and sound effects drag the game down. Things look cartoony and undetailed if I’m being charitable, and a downright mess if I’m being honest. Things look like they were put together using pieces of felt and pins, and this again appears to be a byproduct of the overambition of the design team. When you’re forced to animate as many objects as they did, it is inevitable that many of them will either get redundant design or look like they were haphazardly put together as a middle school art project. The music is just DS gnawingly awful, and the same few seconds of song repeats endlessly, droning on in your head until you stick your head in a victrola just in hopes of hearing something different. The entire package just feels like everything was done in order to optimize the annoyance factor.
I feel kind of bad for how much I dislike Scribblenauts. Most of the time when I play a game this bad, I can point at the developers and blast them for laziness or just rushing out something to make an easy dollar. But here, it is clear that 5th Cell put in a tremendous amount of effort. It is just unfortunate that the product itself terrible; their ambition sunk any chance this game had at being decent. You have the feeling that the entire development staff spent all their time putting in all the different objects into the game and didn’t leave themselves anytime to develop the game itself. They spent all their time hauling over 20,000 bricks and didn’t leave any time to build the building. They gathered all the cows in Wisconsin and forgot they were supposed to be making a couple hamburgers. I would call the whole thing a mess, but that seems unfair to messes because they can easily be fixed by just pushing everything into the closet. So, I will summarize Scribblenauts as thus: everything about this game is bad and it very well might be the worst game I ever played (and I’ve played Superman 64 and all three of the Burger King games). Keep this game away from your DS at all costs; you could smear peanut butter in there and it would do less harm.