5th Cell – Scribblenauts review

highly ambitious and creative DS platformer
Photo of 5th Cell – Scribblenauts

Hype is something that is becoming synonymous with modern game releases but it’s not often we see something totally different that actually works. Scribblenauts ticks both these boxes, and is indeed one of the most intriguing and unbelievable concepts we’ve seen to date.

Arriving on the DS, it appears at first glance to be a simple puzzle/platformer with fairly rudimentary graphics. While the visuals do hold a certain charm, we’re used to expecting something a bit more polished from Nintendo’s handheld, but it soon becomes clear why developers 5th Cell opted to ‘cut corners’ in this area.

The 2D side-scroller requires you to solve challenges by finding a way to retrieve a ‘starite’ from somewhere on a map filled with obstacles. To help you along the way it’s possible to magic up just about any object or character you can think of simply by entering its name. Said object can then be interacted with using real physics and used to manipulate the environment, behaving as you would expect.

To underline the grandiose nature of this project a bit of research revealed that almost 23,000 words are recognised, though admittedly not all of them result in unique objects. As such you are limited only by your imagination and, as you would expect, there’s a myriad of ways to complete each level.

Having access to just about anything might suggest that the game would be rather easy. Thankfully this has been considered by the developers and the wide range of maps available – 24 across ten different environments, each unlockable by accruing points gained from previous levels – are cleverly designed to help maintain a serious challenge.

Once you’ve completed each level you can then go back and replay in ‘advanced mode’, which requires you to solve the puzzle three times in a row using different objects each time to earn more points. This is a serious test of creativity and adds even more value to what is already a lengthy and challenging campaign.

Finally, there’s a level editor that allows you to create your own challenges based on the templates used in the maps you’ve completed. This is fairly basic in that you can’t redesign the core landscape, but is as flexible as the inherent nature of the game allows within this set environment. Levels can be uploaded and shared online or shared locally between friends, adding a nice community aspect to the game.

Unfortunately, despite all of Scribblenauts’ strengths there are some issues that suggest it won’t be for everyone.

While creative types will no doubt enjoy conjuring up weird and wonderful objects, it’s important to remember that you are not limited to what is realistic or practical: the magical, mythical and obscure are also fair game. While it is undoubtedly fun to be able to conjure up a Kraken or a Superhero to despatch a foe, it may have been more rewarding (though perhaps less enjoyable) to restrict objects to real world situations.

Having trouble disposing of a particularly tough foe? Why not go the whole hog and conjure up the most powerful force in the universe – a black hole – to do your dirty work for you? It’s perfectly possible, and while satisfying does take a bit of gloss off proceedings for more critical thinkers.

More serious than this, and a source of repeated frustration during the review period, is the fact that Maxwell, the avatar you move around the map, is controlled via the touchscreen rather than the D-pad. Tapping or holding will cause him to run to a location and on more than one occasion we inadvertently sent him to his doom while trying to manipulate another object.

This problem ranges from irritating to infuriating, and there’s nothing worse than spending five minutes setting up objects on a map only to accidentally send Maxwell into the fray too early and fail the level. This is the only reason we’re not giving Scribblenauts a ‘Recommended’ award and, while it’s not serious enough to take the fun out of proceedings, it’s a problem that will need to be fixed in any subsequent versions of the game.

Company: 5th Cell

Scribblenauts is a hell of a lot of fun and, due to the nature of the challenge, it's a great leveller for the entire family. It wouldn't surprise us at all to see a youngster with an overactive imagination solving puzzles that leave hardcore gamers stumped. Would it be overly dramatic to suggest that Scribblenauts is the most ambitious computer game to be squeezed into the constraints of its platform? Perhaps, but something tells us that the concept will be talked about for many years to come.