Thursday, October 28, 2010

Super Scribblenauts’ Most Apt Adjective is “Great”

maxwellWhen Gene reviewed developer 5th Cell’s Scribblenauts last year, he was perhaps more charitable than I would have been.

The promise of the first game was immense, and it received lots of coverage after E3 2009 for just that reason – it was a game that allowed you to solve its puzzles by literally any means necessary. You input words into it, and it made those words into objects. Need to lure a bear away from a scared camper? Make some honey, or maybe some meat, or just hop in a helicopter and airlift the bear the hell out of there.

In practice, that last solution is where the enterprise sort of fell apart – glue, rope, and some manner of flying device could be used to solve or bypass a disproportionate number of the game’s challenges. The action stages, which required movement of your character as well as the creation of creative and useful objects, were hampered by an imprecise stylus-based control system that made movement difficult and platforming nearly impossible. My copy froze with unfortunate frequency during play. The game was fun, especially in the straight puzzle stages, but it was a little too rough around the edges to really fulfill the full extent of its promise.

Super Scribblenauts targets the first game’s problems with a sniper’s accuracy, adding a slightly less-clunky optional D-pad control scheme, some smarter puzzles, and adjectives. The result is a game that realizes the Scribblenauts potential, though the impact is lessened slightly by the passage of time and the previous game’s existence.

Like the original, Super Scribblenauts puts you in the shoes of a boy named Maxwell who desperately wants to collect shiny things called Starite. “Desperately” is my own addition – the game has no story, and Maxwell is really just a big-headed kid whose perpetual smile remains unchanged whether he’s holding Starite or whether he’s just been tear-gassed.

(I’ll go into a little more detail on the game’s structure, but before I do I want to tell you that if you played the first one you can skip this next part. Super Scribblenauts, from the concept to the music to the graphics, is literally the same game as the first Scribblenauts, just with the aforementioned issues fixed. If I didn’t like the creative spirit of these games so much, I’d be a little more upset that the first was basically a paid beta.)

Still with me? Good. The game’s challenges come in two flavors: the puzzle stages give you an object like, say, a fireman, and then charge you with giving him something that will make him happy. Conjure up an ax or a hose or a fire hydrant or a Dalmatian (the list goes on) and make him happy to get the Starite. These levels want you to really stretch your vocabulary, digging deep to come up with creative solutions.

The action stages, on the other hand, require more movement on the part of Maxwell, and a different type of problem solving. For example: a piece of Starite is underwater, protected by a shark. Avoid the shark, and oh yeah, also don’t let the spiked balls fall into the water and detonate the mines, because that will destroy the Starite, okay?!

Added to the fun are adjectives – many of the puzzle stages are actually Adjective Levels, in fact. Often, the game wants you to compare two different objects using a third object with characteristics of both. A tiger and a kitten, for example, might be bridged by a striped kitten. These stages are probably my favorite – one level charges you with battling a witch’s creatures using creatures with opposite adjectives. I sure hope your Fast Sandworm enjoys battling my Slow Immortal Scorpion, lady!

Most of the game’s levels can also be solved again in Expert mode, for the especially creative. You just have to solve the original challenge using three completely different objects, is all. Attaining Expert status on each of the game’s puzzle levels is a Herculean endeavor (at least, that’s how I’d describe it if this blog post were an Adjective Level), and adds much to the replay level of the game.

Generally speaking, I do prefer the puzzle levels to the action levels – I think the game’s real strength lies in its impressive noun library, and its equally impressive ability to add adjectives to those nouns (quick, make a Musical Gun and try not to laugh). While the ability to control Maxwell with the D-pad is a welcome change, the game’s engine is just not capable of the level of precision required by an action-oriented game. One action level tasked me with going to one side of a room, grabbing a key, and bringing it back to unlock a cage and save a princess. I had to do this without waking a sleeping dragon, and jostling any of the many objects in the room would wake the dragon and send you back to the beginning of the level. A dozen frustrating tries later, and I finally had my Starite.

The game doesn’t normally reach this frustration level thanks to its built-in hint system, which will usually push you far enough in the right direction that any puzzle becomes solvable. It’s also difficult, on occasion, to put things in terms that the game can understand, but it’s rarely game-breaking or fun-ruining.

Here’s the short version: If you liked the first Scribblenauts in spite of its flaws, you’ll absolutely love Super Scribblenauts. If you were intrigued by the promise of the original game but disappointed by its execution, as I was, Super Scribblenauts is a sure bet. And for those of you on the fence, allow me to push you off in the appropriate direction.