Genre: Puzzle/Cards Developer: 5th Cell Publisher: Nintendo Classification: G Release Date: 30th Nov 2012 Platforms:
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Give a child a stick or a cardboard box, the old adage goes, and they’ll make their own fun. The latest toys cannot hold up against the power of imagination; they’ll invent fantasies beyond what they could possibly cook up with those Power Rangers action figures (Power Rangers are still cool, right?).
Of course, most kids know that this is about 80% rubbish. There’s a lot of fun to be had using your imagination and cooking up your own adventures, but those kids who get pranked by their parents and receive empty game console boxes for Christmas (check Youtube) certainly aren’t crying because they’re so touched by their parents’ warm gesture.
With Scribblenauts Unlimited, I suspect that 5th Cell may have looked back on the sticks and cardboard boxes of their youth with a tad too much fondness. The game demands that you use your imagination if you want to really enjoy it, which different from the previous Scribblenauts games, which demanded that you be imaginative if you wanted to play them at all. The puzzles were more abstract, and you were encouraged to find numerous different ways to solve them.
Unlimited is a far easier game than its predecessors, almost never explicitly asking you to think outside the box, and offers no rewards for creativity beyond whatever satisfaction you might derive from seeing your words and descriptions summoned into reality. It trusts the player to make their own fun, but gives them little incentive to do so.
The structure has changed – levels are open, and you hunt around to find people and objects that reveal objectives when you tap on them. Sometimes full missions are handed out, in which you need to summon up multiple words across several stages to get a full ‘Starite’, the currency for unlocking levels (solving a regular puzzle grants you one fifth of a Starite). The concept is as incredible as ever – solve puzzles by writing out any words to create objects which exist within the game’s enormous dictionary – but the objectives you’re given are rarely playful or interesting.
Quite often the easiest way to solve a puzzle is spelled out quite explicitly. A caveman asked me for a tool to hunt a mammoth with; I typed in ‘tool’, and he beat the mammoth with the hammer that spawned. This sort of thing is not at all uncommon, and while I could have put in more effort or thought, it wouldn’t have yielded any tangible benefit. A tiny percentage of the puzzles don’t require you to draw anything at all – at one point I was asked by an Indiana Jones doppelganger to help him find the Ark of the Covenant, which happened to be sitting a few meters to his left. I picked it up and brought it to him, and bam, objective complete – where’s the fun in that?
You now also have the option to tap on most objects and add adjectives to them, which makes some of the puzzles almost insultingly easy. If someone is unwell, you can tap on them and write out ‘healthy’, for instance. If a puzzle requires something big, you just write ‘big’ in front of the object you’re summoning. The first puzzles that made me actually stop and think occurred about five hours in, at which point I discovered that if you stall for over a minute in a mission, the game will blatantly tell you what to do next. Heaven forbid I should take time to think something through!
Tucked away in the pause menu is a huge list of extra word puzzles, not specific to any level, which boil down to reading a simple riddle and writing in the objects that matches up with it. These are actually pretty good fun – some are too obvious, but a few of the more obtuse ones made me smile. They’re not so compelling that it’s worth going through and completing all of them, though – in fact once I completed enough puzzles to have the credits roll (which took under seven hours), I felt little incentive to go back and finish the remainders.
If you make a conscious effort to be creative – or you, like me, immediately jump to sick conclusions occasionally – you’ll likely create a few funny scenarios along the way. As was the case with the DS games, Unlimited can get very dark if you want it to. One of the better missions tasked me with saving Hansel and Gretel from an evil witch. When asked to draw the witch towards the oven so that Gretel could kick her in, I drew her attention by conjuring up a different child and putting them in the oven. The kid ran out, burning and screaming, which is the sort of thing that would bump a less cartoony game up to an R18+ immediately.
In another puzzle, I brought a smile to my own face by opting to use a giant angry gorilla to destroy a building rather than simply blowing it up. But a brief smile and a cute story is all I got. Unless you’re playing with friends or family, everything happens in a vacuum, and if you’ve played the previous games already much of the novelty is gone now.
Unlimited is obviously intended to be played together by families, passing the Wii U gamepad back and forth, everyone calling out solutions and testing to see if the words they come up with are programmed into the game or not. It’s easier to play on the pad than off the screen, but having it projected onto a television means that you can attract the sort of audiences you couldn’t with the original DS games.
As a spectator game, Scribblenauts Unlimited works pretty well – it’s the sort of thing that absolutely anyone can contribute to, and it’s fun shocking newcomers to the series by showing off some of the crazier things the game allows (summon a puppy, then summon a flamethrower for good times). But when I tried playing in a room full of fellow twenty-somethings, the novelty wore off after half an hour, and we soon realised that banding our minds together for the puzzles was unfortunately unnecessary.
Because of all these factors, Scribblenauts Unlimited is a great game for young kids. The ending cutscene, in fact, explicitly addresses ‘kids’ while trying to explain the game’s moral (which essentially boils down, like all good moral messages, to ‘don’t be a ****’). Under the right circumstances, that’s great: if you have young children, this is more interesting to play with them than many of the games aimed at their age group, and if you’re lucky they’ll expand their vocabulary while playing. But it’s a shame to see the game so aggressively courting this younger demographic when Super Scribblenauts proved accessible to such a wide spectrum of players.
Unlimited also lets you create your own objects, which is fun, if ever so slightly less intuitive than it could be. I personally stopped after creating a pair of pastrami wings (because George Costanza is a personal role model), but if you go online and browse or download other people’s efforts you can get your hands on some pretty nifty extra words. Predictably, everyone has gone ahead and created Minecraft-related materials, and the game’s dictionary is so extensive that there’s no purpose to creating stuff beyond having a play around, but being able to insert your favourite pop-cultural icons in is a bit of fun (and I don’t imagine you’d have too much trouble crafting something lewd if that’s what you want to do).
Scribblenauts Unlimited is not a bad game. It’s simply not a game made for me, and there’s a good chance it wasn’t made for you, either. As commendable as it is that 5th Cell have made a game that will likely encourage children to think outside the box, experiment with words, and unleash their imaginations on the screen, for those of us who have grown up and have been cultivating our love affair with words for years now, it’s the most boring Scribblenauts entry ever. Still, if you’re buying for someone who still has quite a few of their baby teeth left, add an extra 2 points – it’s certainly better than the empty box you gave them for Christmas.