“Write anything, solve everything,” went the tagline for last year’s Scribblenauts, a monumentally ambitious puzzler that was just kept from brilliance by dodgy controls and a wayward camera. Will its sequel live up to the “Super” moniker and fix these problems?
In case you missed it first time round, Scribblenauts put you in the shoes of genero-man Maxwell, distinguishable only by his odd headgear. And his power to rewrite reality. Using a notebook, you could summon things to solve puzzles. Need to cross a ravine? A bridge should do it. Or a jetpack. Or Pegasus. Got a man-eating lion in your way? A tyrannosaurus should take care of him. Or a grenade. Or God. Maxwell’s aim was to gather “starites”, and these were either placed at the end of tricksy assault courses or awarded upon completing puzzles.
As we’ve said, the game was nearly brilliant, but irritating controls, a pernickety camera and the fact that most of the assault course levels could be cheaply got through via judicious applications of jetpacks and Cthulu kept it from fulfilling its potential. American developers 5th Cell have therefore had a long hard look at the game’s mechanics, and the result is a game that defines what videogaming sequels should be: the good bits are better, the bad bits are gone, and there’s a bunch of new stuff that leaves you wondering how you coped without it first time round.
Controls first: you can keep the all-stylus control of the first game, or move Maxwell about with the D-pad (or the ABXY buttons if, like your humble reviewer, you’re a wrong-handed lefty). Maxwell suddenly moving when you really didn’t want him to was the single greatest issue with the first game, and it’s been solved at a stroke.
Next, the camera. Previously it would automatically snap back to Maxwell if you left it for a moment, but now it stays right where you want it until you say otherwise. Lovely. As an added bonus, Maxwell now only moves if the camera is right on him, so no wandering into lava pits without realising.
Finally, cheaply-completed levels: with one or two exceptions, the “action” levels (the assault courses) are now gone altogether and it’s puzzle levels (fulfil certain obligations to get the starite) all the way. The puzzle levels were always much more fun than the action ones anyway, so this is fine news. And incidentally, this new puzzle focus means that Maxwell rarely has to move more than a few steps any more, so in all honesty they could’ve got away with keeping the old, rubbish controls. Go figure.
New stuff, then. The big addition is adjectives (therefore making this surely the only game in history where “More Grammar Featured!” is a valid box blurb). Everything from an angry goat to a spotted helicopter to a zombie pigeon can now be whisked up. It results in delightfully bonkers “adjective levels”, where your describing powers are put to the test.
Other additions are smaller, but appreciated. The game keeps track of exactly how many different adjectives and nouns you’ve used, which is pointless but rather fascinating; the “Merits” system of before has been translated into something like the Xbox 360’s Achievement system, with the added bonus that getting various Merits earns you cash to spend on extra things; the level editor is vastly more complex and you can now share mad creations with friends over the internet; the “playground” of the title screen saves your status each time you use it; the levels are now arranged in constellations, which makes more aesthetic sense with the rest of the game and removes the pointless attempts to theme groups of levels…the list goes on. It’s all stuff that isn’t necessary, but adds that little extra spark of enjoyment.
However, it seems that it wouldn’t be Scribblenauts without some problems. The issue now is that some levels have bizarrely obtuse and narrow solutions. One of the aforementioned adjective levels had Maxwell on a talent show, trying to impress the four judges – a king, a butler, a leprechaun and a cheetah – by equipping various clothes and different items. A crown made the king happy, while a green tuxedo sorted out the leprechaun and butler simultaneously. But the cheetah? Attempting to curry favour with steaks, rabbits and even a corpse yielded nothing. Happily, there is one more major addition to the series – a Professor Layton-style hint system, where you can spend your cash to get clues. Doing so resolved the issue – the cheetah wanted to see something spotty. Oh. Of course. Who on earth would jump to that conclusion without help?
(Oh, and while we’re on the complaining bit of the review, we had major issues with one level that casts Maxwell as a tooth fairy, seemingly because we did things in the wrong order. If you get stuck too, try this – put pyjamas on the boy’s bed, then pick up the tooth and place some money where the tooth was.)
Aside from that rather major issue, Super Scribblenauts is a delight. It’s got all the charm and invention of the original minus its problems. If you had the first game but didn’t quite love it as much as you felt you could have done, consider this essential – and if you didn’t like or indeed completely missed it, then at the very least you should give this a go. It’s just a shame that 5th Cell couldn’t quite sort out everything and give us the perfect Scribblenauts – but hey, there’s always next year (Ultra Scribblenauts? Scribblenauts 64? Super Scribblenauts Galaxy? Metal Gear Scribblenauts? Maybe not that last one).