One of the nice things about Scribblenauts is that it's very easy to talk and write about. Normally any game preview has to divide its time equally between explaining the core concepts, and then detailing the way these ideas work in actual play. Here that's not the case, because the concept is the gameplay. Players are presented with a simple 2D level, a hero named Maxwell and a problem. In each stage the aim is to solve the challenge by using the DS to summon helpful objects, creatures and people: just use the touchpad or on-screen keyboard to write the name of the thing you want, and the object in question will magically appear.
It's a clever and yet elegantly straightforward basis for a game, but until I actually saw it for myself, I remained somewhat skeptical. Surely there would be loads of words that wouldn't work? But no, on the basis of what I've seen, it seems as if 5th Cell has equipped Scribblenauts with an insanely huge library of things to conjure up. From rocket-packs to dinosaurs, from angry deities to weather formations, there's almost no limit to the way a player can approach a problem. The only things missing, for obvious reasons, are offensive suggestions and those that might lead to copyright issues.
The free-form nature of Scribblenauts is ideal for an event like gamescom, where a roomful of journalists can freely shout out suggestions for how to resolve a particular puzzle. On my last day at the show I found myself surrounded by a small gang of fellow games journos, with the whole lot of us bellowing our heads off in a bid to rescue a trapped king. Our aim was to free this monarch from his cage and to then return him to his castle, but unfortunately there were several other associated problems that needed to be dealt with. For a start, the lever that opened the cage was being guarded by a large dragon; then there was the fact that the area immediately in front of the cage was blocked by fire. Finally, a large chasm prevented anyone from reaching the king's castle on foot. Meanwhile Maxwell remained tucked out of the way on a ledge at the bottom of the map.
We started out by dealing with the fires. The easiest counter was to summon a rain cloud above the flames, but it was also possible to have Maxwell use a hose - provided you could get him into position. Some objects will work autonomously, whereas others must be given to characters to be used. In the case of the hose, the demonstrator simply dragged it to Maxwell's hand, equipped the hero with a helicopter pack, and then flew him up to the ledge with the flames.
Next we took on the dragon. We asked for a knight, but sadly the dragon made short work of him. Then we demanded a rocket launcher, which Maxwell duly fired at the winged beastie; the explosion hurt him, but didn't kill him. Our demonstrator suggested that we should hire Death himself for the job, and sure enough the grim reaper made short work of the scaly monster. After this we simply built a bridge from the king's ledge to his castle, then flew Maxwell over the lever and opened the cage. His royal highness then sprinted across the map and into his majestic abode.
That was one way of doing things, but there are hundreds of others. For example, with time we could have used the rocket launcher to take down the dragon: it would have taken several bazooka's worth, but once you've summoned a particular item to a map, you can replace it as soon as it runs out or expires (in other words, there's only a limit on the number of objects you can have around at any one time). It was also revealed that we could have summoned an elephant to fight the dragon, or that we could have summoned the elephant and then given him the rocket launcher. Or we could have just called for a Dragon Killer. We could even have asked for God himself, or for the Devil - although these are apparently the only religious figures to make the game's final list.
Then 5th Cell went on show some really cool tricks that can be achieved by using several objects at once. For example, if you give Maxwell an invisibility cloak, a set of stilts, a balloon and a floating eye, he'll suddenly resemble a long-legged freak. If you grab some milk and take it through a time machine - an object that in turn transports you to a random level in the past or future - you'll find that you're suddenly holding a lump of cheese. Put the cheese into a freezer and you'll suddenly have a block of ice with cheese in the middle.
What's the purpose of a frozen block of cheese? I have no idea, but perhaps you have something in mind. If so, perhaps you might choose to design an entire level based around the preservation of dairy products. Scribblenauts allows you to build up to eight of your own stages, and when you're done you can share them locally or over a WiFi connection. Even if you're not a fan of this idea, the full game will contain over 200 levels to work through, and once you complete a stage you can return to it in a secondary mode where you have to finish the challenge in three different ways, without repeating methods or making any mistakes.
It sounds pretty damn good. As diverting as it was to call out suggestions, I'm rather gutted I didn't get the chance to go hands-on with the game for myself. Provided that the summon system and controls work as well as they seem to in the hands of a veteran demonstrator, Scribblenauts should turn out to be the most creative DS game of 2009. It's due for release in October, so you should expect a review fairly soon.
Scribblenauts will be released on the Nintendo DS in October.