Imagine, if you will, that you're back in college. It's the night of the leaver's dance (that's "The Prom", if you're one of our US readers), and you've just showed up to pick up your date. As her mother opens the door you spy your childhood sweetheart at the top of the stairs, resplendent in a shimmering silk gown. She looks absolutely stunning.
Then all of a sudden, something goes wrong. Your beloved trips over a draft excluder built into the top of the stairs and goes tumbling head over heels. She bounces on her face down 28 steps and then comes to an abrupt stop, a broken puppet on the hallway floor.
Amazingly, your date is prepared to carry on. She has two black eyes and has lost a few teeth, but what the hell - it's the leaver's ball. She's a plucky spirit, this girl - and that's why you love her. So you go to the dance anyway, and you have a surprisingly good time. But every so often you look at your lover's mangled features, and you wonder what might have been. If only she hadn't tripped over that draft excluder! What on Earth was that doing there, anyway? Who builds a draft excluder into the top of a staircase? What a stupid piece of design!
That, in a nutshell, is how I feel about Scribblenauts. When I first heard the concept for this game, it seemed too good to be true: an action puzzler where the player solves challenges by summoning any object they want, just by typing out its name. Then when I actually saw the game being demoed, my expectations rocketed - because against all the odds, it seemed like developer 5th Cell had actually pulled off the impossible. And now we know the truth - they have pulled it off, but they've also botched what should have been a comparatively simple job: the basic controls.
Scribblenauts finds you guiding a kid named Maxwell through hundreds of brief 2D scenarios. Stages are split into two categories - action and puzzle - but in both cases your ultimate aim is to collect a token called a Starite. In the former set of levels you'll usually have to fight your way past several hostile creatures, while the latter force you to get your thinking cap on: you might simply be re-stocking someone's farm, or you might be retrieving a truck from the bottom of a lake. Whatever the situation, you'll be conjuring up hundreds upon hundreds of helpful items, creatures and people. Just tap the notepad icon in the top left of the screen, type in the name of what you want, and with any luck it'll magically appear for you to use.
I really can't overstate how impressive this system is. The game doesn't have everything, obviously, but the range and number of things on offer is pretty unbelievable. From mythical creatures to military vehicles, from greasy burritos to deadly diseases, there's almost no limit to what you can bring to the party. While most objects have an immediate use, you can often give them further purpose by combining them with something else. Attach a rope to the bottom of a helicopter, and you've got a highly versatile airlift. Stick a saddle on the back of a grizzly bear, and you can ride it into battle. Certain people and creatures also have clever AI triggers - cats and dogs will automatically fight if they're near each other, for example, as will God and Satan.
Occasionally you'll find your plans are messed up by strange or unexpected behavior from NPC beings, but most of the time these surprises are fairly amusing. A far more serious flaw is to be found in the game's tragically ill-conceived control system. The stylus is used for absolutely everything, and while the drag-and-drop setup works fine for placing and arranging objects, navigating Maxwell himself is another matter entirely. The idea is that you simply tap where you want him to go, but as a result it's all too easy to send him flying across the screen while you're trying to interact with a small item.