The idea of Scribblenauts is ingenious – think of any object, type in its name, and it appears in the game world – but so far the execution has been lacking. With Scribblenauts Unlimited, I’ve finally come to the realisation that it may not be possible to make a brilliant game from such an ambitious concept: there are simply too many variables involved, the game’s gargantuan dictionary meaning any interactions are necessarily rudimentary. In some ways, however, that doesn’t matter: Scribblenauts Unlimited may not be a great game, but it’s a wonderful, emergent plaything, and particularly worthwhile if you belong to that growing audience of gamers with young children.
Take this example. I was playing one of the earlier levels with my seven-year-old son, and one of the side-missions on the level (each stage commonly has one or two main objectives and ten or so brief asides) asked us to clean an area of polluted water where several barrels of toxic waste lay. After a couple of failed experiments, my son suggested we add an adjective to the nearest barrel: explosive. Disappointingly, it didn’t conform to gaming tradition by turning red and spawning several henchmen to crouch behind it, but instead began to beep, as if a proximity mine was inside. As I attempted to swim away, I inadvertently nudged the barrel from its rocky resting place, where it plummeted towards the seabed. As I swam down to see where it had landed, I noticed it was resting immediately next to an immovable safe tied to the foot of one of Maxwell’s brothers (who you’re tasked with rescuing through the campaign). The subsequent explosion blew up the chain, freeing the brother and unlocking him as a playable character. Two birds rather fortuitously killed with one stone: cue much laughter from father and son.
This is Scribblenauts Unlimited at its very best, where experiments have unplanned and often hilarious consequences, but the easygoing structure of the game means that a lot of this silly fun can be all too easy to miss. No longer are you asked to invent three possible solutions to a given problem: most of the time a single noun or an adjective will suffice. It makes for a game that feels skewed towards a younger audience than its predecessors – not because there’s been a shift in tone, but simply because it’s less restrictive in its requirements. It’s perhaps too easy to rattle through levels with the minimum of effort, simply typing in the most obvious object for each puzzle. And certain words are naturally overpowered, even if that makes sense in the game’s internal logic. A boy is scared of going to school because there’s a bully blocking his route: jetpack. There’s a kite stuck up a tree: jetpack. Admittedly, many side quests culminate in decent punchlines, even with the least amount of thought involved in getting there. You know how the hideous underwater sea creature will react when he sees his reflection for the first time, but that doesn’t make it any less amusing.
Besides, in Scribblenauts Unlimited, the most logical or obvious solution is rarely the best one, and the option to personalise objects with adjectives offers the player an unrivalled degree of authorship. My son built an impressive pair of enormous golden wings for those stages where you need more than Maxwell’s flimsy jump to reach higher ground, and relished using a massive blue axe to cut a tree down to size. If it rarely forces you to think outside the box, it does at least have a degree of educational value in allowing youngsters to figure out their own solutions to any given problem. And if many of its objects are essentially interchangeable, or its adjectives functionally useless, so what? You may not ever require a friendly minty curling stone to solve a puzzle, but it’s quite something that such an object can be created.
If Scribblenauts Unlimited never makes particularly inventive use of the Wii U’s controller, the GamePad makes for the best console interface the series has ever had. Crucially, by keeping any HUD clutter on the controller’s screen and only ever overlaying the words tapped in on the TV, it becomes a more audience-friendly game, which only encourages you to create chaos. The Nintendo character royal rumble we created brought about a number of surprises: Bowser is no match for a Goron with a Master Sword, Navi gets confused when Link isn’t around, and Beedle is apparently deemed a more meaningful inclusion than Wario or Donkey Kong. It’s a pity that you can’t modify any of these characters with adjectives, though there are some neat touches: see what happens when you introduce a mushroom, or type in Sheikh when Zelda is already on screen.
I still believe that it’s a game crying out for a set of inventive Achievement-like tasks on top of its Starite-collecting quests, which would make the game more satisfying for adults as well as kids. If it doesn’t want to force players to think up more elaborate answers to the conundrums it sets, then it should at least attempt to encourage them a little more. As it is, it’s a little too easy for less imaginative players to rattle through the campaign in a handful of hours and dismiss it. And that would be a shame as great as its eleventh-hour delay that means this review will reach you well before the game does.
Unlimited may once again frustratingly fail to reach the potential of Scribblenauts’ terrific core conceit. But if any game this year makes my son and I laugh as much as this has over the past week or so, I’ll be absolutely delighted.
Version Tested: Wii U
Finished the campaign, completing all optional objectives on around three-quarters of the game's levels. Spent at least an hour riding around on different coloured Yoshis