Scribblenauts review

  • Ambitious concept
  • Experimenting with objects on the title screen
  • Sharing levels online
  • Frustrating controls
  • Too many samey puzzles
  • Being at a loss for words

If you’re like us, you had high hopes for Scribblenauts. This little DS game represents something revolutionary not just for the DS’s library, but also (we’re being serious) for videogames as a whole. Forgive us if we sound hyperbolic here, but Scribblenauts is one of the most important games to come out this year. 

…Which makes it all the more disappointing that it doesn't quite live up to its potential. 

The central gameplay mechanic behind Scribblenauts is what got us so excited in the first place. The game enables you to type anything (and the developers emphasize “anything”) into the game’s keypad, and poof! It will immediately appear as an object for Maxwell, the game’s protagonist, to interact with. Want a teapot? It’s there. Want a cheesecake? You got it. Machine gun? Sure. We guarantee your first ten minutes with the game will be spent at the title screen, simply typing random things in just to see what pops up. (And no, you can’t type in dirty words, non-objects or copyrighted images. We tried.) 

Above: Come on – even our grandma says “poop” 

In each level, Maxwell is presented with a simple task that will lead him to a Starite, which he needs to grab to complete the level. Sometimes the Starite will be hidden, and you’ll need to do something to make it appear, but the solution will always involve summoning some object into existence to help you complete your task. Since you have tens of thousands of objects at your disposal, there are tons of unique ways to complete each puzzle, and due to the sheer number of inter-object relationships to exploit (zombies like eating brains, but tend to avoid open flames), you can solve each of the game’s puzzles in a way that ends up feeling refreshingly unscripted. 

Above: picking up trash is so much better in a UFO 

Scribblenauts is said to be special in that it encourages “emergent gameplay;” in fact, if you look up “emergent gameplay” on Wikipedia, you’ll see Scribblenauts mentioned right there in the description. You sometimes see examples of emergent gameplay in open-world games: by programming a wide variety of things to interact with, the developers hope players will craft their own experience with the tools they have. For instance, a number of Grand Theft Auto IV’s users have abandoned the game’s main quest (preset missions in which you commit crimes for money and power) in favor of making kickass stunt videos, or, in our case, pushing people down steps.

Above: An equally good use of your time

Without getting too off-topic, this creative flexibility is what makes Scribblenauts (and to a certain degree, videogames as a whole) special. Scribblenauts feeds off your creativity – if you decide to light a cat on fire in order to light a dark room, you’ve solved the puzzle your way. Yes, you’re working with pre-rendered assets and animations created by the developers so technically, the gameplay isn’t truly open-ended, but it’s pretty darn close, and it’s pretty darn cool.

But by now, you’re probably wondering about that “doesn't quite live up to its potential” comment. Well, about that…

Given our gushing over the game’s concept, you’d think we were ready to name Scribblenauts Game of the Year. But having played it beyond the first few levels, we now are keenly aware of the game’s major flaws, which we’re obligated to point out for you here. Some of these problems are inherent flaws with the game’s concept, but too many more come from poor execution of the game’s mechanics.

We’ll refrain from critiquing the game’s overall design too much, because your appreciation of it will have a lot to do with your individual play style. Turns out, we’re less fond of engineering elaborate and creative solutions to each puzzle than we thought we’d be – instead of creating a Rube Goldberg masterpiece for each stage, we often found ourselves using simple things like “jetpack” and “rope” in order to get ahead. (That combination got us through a pretty large chunk of the levels, too, by the way.) Yes, we know: the game rewards you in Ollars (in-game currency) if you push yourself to come up with new objects, but it also rewards you for not using too many objects, and a jetpack is pretty much one-stop-shopping.

Above: “Well, I could engineer a rope bridge out of some glue and string, or..." 

You only really have to stretch your mind if you're replaying the levels for full completion (you're challenged to complete the same level three times without repeating any objects), but we found ourselves losing interest pretty quickly. Still, if you’re an engineer-type who values creativity over pragmatism (read: if you don’t intend to just use the jetpack all the time), you should still know that, as much as you’ll go nuts with Scribblenauts, you’ll still have to deal with some other irritating game mechanics. 

The interface for interacting with objects is simple but unforgivably clunky. You tell Maxwell to go to a location by tapping it – he’ll jump over small gaps automatically, but unfortunately, he won’t stop moving forward even if continuing means jumping into a pool of deadly lava. You frequently have to tap summoned items that are far away in order to interact with them, or drag them around to attach them to other objects. Far too many times, we’d try to tap an object but miss slightly, which the game interpreted as us commanding Maxwell to go to where we tapped. Let’s just say that words came out of our mouths after our sixteen-billionth accidental lava-induced death that would not be picked up by any polite speech-recognition device.

Too often, the puzzles adhere to the same sort of archaic trial-and-error philosophy of a bad point-and-click adventure: later levels feel more like you’re trying to guess the intentions of the developers, rather than coming up with your own creative solutions. Scribblenauts and classic point-and-click adventures both suffer from overly ambiguous in-game hints, but at least in Scribblenauts, you can summon up little sprite versions of the developers and drop elephants on them to vent your frustration.

Above: That’s your hint? Someone is definitely getting an elephant to the face for this one

In the end, we came away from Scribblenauts wondering if we had missed the point. There were a few puzzles with satisfyingly original solutions, but instead of feeling empowered by the freedom to write anything we wanted, we felt more confined by the limitations of core mechanic and the game’s lousy controls. If the developers had come up with more elegant puzzles (i.e., ones that can’t be solved with jetpacks) and given us the option to control Maxwell with the d-pad or face buttons, we’d be able to recommend Scribblenauts to everyone. As it stands, only patient gamers with a love of creative engineering will be able to overlook its design flaws and enjoy it for the unique and innovative game that it is.

Sep 15, 2009

More Info

Release date: Sep 15 2009 - DS (US)
Available Platforms: DS
Genre: Puzzle
Published by: Warner Brothers
Developed by: 5th Cell
ESRB Rating:
Everyone 10+: Cartoon Violence, Comic Mischief


  • thephntm - March 18, 2010 1:58 a.m.

    I never did understand why they didn't give it a button control scheme, but lately I don't care about the levels, and I just mess around on the title screen. Earlier I dug a tunnel and put a prison over it and then put criminals in it. The title screen is the best part. I'm surprised you didn't mention the broken level editor. My favorite item in the game is either longcat, RickRoll, ceiling cat, or keyboard cat. not that any of them do anything. ReCaptcha: peo- imagery
  • lymanzaar - November 14, 2009 4:32 p.m.

    Scribblenauts has become one of my favorite ds games next to Phoenix Wright. You really hit the nail on the head Joe
  • Paxis - September 19, 2009 2:39 a.m.

    Pegasus beat Jetpack for me
  • Yoshi X100 - September 18, 2009 11:54 p.m.

    You guys should try land shark with any extension on it seriously it's never ending entertainment.
  • Solicitme - September 17, 2009 10:25 a.m.

    I bought it yesterday and I'm having a great time with the game so far. The two major downsides are the quirky controls and the lack of a terrain editing capabilities in the level editor. On the positive side, the controls are somewhat manageable after you get in some practice with them. But if 5th Cell doesn't address these issues with Scribblenauts 2, I'll have to second-guess purchasing the squeal. Scribblenauts gets the job done in terms of puzzle complexity, difficulty, and definitely frustration. You can, and probably will, spend an hour on some puzzles figuring out ways to get through them efficiently and cleverly. However, there are very few puzzles that cannot be solved with the appropriate number of Bazookas. And, yes, you can nuke the whole level with an atomic bomb. I haven't figured out how to survive it, though. :)
  • benjman - September 16, 2009 8:09 a.m.

    ok, the controls can be a little frustrating at times, but other than that this is the most fun ive had with a ds since chinatown wars. When asking my 3 year old what he wanted to see on the screen and being able to magic it immediately, i was asked for a farm, with cows, sheep, pigs and horses. it all appeared. 'any more animals on your farm' i asked him. 'a dragon please' was his reply. He was delighted with the giant green dragon, which proceeded to eat all the farm animals. We were both in hysterics! Seriously get this game! Not for the levels, just for the sheer magic of freedom to design..
  • oddlockset - September 16, 2009 1:26 a.m.

    Good review, but it seems like you guys kind of missed the point in simply using a jetpack over and over. The fun of the game, to me at least, is coming up with unique ways to solve problems using totally insane strategies. If you're creative and enjoy thinking out interesting scenarios, this game is really great in that regard. However, 100% agreed on the controls. They can be frustrating at times.
  • TheWebSwinger - September 16, 2009 1:19 a.m.

    With all the buzz this game's been getting (even from you guys!) I expected something major. But reading the review, I can understand the 7. Good concept not carried through, etc. Also, I didn't know that there were regular AND super reviews.
  • TestDDs - September 15, 2009 11:31 p.m.

    WOW i thought this wold be better ha ha here is a word "middle finger"
  • TURbo - September 15, 2009 11:23 p.m.

    Hello new editor at gamesradar. Get on an episode of talkradar if possible.
  • halifaxia - September 15, 2009 10:41 p.m.

    I am sad to see this, since many games fall down into the depths of fail mechanics and controls. And this game deserved a lot of time devoted to it to make it perfect and work out all the kinks.
  • Amnesiac - September 15, 2009 9:27 p.m.

  • Mechamorbo - September 15, 2009 8:01 p.m.

    I reeeeally want to push people down stairs now!
  • Cyberninja - September 15, 2009 7:53 p.m.

    i may get it if i cant find ff4
  • cart00n - September 15, 2009 7:05 p.m.

    Already pre-ordered this from Amazon for my gf's b-day. Hmmm... reCaptcha: titta 15,315
  • WonsAuto - September 15, 2009 6:49 p.m.

    I'm a patient gamer and love creative engineering, so I'm hoping you're right. Gonna pick the game up within a couple of hours.
  • Kruiser - September 15, 2009 6:10 p.m.

    Damn, this was going to be my reason to finally buy a DS... so much hype, but figures it wouldn't live up to the promise.
  • noofer7 - September 18, 2009 11:12 p.m.

    Fuck. I don't like to overuse that word, but that's how I feel right now. Major disappointment. All these awesome games that I was looking forward too aren't turning out as good as I hoped. First there was The Conduit, then Muramasa, and now this... Oh, and ENOUGH WITH THE ----ING NEGATIVE-SOUNDING REVIEWS!!! That really dampens my enthusiasm for any game, even if I already have it, and then it ruins my enjoyment of it. Gamespot's review of The Conduit did that after I bought it... reCAPTCHA: Developers suck (not really)
  • lucashintz - September 18, 2009 2:18 p.m.

    I definitely agree with this review. But some people seem to think that a seven is a bad score. When this of course is not true. Hell, it's Gdar's favorite number after all.
  • rsteadman - September 17, 2009 10:23 p.m.

    That's exactly how I felt, except I used 'wings' instead of 'jetpack'. I'm hopeful for a really god sequel though. If you're into the whole 'Rube Goldberg' thing, which I was looking forward to in Scribblenauts, check out Mechanic Master for DS, it's got NO personality whatsoever, but the mechanics and puzzles satisfy.

Showing 1-20 of 30 comments

Join the Discussion
Add a comment (HTML tags are not allowed.)
Characters remaining: 5000