E3 2009: Hands on with the wordelicious Scribblenauts DS
Exercising your knowledge of nouns
US studio 5th Cell has carved out a niche as a developer of quirky DS titles. Lock's Quest mixed up RPG elements with strategy while the Drawn to Life games employed a wobbly 2D cartoon style and enabled you to draw your own in-game items to complete platforming puzzles. Despite their innovation however, neither set the sales charts alight.
Scribblenauts, with the backing of publisher Warner Bros., should change that situation.
Using similar graphics to Drawn to Life, the game features over 200 puzzle and action platforming missions. The difference is you don't have to draw objects, only spell out their names. They will then appear on screen and, in the hands of Maxwell your game hero, you can use them to try and solve your current predicament.
Accomplishing this will see you rewarded with a star. In some missions, you can see the star on screen and just have to get Maxwell's hands on it. In others, there will be an abstract puzzle which you solve and then are rewarded with the star.
The first thing to note about the game is that its word-based system sounds like a tall order to pull off successfully. Such computer-based word systems are notoriously easy to nerf but thanks to the work of two full time staff over two years, 5th Cell is confident it's solved the problem. For example, the game's dictionary includes over 10,000 nouns and that in 12 languages.
Of course, there are some restrictions. No vulgarity, trademarks or alcohol-related nouns have been included to ensure the game gets a 12-year age rating.
But more impressive than the sheer number of words is the fact that each object is interlinked within the game world in terms of what you can use it for, what it's constructed of, and how it interacts with other objects. Obvious examples include: how objects interact with gravity; do they float; if not, do they drown?
In this way, you can cut rope with a javelin, scare a cat with a dog, or get a bear to move to a pot of honey.
To ensure this freeform experience has some sort of gamic structure, when you complete each level, you will be rewarded with various merit badges. There are 80 in total and these range from 'use of a new object' to 'you didn't use a weapon to solve the puzzle'. The time taken for completion is also noted while the final metric of success are the in-game currency, 'Ollars'. Ollars are used to buy new avatars and perform other customisation features.
In addition, each level has at least three ways you can solve it, so completing Scribblenauts on its hardest setting requires you to solve each level using three different items.
The simplest example of this was an early level where Maxwell was on one side of a desert island with the star on the other. You could either go under the island - using a submarine, scuba gear etc - dig through the island, or propel yourself over the island, to gain the star.
Completing the featureset will be a level editor so you can build and share your puzzles over Wi-Fi.
Personally I thoroughly enjoyed my time with the game, which worked fairly well. You had to get use to issues in that some items were too big to fit in certain levels. In general though, you could solve puzzles as imaginatively as you wanted.
And it was notable that throughout E3, people were continuously queuing for access to the four demo pods. Yet if I do have any concerns, is that like 5th Cell's previous efforts, Scribblenauts is perhaps best enjoyed by the typical hardcore gamer, which isn't the average DS owner.
So we're left pondering whether the freeform and somewhat abstract nature of the game can be trumped by its sheer fun once you start playing, combined with Warner Bros.' marketing muscle.
We'll find out when Scribblenauts is released in the autumn.