The Nintendo DS is such a weird console in retrospect. It looked, early on, to be an underpowered unit with a pointless two-screen and touch-screen gimmick. Many saw it lose Nintendo its dominance in the portable gaming sector to Sony’s promising debut, the PSP, a more standard unit that came threateningly close to the PS2 in terms of power. And yet, the DS not only sold almost twice the units of the PlayStation device, it came within an inch of overtaking the PS2 to become the best-selling console, portable OR home, of all time. I myself bought a DS over a PSP despite being invested in the PlayStation brand at the time, and I’m still not sure why (probably because it came out a few months earlier and I was an impatient 14 year old).
But it was a long time before I truly loved the DS. I got Super Mario 64DS and WarioWare Touched with it, and played both to death. For five years or so, the only other games I had on the console were one of the Nintendogs instalments and Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars, both of which were decent but didn’t really capture my attention for too long. It was during my very temporary ambivalence to the Pokémon series, as well, so I didn’t even have that to keep my DS busy. My poor little two-screened friend fell by the wayside as I stuck to my home consoles and PC. I missed the first Scribblenauts during this period too.
But then, during the early months of 2010, something happened. I was introduced by a friend to a dapper professor with a tall hat and his blue beret-wearing accomplice, in Professor Layton and the Curious Village. I essentially spent the following days completing it from start to finish, devouring every minute. Once it was finished, I picked up its sequel, Pandora’s Box, and did the same thing. I was an immediate fan of the series, and for perhaps the first time ever, I had a DS game that I absolutely loved.
With the knowledge that the third Layton game was due out later in the year, I turned to other DS games to keep it on the go. I got back into Pokémon with Platinum and SoulSilver (and have remained with the series ever since). And as I remembered Scribblenauts, I found out that it was due a “Super” sequel that improved on the original, so I waited for that to come out as well. I first got it when it did, and now, almost seven years on, I’ve decided to give it another playthrough.
In Super Scribblenauts, you control Maxwell, a weird little man in a world where he can summon anything, as long as it’s in the English dictionary and suitable for youngsters (or a gun). You use your wits, and this power, to solve a galaxyful of puzzles and situations. For example, you might be asked to spawn something that would be the result of “Man” minus “Clock”, the solution of which might be a “Baby”.
Puzzles rarely only have one solution and can be solved in any number of ways, and it’s in this that Super Scribblenauts gets its strength. If a puzzle sees you simply have to pass over a tall obstacle, you can spawn a “Ladder” and use it to climb up it. You can spawn a “Helicopter” and fly over it. You can spawn a “Trampoline” and bounce over it. Or, because Super Scribblenauts introduces the ability to give spawned objects adjectives, you can spawn a “Ridable Giant Red Pregnant Pigeon”, hop on its crimson-coloured back and have it flap you slowly over to the finish, halfway through which a ridable red baby pigeon will plop out of it. Yes, that’s a thing.
Arguably the best part of Super Scribblenauts comes in its Playground, where you get a flat plane, no goal, and can spawn whatever you want. The game has a breathtakingly diverse range of possibilities, so you can spend hours just discovering new stuff. You can spawn God and Satan and have them fight to the death. You can spawn “Ridable panda riding a panda riding a panda riding a panda riding a panda riding a panda” and have yourself a veritable totem pole of bamboo bulliers to sit atop like you’re king of the black and white bears. There are also a number of easter eggs and more hidden options in the game, everywhere from a ridable NeoGAF logo to Cthulhu itself. And if you give the former the “Hostile” and “Sentient” adjectives, it will fight Cthulhu by itself.
Super Scribblenauts has its issues. It feels like too few of the story missions capitalise on the wonderful backbone of the game, choosing instead to put you through simplistic puzzles such as giving you a 3×3 grid of objects and asking you to spawn something that relates to three in a row, or giving you a queue of people and asking you to satisfy each one with a single object that, again, relates to them. It’s borderline trivial at times. The small field of view presented by the game (which is partly the fault of the DS’ resolution and is fixed in the Wii U and PC followup, Scribblenauts Unlimited) makes the experience feel somewhat claustrophobic, too.
Added to this, there are still limits in the game. Sometimes, at least for me, I found it difficult to come up with a solution the game considered correct even though, in the abstract (and if you were verbally playing it as a challenge with humans as judges), they would seem correct. One puzzle, for instance, asks you to take a cowardly person and braven them up. I tried giving them a spine – nothing. A heart, still nothing. I tried concocting a “bravery potion”, but the game disregarded “bravery” as an invalid adjective and just gave me a vial of broken dreams. Various army men that I feel would be good at toughening people up didn’t give me the level-ending Starite either. Eventually, I solved the puzzle with a “psychiatrist”.
It’s a great game though, and a wonderful curiosity even if the story mode itself is weak. Although it’s outclassed by Scribblenauts Unlimited, which takes the formula, fixes some of the graphical restrictions and adds the ability to create custom objects (so you can, if you’re me, load the game with all the alcohol, drugs and pornographic objects that its child-friendly rating prohibit it coming with), Super Scribblenauts is still a fun instalment in the franchise which now seems to sadly be dormant, and is also cheap as chips to get a hold of.
And it’s one of many games that probably wouldn’t have ever existed had it not been for Nintendo’s plucky little gimmick-riddled, underpowered, and yet excellent DS.