the artistry and psychology of gaming


Scribblenauts Unlimited

Scribblenauts Unlimited

The Good:

+ Object editor can potentially keep the series’ novelty alive
+ Improved production values all around

The Bad:
– Core gameplay is wearing thin
– Editor interface is restrictive and awkward
– Open world structure is oversimplified and unnecessary
– Several unforgiveable feature omissions

The history of Scribblenauts is a rocky one. The series has gone from being a behemoth of media hype, to an utterly disappointing initial release, to an inspiring sequel success story, and finally, with Scribblenauts Unlimited, to a zombified IP that developer 5th Cell can’t figure out what to do with. Oh, and there’s an iPhone game in there somewhere that nobody cares about.

On the surface, the games are extremely similar. Every one of them is about summoning an entire dictionary’s worth of objects to solve the pathologically mundane problems of the world around you. Or, more likely, they’re about messing around with as many mythological creatures, household objects and personified abstract concepts as you like. This seemingly impossible task has always been impressively accomplished thanks to the game’s simplistic graphical, AI, and movement styles, but each game has had different ways of going about it. The original involved ill-conceived “action” levels and a horrible stylus-only control scheme. The sequel focused on clever, multi-step puzzles and the novel inclusion of adjectives. Unlimited’s big conceits are an object editor and an open world structure…and it screws up both pretty badly.

The object editor was, of course, a natural fit for the series, combining Scribblenauts’ “write anything” philosophy with the “draw anything” philosophy of Drawn to Life, 5th Cell’s other notable property. In theory, it would have created something truly unlimited, unbound by the inevitable restrictions of copyright laws and ESRB ratings. And while it kind of still does that, the creative process is put through the agonizing wringers of a clunky interface, limited behavioural controls, and some really bizarre design decisions.

“Because I Can”: The Game.

For instance, you’re required to select a base object for your creation, from which your creation will inherit behaviour and hit boxes, and which you can modify to suit your needs. Fair enough…until you realize that you can’t remove a base object’s torso, change its hit boxes at all (even after removing limbs), or equip it with clothes within the object editor. So if you, say, want a character to wear a different shirt, you need to start the creation from scratch with a different base object. Obviously this was designed to keep the animation engine from imploding, but couldn’t that have just been accomplished by labelling objects as specific body parts? And just to make the process as frustrating as possible, you can’t test base objects beforehand, because there’s no preview for either appearance or behaviour.

And that’s just the “really bizarre design decisions” part. The editor also suffers from an interface that is both overly simple and overly uncooperative. Just to name a few problems: objects must be resized equally in horizontal and vertical directions, nothing can be moved or rotated using exact values, and the hit boxes used for colouring and selecting objects are completely broken. Finally, while the list of behaviours a created object can have is impressive, the inability to apply reactions to specific objects outside of broad categories is a huge missed opportunity.

Don’t get me wrong, people are making some great stuff with the object editor, and if you can remember what you’ve downloaded, they can make for some novel puzzle solutions. Personally, I was able to make a reasonable facsimile of Tim from Braid, complete with the ability to create a nuclear explosion whenever he examines star-related things (go play Braid to get the joke…better yet, just go play Braid, it’s a much more worthwhile puzzle-platformer). But those ten seconds of novelty were not worth the disproportionate amount of time I spent struggling with the object editor, especially not when vastly superior creation tool/game hybrids like MinecraftLittleBigPlanet, or Spore exist.


This is the best part of the game. There, I just saved you thirty bucks.

But enough about the object editor. What about the core gameplay? Well, the simple answer is that if you’ve never played a Scribblenauts game before, you’ll have a great time. Summoning a lion to duke it out with a cyborg is as much fun as it sounds, and doing so while flying around with a pair of wings, 3D glasses and a chainsaw in hand has a certain audacious charm to it. Additionally, by its very nature, the series has always been a gold mine of easter eggs and references, and Unlimited continues that tradition with clever allusions to everything from Wallace and Gromit to Dodgeball, and a variety of silly internet memes as summonable objects.

However, if you have played a Scribblenauts game before, the experience will be oddly lifeless. The obvious reason for this is that the series’ formula doesn’t really lend itself to sequels; once you’ve been given the ability to summon everything, where do you go from there? Anyone who really enjoyed the previous Scribblenauts will probably have exhausted their vocabulary of entertaining summons, and this game doesn’t have the significant technical improvements and dictionary tweaks the first sequel had to keep things interesting.

But the worst contributor to the game’s rapid loss of momentum is the open world structure, which just reeks of a publishing executive who realized that open world games are popular without understanding what makes them good. I get the thought process: if it’s fun to summon Cthulhu, it must be even more fun to summon Cthulhu in the middle of a populated city, right? But in practice, all it did was replace the smart, controlled puzzles of the previous game with a thousand tiny, simple, unsatisfying ones. The game gives you the ability to highlight which characters have problems to solve, but all it does is highlight the problems with this kind of structure: everything between the puzzles is a waste of space.

Despite the title, object editor, and larger levels, Unlimited feels significantly smaller than its predecessors. Previous Scribblenauts games allowed you to replay old puzzles using different solutions for more rewards, which forced you to flex your vocabulary and come up with the most absurdly entertaining solutions for each one. It was the perfect system; the standard solution could be reached with casual play, but squeezing every reward out of a puzzle required creativity and concentration. Unlimited has completely removed this wonderful system in favour of making each puzzle solution as broad and bland as possible.

Going through Unlimited‘s huge levels feels more like a checklist than a game.

But the most glaring omission is the absence of a level editor. Yeah, you read that right. The game that’s all about the ability to summon and edit any object, theoretically allowing the player to create anything…doesn’t have a level editor. It gets better: both Scribblenauts and Super Scribblenauts had level editors, yet Unlimited doesn’t. And the real kicker? If you summon a “level editor”, it will create a computer…with a screen showing the old level editor. Considering the game already isn’t doing much to stand out from its predecessors, and some developer went out of their way to say, “Yes, we did used to have this very robust and theme-complimenting feature”, this omission is lazy if you’re feeling charitable, and insulting if you’re not.

About the only other “feature” advertised about Scribblenauts Unlimited are its improved production values that take advantage of the hardware of platforms other than the DS. And to its credit, they are noticeably improved. The series’ art style has never had a strong sense of identity, but the grainy graphical quality of the early games has been cleaned up nicely, so while not exactly memorable, the graphics are pretty enough to look at. The improved technology seemingly influenced the audio design as well, as the music now has more variety, atmosphere, and overall cleanliness to it. And finally, while I’m not a fan of the level design from a gameplay point of view, I have to admit it’s neat to see how many environment-related puzzle opportunities they were able to stuff into each area.

As a standalone game, Scribblenauts Unlimited is a charming but flawed novelty. As part of its franchise, it’s a cheap, narrow-minded stalling tactic. The Scribblenauts experience could have been conveyed with three games: one to introduce the concept, one to polish it, and one to provide the tools for perpetuity. Unlimited could have completed that trifecta, but the tools it provides are so inadequate, and the actual game attached to them is so misguided and stale that it looks like we’ll have to wait for at least iteration number five before we finally get truly unlimited Scribblenauts.

Score: 4/10


  1. I am in from Habitat. Grabbed lunch at Thundercloud Subsâ„¢ and was so hungry, I ate my egg salad and avocado sub before I got home. I can only get that sub when Mr. Gnome is not around. He hates egg salad. Now I have to get the floors cleaned up. They haven’t been done in a couple of weeks. There are dust dragons everywhere, thanks to Beulah. I also want to get the rug down in front of the fireplace. We put down rugs for the winter. Makes the room nice and cozy. So off I go.

  2. I WAS craving chili too! I have everything but the pumpkin. I don’t mind the trouble of preparing a pumpkin though. It feels rather primal to bash one to pieces

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