“I can’t get the sun to reach me over here. Help me get a tan!” The request comes from an average-looking man standing on a rocky outcropping in a dim forested area I’ve stumbled into. Out comes Maxwell’s magic notebook—who am I to deny some poor stranger’s plea? I’ve been given a great, easily abused power and intend to take full advantage of it.
“Solar flare,” I type. The Scribblenauts gods don’t know what that is. I could just type “sun” to conjure up a hot plasma giant and be done with it, but if you’re going to creatively torture NPCs for your own amusement, you may as well try to keep things interesting. I try again. “Sunspot,” I spell out, one letter at a time. Again, no dice. I can’t think of any other horrible ways to affect a deep, crispy burn at the moment, so I give in. “Sun.”
A blazing orb appears on the screen, flooding the immediate area in thick yellow. I find a good place overhead, not too far from where the guy is standing so he’ll bake to a rich brown. As the sun activates, its rays turn my friend’s skin a light pink; he howls with delight, rewarding me with my starite shard. A moment later what remains of him (after getting a little too toasty) is scattered on the ground in tawny pieces—examining them the game tells me they’re tanned leather. The discovery is so ridiculous that in real life I laugh out loud.
With as open-ended gameplay as Scribblenauts Unlimited offers, these kinds of accidental consequences are not uncommon. How can you predict what, say, a corrupt politician will do when faced with a polyphagous one? Or how an unskilled beggar might react being suddenly told he’s talented and likes to dance? (Neither case has a likely outcome: one politician inexplicably beats a deadly pair of flaming pants out of the other and the beggar turns into a woman with a big sack of money.)
For a game that’s all about using your imagination—the rooster-hatted Maxwell has his usual task of conjuring whatever you can theoretically think of to pay it forward with random NPCs in need of some assistance—there’s a lot of fun to be had with Scribblenauts’ systems. Of course, the immediate knee-jerk reaction, as demonstrated above, is to be evil, or simply contrary. For example, when baking a pizza as a chef’s assistant I couldn’t resist adding a dog-sized flea as my secret ingredient for the recipe; the hungry customer ate it happily, assumedly none the wiser.
It’s often more entertaining to use adjectives to modify characters and objects around you (beware the emotional portcullis). The simple AI scripting here can result in hilariously unexpected behavior; in particular I enjoy trying to force people to fall in love with each other or otherwise manipulate others emotionally, as when I tried to get a sappy girl on a date to really go overboard with her feelings. The game took my adjectival suggestion literally, but who among the lactose tolerant hasn’t dreamt of going out with a girl made of cheese? Whatever the case, how much fun you have with Unlimited lies in the happy medium between experimentation and absurdity, so it’s best to go in with as open a mind as possible.
The Wii U’s touchscreen pad seems tailor-made for this kind of game experience. You’ll probably quickly stop using the television altogether, instead opting to strictly play on the controller. The text editor is great too: Letting you mess with the parameters for your own custom made creations, the game gives you creative access over scale, cosmetics and, yeah, AI programming. Despite its narrow appeal, it adds a new layer of creativity to the series, which is to be commended.
That said, Unlimited comes with the caveat of being best in short doses. It’s great for a Scribblenauts game, adding a large, varied open world that Maxwell can leave festooned in random junk or smoking in whatever horrifying aftermath you choose to create for its denizens. Basically, it’s simple fun, with an emphasis on the “simple”.
Scribblenauts’ “create anything” motif has always been somewhat at odds with the simple-by-necessity design, and despite its new features, you won’t really find that’s changed much with Unlimited. Wordsmiths and imaginative types will likely love it anyway; in fact if I had a game like this as a kid I would’ve been in heaven. For adults the single response factor can wear fast, encouraging moderation even as it proffers trying new things.
Scribblenauts Unlimited was developed by 5th Cell and published by Warner Brothers Interactive. Our review is based on the Wii U version. It is also available for the 3DS and PC.
Steve Haske is a Portland, OR-based gun-for-hire journalist who writes for EGM, Edge, Unwinnable and a host of other publications. You can find him on Twitter @afraidtomerge.