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Scribblenauts Unlimited (Wii U) review: Sadistic wordplay

As it turns out, the best fix for virtually any situation is a Death Ray. That’s the main lesson I took from my time with 5th Cell’s Scribblenauts Unlimited, a Wii U launch title (also available for Nintendo 3DS and Windows platforms) that does double-duty as the series’ debut console appearance. The game’s colorful, cartoonish world may seem friendly and inviting, but it’s actually a cold, uncaring place where joy seems to always walk hand-in-hand with misery. At the center of the devastation is Maxwell, a childlike demigod equipped with a Magical Notebook that conjures anything written on its pages into reality. You can use your powers for good, of course, but it’s often simpler and easier to just order up a Death Ray and be done with it.

Scribblenauts Goes Global

There’s no morality mechanic to judge you in Scribblenauts Unlimited, but there is — in a series-first — a proper narrative. It turns out that Maxwell is one of 42 children, and his notebook was a present from his parents. Unfortunately, lavishing a child with such power gives way to bad habits, and Maxwell comes to be a bit spoiled. When he uses his powers one day to conjure up a rotten apple for a hungry beggar, his “help” is repaid in kind with a curse placed upon Maxwell’s sister, Lily. And so our snotnose punk sets off, notebook in hand, into the world of Scribblenauts Unlimited in search of Starites. These will ultimately be needed to save Lily, but they also serve the dual-purpose of unlocking additional portions of the world as Starite count milestones are reached.

Yes, there’s a whole world to explore in Scribblenauts Unlimited. Unlike the previous games in which players simply take on a series of challenges chosen off of menus, here you’ll visit an assortment of more open locations selected off of an overworld map. A handful of discrete, typically multi-stage challenges — much like the puzzles of previous games — awaits in each location. Completion nets a fully formed Starite. You’ll also be able to give Maxwell’s unique brand of aid to folks who are scattered around the open locations in exchange for Starite shards; collect 10 and you add another whole Starite to your collection.

Kind-hearted souls will no doubt come up with more friendly ways to solve the puzzles of Scribblenauts Unlimited, but the concept of helping out your fellow humans can be very loosely interpreted through 5th Cell’s twisted lens. An early puzzle features a man being driven insane by the loud snoring of his bunkmate. Begging me to find a solution to his problems, I tapped him with my stylus to open a pop-up menu, chose the “Add Adjective” option there, and with a single word, struck him deaf. You’d think he’d be alarmed by such a development, but no. The now-satisfied deaf man simply leaned back in his chair with a contented cartoon grin on his face.

There’s not a whole lot more to Scribblenauts Unlimited than that; the fun is what you make of it, quite literally. Younger audiences with a bright outlook on the world and a fresh crop of life lessons in their heads will undoubtedly make Maxwell’s world a happy and friendly place. The absurdly sadistic or patently weird solutions dreamt up by older, more battle-hardened gamers simply add another layer to what’s possible. Nothing different from the core of what Scribblenauts has always been, really. The structural changes to the game as a whole are for the better, but 5th Cell thankfully manages to keep the spirit of its charming puzzle series alive and well amidst the change.

The only major new addition comes in the form of the new Object Editor, which allows you to go in and alter the look and even the behavior of anything you dream up. There isn’t any kind of tutorial to get you started, though the robust touch-based toolset is pretty self-explanatory. Scribblenauts games often feel frustratingly limited in terms of what you can create, and the Object Editor seems aimed at correcting this. You could, for example, create a green-tinted “magic brownie” that adds adjectives like “hungry,” “silly,” and “lazy” to whomever eats it. Or you could create a giant, electricity-spewing dog that sets off a nuclear explosion when it’s exposed to fire. No matter what your creation is, it can be shared online via the game’s Punctuation Plaza location (so long as it complies with the basic rules of conduct barring copyrighted and objectionable material).

Who Needs A TV?

It’ll be interesting to see if Scribblenauts Unlimited comes to represent a wider trend of releasing Wii U games that are best played entirely on the Wii U GamePad’s small screen. The only real second-screen support is just what you’d expect: all of the same sort of touch-based controls that were a feature in previous, portable games in the series. You use the touchscreen to tap the things you want to interact with, type out words in the notebook, even move Maxwell around if you so choose. You’ll rely on the GamePad’s triggers and right analog stick for zooming in/out and panning around each environment, but Scribblenauts Unlimited is still largely a touch-based game.

All of which means that what you’re seeing on your TV screen as you play is a carbon-copy of what’s on the GamePad screen. It’s a futile exercise to swap your attention back and forth between the two displays. Not only is there no point to it, it also actually serves to slow down your play. The only value of having a second screen handy is in Scribblenauts Unlimited‘s multiplayer option, which allows a second player to drop in and take control of Maxwell’s creations. It’s neat, but not exactly game-changing.

Conclusion

Scribblenauts Unlimited ought to appeal to anyone who enjoys the other Scribblenauts game. Fundamentally, the experience remains the same here. There’s a wide world of varied locations to explore, which feels appropriately “bigger” for this debut console release. The puzzles are largely unchanged, and that’s for the best, though 5th Cell continues to struggle with delivering a Scribblenauts that feels truly challenging. Fun is largely what you make of it in Scribblenauts Unlimited; whether that means giving a hungry man an apple, solving the world’s polluted waters woes with a Death Ray, or striking an old man blind so that you can safely retrieve a lost baseball from his lawn is entirely up to you.

Score: 8 out of 10 

(This game was reviewed on the Wii U via a copy provided by the publisher)