Scribblenauts is good, pure, and in need of a comeback

And the series' new Mega Pack offers a strong reminder.

I suppose WB Games' Scribblenauts Mega Pack doesn't really qualify for coverage here on Retronauts, as we prefer to focus on things that are at least 10 years old. As a collection of Scribblenauts Unlimited and Scribblenauts Unmasked, the Mega Pack contains material that originally shipped as recently as five years ago. (That's as many as one-half 10s. And that's terrible.) Even the Scribblenauts franchise itself hasn't quite hit the decade mark, the original having debuted back in 2009. 

Be that as it may, Scribblenauts at least feels older, in a spiritual sense. It's a relic of an era in gaming that has completely vanished. The fertile, anything-goes frontier days of Nintendo DS and Wii resulted in a great many genuinely clever ideas for games designed around alternate interfaces and aimed at all ages, and that's something we really don't see any more. That core audience was siphoned up by smartphone gaming, causing console and handheld games to retreat back to their usual themes and formats once that generation of Nintendo hardware (and hollow attempts to imitate it, like PS Move and Kinect) faded away. The DS may have been doing fairly well for itself as recently as seven or eight years ago, but that epoch of gaming somehow seems as bygone as the PlayStation 2.

That makes the Mega Pack's arrival on current platforms—Switch, Xbox One, and PlayStation 4—all the more remarkable. None of those consoles lack for a library of releases, yet none of them have anything quite like Scribblenauts. Again, this series traces its origins back to the DS, and it really shows. Both games in the Mega Pack collection have a sort of low-key, stress-free, as-you-like-it approach to play, placing their emphasis on creative word-based solutions to puzzles. These days, Minecraft seems to have cornered the market on creative play, and Scribblenauts has a style and vibe all its own.

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Scribblenauts has a simple but frankly brilliant premise. You control a kid named Maxwell (or his vast array of siblings) who carries a magical notebook. Anything Maxwell writes in his notebook becomes real—it's like Death Note, but not about a sociopathic misfit murdering anyone who slights him. The game contains a massive built-in lexicon of recognized words and an equally impressive array of interactive graphical objects to match, and anything you see can be further modified with the use of adjectives. You can create a gnat and a dinosaur, then have them duke it out for supremacy on even ground by defining the gnat as "enormous" and "angry" and the dinosaur as "tiny" and "hostile."

Scribblenauts' sandbox vibe means you can fart around for hours just coming up with random things to spawn and goad into interacting with one another, but the core of both games here is to use those powers to solve puzzles. These usually amount to people experiencing crises of various magnitudes—sometimes they want things to make them happy, sometimes they're in mortal danger—and you have a great deal of latitude in defining solutions for them. Say you meet a guy who wants to start a band; you can spawn a punk rocker for him, or you can give him a monkey and an accordion for the monkey—or any number of other options. Some puzzles can be annoyingly cryptic or obscure, but for the most part, the appeal of Scribblenauts lay in coming up with goofy ideas for your own amusement and watching the ridiculous outcome.

The move away from DS does hurt these games a bit; only the Switch version offers an approximation of the games' original touch-based input system, and that's only in portable mode. Scribblenauts play consists almost entirely of inputting words, and the radial joystick-based input system featured in this remake isn't quite so elegant as just tapping out letters on a touch-based keypad. It doesn't help that creating compound terms—nouns with modifiers—is turned into a two-step process when you use the radial interface. Still, it's a fairly minor concern; at heart, both Scribblenauts games here remain as weird and freewheeling as ever, and the anarchic delight of solving puzzles by coming up with bizarre word selections remains a pretty compelling motivation for play.

Between Unlimited and Unmasked, the former tends to be more open-ended and surprising while the latter contains some smart design constraints to encourage greater creativity. Unmasked's big selling point, of course, was that it features an absolutely ridiculous array of DC Comics characters to interact with, summon, and redefine with modifiers. (What's the actual difference between Bizarro and Angry Undead Superman? Now you can find out for yourself!) That's a pretty good hook, but Unmasked also includes a scoring system that rewards players for avoiding the reuse of words, and that goes a long way toward preventing its puzzle solutions from boiling down to the same gimmick every time, as could sometimes be the case in previous games. Granted, there's something to be said for using "Cthulhu" as your solution for every puzzle imaginable, but any game where you earn bonus points by challenging the limits of your vocabulary is OK by me. Especially when you're trying to come up with clever terms to allow you to, say, capture Ambush Bug.

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I suspect the future of Scribblenauts is on shaky ground; the collapse of the Wii/DS ecosystem hit series developer 5TH Cell pretty hard, and 2013's Unmasked was the studio's last release prior to the Mega Pack. The Mega Pack offers a pleasant remind of how entertainingly offbeat Scribblenauts was, even if the reality of the games never quite lived up to the breathless wonder of the famous Post 217. Each successive iteration of the series felt a little more structured than the last, a little more focused. Unmasked comes close to solving most of the flaws that resulted from the ambitious, open-ended concept behind the series, and 5TH Cell deserves a chance to take the next step with Scribblenauts concept.

As a final note, I'd also argue that Unmasked lands a little better today than it did five years ago. It's a goofy, lighthearted take on DC's iconic superhero pantheon that stands in stark contrast to the joyless DC-based movies that have appeared in recent years. In that sense, too, I suppose the game feels retro. A reminder of when the heroes could be fun and heroic rather than morose rage addicts. Ah, memories.