Electric Retrospective- Review: ‘Scribblenauts Showdown’ punctuates lack of creativity

Sean Mullins
Technology Columnist

Maxwell prepares a meal in one of the new minigames. Image from Warner Bros.

When a franchise’s future is handed to a different creator, it can take that series in interesting new directions. However, “Scribblenauts Showdown” is a word of warning that a new direction isn’t always the best.

The Scribblenauts series, originally created by 5th Cell, focuses on Maxwell, whose magic notebook can spawn anything he writes in it. Maxwell travels the world, solving problems by summoning nouns or applying adjectives to them. The series emphasizes creative thinking, since every problem has hundreds of solutions. For example, to rescue a cat from a tree, Maxwell can summon a ladder, but a jetpack can also do the job.

Given its unique mechanics, one would think the next Scribblenauts game would stick with its sandbox gameplay and word puzzles. However, rather than a new game with additions to Maxwell’s abilities, such as how “Super Scribblenauts” introduced adjectives, the series returned after a four year hiatus with “Scribblenauts Showdown,” a minigame collection including elements of previous entries, with 5th Cell being replaced by Shiver Entertainment.

Minigame collections, a type of party game, have a certain stigma due to frequently released mediocre games destined for bargain bins. The issue became worse with the Wii, which popularized motion-control minigames. Excellent games like “Mario Party” and the surprisingly entertaining “SpongeBob SquarePants: Lights, Camera, Pants!” prove the subgenre isn’t inherently awful. However, minigame collections generally fall prey to mediocrity due to cut corners and weak minigames.

The 25 minigames are separated into Wordy games, which have the player type a word from a random category to help them win, and Speedy games, which are action minigames closer to other party games. They can be played in Showdown mode, a board game with minigames between turns a la “Mario Party,” or Versus mode, which only includes minigames.

Speedy games are nothing to write home about, but since Wordy games incorporate the typing mechanics from previous entries, it makes them feel slightly more interesting. The word prompts allow players to create objects that give them a slight advantage in competitions, such as choosing smaller dishes in the eating competition, or just write silly objects for fun, like using Santa Claus as bait in a fishing game.

Sadly, the minigames aren’t engaging enough to constitute this being a minigame collection. Most of the minigames are over within 30 seconds to a minute, and they become stale after a few replays. Furthermore, the minigames are either common minigame types from other party games, like the dance-off minigame, or blatant copies of other games, like the diner game copied from Midway’s arcade classic, “Tapper.”

For those not interested in minigames, Sandbox mode provides puzzle-solving gameplay in true Scribblenauts fashion. However, there are only eight levels with a few puzzles each, and the mode can be finished in less than two hours. Challenges are incredibly basic, but some objectives provide cheap difficulty. Specific puzzles have unclear win conditions, and others don’t reward the player immediately, even though ingame hints show the puzzle was solved correctly.

Since typing is a major mechanic, Scribblenauts games always release on systems with touch screens or keyboards. However, despite 3DS, iOS and PC previously receiving Scribblenauts games, all of which have typing options, “Showdown” is only on home consoles, so typing is relegated to a convoluted combination of the control stick and buttons. The button layout for character movement is confusing, which makes traversing levels as tedious as typing is.

The Scribblenauts series has a unique art style in which characters look and move like marionettes without strings, but a few minor changes have been made, such as slight redesigns for Maxwell and other returning characters. While short title screen animations are fluidly animated and charming to watch, the game lags if too many objects are onscreen, which slows the pace of certain modes.

Although a few unmemorable songs were added, the music is mostly taken from 2012’s “Scribblenauts Unlimited.” “Unlimited” has a hidden gem of a soundtrack by the fantastic David J. Franco, who worked with 5th Cell back when it owned the series. However, the returning music is used unfittingly. It’s difficult to get excited about racing through volcanoes when melancholy music from the “Unlimited” prison level, Payper N. Penitentiary, is playing.

5th Cell’s games, from “Drawn to Life” to “Lock’s Quest,” always pride themselves on creative thinking and unique solutions. However, “Scribblenauts Showdown” only exists to capitalize on the series’s success without the passionate team behind earlier installments at double the previous entries’ prices. Given the lack of content, terrible design choices, and removal of 5th Cell’s involvement, it seems the writing is on the wall for the future of Scribblenauts.

“Scribblenauts Showdown” is available for $39.99 on Nintendo Switch, XBox One, and PlayStation 4. This review was made using the Nintendo Switch version.

Go to the Electric Retrospective blog at https://electricretrospective.wordpress.com for more game reviews and news. New posts release every Tuesday.

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