Scribblenauts Showdown marks the first time in the game franchise’s decade-long history to have a release on a Sony and Microsoft console. So does this groundbreaking game live up to the expectations of the franchise? In not so many words, no.
It’s been 5 years since the last Scribblenauts game was published and the original developers 5th Cell have essentially given up the franchise, following the cancellation of Scribblenauts: Fighting Words in 2016. Unfortunately, new developers Shiver Entertainment have chosen to take the franchise on a totally different tangent and it doesn’t work quite as well.
Gone are the innovative puzzles of previous games, challenging you and your vocabulary to come up with zanier and wackier solutions. Instead, what we’re left with is a slew of minigames ranging from the mindblowingly boring to the largely unplayable. Okay, fine, there are a handful of fun minigames…
Scribblenauts Showdown features three gameplay modes – Showdown, Versus and Sandbox
The game’s titular mode is a linear boardgame for up to 4 players. It incorporates a barest attempt at strategy coupled with all the minigames you can be expected to tolerate in one sitting. The simple objective is to cross the finish line first by essentially winning as many minigames as possible, or by being sneaky and playing “Instant” effect cards (such as jumping forward, causing another player to move backwards, or stealing a card from their hand) on your turn that will likely cause you to end friendships with petty people.
It’s an odd gameplay combination because many of the minigames are most suitable for younger players, but the “Instant” effect cards introduce an almost malicious strategic dimension. What’s worse, because everyone can see everyone’s hand (it is a party game meant to be played locally after all), there’s a certain sadistic pleasure to knowing that you can undo all a person’s progress by dragging them back to your position with an Instant card, and knowing that they know you have it and cannot do anything about it.
Fortunately, there are three options to decide the length of the boardgame, so you don’t have to endure the gameplay longer than you expect to. The multitude of minigames you’ll be playing don’t exactly have intuitive controls, so if you’re playing with impatient kids (and most adults), you get frustrated because you’ll forget which button does what after a while.
And that’s where Versus mode comes in. It’s pretty much a miniature version of Showdown mode, where you just play random minigames for bragging rights, without the extra gameplay of the Showdown boardgame and “Instant” cards thrown in. Versus also comes with a “Freeplay” mode, which allows you to play any minigame you want, because some are objectively more fun than others.
So where does the Scribblenauts gameplay factor in? Each minigame falls under the option of being “wordy” or “speedy”, and each can take between 30 to 90 seconds. The “wordy” minigames require you to choose a word that fits a given category, or starts with a given letter. Choose an appropriate word and the minigame becomes easier for you. For example, in a minigame that requires you to catch and stack objects on a flying carpet, a “tongue” makes life easier than a “table”, because tongues are smaller.
“Speedy” minigames, on the other hand, don’t test your vocabulary at all, just your reflexes with the controller. Whether it’s button-mashing, rhythm games or weird repetitive tasks, these minigames are probably the weakest and most derivative element of Scribblenauts Showdown.
It’s clear that several of these minigames game was designed with the Nintendo Switch Joy-Con’s accelerator and gyroscope in mind. On the PS4 version, which I was reviewing, however, the over-frequent use of the 6 axis motion sensing capabilities was rather unnerving. In one minigame, you have to shake your DualShock 4 up and down to imitate digging a hole or pumping a balloon. I was painfully aware of how Sony probably did not intend the 210g controllers to be handled this way, even as I kept my head a safe distance from my hands.
Perhaps suspecting (correctly) that people would much prefer the critically acclaimed gameplay of the classic Scribblenauts games, Scribblenauts Showdown also includes a Sandbox mode. This mode contains 10 mini adventure maps (4 unlocked and 6 locked) each with 10 basic puzzles for you to unleash your creativity on.
As with previous games, solving puzzles earns you Starites, which can be used to buy new maps in Sandbox mode, or new items for maps, or deepen your ability to customise your Scribblenaut. You can also earn Starites from the other modes.
There are good points and bad points to the Sandbox mode, and it’s a real pity because you realise this mode could’ve been so much more.
For example, we finally have a proper multiplayer mode that doesn’t feel tacked on the way Scribblenauts Unlimited did it. With proper split screen functionality, this allows two players to really do their own thing independently of one another. Unfortunately, the cramped space in each map often restricts the possibility of interaction, and sometimes you actually do miss two or more people solving puzzles together instead of solving them independently.
Scribblenauts Showdown boasts a dictionary of 35,000 words and that kind of range makes for really impressive puzzle solving options. But sometimes the solutions to puzzles are rather obtuse. A scientist onboard a ship seems to want companionship, and the clue given was “two scientists are better than one”. Just creating another scientist (the base word defaults to male, rather unfortunately) doesn’t solve the puzzle. Making the scientist female wasn’t the solution either (to my relief). Eventually, it was adding the adjective “scientific” to the female scientist that earned me that Starite. Thanks, Female Scientific Scientist.
Sandbox mode feels like an entirely separate game altogether, from the rest of Scribblenauts Showdown. My hypothesis? Sandbox was the original plan all along, but then someone chickened out and decided to pivot and make Showdown the hopeful spiritual successor to Mario Party. But it just feels like a misstep.
With original developers 5th Cell all but shut down, Scribblenauts as a franchise should’ve seen the writing on the wall. I fear that, in attempting to make Scribblenauts Showdown an all-ages party game for all modern consoles, new developers Shiver Entertainment have ended up overstuffing the game to make up for lost time.
Instead, it just makes the experience uncomfortable for both new and old fans of the franchise to stomach. The kids will love it, but the adults will probably get sick of it sooner than later.