Platforms: Switch (Reviewed), PS4, Xbox One

The original Scribblenauts was an amazing innovation in puzzle games. Its basic challenges were made deep and interesting by giving the player the ability to type practically anything into their DS touch screen and make it come to life. Players were able to reach high places by climbing up the neck of a brontosaurus, defeat enemies by summoning a black hole, and even make an RPG party of King Arthur, Frankenstein’s Monster, and Abraham Lincoln. Later installments of the Scribblenauts franchise expanded the Scribblenauts dictionary and gave players the ability to add adjectives to their creations, but retained its core puzzle solving gameplay.

Scribblenauts Showdown takes this marvel of puzzle game innovation and removes the puzzles. Instead, it gives us a minigame compilation, similar to Mario Party. Players are put in competitions with a catch: they can create objects before each minigame use these objects to gain an advantage.

Out of control

Before we even talk about the minigames themselves, let’s talk about Scribblenauts Showdown’s controls. On the DS, players could use the touch screen to type. This just felt natural and made generating new objects easy. In Showdown, you have to use the analog stick. This feels incredibly awkward and it makes players less likely to create new objects since doing so is a chore. When players stop using their imagination to generate new objects, Scribblenauts loses the very thing that made it fun to begin with.

It doesn’t help that the rest of the controls are needlessly weird. The button normally used to jump is used to open menus. The button normally used to open menus is used to enter doors and climb up ladders. While you can get used to these controls, they still get in the way of expressing your creativity.

Frankly, this seems like a missed opportunity for smartphone integration, similar to what Telltale or Jackbox games have done in the past. This way, players wouldn’t need to suffer through an odd control scheme and typing in new words would be as easy as sending a text message. This simple innovation would have made Scribblenauts Showdown far easier and more enjoyable to play.

Mini-game madness

There are three main modes in Scribblenauts showdown: versus, showdown and sandbox. Versus mode is the main game mode. Here you go up against a friend in a series of minigames. It’s the quickest and simplest game mode on offer.

There are two types of minigames: wordy and speedy. Wordy games are more puzzle oriented, giving you a larger bonus for being creative. For example, one minigame has you filling up a black hole with garbage, but you get to generate the garbage. Spawning large objects will cause it to fill quicker. Another game has you stacking falling objects on a flying carpet. Small uniform objects will stack better.

Speedy games are more based on twitch reflexes than creativity. While you still get to generate objects they rarely give you much of an advantage.

Or at least that’s the idea. In reality, minigames don’t change much regardless of what items you generate. There’s a dueling minigame reminiscent of Smash Brothers, but a sword seems to do exactly as much damage as a pickle. The “fill the black hole” mini game scatters generated objects all over the map, so generating a heavy object can just as well benefit your opponent as much as you. The rhythm minigame has you generate a character to dance on screen and doesn’t even ask you to tap buttons on beat!

Frankly, most of the minigames just aren’t that fun. There are a few standouts, like a minigame that plays almost identical to the arcade classic Tapper, but most of them feel like half-baked mobile ideas. Combine that with the wonky controls and you’ll find that many of these games end up being more frustrating than their worth.

Some games cross the line from frustrating into downright disturbing. For example, one minigame was an eating competition, but we were asked to generate dinosaurs. The result was me and my opponent eating still living dinosaurs on a plate, and frequently throwing up due to the massive size of them. Literally, our characters were animated puking up dino bits all over. Who the heck thought this was family friendly?

Showdown mode wraps up versus mode into a board game format. Players take turns playing cards with minigames on them. The winner of the minigame gets to move forward the number of spaces on the card. It’s a neat little mode which can support a greater number of players, but it’s really just the same old versus mode with a different coat of paint.

Sandbox mode is easily the most enjoyable mode. It is, essentially, the classic Scribblenauts formula, but widely expanded into open maps and multiplayer enabled. Players can drop in and drop out whenever they like and try their hands at each stage’s unique puzzles and goals.

Unfortunately, this mode is still kind of a mess. For example, you aren’t given individual puzzles or goals to work toward. You are just given vague hints toward your goals in your “Starite Log.” That means you have to go into the menu every couple of seconds to remind yourself what you are doing.

The added chaos of other players makes these goals even harder to reach. For example, you might be trying to lure a monkey off a platform only to have your friend destroy the monkey with a rocket launcher. You can restart the map, but it’s frustrating to do so. You are never told when you fail, only when you succeed. So you might bang your head at a certain puzzle for ages only to find out that your buddy made the puzzle unsolvable quite a while ago.

Completing these puzzles gets you Starites which can be used to unlock things such as costume pieces, characters, and new words. However, this unlock system is a little frustrating. Frankly, characters and costumes aren’t really compelling rewards and unlockable words defeats the purpose of the Scribblenauts formula. You are supposed to be able to type in anything you can think of. Restricting your imagination to only things you have unlocked is a cheap way to squeeze replay value out of a game with very little.

We need more

And that’s Scribblenauts Showdown’s biggest flaw, lack of content. There are 12 wordy games, 15 speedy games and 8 sandbox stages. You’ll easily blow through all the minigames in about an hour and complete all the Sandbox stages in three to four more. After that, there’s nothing else to do. And $40 is a heavy price tag for about five hours of gameplay.

Honestly, there just isn’t enough here. Even if the controls were fixed and the minigames were more fun to play you’d still end up blowing through all of Showdown’s content in a mere few hours. It just doesn’t compare to the original Scribblenauts which had more than 20 hours of perplexing puzzles to think your way through. It’s a neat little spin-off but it just doesn’t scratch that Scribblenauts itch.