Hands-on with Scribblenauts: The pen is mightier than the ray gun

Scribblenauts, for the Nintendo DS, generated a massive amount of positive buzz after this year's E3 video game trade show, thanks to a unique interface that lets players type in the name of real-world objects they want to use in the game.

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In an entertainment medium that defines innovation as being able to shoot aliens with two guns at once or replicate real-life instruments as plastic props , it's refreshing to find a video game that actually does try to break new ground.

Scribblenauts, for the Nintendo DS, generated a massive amount of positive buzz after this year's E3 video game trade show , thanks to a unique interface that lets players type in the name of real-world objects they want to use in the game.

The end result is a game that taxes brain cells instead of trigger fingers, without resorting to the math and logic puzzles of so many of the brain-training games that have flooded the Nintendo DS.

Each Scribblenauts level is a 2D side-scrolling environment, where a small character named Maxwell has to either reach a goal at the far end, or complete an arbitrary task (equip a doctor, chop down a tree, etc.). To clear the level, players use their DS stylus to literally type in the names of things they want to use to accomplish these goals.

Need to get to the top of a cliff? Type in the word "ladder," and one magically appears. Or try a jetpack, or a helicopter. When faced with an angry bear, we typed in the word "soldier," and a little army guy magically appeared and took care of the bear for us (although shooting wildlife isn't exactly the most politically correct move).

Warner Brothers Interactive

At first, the game seems like a talented mind-reader, or genius-level artificial intelligence. In fact, it's a bit of clever sleight of hand, with the game using the same physical object for many related words (chair and seat, rock and stone, etc.) More importantly, in our informal testing, we found most people instinctively gravitated towards a handful of common objects ("ladder" being a frequent favorite).

Places, proper names, and "suggestive material" are not allowed, but the in-game vocabulary does seem impressively large, and we had a hard time stumping it (publisher Warner Brothers won't say how big the in-game dictionary is). Typing in "pumice" gave us a rough-looking stone, but "fulcrum" wasn't recognized.

The game is full of Easter eggs as well. We typed in "time machine" and got a contraption right out of H.G. Wells. Activating the time machine sent us to a bonus level set in medieval times. Half the fun is trying random words to see what kind of havoc they unleash (try "black hole"), rather than completing the task list presented at the start of a level.

Scribblenauts is available starting Tuesday for the Nintendo DS. Check out this demo video from our colleagues at GameSpot for a look at the game in action.

About the author

Dan Ackerman leads CNET's coverage of laptops, desktops, and Windows tablets, while also writing about games, gadgets, and other topics. A former radio DJ and member of Mensa, he's written about music and technology for more than 15 years, appearing in publications including Spin, Blender, and Men's Journal.

 

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