Scribblenauts Unmasked should work. It pairs the Scribblenauts ethos of “create anything you can think of” with the world of DC Comics. Combining thousands of classic comic book characters and settings with anything from the player’s imagination means potentially unlimited puzzles for players to tackle. In practice, though, the game’s desire to be endless costs those puzzles their focus, and the never-ending battle between good and evil provided by the superheroic setting is better suited for a different kind of game. There’s fun to be had in Scribblenauts Unmasked—it’s just awkward getting to it.
By far the coolest thing about Scribblenauts Unmasked is the Bat-Computer, an encyclopedia of the DC Universe where I looked up almost every DC Comics character I could think of (Streaky the Super Cat is sadly missing) and dropped them into the game, adorably rendered in the Scribblenauts “paper doll” art style. My personal preference for superheroes has always been silly and fun over grim and gritty, so seeing characters like Frank Miller’s version of Batman with soft edges and wobbly limbs tickled me to no end. You can unlock many different Scribblenautical DC superhero costumes to put on Maxwell, the game’s rooster-headed hero, and they’re all delightful. Even relatively obscure superheroes like Blue Beetle get an outfit, which, once unlocked, I never ever took off.
Most of my time in Scribblenauts Unmasked was spent solving its dynamically generated puzzles, where adjectives and nouns are somehow programmatically jammed together to make new problems to take care of on each visit to Metropolis or Gotham City. But due to their seemingly random nature, the solutions are specific and fussy in ways that harken back to the worst of old point and click adventure games. You’ll spend a lot of time failing with fun solutions to problems and guessing how a computer would solve them. Putting out a fire? “Put down that freeze ray; you’re thinking too far outside the box,” says the game. “How about we all calm down and try a nice bland bucket of water or the very literal fire extinguisher?”
When solutions aren’t frustrating, they’re often boring . Adjectives in particular undermine the game. Getting through a puzzle often involves listening to a character’s problem, tapping them, and granting them the opposite adjective. If they’re cold, tap them, add “warm.” If their car is broken, tap it, add “fixed.” As a result most puzzles have all the fun of filling out a workbook at an HR meeting about “active listening.”
Solving these puzzles increases Maxwell’s “reputation” in Gotham City, Metropolis or various Justice League-themed locations. This is the currency used to unlock levels or those fancy superhero costumes. And in order to keep you from solving every problem with the same object over and over, the game imposes a -50% reputation penalty whenever you re-use an object.
Theoretically this incentivizes you to think creatively and not just conjure up a big blue boy scout to solve every problem. After the game shoots down your second or third idea, though, avoiding the penalty becomes a game of synonyms. Already tagged Maxwell with the adjective “fast”? Okay, well now he’ll be “quick”, “speedy” or“swift.” This in-game SAT test might be interesting if you were doing it of your own free will, but it just feels like unnecessary punishment when you’re trying to not lose reputation.
On top of dynamically built puzzles and the reputation penalty trying to keep things fresh, sometimes a levels start with a visit from Mr. Mxyzptlk, the 5th Dimensional trickster from Superman’s rogues gallery. He pops in offering players double reputation if they agree to play with his seemingly random restrictions, which range from the mundane (“only use words starting with ‘D’,” or “you can’t use adjectives”) to the insane (”everything is headless and wants to attack you”, or “everything is about to explode!”). I was shocked how effective these little tweaks are at amping up the fun. The first kinds of challenges often give the game the extra level of restriction needed to break out of the adjective/synonym rut. The latter category can make the puzzles in the level unsolvable, but I’m so entertained by headless, angry Aquaman that I don’t care.
The best part of Scribblenauts Unmasked is the story mode. It seems silly at first to even bring up the game’s story; in previous games it hasn’t mattered how Maxwell’s notebook lets the game happen, we just care that it does. Surprisingly, though, the story of Maxwell meeting each member of the Justice League to stop his notebook-generated doppelganger ends up providing all the game’s momentum, framing the most interesting puzzles, producing the most joyful moments, and lending real focus to the puzzle design.
I don’t want to overstate things—Scribblenauts Unmasked is not the long awaited Citizen Kane of Videogames. It’s not even the Follow That Bird of videogames. But the novelty of seeing random DC characters in the procedurally generated puzzles and going, “Oh, hey, The Question!” wears off quickly. The fun and clever story cut-scenes, though, stuck with me long after they ended, like the one between Maxwell and Green Lantern where they use their magic wishing things to try to one-up each other with crazier creations until they break down laughing. There’s even a touching bit of catharsis at the end with a cute little message about family. It’s not terribly sophisticated or complex emotionally, but it’s not supposed to be—it’s surprisingly earnest, affecting and well-made children’s entertainment.
Story missions provide 5th Cell the context they need to create puzzles that are clever and fun. Each story mission is framed the same way, with Maxwell meeting a DC superhero, exchanging legitimately cute dialog, and teaming up to stop the appropriate supervillain. This frees the game from fighting against the randomness of all the non-story levels, and lets you just focus on puzzles that are a match for a given villain or hero. Scarecrow isn’t just a random character dumped into a puzzle about baseball, he’s doused you with neurotoxin and is making Maxwell face his biggest fears. Having to combat a giant illusion of my father, I added the adjective “tiny” and he shrunk down just before bursting into a dozen or so mini-versions of my dad for me to fight. This kind of unexpected fun is in every single story mission and I found myself wishing the game had more than one per level.
While both flavors, Scribblenauts and DC Comics, swirl together nicely when it comes to art and story, one place they create a sour mess is combat. Superheroes fight, and Scribblenauts only ever lets you fight things begrudgingly. Rightly so; in a game which wants you to harness the power of your imagination, what could be more uninspired than the Killer Croc solution of “I’ll throw a big rock at it”? But almost every puzzle, every level, every event, involves fighting.
With a single, sluggish attack button, Maxwell swings wildly at whatever’s nearest, sometimes hitting allies and turning them against you. Conjuring up Hawkman and doing your best to stay out of his way while he takes care of business is efficient, but not really fun. There’s no avoiding these kinds of situations in Unmasked, either, since non-combat puzzles often magically produce a villain from thin air who starts attacking you AFTER having solved it, as if the grand reward for using your wits is then having to engage with the worst part of the game.
The amount of fun I have with Scribblenauts Unmasked skyrockets when I take matters in my own hands and make my own fun. Dropping as many different Batmans as I could into a fight isn’t the best solution, but it is the most amusing. When a puzzle wants me to show a superhero to a group of tourists, I get to watch them fawn over and photograph a very confused Ambush Bug, a hero so stupid and obscure I doubt most of you have heard of him.
These moments, coupled with the adorable art style and story, ensure that Scribblenauts Unmasked is enjoyable in spite of the questionable puzzle logic and sluggish, sometimes confusing controls. Through its flaws, the game accidentally ends up reinforcing its main point—be inspired by what you’ve seen and imagine something new, rather than copying it. The best part of Maxwell’s magic notebook, even when it has Batman on the cover, is filling in the blank parts yourself.
Casey Malone is a comedian, game designer and writer living in the Somerville, MA region of Space Sector 2814. Follow him on Twitter, where he is currently lobbying for membership in Batman, Inc.