Scribblenauts Showdown (Switch) Review
The Scribblenauts games might not have been the most refined games out there, but they were such a joy to play. Whether it was coming up with a MacGyver-esque contraption to get you through the Action levels, seeing how obscure a word you could think of in order to solve a puzzle or just messing around and seeing all the ways objects could interact with each other, there were a lot of good times to be had. Scribblenauts Showdown presents a promising concept – a party game in which you need to write objects to help you out in minigames. However, it squanders any potential that concept has. The central conceit of Scribblenauts (summoning objects by writing words) is barely utilised in the party game portion of Showdown, and while it tries to capture that classic Scribblenauts magic with more traditional sandbox levels, these fall flat and fail to compare with the levels of previous games.
The focus of Showdown is its minigames for two players. You can opt to play a series of random games or pick the ones you want a la carte. There’s also a Mario Party style boardgame mode that adds a metagame component to the structure. The minigames are split into two kinds; those that revolve around summoning objects with words, and those that revolve around buttons and motion controls instead. Seeing as this is a Scribblenauts game you would think that most of the minigames would fall into the former category. You would think wrong. Over half the minigames don’t use the dictionary mechanics at all, and out of these games most of them rely on gimmicky motion controls that feel like they were ripped out of the Wii’s launch year. You’ll participate in exciting activities like wildly swinging the Joy Cons to hit a pinata or moving it up and down to pump up a balloon. They’re such dated concepts that don’t appeal all these years later. I will say, though, that the motion controls are very responsive. You need to play these minigames with detached Joy Cons though, which means that if you’re playing in handheld mode on public transport then most of the minigames are locked out.
The other minigames are more what you would expect from a Scribblenauts party game, and see you entering a word to utilise it in the minigame somehow. You’ll be given limitations like ‘Words that start with B’ or ‘Things you would find in a playground’ and you will be rewarded in some way if you heed these well enough. It can be really finicky about this though – I’ve met the requirements at times and not been rewarded, while my opponents will be for things that aren’t even close. There was a racing minigame where we were told to enter fast animals. I entered ‘boar’ and didn’t get a bonus while my AI opponent could enter things like types of eel and get the bonus. I know which one I would be betting on for a hurdles race!
There’s not that many minigames to choose from (just under 30) and there’s so little variance in how they play out each time that it means the game gets stale fast. There’s a minigame where you need to catapult objects into your opponent’s tower to knock it down, but nothing changes each time you play except that heavier objects are more effective. So you just pick the heaviest object you can think of that meets the criteria and then play the game just the same way as last time. Then there’s one where you need to carry cargo across an alien planet in a space buggy, with the cargo being selected by you. Choosing different kinds doesn’t affect the way the game plays in any way whatsoever, aside from being given easier terrain to traverse if you match that round’s restrictions. The closest the words come to changing the gameplay is in the duelling minigame where you need to summon a weapon of your choice. You could come up with a melee weapon, something to throw at your opponent or a ranged weapon and they all play differently. But ranged weapons are objectively superior than others, and if you come up with an explosive one like a bazooka then you can win in a single hit. Creative word use is the defining feature of Scribblenauts, so it’s bizarre that this game is barely concerned with it.
Scribblenauts Showdown also has a Mario Party-style boardgame mode that features the minigames as well. It’s titled, wait for it, ‘Showdown’ mode. Four players are able to compete in this mode, though only two players will be selected to compete in each minigame. It’s more interesting than playing the minigames on there own, but it’s still not great. The board can vary in size depending on how long you want the game to ask, but it doesn’t feature any fun gimmicks like you would see in Mario Party. Instead, it features a card system that allows you to trigger effects. Some special cards will activate immediately, with effects like pulling back the player in front, while most will require you to play a minigame. The effect will then be applied to the winner or loser of the minigame as appropriate – positive effects like moving forwards are for the winner, negative effects like moving backwards are for the loser.
Sometimes the cards feature modifiers that tweak how the games will play a little, like swapping the objects each player wrote. This adds a fun new dynamic to the game because you need to think of the WORST possible item to take into the game. When it came up in the duelling minigames I mentioned earlier, it meant we went into battle wielding lipstick and a keychain, and had to keep throwing them at each other in hopes of dealing damage. There’s also a ‘wild card’ bonus that means whatever object you pick will meet the challenge criteria. This led to my favourite moment from the game where I had to create bait to lure in fish, and I entered ‘sewage’. The fish were tripping over themselves to devour poop, and it appealed to my cultured sense of humour.
Showdown doesn’t feature online multiplayer, so if you don’t have anyone to play with then you’ll be left with a hollow experience. You’re limited to playing against a single AI opponent, even in the boardgame mode. This means that you only have one person to worry about and there’s a much weaker dynamic than there would be otherwise. I got stuck in a single boardgame match for ages because my single opponent kept drawing cards that allowed them to pull me backwards on the board over and over again, and with no-one to counter them or act as an additional target it means that even though I kept winning the minigames I was doomed to go through this constant loop of going forwards and backwards. I imagine the game would be much more fun to play with friends, but… so is just about every game, and it’s not like the Switch is short on options when it comes to multiplayer games.
Some more traditional Scribblenauts gameplay is available in the Sandbox mode, which features hub levels similar to those in Scribbenauts Unlimited where you can wander around and complete challenges. Each level is really small and consists of disconnected areas so there’s not a lot of space to play in. The challenges are uninspired compared to those in previous games and are a lot more restrictive in terms of solutions. Previous games provided so much freedom in completing their tasks, while here I spent ages on some of them trying to work out what specific item they wanted. It’s not a substantial offering either, you can easily complete everything this mode in a couple of hours. The only real enjoyment here is from seeing what objects you can create, and how they’ll interact with everything else. The controls haven’t transitioned well from a touch screen to a controller though, which makes the game really clunky and fiddly. The controls also prevent you from doing some fun things from previous games like connecting objects with glue or rope.
So there’s not much to do here and the only longevity the game really has is unlocking character customisation items. You can create your own playable avatar by combining bits and pieces from the various human characters in the game, and you can even select which vehicles they use in minigames that require them. However, there’s so many locked items that it will not only take hours and hours of playtime to unlock them all, but it takes ages to even just move through the menu and unlock them all. It’s really not worth it. There’s a few in-game achievements to unlock as well, but most of them you’ll get just by playing through each minigame and sandbox level the first time.
Scribblenauts Showdown is an incredibly disappointing attempt to resurrect the Scribblenauts franchise. It’s neither a fun party game nor a fun Scribblenauts game and is hard to recommend to anyone unless you’re incredibly desperate for a party game on the Switch. Summoning objects out of the vast Scribblenauts dictionary is as fun as it always was, but this mechanic is barely utilised in most of the game and the more traditional sandbox levels feel like an afterthought. If you’re keen to jump into the Scribblenauts franchise then play one of the earlier games instead.
+ Motion controls are functional
+ Seeing what the game allows you to create is still fun
+ You can eat poop and feed poop to fish
- Needs people in order to be fun but there's no online play
- The object-spawning mechanics are barely utilised within minigames
- The controls haven't been suitably reworked for controllers and they prevent some object interactions
- Stutters a lot when undocked