Acquaint yourself with the adorable Nodon and let your creative juices flow as Game Builder Garage teaches you the way of video game programming with that distinct and loveable Nintendo charm. It can be tough going, but Bob and Alice are on-hand to offer their help to make your dream games, even if things aren’t quite as customisable as we had hoped.
Steve Jobs once said, “You cannot mandate productivity, you must provide the tools to let people become their best”. The gift of giving an individual the playthings to create what they want to build is a powerful thing and Nintendo, much like Apple’s late CEO, has been doing just that for its players for a while now. Between the more recent cardboard Labo packs and Super Mario Maker 2, gamers have had the chance to sit on the other side of the fence and have a go at building their own games. And, with the help of imagination and a bit of encouragement, it’s mostly been a hit. OK, so Labo has seemingly been discontinued for now, but there have been plenty of chances to exercise the brain and to let our imaginations run a little wild.
Enter Game Builder Garage for Nintendo Switch; a game about making games. You start with the basics of creating blocks to programming a moveable game character with a pointy nose, and the further you dig in, the more complex the programming gets. On one hand, it’s a fantastic entry point for those interested in how games are built, but it can also be enjoyed – and well utilised – for existing programmers who just want to have a little fun. Personally though, I have to be clear and say that I’ve absolutely no clue about how games work. I just know that I love playing them and tend to have an idea of what makes a good game good, though I’ve never once peered into the work behind-the-scenes. But Game Builder Garage, at least at first sight, gently lifts the lid on what makes a video game tick, but at times it can feel a little too much like you’re in school or college with the sheer amount of lessons it throws at you.
Thankfully, it’s quite silly at every stage of learning, which helps to soften the longer lessons. The ‘Nodon’ – blocks you use and manipulate in the program mode – all have a life of their own and their script is sometimes amusing. Listening to the loud and gutsy Scottish Action Nodon interact with the loveable and sweet Break Nodon certainly helped to make the experience a little less arduous in the more complicated lessons further on. You’re initially presented with seven tutorials which showcase different playstyles of games that you’re tasked to create. Bob, the flying dot which holds your hand in the process, takes you through step-by-step, while Alice has a different approach to making games. Alice’s puzzles get you to think backwards; picking apart a bit of broken or problematic programming to get the desired result and to pass the test. It’s the exam at the end of your learning modules, and it helps a lot to get through these early on.
Across both Free Programming and Interactive Lesson modes, you’ll gradually get introduced to the Nodon, a fun take on the ‘node’ found in normal programming. These are the things that do the leg work, and tweaking them is where the real fun begins. Learning how each Nodon interacts with each other may feel like a confusing task at first, but throw in some equations and you’ll get greeted with some pretty cool outcomes. For instance, you’re asked to create a Mystery Room with a fairly straightforward ‘guess the code’ scenario. But going back into Free Programming mode to tinker with the finished creation and I started swapping out what Bob had told me to do with my own stuff and it then felt more like my own game, rather than the game I was told to make.
Around the halfway mark of the main game, the spike in difficulty for Alice’s puzzles was apparent as I found myself guessing more and more as time went on. And, while I appreciated the tests that forced me to utilise the skills I had learned, it was frustrating to have to go back to the same tutorial and start over if I got stuck. The situation wasn’t helped at how ambiguous the solutions were later on, either. There’s definitely an element of trial and error here, especially since Maths isn’t my strong point, which meant progressing past her problems to unlock the next game-building scenario wasn’t as plain-sailing as one might have hoped. Maybe it’s my fault for not paying as much attention as I should have in school! Still, seeing your on-screen character move as required because you solved the problem on the programming screen was delightful when I finally hit the jackpot. It just felt like a lot of effort to get there, but if it were easy, anyone could be a programmer!
There’s plenty to do on Game Builder Garage and, if you’re willing to do a lot of learning, there’s even more value to get from the game when you go into Free Programming mode. But first, you’ll have to complete the lengthy and sometimes laborious tutorials, which may not sit well for some. I often found that I was itching to just get on with things, to tweak with my own creations or to adjust the ones the game forced me to do. Yet the chances to do so were few and far between. Each pre-set, scripted project can take up to 90 minutes, so there’s a lot to get through. For instance, spending over an hour placing more aliens or apples across a short stage just to be told at the end that I can change the music or textures felt slightly pointless. The game shows you the end product straight away via a short video before you even place the first Nodon, which means there’s no element of surprise. You know exactly what you’re going to build from the get-go, and it’s really just a case of reading the text and following Bob’s exact instructions. There’s no deviating away from his pointers, which is a real shame. It would have been great to have a little more flexibility.
But what happens when you’re given full reign over what you get to build? Well, you certainly won’t be making your own version of Metroid Prime 4, neither will the game allow players to go within the realms of creating the next AAA hit. Aside from a handful of pre-set 3D models such as crates, arrows, Sumo Wrestlers and a television to choose from, it feels rather limited. The list isn’t small as such, it’s just that there’s no way to fully customise what you’re given. The addition of being able to include free-hand drawings does offer some variety though. It’s a rudimentary feature but works well enough so that it has you squiggling a design on-screen using the Joy-Con’s motion controls.
Having said that, there is an option to send and receive copies of other people’s full projects they’ve made as all you need is their game code and you’re good to go. Looking forward, a strong community of new and well-established game programmers will have an absolute megaton of fun building some wonderful creations, which will undoubtedly keep Game Builder Garage alive for quite some time. But if you’re not willing to put in the hours and to advance through the 8-10 hours of scripted lessons, you won’t find much value past that.
While it may not reach the lofty creative heights of Dreams on PlayStation 4, or match the accessibility of the Super Mario Maker franchise, Game Builder Garage offers the tools to help realise some of your dream gaming creations. If you’re not a creative type and don’t care much about programming, I would avoid stepping into this Garage. However, if you do decide to peek inside out of curiosity and you’re happy with some deep learning, you’ll have everyone else’s creations to experience, and it’s just a matter of time to see what the online community will come up with.
A copy of Game Builder Garage for Nintendo Switch was supplied by Nintendo UK for review purposes.