In the plot of the 1984 movie The Last Starfighter, a teenager is recruited to fight an interstellar battle after unknowingly proving himself worthy by means of a high score on an otherwise unassuming arcade cabinet. With the Mario Maker series, and now Game Builder Garage, I feel like Nintendo is doing something similar, but for future game designers. Game Builder Garage gives us a powerful collection of tools to create our very own games, but based on my output so far I doubt Shigeru Miyamoto will appear at my doorstep to invite me to join the team anytime soon. Even so, it’s impressive that by the end of Game Builder Garage’s seven interactive lessons I already had ideas for half a dozen games and the knowledge of how to build them.
Going in I was expecting Game Builder Garage to be fairly limited in the types of games you create, in the same way Super Mario Maker is powerful but limits you to creating… Super Mario levels. However, after completing all the lessons, which range from a simple single-screen “tag” game to more complex, fully 3D games, I see now there’s almost no limit to the type of game you can create. Yes, you’re stuck with the objects and graphics Game Builder Garage gives you, but how you build them and interact with them is incredible in its scope. Just as people constantly come up with new and novel ways to make Super Mario Maker levels, I fully expect to see some truly astonishing games being created with Game Builder Garage and its much more robust tools and feature set.
Its programming system offers a visual representation of all sorts of programming concepts: comparisons, subroutines, and conditional statements, all of which are presented through little creatures known as Nodons. And while it’s fairly technical, Game Builder Garage just oozes charm from its smart, fun writing and a finely honed edge that only Nintendo could provide. The engine is not without its limitations, naturally, but for the uninitiated, it’s a great place to get started building real games. When your games are finished, you can share them with friends, although I haven’t been able to test this functionality. (No, not because I don’t have friends! It’s just not out yet.)
Learning to program can be a daunting task, but Game Builder Garage’s lessons are great at walking you through the steps required to build seven different types of games. Each lesson grows increasingly complex, but at no time during any of the lessons did I ever feel lost or frustrated. Your host, Bob, walks you through the steps for each part, introducing you to the Nodons responsible for each bit of logic or subroutine. There are Object Nodons for simple things like boxes, cylinders, and spheres. There are also Nodons for operations like arithmetic and counting, as well as the Boolean operators AND and NOT. There’s no OR operator, but its existence is implied through the connections of Nodons. For example, you connect two different inputs to your AND Nodon (say, a constant like the integer 1 and a constant 0 to the same AND Nodon creates a de facto OR).
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It reminds me of old computer magazines, which often contained long programs in BASIC. You’d spend a few hours inputting the code into whatever crappy home computer you had at the time, and if you managed to enter a thousand lines of BASIC so you could make your screen turn a bunch of different colors you’d also absorb some programming concepts without you even realizing it. Of course, it’s important to point out that Game Builder Garage is not going to directly teach you how to code anything outside of it. Instead, it teaches you how to build a game using a custom game engine. That said, while you’re arranging your Nodons and their flows, you’re learning how games work under the hood, and that understanding can translate to game design beyond Game Builder Garage’s interface.
Here’s a quick example of how the Nodons work: You place a Person object Nodon on your edit screen. A quick glance at your game in action and yup: there’s a person. But that person is just standing there, looking charming, unable to do anything beyond its simple standing animation loop. So you go back to the edit screen and call up Input Nodons. Drop the L-Stick onto your screen and drag its left/right connection to the horizontal connector on the Person object. Check back on your game screen and now you can control your Person object’s movement. No muss, no fuss – and it only gets more complex and interesting from there.
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The concepts don’t quite translate 1:1 to actual coding, but doesn’t mean Game Builder Garage doesn’t have a robust set of tools. Quite the contrary: you can build a simple platformer or a complex, 3D maze complete with moving platforms, complex randomization, and giant aliens that shoot apples at you. It just means you won’t be pulling up Sublime Text or Notepad++ and debugging line after line of code. To be honest, I kind of wish there were a way to view the code involved with game creation, even if it’s in some special Game Builder Garage programming language rather than a common game development language like C# or C++. It would help connect the visual workflow of the game engine with the concepts of writing actual code. I understand it would be messy, but for amateur coders like myself, seeing the code would be a great tool in helping me improve and understand some of the more complex logic involved.
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The lack of a requirement to learn the syntax and peculiarities of a coding language works in Game Builder Garage’s favor. It makes creating games much more accessible, but it’s still no walk in the park. If you’re expecting Super Mario Maker levels of what-you-see-is-what-you-get, you’re going to be disappointed. The Nodons are great at giving you a visual representation of the game you’re building and the pieces and parts that make it work, but its edit screen is largely an abstraction. It took me a little while to force my brain to think of how my games’ various components will appear in the play screen rather than the edit screen. The lessons help out enormously in that regard.
Test Your Skills
After completing a lesson, which can run anywhere from 20 minutes to 80 or more minutes, Game Builder Garage requires you to finish a series of puzzles before you can unlock the next lesson. It’s basically a quiz of the concepts you just learned, and there are five different puzzles to solve that helped to cement them into my mind before they could be pushed out by something new. There are clues embedded in each puzzle, mostly hints about where to connect Nodons and whether or not you need to edit their properties. Any property not associated with the correct answer is greyed out, so you can’t get hopelessly lost chasing down a wrong answer.
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My problem with the puzzles is that many of them are solvable at a glance, while others… not so much. I like a challenge, but 10% of the puzzles required some manner of constant or numerical range that came down to educated guesses. With the other 90%, any time I was stuck it was something obvious I overlooked. Anyone who’s ever spent an hour debugging actual busted code, only to find out you forgot to close a parenthesis knows the weird mix of relief and embarrassment when you finally figure it out.
Its entire presentation, from its adorable Nodons to your tutors Bob and Alice, is just so fun and brimming with personality. The writing is also great, something I never thought I’d say about a piece of educational software, with distinct identities given to each “character.” I found game creation to be a challenging, but rewarding experience, and this is exactly the sort of software a parent raising a hopeful game designer should try. It’s probably a little too complicated for a pre-teen, but with some parental guidance it’s a phenomenal way to teach kids the basics of game design.
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My one beef with building came when I messed something up, to a large degree. There’s no bulk-select, so to delete two dozen Nodons meant having to select them individually rather than all at once. A way to select multiple Nodons would help enormously in copy-paste and mass-deletions. I guess the lesson here is “don’t mess up.”
As for me, a grown man with a little Perl, Python, C++ and Excel formula knowledge, I was charmed the entire time, and now I want to look into more robust game development engines. At the very least I can finish that RPG Maker game I started in 2015. For now, I’m content with my Game Builder Garage creation Super Falling Man Fantasy, which I’ll be sharing with the world once I finish update version 2.0.