The first thing Game Builder Garage did to me was convince me that my Nintendo Switch was broken. When the game loads you into its first interactive programming lesson, instructions on the screen tell you to press B to jump, and my inputs weren’t working. Crap, I thought, have my Joy-Cons been jeopardised? But after a few minutes of fooling around with the undocked controller, I heard a bubbly chant from the speakers. It was Bob, the ever-knowledgeable overlord of the Game Builder Garage. He told me that if I wanted to play this game, I’d have to fix it first.
A Peek Behind The Curtain
This is the entire ethos of Game Builder Garage, which is more of a toolkit than an end-to-end video game. For the first time, Nintendo is letting players peek behind the curtain and become a game designer from the comfort of their console, giving them the engine to make custom games across several genres and share them with other designers the world over.
It’s an ambitious project and part of a trend we’ve seen quite a lot in recent years, with games like Media Molecule’s Dreams and Nintendo’s own Super Mario Maker turning community members into creatives. But is Game Builder Garage a valuable introduction to games programming, or just a novelty Nintendo toybox? The way it presents itself suggests the former. Nintendo unloads a charm offensive on players by introducing the Nodons, anthropomorphic function boxes that control the logic of games within the garage. The game screen is itself a Nodon, and so are any objects placed within it. They all introduce themselves and often encourage the player in their programming ambitions, their cute designs complementing their function.
Say you have a Person Nodon and a Button Nodon. You can drag the Person Nodon in the backend to place the player character in a scene and then drag a line with your fingers from the B Button Nodon to the ‘jump’ function on the Person Nodon. Then, when you press B, your player character will jump. This is the simplest of functions in Game Builder Garage, but the accessible way it is presented leads you to learn so much more.
Once broad concepts are introduced in lessons, Checkpoints appear in between, offering clever brain-teasing puzzles to solve so that the ideas firmly click into place in the minds of budding programmers. The game’s interactive lessons sit within worlds that are all themed around specific game types, like a 3D platformer, an escape room or a racing game. You’ll progress through the levels like you’re playing an old-school Mario platformer… until you actually build one for yourself. It’s a marvellous feat of educational design, delivered by some of the most creative and capable minds in the business.
But is it relevant? Especially if you’re a parent, you may be wondering if the skills learned in Game Builder Garage are transferable or applicable in professional game creation kits like Unreal Engine or Unity. To speak programmer for a moment, Game Builder Garage’s language is less like Unity’s C Sharp and more like Unreal Engine’s Blueprint Visual Scripting. It reminded me of my short-lived affairs with GameMaker Studio and Unity’s Playmaker add-on, which simplify the boring parts of game development for artistically-minded, attention span-deprived hobbyists such as myself.
You could call it Mickey Mouse if you were a cynical code monkey, but even in its most watered-down moments, Game Builder Garage is generating knowledge that will give young programmers a head start when they boot up one of these daunting industry-standard engines. Buffeted by wit and silly jokes, you’ll learn about triggers, emitters, physics and more. It’s not a replacement to the real deal, but it’s a highly compelling way to get kids interested in the field, away from all the dry documentation and jargon-loaded lectures.
However, while it is feature-filled for a creative kid, it does have some drawbacks for power users. Making custom models is tough, and the boxed-in assets make it so you can never stray too far from the game’s work-in-progress aesthetic. At the moment, it seems like you can only have 65 games saved, and a project can only have 512 Nodons too. That’s more than enough to make something cool, but you’re going to eventually run out of road if your project is really ambitious.
The interactive onboarding proved a little slow for my use case, thanks to my previous experience with game development, but I didn’t mind going back to basics. It’s a bit like learning a series of programming mnemonics if you’re of intermediate experience. It playfully reinforced several concepts that may have slipped into the darker recesses of my grey matter over the years.
Outside of learning, I have also lost several feverish hours building a Katamari prototype in the Free Programming mode. The project started long before I’d cut my teeth on the more advanced Interactive Lessons, and it’s coming along nicely as I develop my understanding of the engine. I think this speaks to how the game nurtures your imagination. My Nintendo Switch battery was the only thing pulling me away from the sandpit at times.
The only broader problem is that the games you create are locked in the garage. You’re not really at risk of making the next Minecraft here, but it can be quite creatively limiting to know that you’ll never be able to own and share your games beyond the confines of this software and its user base. But as long as you’re not taking it too seriously, this isn’t a problem. If your prototype is that good, you can always take what you’ve learned and recreate it elsewhere!
As a creative suite for kids with game design ambitions, Game Builder Garage is top class. Sure, It has a few technical drawbacks, and it’s not a replacement for industry-standard game engine experience. But regardless of its faults, this is a fantastic visual scripting on-ramp for budding designers without coding experience. The engine is also incredibly versatile in the right hands, offering serious scope to help gamers of all ages realise their visions.
Reviewed on Nintendo Switch
Review copy provided by the publisher