Game Builder Garage feels like a crucial step forward for Nintendo.
There were some chuckles directed at the company’s Labo experiment, with its focus on folding cardboard and using physical objects assembled by players themselves to enhance simple games. But those paper creations belie an energizing leap for a company that has traditionally leaned hardest on its intensely familiar stable of beloved series.
Nowhere is the shift more evident than in Labo Garage, the build-what-you-want mode that lets people play with the same kinds of tools that make stock Labo projects work. Now Nintendo is forging ahead with that concept, ditching the cardboard and delivering a Switch game cartridge that carries all the tools one might need to build an entire Switch game.
It starts with Nodons. These “creatures with big personalities,” as Nintendo describes them, are the building blocks of any Game Builder Garage creation. On the programming screen they appear as little colorful boxes that can take on any number of roles. By forming connections between different Nodons, literally by drawing a line between them, you’re mapping out under-the-hood game rules.
So a Stick Nodon — which sports a cute, little control stick character to help you identify it — that tells the Switch how to respond when someone moves the control stick left or right could be attached to a Person Nodon’s Left/Right movements. If you want that Person Nodon to be able to jump as well, you’d simply summon up a Button Nodon and connect it to the right spot on the Person Nodon.
Look at how the line is extending from the Stick Nodon to the Person Nodon. Forming connections to dictate rules in ‘Game Builder Garage’ is as simple as that.
The seven included games, which all need to be built by following the guided directions, double as lessons that introduce players to the key concepts of Game Builder Garage programming. Crucially, many of these lessons show the “wrong” way to do something before introducing a way to correct it — though “correct” and “incorrect” are a bit of a misnomer here; the only limitation is meant to be a player’s creativity.
For example, one game you get to build is a side-scrolling shoot ’em up where you commandeer a spaceship and shoot down aliens. One of that project’s lessons teaches you how to make the screen scroll from left to right, first by accessing the Game Screen Nodon and applying a few other Nodons to its X-axis.
Following the directions step by step does work, the screen scrolls left to right. But these basic instructions result in a scrolling speed that’s way too fast for the game to keep up — when you pop over to the game view, the camera just speeds right past everything. That intentional screw-up opens the door to a sort of sub-lesson that lets Game Builder Garage more clearly explain the nuances of the Nodons you’d use to power a scrolling game screen.
‘Game Builder Garage’ is built to speak in and teach the language of actual game development.
That’s meant to be a focus all throughout the seven sets of game-creating lessons. By letting things go wrong in the controlled environment of guided instructions that double as a tutorial, Nintendo gives players a glimpse of how underlying mechanics work.
The idea, then, is to take all of the tips and tricks picked up across the seven directed exercises and bring them into Game Builder Garage’s “Free Programming” mode. Here, the training wheels come off and players are left with a dizzying list of Nodons to choose from. This is where the meat of the experience is meant to come to life.
That also makes this whole thing somewhat difficult to preview. There are tons and tons of Nodons and connection possibilities, from easy to understand ones like the Stick and Button Nodons to more math-centric critters like the Absolute Value Nodon or Trigger-From-0 Nodon. A surface look at all of that is simply daunting. How are players expected to keep track of it all?
Nintendo hopes the guided exercises, which are each just specifically focused game design courses, get people comfortable. Each one unfolds in multiple parts — the above-mentioned shoot ’em up is a 10-lesson process — and covers multiple topics, with tangential forays (like the scrolling example) that are meant to highlight how players can bend and shape the rules to create something original.
Also, as much as there’s a cutesy vibe here, the concepts at the core of each build are fairly universal. The tools of AAA game development that create an Assassin’s Creed or Call of Duty may look and work differently, but they still rely on many of the same fundamentals. Nintendo simply stuffed those fundamentals into an adorable and user-friendly package that’s inherently built to speak in and teach the language of actual game development. You can even plug a USB mouse into a docked Switch and use it with this software.
From the simple…
…to the complex.
The $30 price tag says a lot up front about how Nintendo is looking at this new experiment in Game Builder Garage. It’s an acknowledgment that, hey, this thing isn’t really a game. Like Labo, it’s a toy. A creativity-fueling toy, yes, and one that doubles as a sort of teaching tool. But unlike a Mario or a Zelda, the depth here is quite literally what you make of it.
It’s game development boiled down to taps and swipes. Kids especially should be drawn to the cute characters, bright color palette, and silly names. But all of that is just a cover for a set of game design exercises that teach users the rules and tools of Game Builder Garage (and game design in general!), with each lesson culminating in a tangible creation that you can then play like any other game.
They’re just a starting point in the end, another mark of this being quite a bit different than your typical Switch cartridge. With most of the games we buy, the structured stuff is the whole purpose. Here though, it’s a hurdle, a necessary constraint. The built-in lessons are there to show you how things work, but the real bounty that Game Builder Garage offers is the stuff you make after you follow all the directions.
Game Builder Garage is out for Nintendo Switch on June 11.
WATCH: These are the best beginner-friendly video games for your coronavirus lockdown