Nintendo has been building games for decades now. And one of the reasons they have not only survived but thrived in this industry is that they continually create worlds that are creative, interesting and accessible. That’s one of the reasons they have so many passionate fans; They simply make great games. And now, for those of us with a love for their games and a penchant for creativity, their latest creation, Game Builder Garage, and the promise to ‘learn to make games from the minds at Nintendo’ seemed like a match made in heaven. And thankfully, while there are some limitations, the makers of Mario flex their innovative muscles providing us with a wonderful introduction to programming and a uniquely Nintendo way of bringing game creation to everyone.
Previously, if you were a person with no coding knowledge or a young kid wanting to make your own games – it could be very daunting. You’d probably get bombarded with jargon like syntax, semantics, branching decisions trees, objects, data sets and nested logic loops and then also realise there are several different programming languages that all deal with those things slightly differently. I’m someone that did some basic programming in school and has always had some interest in the subject – and I know I have felt intimidated whenever the thought of trying my hand at making a game popped into my head. And that’s where the Game Builder Garage really helps…
It’s the ‘connect-the-block’ coding concept from Nintendo LABO but, it’s even brighter and more user-friendly this time around.
Yes, rather than seeing pages and pages of instructions that look almost, but not quite, like English – you’re instead presented with the basic (but rather clever) ‘connect-the-block’ coding concept. If you played with any of Nintendo’s LABO sets – you’ll probably recognise the idea from the ‘Toy-Con Garage’ mode of those games. However, it’s even brighter and more user-friendly this time around. Instead of lines of difficult-to-grasp text that somehow serve as tangible objects, characters and even complex logic arguments – you’re instead presented with a bright yellow play area where you place little squares. And those little squares are where the magic happens!
So how does it all work and what makes it that much easier? Well, the little squares I mentioned earlier are called Nodons. Nodons have lots of different functions. They can be physical objects like a Person in a platformer or a Car in a racing game. But they are also the instructions, comparisons and logic strings – everything that players need to input, they need to see outputted and anything in the middle that you’ll need for your game to function is a Nodon. And while that may sound like a simple replacement for the lines of text – Nintendo gives them all techno-animalese voices and little personalities – and so their functions actually start to stick out. It helps you remember when you need to use what – and which Nodons generally appear together.
Instead of being dropped in the deep end and having to figure how it all works on your own – you’ll have a couple of friendly dots (Bob and Alice) that serve as your tutors.
Plus, the real kicker is that instead of being dropped in the deep end and having to figure how it all works on your own – you’ll have a couple of friendly dots (Bob and Alice) that serve as your tutors and seven lessons to complete. At the end of each lesson, you will have built a game. They start off quite straightforward – but by the last lesson, you will have made a simple racing game and even a 3D platformer. I found the format rather clever. Sure, it’s a little hand-holdy at times, but it considering coding can be quite complicated – the extra help really is beneficial. How it works is Bob will give you quick tutorials for each game. These are broken down into a series of shorter steps. These generally move quite fast and Bob doesn’t spend too much time explaining each step. So, if you know your way around basic coding – you’ll get through the early stuff quite quickly. However, if you’re younger or perhaps have no experience, Alice jumps in to give you an extra helping hand…
After each tutorial, several slower-paced mini-lessons focused on specific programming skills (as covered in the respective game you’ve just been working on) will appear in ‘Alice’s Guide’. Here, you’ll have each new concepts broken down – each step will be covered in more detail and explained clearly. These are purely optional – but I found them very useful for when I missed a step in the process in the main lesson. Of course, you can still try to brute-force your way through the main lesson and end up with a completed game without understanding everything. However, one of my personal favourite features is the Checkpoints between each tutorial. Checkpoints are made up of 5 short coding puzzles where you are forced to use one of the skills you learned in making the previous game. I found these to be a great way of consolidating the learning or highlighting when I just quite didn’t understand something. And if you’re ever struggling with these, Alice’s Guide is always available to give you more insight.
After you’ve completed your first game the ‘Free Programming’ mode is made available. As you’d suspect, this mode allows you to create whatever you want, in whatever way you want. You can then share these with friends – but unfortunately in true Nintendo style, the online sharing process is overly complicated, requiring Gaming or Programmer IDs. I know lots of people will just want to jump into the Free Programming mode, but I’d personally suggest taking the time to complete each tutorial game. This will really help to get a much fuller understanding of what the more complicated Nodons can do. And, there’s even some cute humour and clever writing – The Mystery Room for example plays out like an old text-adventure game. Plus, when you complete all seven games (I suppose this could be considered a slight spoiler but I figure this is a game that teaches you to code, not a narrative epic so I’m sure you’ll forgive me this time) a 50-puzzle-long Checkpoint opens up, encouraging you to learn even more skills. So I’d suggest trying those out.
I should mention that sometimes I felt like the game missed its target audience slightly. It’s clear that this game is meant to be for people new to coding and maybe specifically for kids. I think that’s really fantastic. However, some of the sections are quite complicated and while the characters’ funny voices are charming – I can’t help but wonder how a small child who wasn’t the strongest reader would manage. I wonder if it wouldn’t have been worthwhile to include some voice work. Also, there are probably some limitations to what you can create. The obvious comparison is to something like Dreams – where the possibilities seem virtually endless. Here, you’ll have to work within some constraints (stuff like limits in creating your own assets – basically limited to small pixelated textures). However, even then I’ve already seen people that have somehow created pretty great versions of Mario Kart and Mother 3 on Twitter – so maybe you’ll find creative workarounds if you really want to.
It teaches you to code in a friendly, Nintendo-flavoured way and it really shines.
Of course, will this game be for everyone? No. In reality, it could even be argued that it not a game at all. However, for what it is – a game that teaches you to code in a friendly, Nintendo-flavoured way, it really shines. Nintendo really has a way of making things accessible and in this case, all the little traditional hand-holdiness, actually works. The charming characters, the teaching process and everything in between are the little touches that really make a big difference in simplifying programming and I can’t wait to keep coding.