The Nintendo Switch title, which debuts June 11 and retails for $29.99, does a good job of making the basics of programming accessible to a large audience, but it falls flat in later lessons. There's joy in the game, just not as much as expected.
"Game Builder Garage" features seven major lessons, led by a high-pitched and excitable blue cursor named Bob. Bob teaches players how to build several types of games, and he's an extremely likable dot from the get-go. Charmingly, he makes sounds of disappointment when things don't go his way - basically, anytime he sees a bit of programming that still needs work. Lesson one is a simple game of tag, aptly named Tag Showdown. It's followed by lessons that have players building a game about rolling a ball to a goal called On a Roll, an alien blasting title called Alien Blaster, a running platformer called Risky Run, an escape room game titled Mystery Room, a game about racing called Thrill Racer and finally, a three-dimensional game called Super Person World. After players complete the first lesson, they're free to design their own games without following a template. From there, they can share their work with their friends.
Nintendo has dubbed the individual building blocks for the games "Nodons," a word that probably comes from the word "node." There are dozens of Nodons inside Game Builder Garage, one for each game component, including the player's avatar. There's a way to utilize every aspect of the Nintendo Switch, from a Nodon that controls the Switch's infrared camera to a Nodon for motion controls. The Nodons have plenty of personality; they're full of compliments every time you program a game successfully.
In the later lessons, like Risky Run, Mystery Room and Thrill Racer, the game has players programming logic and changing the angle of the in-game camera without fully explaining what is happening. I completed all seven lessons but still didn't gain an understanding of why one Nodon has to be summoned and connected to another Nodon, and where on the Y axis it should be positioned. Without gaining full knowledge of why Nodons go where they go, it won't be possible to code really special and unique games in free programming.
That's where Alice comes in. Unlike the overly hype Bob, Alice is a lower-pitched pink cursor who challenges players after each lesson with a checkpoint, a series of puzzles that must be completed to advance to the next lesson. These puzzles are tougher than the lesson itself and Alice will chime in if you get stuck. She'll suggest you check out her guide, where she'll take you into a lesson that looks similar to Bob's but goes slightly more in-depth and shows you different tips and tricks. I found this to be the most helpful and informative part of the game. Still, I rarely used it because I preferred to solve all the puzzles without any help.
The game shines when it teaches users to think like a game developer. Some of Nintendo's game development magic is present in the lessons. For instance, you're asked to code a cheat into a racing game to make it more fun, or to program a crate to break in three hits rather than just one, to give the experience more oomph. There's also satisfaction each time you're able to successfully program a game. "Game Builder Garage" teaches several different game genres, and I found the action themed Risky Run and Alien Blaster in particular to be quite fun to program and playtest.
Some of the lessons teach interesting and insightful ways to make games better: Adding text to denote a finish line in a race, adding a retry button for fans to replay the game and designing a room for playing tag to have curved edges so that a player won't get caught in the corners.
While you are able to add assets into the game, they have to be drawn by the player. Once implemented, these drawn assets appear in the game as awkward-looking rectangles, ill-fitted to their surroundings. I also found the variety of items you can summon to be limited. Mermaids, aliens and turnips are some items you can summon, but no Nintendo Switches, and no playable characters beyond blocky people, cars and UFOs. I can see a lot of space-themed games coming out of "Game Builder Garage." Role-playing games, not so much.
The sad thing is, you're not really learning how to make games in "Game Builder Garage." Mostly, you're just going through the motions. My guess is that very few people will come out of "Game Builder Garage" able to program creatively in the free programming mode, and those that do may have needed to sink dozens of hours into learning how Nodons work. With that level of dedication, the fans of this game likely have the aptitude to code complex games on Unity, Roblox or another game engine.
In one puzzle I needed to change the slope of a platform to get an apple to roll down, completing the checkpoint challenge. I found the slope through trial and error eventually, but I didn't fully understand the math afterwards. In some ways, the game reminded me of learning languages through Duolingo. I can memorize vocabulary quickly, but I'm unlikely to be fluent after a few lessons.
In that way, "Game Builder Garage" is more of a supplement than a full education. The game excels at giving people a small taste of programming, but the game's pupils will have to seek unabridged coding lessons elsewhere. It's hard to give the game a final score in its current form, because what people design in free programming and post online will ultimately add to the game's potential.
Published : June 11, 2021
By : The Washington Post · Shannon Liao