Like many players, I would love to be able to make my own game one day. And it’s not as simple as “learning to code” – first, I actually learned coding in middle school and even took a college course, which resulted in the hardest C- I’ve ever worked for. I’m basically down, but my skills are not up to the task of living it … or making the game my dreams. Many STEM programs and products have been released to try to make the process a little easier, and I have tried quite a few of them during my time at Engadget. Nintendo Game Builder Garage may be the one I finally stick to.
Some coding sets are very dry and walk users through the basics of composing text strings to do specific things. Others jazz it up a bit by turning each feature into a colorful block and instructing users to stack them together as LEGO. Garage is even further along the game spectrum and turns each feature, called a Nodon, into a living block with a personality – there’s even a little story buried in them as they greet you like an old friend after you’ve already used them a few times and they will have friendly chats with each other. It’s half Restartand half Adventure Time with style.
This candy coding extends to the lessons themselves, which are friendly, encouraging and even a little condescending. Game Builder Garage is a tool that holds your hand every step and even tells you when it’s time to close a window. People with any kind of gaming experience will probably hate how much the interactive lessons babysit you, but the good news is that you can skip them altogether. The game has a free programming mode available from the start, you do not have to unlock anything as all the different features are there to experiment with according to your heart’s content.
I love how easy it is in both the interactive lessons and free programming to switch between game and coding screens – just a press of the “+” button switches between the two so you can see how it is laid out under the hood, or what the game currently looks and plays like with the existing coding. I’m a practical teacher, so being able to experiment helps me understand how something works better than just being told – even though the game will do plenty of it. Game Garage Builder knows that you are not getting everything right away, so it repeats itself a lot and tells you exactly what to do, even when it has already been told to you before. Maybe you forgot, or maybe you just did not pay attention the first time. It’s okay, you have this.
After an introductory tutorial, there are seven titles that Game Builder Garage will guide you through, in different genres and with mechanics based on what you have learned before. But it does not really expect you to remember everything until you are around lesson four, so do not worry about being thrown into the pool without a life ring. Each lesson consists of a number of smaller steps so you can start a project and finish it later if you choose. A good feeling is that the game tells you how many minutes each lesson will take – completing all the lessons takes a total of about eight hours without counting the mandatory checkpoints, which are puzzles that you may find out right away or struggle with for a while.
As a user of Duolingo, the checkpoint system is in Game Builder Garage made me nervous at first, but it’s designed to be really hard to fail. You get a board with a person and an apple, and you have to “grab” the apple to continue. There is always something wrong with you, or something is not working properly, forcing you to dive into the code screen and “fix” the problem. There may be several solutions, however Game Builder Garage have a correct answer it wants you to use. To guide you, all the features you do not need will be locked down, and the nodons you need will have small thought bubbles over your head to suggest what to do. Sometimes all it takes is a little trial and error, and once I figured it out, the checkpoints became incredibly easy. I do not fear the checkpoints Garage the way I fear them in Duolingo. But the two educational programs have a lot of other things in common, like the use of repetition and of course the cute, colorful characters.
Like a game engine, Game Builder Garage can be quite robust. All your functions are divided by type: input, intermediate, output and objects. Each Nodon has a settings window where a lot of magic happens… and the math. I have been repeatedly told that you do not have to be good at math to code, but I found myself drawing on many of the lessons I learned my first year of math in high school, including logic (like AND, OR and NOT functions) and Cartesian coordinates (X, Y and Z). Maybe you do not need full calculation, but having these basics down will be a great help in mastering the game engine.
If you want to put together a platform game or a racing game, Game Builder Garage can handle it well – and with some creativity you can even dabble in genres like hidden object games. But you find that it’s best suited for action titles, and players who prefer something more cerebral would be better off with an engine like RPG Maker. Like anyone who wants a game they can actually sell in a store that Game Builder Garage is a sealed ecosystem, and people who want to play your creations must own their own copy of the Switch title. To share games, players must exchange codes, as there is no central repository for user-generated content. For this reason, Nintendo is not particularly concerned about copyright infringement, as it means that people are still buying its product. But it also means that the company has no control over the communities that may arise.
And hopefully a lot will, unlike previous efforts like Labo Toy-Con Garage. The big advantage here is that Game Builder Garage is so much cheaper than any $ 30 Labo. (You may still find select Labs for as little as $ 25 – I personally recommend the VR Blaster Kit.) Sure, there are plenty of cheap programming tools available there. helps you create and release a complete game that you can put on Steam. or itch.io, but none of them will be as patient or forgiving as Game Builder Garage – or let yourself play with the full range of features of the Swiss Army knife on the Switch. Which is perhaps Nintendo’s real endgame here; not just to create more potential game designers, but those accustomed to working with Nintendo’s unique hardware.
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