Whether you’re a student yourself or are employed in an educational (or education-adjacent) environment, summer is both a blessing and a curse. I, for example, work at a local community college, and while there are far fewer faculty members around during the warmer months that require my assistance—a boon that quickly ends with the coming of fall—the summer doldrums do sometimes sap my creativity. Just as my children, newly freed from another year of public middle and high school, can struggle with boredom and the dreaded learning loss over summer vacation, I too tend to languish as the days grow longer and the cicadas unleash their seasonal southern cacophony.
Each year, GeekDad and our friends at GeekMom devote no small amount of our collective character count to summertime activities designed to enlighten and educate. This year, however, I found the perfect STEAM project not in some new subscription box or at a local maker fair but on my family’s Nintendo Switch console. In short, if you’re looking for a way to challenge and inspire yourself and your loved ones with interactive lessons in video game design, Nintendo’s Game Builder Garage is $30 well spent.
Like many Nintendo fanboys, the announcement of the Game Builder Garage software came as a bit of a surprise back in April—a quick and to-the-point reveal from a company that so often loves to hint, tease, and deliberately dole out its upcoming releases. In fact, it was only a couple of weeks back that I was given a proper (but intentionally limited) look under the proverbial hood for a special introduction feature right here at GeekDad.
Over the weekend, I was finally allowed to fully dive into the title, and I quickly discovered that Game Builder Garage was an even more inspired (and inspiring) journey through video game development than I had initially anticipated.
GBG is largely split between two core modes, guided Interactive Lessons and Free Programming. Tutorials are helmed by Bob, a helpful blue dot who introduces and expounds upon the various uses for Nodons, anthropomorphized pieces of code that represent various game elements. Configuring and linking these Nodons creates your game projects, and later, they can be used to make your very own game ideas a reality in the Free Programming mode.
Nodons are grouped by color-coded theme with red Input Nodons for things like button presses and the touchscreen interface; green Middle Nodons including logic, conversion, and other mathematics-related functions; blue Output Nodons for sound and vibration reactions, as well as controlling major gameworld elements like gravity and the flow of time; and orange Object Nodons, including simple shapes, more complex characters, and even camera and game screen controls. In addition to an array of variables and settings, each Nodon also has a personality all its own, and these further help to serve as mnemonic devices for their individual roles.
Need to spontaneously move an asset across the game screen or connect to other Nodons who are very far apart on your programming screen? Just call in the otherworldly Teleport Object Nodon. Want to turn on or off a feature or ability? Connect a couple of trigger objects to the on and off terminals of the bold Flag Nodon. Does your platforming character need to jump on command? Sounds like a job for the hard-hitting Button Nodon.
Bob introduces new Nodons as needed in each step of the guided Interactive Lessons. In your earliest projects—the basic two-player “Tag Showdown” and top-down perspective physics puzzler “On a Roll”—he holds your hand, cueing you when to switch from the play screen to the programing screen with a press of the + button, and even showing you where specific Nodons live in the nested menu.
In later lessons, like the action platformer “Risky Run,” he instead tests your memory, giving you the name of a Nodon (Alien) and expecting you to remember its path (Objects->Fancy Objects->Round Fancy Objects->Alien). This helps prevent the feeling of being coddled by the instruction, while also encouraging attentive, mindful gameplay.
But our old friend Bob isn’t the only guide on this educational adventure. He is joined by Alice, a red dot who reinforces learning in two clever ways. As new Nodons are introduced in project lessons, they are also added to Alice’s Guide, a series of mini exercises easily accessible via the individual Interactive Lesson project screens and in Free Programming mode by simply pressing the Y button.
Alice’s Guide covers basics like accessing and adjusting object properties, using the Counter Nodon (alongside Object Break and Number Object Nodons) to count the number of objects broken in-game, and the ins and outs of the Flag Nodon’s on and off terminals. In addition to this Alice also creates a five-activity Checkpoint in-between each Interactive Lesson.
Checkpoints contain troubleshooting activities—the same kinds of incidents that game developers may encounter when, say, a playable character doesn’t respond to joystick input (“Moving a Movable Object”) or an object’s movement parameters prevent it from reaching the adjoining platform (“Just the Right Range”). These are often the most challenging and rewarding of the game’s training activities, and Alice is quick to refer you to the relevant Guide entry should you falter. (Logic programming elements like AND and NOT Nodons are the very bane of my existence!)
With seven immersive Interactive Lessons —nicely supplemented by Alice’s Guide and post-lesson Checkpoints—Game Builder Garage offers a pitch-perfect primer on video game design Nintendo-style. At the $29.99 price point, it’s already a solid value just from the standpoint of an approachable STEAM project to while away the summer hours. But GBG is so much more. Free Programming lets you truly flex your creative muscles—supplementing and re-skinning existing projects or building brand new games from the ground up—and then share your work with the vast Nintendo Switch gaming community.
In fact, I’m finding it painfully hard to gripe about anything with regard to this title’s expansive content or its engaging, encouraging presentation. I think, perhaps, if I had my druthers, I would’ve begun my game-making journey on my full-size Nintendo Switch so as to take advantage of that sweet, sweet USB mouse support.
Things on the Switch Lite can, at times, seem a little cramped, and while cutting, pasting, deleting, and locking Nodons never felt like a chore, sometimes this smaller screen size could make configuring more granular parameters (like trying to locate the lone “Alien” button on an un-alphabetized list of potential Destructive objects) a tad trying with my beefy index finger in the way.
Still, that solitary nitpick aside, Game Builder Garage represents an amazing value for gamers young and old who wish to see behind the curtain and understand what makes their favorite genres tick. Like any good teacher, it exercises patience without discounting precision, and it inspires even in the smallest strokes.
Game Builder Garage will hit retail shelves—in both the physical and digital spaces—this Friday, June 11th, and I’m confident you’ll find Alice, Bob, and all those wonderful Nodons to be just the cheerful motivators you and your children need to take the gaming world by storm!
Review and promotional materials provided by Nintendo of America. This post contains affiliate links. I’m still not quite sure what you’re all about, Flag Nodon, but I appreciate and respect you nonetheless.