Nintendo’s Game Builder Garage is a game design school for your Switch

Game Builder Garage looks a lot like this. It’s about building and programming games.

Screenshot by Scott Stein / CNET

Nintendo sometimes makes a lot of weird moves. Just in time for summer vacation, Nintendo’s newest surprise title at a slightly affordable price, Play builder garage, is full of unexpected fantasy. Have you ever thought about learning to program and design games? It could be for you … or for your school-aged child. The app (I’m hesitant to call it a game) is like a sandbox of programming tools, with completely charming Nintendo instructions and humor along the way.

But a game? No, this is not the case. Nintendo has already entered the territory of making DIY games, with Super Mario Creator and even with the weird Foldable cardboard lab kits, once you’ve dug deep enough under their software extras. Super Mario Maker has endless levels of Mario created by others that you can play without ever making your own game. But if you choose to take it a step further, a whole set of tools (and some nifty instructions and tips) you waits.

Game Builder Garage’s seven interactive lessons create games, but pretty basic. They really illustrate the dimensions of flexibility of Nintendo’s game design engine and mini programming tasks, called “Nodons”. Game Builder Garage is a standalone playground for organizing a bunch of surprisingly varied little experiences.

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You must pass the first lesson plan to access free building mode.

Screenshot by Scott Stein / CNET

Each of the seven lessons is approximately 45 minutes long, divided into easy-to-complete mini-chapters. You can take breaks. Additional reminders about the elaborate set of coding tools (there are Nodons that control timers, movements, player characters, the play area, and more) appear as small group lessons, taught by a pair of light points that jump and tell you what to click or do next. It’s certainly friendly enough for an older student, but designed for college. My sixth grade son may be further ahead on this point in his coding skills.

What’s really cool is that the programming of the game allows you to create 3D games, like racing or Super Mario platform games. Any Joy-Con button, or even the tilt and shake mechanisms, can be built into the games. I passed the first few lessons (a simple arcade-style tag set and a tilting marble-moving game meant to be played in portable mode). Games, once created, can be tinkered with by watching the lineup behind the scenes and moving things around. The way Nodons connect and do things looks like a massive flowchart: it seems confusing at first, but it’s starting to make sense. Finally.

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The management is intelligent and patient. But it’s also mostly linear until you start tinkering on your own.

Screenshot by Scott Stein / CNET

The menus and settings for all of the different programming tools can get complicated, and the Switch’s portable touchscreen controls work, but even the larger dockable Switch screen looks a bit small. It works best when connected to a TV, where you can use the Joy-Con controls to move the cursor (not great) or connect a USB mouse to the Switch dock (much better).

Games can be shared with friends who have Game Builder Garage, once you start creating your own, by generating codes. I haven’t done it yet, but it gives the lessons learned a little more life. Still, I’d love to see Nintendo find a way to connect its impressive and in-depth game design and programming tools to other apps and games… or loop them into existing titles like Super Mario Maker and Labo. Game Builder Garage is a pretty cool Steam-type summer course for a kid with a Switch and it could be a doorway to a lot of homemade games, but the weird tools and lots of layers of instruction could be a lot to do. I would hesitate to call it a essential for children. At $ 30, it costs less than a lot of Nintendo games. But if you’re really into designing Switch games, start with Super Mario Maker 2 first (Or, you can always get a Labo discount).


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