On June 11, 2021, Nintendo released Game Builder Garage for the Nintendo Switch. GBG was an entry in a recent spate of console-ready games that allow gamers to try their hand at designing their own games. It followed on the heel of similar titles, like Dreams on PlayStation, and opted for a visual “programming language” that allows you to create games without the need for any programming experience.
But Game Builder Garage has some quirks and benefits that set it apart from other games in this genre. These benefits make GBG worth a look for any Switch owner, those with an interest in game development, or those who have kids or other members of their household with an interest in game design.
Game Builder Garage is founded on the use of “Nodons.” These are modular pieces the user can put together on the programming screen. Each represents an object or a process with pre-built code. These can be playable characters, logical functions, or even complex mathematic arrangements. Each Nodon is contained in a small square on the screen; getting them to work together is as simple as connecting them. While this simplicity makes it extremely easy to pick up the game and start creating, it can cause problems if you want to get more complex with the games you hope to design.
Here, we’ll explore the pros and cons of Game Builder Garage. Between this review and the game’s free demo, you should be able to decide whether or not you think it’s worth shelling out $30 bucks.
As strange as it may seem to start with this, Game Builder Garage is an extremely cute game. Each of the Nodons has its own personality that you’ll get to know over the course of the interactive lessons. What’s more, the lessons themselves are guided by two charming characters (Alice and Bob). It might seem like a small detail, but it makes for a much warmer learning and programming environment that has all the charm you’d expect from a Nintendo title.
Game Builder Garage teaches the player how to use its system via 7 batches of interactive lessons, each guiding you through the process of making a particular kind of game. Many of these lessons are followed with more in-depth explanations of the underlying mechanics. But what makes these lessons shine is that they are direct, easy-to-understand, interactive, and well-paced. There’s no futzing about in the lessons, you make a game right away and get to test it frequently. And as you proceed through the lessons, more training wheels are taken off and you quickly become acclimated to using the garage.
Fast and Simple
The simplicity and cleanliness of the Nodon structure, in combination with the quality of the game’s lessons, is among the greatest strengths of Game Builder Garage. It’s possible—easy, in fact—to get a working platformer or racing game up and running in well under an hour by the time you’ve finished the last lesson. Unlike its competitor, Dreams, you won’t find yourself having to make a thousand little pieces just to get your game to start. GBG has a good sense of what to provide to make it possible to focus on game design, while leaving the minutia to the engine itself.
Can’t Save Assets or Make Structures
One of my favorite things about Dreams was its ability to save structures and assets, which allowed you to work out their quirks on your own and reuse them in other games. This isn’t possible in Game Builder Garage, as anything you make in a game is limited to that game. What’s more, you can’t group Nodons together as a concrete “structure.” Even when connected, they’re always individual Nodons.
Few Organizational Features, Which Leads to Clutter
Closely intertwined with the problem outlined above, Game Builder Garage is astonishingly bereft of organizational features. Because you can’t “group” Nodons together into distinct structures, things like a 3D house or a complex character can turn into jumbled messes on the development screen, to the point that it quickly becomes difficult to figure out where anything is or select the correct pieces.
While there are some details like “wormholes” (which allow you to “teleport” a connection across the screen) and comment boxes that you can put over groups of Nodons to remind you why you placed them there, the inability to group things together ultimately leads to a lot of clutter.
Mostly Good for Certain Genres
The same thing that makes it possible to create a functional game in under an hour also makes it difficult to think outside the box with Game Builder Garage. Most objects and player characters have preprogrammed abilities that are difficult to customize, and which require you to “jerry-rig” structures to do something inventive.
While Game Builder Garage is a fantastic vehicle for curious adults and children to make simple games and try their hands at a development engine that allows them to focus on game design rather than learning a bunch of tools, this same simplicity also limits the game somewhat. Platformers, adventure games, and racing games all come easily, but more complex games may pose enough difficulty that you should consider another engine if the portability of the Switch isn’t crucial to you. Frustratingly, the game could be drastically improved simply by adding the ability to create structures, save assets, and better organize your programming—none of which would detract from its simplicity.
As it stands, though, Game Builder Garage is a great way to get your toes wet with game design, especially at the price, but the game needs some improvement if it wants to be considered best-in-class.