There are dozens of gaming tools out there that promise to teach your kids to code, because after all, they’re going to need those precious STEM skills to survive in today’s workforce. I’ve looked at a few of them and passed on many others because well, they didn’t really seem all that fun. Nintendo’s upcoming $30 Game Builder Garage for Switch might actually buck the trend, in that it’s not designed to teach your kids how to code so much as it is teaching about actual game design — not only how games run, but how to make them actually fun.
This wouldn’t be the first game-making tool on a console or even the first from Nintendo — there’s a pretty long history to look back on, from Sony’s Net Yaroze in the ‘90s, Little Big Planet and Dreams on the PS4, various iterations of RPG Maker and, most recently, Labo Toy-Con Garage and the Super Mario Maker titles. All have a thriving homebrew scene, but one common element among them all is that the sheer amount of options can be intimidating, and you’re largely left on your own to figure it out. Game Builder Garage is also pretty deep, but it also takes the time to hold your hand and explain a lot of it to you.
And those explanations aren’t just “use this function to build blocks for your character” and “here’s when you can draw your character.” The game walks you through the different tools step-by-step, not just explaining how to use them but why you should use them — it’s meant to show players the fundamentals of good game design, something Nintendo is particularly famous for. The company wants you to understand why certain decisions get made in terms of item placement or timing, and use that thinking going forward with your own creations.
It’s a lot to take in, which is why Game Builder Garage makes it as cutesy as possible. Instead of dry text or even the colorful block aesthetic that so many other kids’ coding tools use, Nintendo has chosen to represent different functions as cartoony creatures called “Nodons.” Each one does something different, and is perfectly happy to tell you about it. They kind of reminded me of the binomes from the ReBoot cartoon back in the ‘90s, because yes, I am old.
In the tutorial section the title will walk you through each Nodon and how to use it, dragging them onto a grid representing the game screen and connecting different Nodons together to achieve different effects. They all have names describing their functions, like the “Button” Nodon and the “Counter” Nodon. The sample Nintendo showed off has the players building a side-scrolling space shooter, but there are a total of seven tutorial titles packed in using different mechanics and explaining how various genres work.
Past those initial lessons Nintendo is taking a rather laissez faire approach to the homebrew community around Game Builder Garage after it comes out in June. There will be no central sharing place for the games you create; instead your creations will be given a unique code you can send to friends and family. Or presumably post places like Reddit, where I imagine people will use subreddits to trade tips and tricks, as well as create “tools” of their own to perform specific functions that people can embed in their own games. Nintendo is fine with all of this, including posting tutorials and real play videos on YouTube.
Given Nintendo’s famously stringent and litigious history, one may wonder: What if you decided to use Game Builder Garage to remake Super Mario Bros. or The Legend of Zelda? Well, you can, and Nintendo’s fine with that because you still had to use its product to do so — no one’s buying Game Builder Garage to avoid paying for old NES titles, after all. In fact, you’ll need a Nintendo Switch Online subscription to share anything, and NES Online already gives you access to most of the old titles you’d want to play anyway. Re-creating old games in Game Builder Garage is more about understanding how they work, and Nintendo hopes that kids raised with Game Builder Garage will eventually take the lessons learned with them into future careers in the game industry.