Start Your (Game) Engines!

The cover of Elements of Game Design by Robert Zubek

It’s March, and VPL’s first GameJam is well underway. Tommy already made a post explaining what it’s all about. Still, I thought I’d do a bit of advertising for it here and encourage people who maybe aren’t ready to make a game from scratch to get in on some game creation. Fair warning: these won’t be accepted as GameJam entries, so this post is entirely for fun from that perspective. This is likely a moot point, though, as I’m guessing my audience is likely too old to be entering the game jam anyway, but shout-outs to any grade 2-8 students reading my posts. I’ll be focusing on a suite of games that allow players to make games within them in addition to playing user-created levels.

The box art of Super Mario Maker

I’ll start with something that’s been popping up in my newsfeed lately: the original Super Mario Maker for the WiiU. If you want to borrow this one and play other people’s levels, jump on it quickly. WiiU servers are getting shut down in April, taking all of the user-created levels with them. You’ll still be able to build and play through your own levels, but that’s about it. Borrow it soon, though, and you can help Team 0% ensure that every level ever uploaded gets beaten by someone other than the original creator before that inevitable shutdown. At the time of writing this (March 18th, 2024), there’s only a single level left: Trimming the Herbs. This clear video is from the creator, who had to beat it to upload it to the servers, so don’t go thinking someone’s pulled it off just yet. Though… if even seasoned Mario veterans are having trouble with this one, then maybe getting that final clear is a little out of reach for most people.

The box art of Super Mario Maker 2

Maybe you’re one of the many people who own a Switch but not a WiiU1. If that’s the case, the server shutdown isn’t an issue for you, as the far more robust Super Mario Maker 2 will be full-featured for a while yet. But what exactly am I on about here? The Mario Maker games are level-building engines that allow players to create Super Mario levels in a variety of styles based on Mario’s 2D games, and with a level of customizability that creators sometimes push to the limit. That link may not be the best example of a level that feels good to play, but it does show off the kinds of shenanigans people get up to. Meet the one-screen puzzle level. Mario Escape rooms? Sure, why not? I’ll happily play those over the Kaizo Mario levels. I’ll admit that watching those Kaizo levels in action is awesome, though.

The box art for Little Big Planet 3

Now, for one I still need to play: Little Big Planet 3. Got a PlayStation 3 or 4 at home and not a Switch? This and the next game on the list are for you. Unlike the Mario Maker series, Little Big Planet has a proper story mode, with 3 having full voice acting for all its characters. Admittedly, this campaign is on the short side, but it’s still something extra that the Big N didn’t do for Mario. Both series do show off dev-created content; Little Big Planet just puts more emphasis on presentation. And speaking of presentation, check out some gameplay. Mario‘s aesthetics are instantly recognizable and very polished, but I wouldn’t describe them as “beautiful”. Sack Boy and friends, on the other hand, do get to adventure through some gorgeous levels and look to share more in common with Donkey Kong Country than Mario for platforming mechanics. Though I admit, that’s just an at-a-glance reaction.

The box art for Dreams

So I said, “The next game on the list” in that last paragraph. But… Dreams isn’t a game. It’s a game engine. Sure, there’s a story mode, but that acts more like a tutorial to get people into the creation aspect of the engine rather than a discreet mode with no relevance to anything else. Where Maker and Planet were strictly for creating 2D platforming levels, Dreams allows for much more free-form creations. Heck, you don’t even have to make games. Want to create a music video? You can do that. Static art? Sure. Dreams gives the player myriad options to create whatever they dream up, like an escape room or an infinite runner. This does mean it has a steeper learning curve than the other options I’ve mentioned, and you, as a creator, will have to have a robust vision of what you’re going for and a drive to get it done. As the developers show, full games are possible, so even if you’re not looking to design something, borrowing Dreams is like borrowing a library’s worth of games all at once.

The box art for RPG Maker MV switch edition

So, what if you have an idea for a game and know that you want it to be a role playing game? And you’re set on it looking like a classic SNES-era game. If you’ve got a switch, we’ve got you covered with RPG Maker MV. Like Dreams, this one is a game engine, not a game itself. It has some tutorials to teach you how to use its various systems, but otherwise, it’s very hands-off, letting you create the story and systems of your game. Maybe you want to level up on specific story beats rather than through fighting monsters, or maybe you can recruit said monsters to fight for you a la Pokémon. Perhaps there’s no fighting at all, and you just want to design a series of puzzles to make an escape room2. Because RPG Maker and Dreams are game engines instead of games, it’s easier to bend them to do what you want them to do, as opposed to having a bunch of off-screen moving parts to add two numbers together in Mario Maker, which is impressive but unwieldy.

I hope this showcase of games inspires you to give game or level design a go, even if you’re well outside the age range for our GameJam. And even if you borrow one just to play what others have made, you’ll get deeper insights into what makes a game fun by seeing the myriad of things that can be done with the medium, even within the constraints of a limited engine. That’s all for this month, next month I’ll get back to books. Probably.

1 I didn’t realise that the Switch still hasn’t surpassed the DS of all things. Though the DS had the DS, the DS Lite, the DSi and the DSiXL. 4 versions to the Switch’s 3: Switch, Switch Lite, and Switch OLED. I wonder if a 4th switch model before next year’s (speculative) Switch 2 drops would push it over the hump?

2 Can you tell I like escape rooms?

About Adam

Adam is a Digital Creation Specialist - Children who never has enough shelf space for his board game collection, wall space for his photographs, or stomach space for his baking. Once he’s got a book in his clutches (preferably a fantasy, or humorous non-fiction one) absolutely nothing else is getting done that day. Working in a library is a blessing and a curse to his free time.  |  Meet the team