Educational “games” are an odd lot. Often they are little more than quizzes parading as a game and award the player with some trivial digital “prize” for completing each challenge successfully. There are a handful that I have experienced that seemed like the game portion of the educational game was given even modest attention, but one really can find a lot of value in games that were probably never intended to be exactly educational to begin with if a quick look below the surface is taken.
One of the focuses Grant and I have for his homeschooling curriculum is to delve into computer science. This includes programming/coding and he is the one that deserves the credit for finding this little gem: The Megamix Engine. The Megamix Engine is a fan-developed work which creates a very specialized version of Gamemaker Studio tailored for creating Mega Man fan games. It comes loaded with pretty much every asset one could imagine from the vast library of Mega Man games, but the code is still accessible so that would-be programmers can open it up just to inspect how things are done or even make edits and adjustments in order to alter existing tiles, characters and behaviors. I found it to be really helpful in explaining to Grant why we were spending time working on basic coding, but after he could actually see it working and found he could actually read and understand some of it I feel like he was much more willing to work on the basics of coding.
There is an actual gathering of user-designed levels from this engine and the group has called the resulting fan-game Make a Good Mega Man Level. It currently has two releases and they give critique and feedback to the up-and-coming game/level designers which can be helpful in several ways. One particular benefit I have noticed is Grant’s ability to take criticism and his resilience to the often unfair opinions that some folks enjoy spewing across the internet wherever creation is happening. Seeing the potential harm in unfair and negative criticism has really helped Grant to be more gentle in his own critiques and I have seen him really pick up a lot of authority in this little circle of young artists and designers for his generally fair and honest yet constructive manner of critiquing level design, music, sprite art and all of the other things game related. If he found himself unfamiliar with something I have been delighted to watch him research on his own, study and acquaint himself with whatever the subject may be so that he is able to take part in that particular aspect of his groups activity. If only all “games” could encourage that kind of enthusiasm and study!
Another project spawned originally by this same engine is Mega Man Maker. If you are noticing a theme here, yes Grant has meandered down the path of retro gaming and really fallen in love with the Mega Man series. Mega Man Maker is more similar to Mario Maker in its design. It has a “drag and drop” style menu that lets the user quickly put together some really nice designs and does all of the heavy lifting itself. Sprites, animation, behaviors.. all of this is handled by the engine so that when a Met is plopped on a little hill in front of Mega Man, the little fella already knows he shout pop his hat up and spray bullets when Mega gets a bit too close. Easy-peasy, right? The only downside Grant has experienced with this comes in his exposure to the original engine and its flexibility in letting him edit specific behaviors and even tiles. The huge bonus to this game is that it has a pretty vibrant online community with which to share games such that there is a near-endless supply of new content – which is of course where these maker-style games really shine. One can never really exhaust the content faster than it can be produced as long as the community is active.
Watching him work so hard at something that could be seen as simple play made me wonder about my own perceptions of what one might be able to learn while gaming. There is certainly some merit in teaching restraint, patience and careful spending in practically any game that has some sort of economy and money system. Ranging from the rupees of the Zelda series to the newer costume shops in Mario Odyssey and stretching to the near-endless means of resource gathering and crafting found in Skyrim, there is no shortage of games that teach some simple resource management if even on a superficial level. Of course wherever there is a money system there will be math and that is on full display in many of these games.
Logic puzzles are also quite commonplace in most adventure games we have played and has even found a way to creep into some of the newer platformers. A Zelda dungeon (or in the case of Breath of the Wild, a shrine) simply seems incomplete without solving all of the peculiar little logic puzzles. Breath of the Wild does a grand job of this with only the very limited supply of runes on the Sheika Slate, one must mix and match and really get creative in how to figure out how to pass many of the games more perplexing shrine challenges.
Returning to the subject of tools and software that make it easier for players and users to create their own content, what an amazing artistic outlet this can become. Grant and his fellow Mega-makers really take this whole design aspect quite seriously, going so far as to actually look up resources, tutorials, videos and the like on the subject of good game design. Games such as Mario Maker for the WiiU are even more accessible, making it easy to simply pop in a disk and start making authentic-seeming Super Mario levels of one’s own. This is a trend that I hope to see continue.. and not just a little selfishly. Would I ever love to have a “Zelda-maker” game. I suspect someone will soon venture into the 3d-creator realm with a good entry as well and who knows where all of the new VR will take us. It’s certainly an exiting time for both designers and players alike.
If you are interested in checking out the Make a Good Mega Man Level fangames, Mega Man Maker or try your hand at crafting a game of any kind from the old abandonware check out the links and give it a shot. The games are quite fun and it is interesting to see for oneself some of the upper-level challenges presented to a game designer. Grant has finished MaGMML 2, as it is affectionately referred to (that’s pronounced “mag-mammal 2”, just in case) and I was surprised at the quality of this little fangame. The hub-world is made to be like a little fairgrounds with loads of characters from the series strolling about and running things. All of them are at least somewhat interactive with clever things to say and even a costume shop a-la Mario Odyssey. I really cannot recommend it enough.
Thanks for reading!