Flash back with me to September 2015, when the dreams of millions of gamers finally came to pass: Super Mario Maker hit store shelves. Players the world over rejoiced, handed Nintendo their money, and dove headfirst into the world of game design. Many had spent their childhoods dreaming of this kind of game, one which let them use simple tools to craft their own adventures for everyone’s favorite plumber. While not every player-created endeavor was successful, you cannot deny the creativity at work with this release. Browsing the community pages for Super Mario Maker opened up a world of video game homages, creative subversions, impossible hellscapes, mindscrewing puzzles, and in rare cases, level designs that rivaled the Big N in quality.
This torrent of creativity launched a thousand other dreams that have yet to see fruition. Where is Super Metroid Maker? Super Mega Man Maker? Super Zelda Maker?
In July 2018, PC gamers got their answer in the form of a little game called BQM: Block Quest Maker. Like Super Mario Maker, BQM places the power in the hands of players to craft creative levels, interesting puzzles, and bite-size stories – all through lens of an isometric dungeon crawler. The one question that needs to be asked, however, is how successful developer Wonderland Kazakiri is in expanding on the promise Super Mario Maker first fulfilled. Do they give you the tools to create your own video game masterpiece? And even if they do give you those tools, is the underlining game engine fun?
To answer the second question first, BQM is a game built on some generic, but by no means unfirm, foundations. Jumping into BQM, you’ll find a menu system reminiscent of Super Mario Maker, with the ability to play online levels, build your own, and play special challenge levels made by the developer standing front and center. Somewhat unintuitively, the tutorial levels also built by the developer are tucked away in the online section, but the game provides a handy guide to walk you through these first steps of gameplay.
Diving into this series of dungeons, you’ll slowly be introduced to the various gameplay mechanics at work. The player character moves across the isometric grid one square at a time, and interacts with enemies, NPCs, and various switches with either the touch of a button or by simply walking into the them. Four core items make up the player’s arsenal beyond their basic attack, including: Arrows, which fire in a straight line to damage enemies and hit far-off switches; Fireballs, which can light candles, burn down trees, and also do modest damage; Bombs, which do massive damage and can destroy certain kinds of walls in one or two hits; And finally, the “box” item, which can be placed on the ground and used to weigh down pressure plates (usually unlocking some door in the process) or filling in holes in the landscape. Beyond these basic items, players may also find dangerous rolling blocks, locked doors that require a key, or floating rafts and other platforming challenges ahead of them.
The tools given to players in BQM are generic, yes, but provide an excellent amount of variety once the game gets going. Doorways may be set to only open after killing all the enemies in a certain group or by covering three different pressure plates all at once. The path of floating rafts may be obstructed by a sunken gate, or a player might find themselves without a box and be forced to trigger a rolling block to fill a trench, having to avoid getting squished in the process. A huge of credit should go to the BQM development team for putting together the challenge levels in addition to the basic tutorials. Many of the challenges can be mind-numbingly difficult, but they go a long way in showing potential stage creators all the quirky interactions possible with the game’s assets.
Beyond the Wonderland Kazakiri created levels, you’ll find a steady stream of user-generated content in the online catalog. As with Super Mario Maker, BQM’s levels vary in quality and theme, though you won’t get quite the deluge of “useless” levels in BQM thanks to the game not having gaming’s biggest mascot behind it. After playing the game for a few weeks, I’ve found that the daily “new dungeon” section has consistent updates, giving you a few interesting new adventures every day. You can also search levels by key word, username, or hashtags to find just the level for you. Each stage is also marked with a number in the bottom-right corner which shows the “death percentage,” i.e. the percentage of players who attempted the level but weren’t able to complete. Simple levels typically fall between 0-25 percent, while the most difficult are marked with the dreaded skull-and-bones, showing that no one beyond the creator has ever managed to reach the finish line.
Within this library of user-generated levels, you’ll find the same sort of variety found in Super Mario Maker. Some levels are created to be simple explorations of game mechanics – a single bound box where you fight a specific enemy – while others are winding labyrinths that may take upwards of 15-20 minutes to complete on your first try. A few ambitious level designers have even crafted multi-part series, a continuing story that runs from stage to stage for well over 20 levels. This kind of storytelling is possible in BQM because of the NPC characters, who each get two sets of potential dialogue, each four dialogue screens long. While this is a relatively limited amount of space compared to what can be done in something like RPG Maker, it still opens up a world of possibility for those who have the desire to create a sweeping, epic story in BQM’s humble little package.
Of course, when it comes to user-generated content, you’re going to come to both soaring highs and crushing lows. While some levels are created with the same level of nastiness one might find in Super Mario Brothers: The Lost Levels, others are explicitly designed to screw their players over. One particularly infuriating level I came across was designed from start to finish as a perfectly normal series of action challenges and puzzles, as you gather keys to reach to finish line. Unfortunately the last key was locked behind a door with four pressure plates and four rolling rocks. Step on the wrong pressure plate, and you get squished and have to start the entire level over. Irritated, I played the level through several times trying to find the right plate, only to realize at the end that you actually needed to press two of the plates at once to open the door, which exponentially increases the amount of trial and error needed to find the combination. I gave up in frustration, longing for my 30 minutes back.
Fortunately, that level of absurd contempt for other players is rare. And the highs you get from truly great levels far outmatches the frustration from the vindictive ones. If you find yourself browsing the shop, I’d recommend looking into the “King and Princess” series of levels, which all provide a wonderful (and honest) challenge for players. Other gems I found include “Advanced Advice and Tips”, a stage specifically designed to teach players lesser known elements of the game, as well as “FF7 – Bombing Mission”, which as you can tell by the title, is a recreation of the opening scenario from Final Fantasy VII.
Dungeon Design and Construction
So what does it take to build these masterpieces of amateur game design? Hop over to BQM’s Builder section to find out. Inside, you’ll find a robust level-crafting system that provides a large assortment of design options. Players can customize the dimensions of their stage (between 10-32 blocks in each direction), then dive into building. Controls in the builder menu can be a bit clunky, given the number of tiles at play, and I found myself frequently switching to handheld mode to take advantage of the Switch’s touch screen to make things easier. While certainly not as fluid or intuitive as the tools given to you in Super Mario Maker (a stylus would have been nice), I did find myself growing accustomed to the menu layout and options quickly enough.
Building elements are split into two categories – “Map” and “Event.” The Map category is reserved to placing the (mostly) non-interactive bits of the level in place. The ground, walls, trees, water, and the like. The Event category houses your items, monsters, switches, doors, rafts, and a few stranger elements, like decorative furniture for houses, timers that can control other game elements, or readable signs. Any given block can hold both one Map element and one Event element at the same time, allowing you to do things like place a monster inside a wall or place a message that automatically appears when a player steps over a given tile. The most exciting event element for a writer like me is the NPC, which comes with 16 skins ranging from priests, warriors, villagers, and even a businessman who look suspiciously similar to a certain public figure who makes frequent headlines in today’s news.
The Event elements can be tied to one another through a “linking” system, which has different rules depending on which elements are involved. Links run in a straight line from one element to another, so if a link runs from a switch to a doorway, then turning the switch on and off will open and close the door. If multiple switches are all linked to the same door, meanwhile, you will need to hit them all to get the door to open. Meanwhile, running a link from the switch, to the door, then from that door to another door will cause both doors to open when the switch it hit. These two potential combinations, along with the individual quirks of individual Event elements, allow for an explosion of variety in level design. Added to that, of course, are my personal favorite NPCs, who have a variable link system. Essentially, if an NPC has no incoming links, then talking to them and seeing their first set of dialogue will trigger whatever their outgoing links are. However, if an NPC does have an incoming link, then talking to them the first time does nothing. You must first trigger their incoming link, and then talk to them and see their second set of dialogue to trigger their outgoing links. This system allows you to, say, have an NPC tell you to kill three slimes, you kill them and trigger the link, then you come back to the NPC, they thank you for helping them, and then they open the gateway to the next part of the level.
These and other unique interactions open up storytelling possibilities that I honestly don’t think any builder has maximized quite yet.
Before you go jumping into BQM, ready to create the next masterpiece, we should take a moment to discuss the in-game economy. Not every one of these builder elements are available to players at the start. A core set of features, simple Map tiles, a few Event elements, and three measly monsters are unlocked when you first begin the game. Not even my beloved NPC is provided right out the gate. To unlock new elements, players must earn in-game coins by completing levels or gathering coins off dead monsters. In addition, every level has a “buy in” fee to play them, which can range anywhere from free to 50 coins, at the builder’s discretion. In this way, builders gain coins by building quality and popular levels. Typically speaking for the players, unless you give up on a ton of levels in a row, you’ll never find yourself losing money by playing online. And Wonderland Kazakiri gives you some additional incentive to keep playing by offering large goal rewards for completing certain milestones (10, 25, 50, 100 levels completed, etc). Other ways of earning coins include the offline challenge levels (100 coins each) or the “mine,” a vestigial element from BQM’s free-to-play mobile version, which provides around 100-150 coins every 15-30 minutes.
The BQM community has, of course, found ways to hack the system. Automated levels exist that send rolling boulders over long strings of enemies, sliding the player along behind it to gather the spoils. Be warned, however, that some of these levels come with high entry fees and a lower return for players, essentially acting as a coin farm for the builder, rather than the player. Again, all user-driven communities have their bad eggs.
One final piece to the game economy – and another incentive to keep playing and building more levels – are the player character customization options. You can unlock a large number of skins for 1,000 coins a pop, from a collection that provides an even larger variety than what’s available for NPCs. These include basic things like Wizards, Warriors, and Merchants, along with quirkier skins like robots, ninjas, or even monsters. Further customization comes in the form of unlockable swords and shields, which can be found by snagging randomly generated meat items that appear near the end of some courses. Not every stage will provide a piece of meat, though it seems that the more popular the stage, the more likely one is to appear. After a set number of meat has been gathered, the player will be rewarded with a new sword or shield, though these items are purely cosmetic and do not affect gameplay.
Overall, how much you love BQM will depend largely on how much you like this particular type of game. Super Mario Maker, despite fulfilling the dreams of many, was not beloved by all. User-generated content comes with a mixed bag of benefits and pitfalls, masterpieces and cow dung. That being said, BQM provides a robust game-making system, with untapped storytelling potential and an ever-expanding library of clever dungeon designs and fresh ideas. While it certainly has a few hiccups, including some unintuitive tools and the occasional glitch or freeze, BQM’s strengths far outweigh its weaknesses. If, like me, you are a fan of the genre, you will find yourself not wanting to put the game down anytime soon.