Ever since Nintendo gave players the tools to develop their own levels with Super Mario Maker, there’s been talk about the Big N expanding the concept to other franchises, especially Zelda. This was allegedly discussed at greater length behind the scenes and eventually led to the addition of the Chamber Dungeons concept in the Link’s Awakening Switch remake, but there seemingly wasn’t enough will or interest to see it through to a fuller product, as we haven’t seen anything come to fruition yet. Spotting an opportunity to capitalize on the potential of this idea, an indie team called Firechick launched and successfully funded a Kickstarter late last year for a legally distinct top-down Zelda-style dungeon builder called Super Dungeon Maker. Now that it’s come to Switch, we can report that it’s a decent foundation, though it feels unfinished at launch and there’s clear room for improvement here.
First, a brief overview. This is a game that apes the gameplay of the Game Boy and SNES Zelda games as closely as possible, right down to that annoying worm boss that spins in circles in a cramped room. Instead of playing as Link, you play as a chicken named Fink who has the same basic sword and shield alongside a small arsenal of tools like a hookshot or bombs. Using these, you navigate dungeons, solve puzzles, and kill baddies, all in the quest to find the golden egg at the end of each dungeon.
Aside from a few brief introductory dungeons to give you an idea of what’s possible with the mechanics, there isn’t any sort of story-driven, single-player adventure to sink your teeth into here. The vast majority of your time will be spent either playing and scoring levels uploaded by other users to the global community, or picking up the tools yourself and building dungeons to then share with everyone else. While it feels like a missed opportunity that Firechick mostly passed on giving us some kind of little campaign to anchor the experience more, it’s hard to complain about a lack of content given that there are far more levels than you’ll ever have time to play. How many of those levels will be worth playing is entirely something you’ll have to decide for yourself.
The bulk of your time with Super Dungeon Maker will likely be spent sampling the seemingly endless community-crafted dungeons, which offer quite a fascinating range of experiences. Some levels play it straight and try their best to match Zelda’s legendary dungeon design, to the point that we tried out one dungeon that was a lovingly adapted version of Tail Cave from Link’s Awakening. Others try something different, such as a dungeon we played where you ‘golf’ on a nine-hole course by pushing an ice block or another that had us ‘race’ a series of blocks triggered by automatic switches. Then there are the dungeons that just exist to troll you; we played quite a few that were little more than being constantly ganked by enemies and lasers every time we set foot in a new room.
It goes without saying that your mileage may vary here, as there’s no real way of determining the quality of a level aside from the number of likes it’s gotten so far. And while you’re sure to find plenty of levels that have actually had some thought and effort put into them, it can sometimes feel like you have to sift through a lot of trash before you find the gems. There are some ways to mitigate this, of course, such as being able to search by specific users known for their quality or by filtering using tags such as “Linear” and “Pacifistic”, but you ultimately have no idea what you’re getting into until you’ve already given a level a shot. To be fair, it can be quite thrilling to be pleasantly surprised by a level you decided to give a chance, but it can be equally disappointing when a promising one turns out to be a dud.
Of course, there’s nothing stopping you from being the change you want to see in the world, and that’s where the builder tools come in. The interface is a little hokey to navigate using the sticks and D-pad on a controller, but it overall feels intuitive and simple enough to get to grips with. Brief tooltips on each dungeon element, such as a special door or a patch of quicksand, help explain what each item does and you can jump between the ‘play’ and ‘create’ modes with a simple tap of a button to test things out.
The tools themselves feel sufficiently robust without being overly complicated or unapproachable. Our only complaint here is that there’s no support for touchscreen controls, which feels like a pretty glaring omission given how perfectly the interface feels tailored for touch. The sticks are fine, but we’re hopeful that an patch will be able to add that functionality.
And we’re certain that there will be patches, because Super Dungeon Maker simply doesn’t feel complete yet. Literally the first thing you see every time you boot it up is a disclaimer message that warns you that the game is still in development and is considered a “preview” while encouraging you to share feedback and bug reports with the team. Where this ‘early access’ designation is felt most strongly is probably in the design elements themselves, or rather the lack of them. For example, there are technically only five items—four if we’re not counting the shield as an item—and this severely limits how varied the dungeons can be on a mechanical level. Even with some of the great off-the-wall ideas you see on display in many community levels, there’s only so much one can do with, say, a hookshot before you start seeing repetition of ideas.
In many ways, then, it can feel like the creator interface is akin to a state-of-the-art kitchen stocked with equipment, but the cabinets are barren and there are only four or five ingredients with which to cook. If you’re creative and skilled, you can still toss together some pretty impressive stuff, but there’s no getting away from the fact that you’re not being given a ton of material to work with. Those of you who lean more towards the creator side of these player-made-content games may thus want to hold off on purchasing for a while and wait for the team to implement more design elements in the toolbox.
There’s a certain hollowness that comes with playing what is effectively a Zelda game with no overworld, story, or overarching adventure. The dungeons are often seen as the highest points of many a Zelda game, but Super Dungeon Maker made us reflect deeper on how necessary everything else is to make the dungeons stand so tall. If a traditional Zelda game is a cupcake, then Super Dungeon Maker is just the frosting; it may be the sweetest part of the experience, but it loses a lot of its appeal when it’s all you have.
Not having an overworld to fool around in with your new toys or a narrative-based reason to get to the shiny thing at the end of the dungeon feels like it kind of robs Super Dungeon Maker of its meaning, as conquering a dungeon doesn’t represent any material progress for your character or a plot. Once you beat a dungeon, you just simply exit and then go play another one that starts you at the beginning with no equipment once more. And while this loop can be satisfying for a little bit, it also relies on the simple gameplay mechanics to do all the heavy lifting of providing that ‘fun factor’. Unfortunately, they aren’t quite up to the task, at least for the time being.
As for its presentation, Super Dungeon Maker does a great job with a cutesy hi-bit art style that feels like it manages to be its own thing while still being clearly inspired by 2D Zelda. The main issue here is that performance is pretty inconsistent, noticeably dipping into sub-30 FPS realms all the time. Though there’s probably more going on under the hood than you might think, it still feels quite jarring to see a game that looks like this being so choppy and it does notably drag down the overall gameplay experience.
Super Dungeon Maker has a lot of potential and perhaps with time it’ll become something great. For now, it feels like an egg that still needs significantly more time to incubate before it can hatch. Intuitive creator controls, an endless well of community-crafted content, and charming visuals are all big positives here, but the lack of any overarching progression, no touchscreen controls, and it feeling generally unfinished really hold this one back from being anything exceptional. If you have faith that the developers will eventually realize the full scope of their vision, then we’d certainly encourage you to crack this one open, but those who are more wary of early-access titles will want to wait and see. Super Dungeon Maker is just an average experience for now — here’s hoping that it eventually delivers on its promise.