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Preview: Super Dungeon Designer

17 Nov 2023

I enjoy quite a few games that focus and depend on User Generated Content (UGC), most prominently among them Super Mario Maker and its sequel, which took a known and loved franchise where many of us probably came up with our own ideas for levels in our dreams, and made the whole game about creating and playing our own levels. Personally, I remember being a kid playing Super Mario Bros. 3 on the NES and designing my own levels on graph paper, so I knew when these games came out that I would enjoy this sort of thing (and also discover how bad at level design most of us actually are…).

There’s also been entirely custom games using this concept, and unofficial games like Mega Man Maker bringing the concept to more of our favorite IPs. And that’s where Super Dungeon Designer, developed by Squish Studios and now in Steam Early Access ($14.99 US), comes in. With a visual style not at all unlike the 2-D era of The Legend of Zelda games, it aims to bring the same sort of easy level design tools popularized by the Mario Maker games, and total focus on user content, to the top-down dungeon crawler genre.

On the game side of things, players will find an experience uncannily similar to A Link to the Past or the original Legend of Zelda. You control an unnamed character, usually armed with a sword, and explore custom-made dungeons with what I like to call a “pit-style” top-down view (where walls fill entire tiles, which sort of looks like you’re looking down a pit). Dungeons can contain a variety of elements, including various enemies, special items and equipment, bosses, movable blocks, keys and locked doors, bosses, and so on.

The controls are intuitive, and the game is equally playable with a gamepad or a mouse and keyboard. Your goal is simple – you start in some room in a dungeon, and you need to reach a special end tile to complete it. You have hearts for a life meter, just like the games it was inspired by, and can even increase them along the way. It all feels very familiar and faithful to its source material while still having an element of freshness with its own take on the art style and its own set of enemies and such.

Then there’s edit mode. It features an interface not unlike it’s other level-designer game brethren, and is quite easy to use. There is a decent amount of variety for things like floor and wall tiles, and all of the various gameplay elements are easily dragged and dropped into your levels. Floors and walls can also be dyed different colors, which allows you to enhance aesthetics and also communicate things to the player.

It is also easy to link elements for simple scripting, such as killing certain enemies to trigger doors to open or drop items elsewhere in the dungeon. I created a very simple, and admittedly boring looking dungeon within 15 minutes, and there were a fair few very elaborate dungeons created by others available to play that looked like quite a lot more time was spent.

The editor was certainly fun to play with, but I do feel like the game does need more dungeon elements, music, items, and powers to play with. There’s only one boss type monster, and only one music track for the dungeons, which feels a bit limiting. The game is in Early Access and clearly there’s an intention to add more such things over time, so I imagine dungeons will become more diverse with time.

When it comes to editing, some example levels included with the game would have been nice. While you can download and edit any dungeon uploaded (something that was bizarrely removed from Super Mario Maker 2…I guess because people used it to “cheat?”), there are no templates or examples you can use to start yourself off. Both Mario Maker titles included various “title screen levels” which were backdrops for the title screen (obviously), but were also editable and playable. Something like this would make it a lot easier for a new user to get into dungeon-making.

Most of the dungeons I played could be done in a reasonable amount of time, but some were longer. Being able to suspend or save your progress would be a welcome addition, as would the ability to group multiple dungeons together, either with a hub dungeon to connect them, or to play in sequence, where you could carry over collected items and upgrades. Finally, being able to have distinct floors to your dungeon would also be really helpful. Currently while you can place stairs and link them to join two isolated rooms, the dungeon map remains a single floor. Being able to have multiple floors would allow you to create tower-style levels and such more realistically, and currently you can’t create different floor heights within a room, like A Link to the Past had for example, where you can drop down from a ledge to a lower floor of the room or even a different room situated below. For instance, the door on the left would not be reachable from the door on the right in my screenshot below.

While I’ve talked a lot about the game needing more elements, it is still very playable and enjoyable in its current state. As the game continues to grow in Early Access, Super Dungeon Designer‘s potential is massive. I certainly enjoyed my time with it. What’s already in the game is lovingly crafted and I look forward to seeing how the game progresses from here.

Early Access preview copy provided by Squish Studios for PC. Screenshots taken by reviewer.