“Nintendo is at their best when they’re desperate.”
There isn’t a quote that is as timely and relevant as this one, since in the past we’ve seen some of the best work come out of the house of Mario when they’re cornered and on the ropes. At a time where Nintendo has never quite been in a worse position in the console market, we’re beginning to see the company take some calculated risks, much like they did in the GameCube era, and very much unlike what we saw last generation. Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker is the latest title to come out of Nintendo’s forced creativity, taking their tried and true concept of a platformer, and flipping it on its head… as well as all sorts of other directions.
If you’re familiar with Super Mario 3D World’s bonus Toad stages from last year, you’ll have a basic idea of what Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker is about. Starring the titular Captain Toad, along with the relatively damsel-less Toadette, Treasure Tracker leads players through dozens upon dozens of quick, diorama-styled stages organized into a storybook format that wouldn’t be out of place in a Kirby game. Captain Toad is very much a platformer at heart; however, neither Toad nor Toadette can jump, making it a puzzle platformer by design.
The game is all about perspective. With its largely cubic framework, Captain Toad lends players a rare manual control of the camera instead of the increasingly automated perspective that Nintendo has mastered. You can spin the camera in almost any direction and juggle views from up close and from afar to help pick out the three collectible crystals tucked away in each level. They’re not always out in the open, as movable objects, breakable blocks, and stage-changing chain reactions often reveal the hidden treasure.
As you’d imagine, figuring out the path to getting them can be rather tricky, with puzzle-solving often requiring elaborate methods of lining up walkways and figuring out where to fall instead of jumping. It’s a smart and increasingly clever design that’s rarely cheap and often has the answer staring you right in the face… given the right perspective, of course.
Captain Toad gets away with reusing assets and aesthetics from Super Mario 3D World, not only because they’re so damn charming, but also because the rules have changed in its dioramic structure. Though Captain Toad is visually identical to 3D World, in some cases it looks more impressive thanks to the absence of time limits and the completely manual camera, both of which allow you to gaze at the soft details of each stage. Many of the Mario baddies are seen here as well; Goombas, Parana Plants, Shy-Guys and the like all make their adorable rounds. However, because of Toad’s lack of vertical reach, they are significantly more dangerous, making facing them an evasive, manipulating, and ultimately more tactful process.
This slower momentum has excused Nintendo to make the use of the gamepad more present. However, with every passing shoehorned attempt from Nintendo, Wii U’s only differentiating factor remains adrift, still yet to find its definitive place with original game design.
Blowing on the mic to shift wind-powered platforms and riding through levels in first-person sequences occur more often in Captain Toad than they have in most other titles for the system. I must also issue a reminder to Nintendo that using the pad’s gyroscope as a companion control method to the right analog stick has never proven to be ideal. The only sensible implementation exists in levels that have you tapping movable blocks. It’s a doozy jumping perspective between both screens, but these stages lend themselves much more logically to Captain Toad’s puzzle-box theme than its gimmicky inclusion in 3D World.
With all of its bells and whistles: squeaky clean graphics, charming soundtrack, and polished gameplay, Captain Toad feels like a bargain at just $40 compared to most games. But this makes it all the more troublesome to see that the title’s length can feel forcibly artificial at times.
Many players will end up playing most, if not all, of the stages more than once, and it’s not just because of Nintendo’s lifelong philosophy of secret-hiding level design. Each stage holds a secondary objective that isn’t revealed to the player until after they complete a first run. Nintendo’s platformers often incentivize players to revisit past levels with the promise of a redesign variable of some sorts; or, at the very least, inform the player of every possible objective and collectible up front. While these secondary objectives do, by and large, alter your play style – and some warrant a second run to earn 100% completion – many of them feel like cheap excuses to extend the life of each stage. And for goodness sake, couldn’t we have at least gotten a bloody retry button?
As expected, Captain Toad rewards completionists with additional content; collected crystals unlock later stages, while bonus objectives open access to some of the most difficult levels in the game. It’s only then where you’ll begin to see Captain Toad emphasise the intricacies of its mechanics, extracting creative – and dare I say foreign – puzzle encounters. One level was set in the appropriately named “Shy Guy Shadow Den”, where I had to toggle between switching Toadette’s head lamp on and off to stealth my way past patrolling Shy Guys while having to actually illuminate the pitch black path ahead. Another took Mario’s satisfying downhill butt slide, and turned it into a pinball themed level.
Bonus stages strain Captain Toad’s fundamentals even further, and can be unlocked automatically if you have saved data from Super Mario 3D World. The first few stages prove to be a miserable experiment that places Captain Toad in some of the earlier levels of last year’s 3D World. None work nearly as well as Captain Toad’s other stages, because they drag Toad through levels that were designed for Mario’s speed and jump, which ultimately turn them into sluggish, and occasionally painful, antithetical experiences.
The second chapter of stages features what’s called the Toad Brigade, which becomes little more than elaborate escort missions that prove to be more trouble than they’re worth. Each additional Toad collected, up to three, increases Captain Toad’s vulnerability as none of them can take any damage; not to mention navigating and herding them through tight spaces is a huge pain in the ass. I won’t spoil beyond these two chapters, however Captain Toad’s remaining bonus levels force a gruelling yet satisfying mechanical mastery you’d come to expect from a Nintendo platformer; it just sucks that there’s a bit of muck to wade through before getting there.
Despite its occasional experimenting missteps and a transparent attempt at bloating its content, Captain Toad is as smart as it is adorable. The manner in which it subverts Nintendo’s strongest genre, whilst still able to build a fundamentally simplistic and conceptually complex play experience, reinforces the fact that the company’s creative juices have not gone sour.