A cute puzzle-platformer, as happy as it is clever.
Developer: Nintendo EAD Tokyo
Format: Wii U
Released: December 5, 2014
Copy supplied by publisher
A happy game is something this market desperately needs to see a lot more of. A totally unpretentious, colorful, cheerful videogame with no overwhelming sense of peril, no miserable characters complaining about their vapid emotional turmoil, and none of this “moral choice” gibberish. Don’t get me wrong, I love a tragic game (This War of Mine just got a ton of praise, after all), but there’s so much seriousness in popular videogames, and so few smiles. A game like Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker is a much needed injection of genuine joy in a perpetually gloomy industry, and its unassuming arrival is a most welcome one.
It’s almost a shame that Captain Toad has a story at all, light though it is. As the titular captain sets off to save Toadette from the clutches of a random asshole bird, the disappointingly trite setup feels out of place in a game that is otherwise about hunting treasure. Indeed, if there was no plot at all, and Toad simply worked his way through each course on a quest for hidden gems and coins, absolutely nothing would have been lost. He’s a tracker of a treasure, after all, and the added motive of rescue seems like a desperate attempt to cling to conformity in a game that really didn’t need it. The role reversal that occurs throughout the game is a fun little diversion, as Toadette and Toad end up taking turns rescuing each other, but overall I gained no extra pleasure from the threadbare attempts at plot, let alone another humdrum rescue mission. The Captain and Toadette are treasure trackers – just let ’em track treasure!
In fairness, the heroes’ cycle of rescue and capture at the talons of Asshole Bird is lightly explored at best, with each level remaining a self-contained quest to collect stuff for no related reason. Treasure Tracker is based on the Captain Toad courses that appear in Super Mario 3D World, a series of puzzle stages that involves rotating the camera around roughly cube-shaped worlds while navigating the fungal explorer through hazards and enemies without Mario’s offensive capabilities. The spirit of these stages is taken and expanded with this standalone game, as players work their way through increasingly complex puzzle-platform challenges in the shoes of a character that cannot jump, and is only very rarely able to combat the Goombas, Shy Guys, and Piranha Plants that stand between him and success.
As with Super Mario 3D World, spatial awareness is the key to victory, since players will need to rotate the camera around all four sides of each level, constantly altering the vantage point to get a handle on Toad’s surroundings and possible paths. Doorways, passages, and nooks can be completely obscured from certain angles, and each course has a sense of depth which can only be fully perceived by sizing things up like a glorified snooker player. The overall aim of each course is to get to a golden star by avoiding baddies and solving navigational puzzles, though each map has three hidden gems – many of which will need to be collected, since certain landmark courses are locked until a set amount of them has been claimed. Often, getting the star is the easy part, since some gems are cleverly hidden away, or otherwise require some tricky environmental puzzling to nab.
Captain Toad starts off simple, but in true Nintendo fashion, the central ideas continue to expand and diversify throughout the adventure. Things open with a lot of ladder climbing, dropping from ledges, and throwing the occasional uprooted turnip at encroaching enemies, but before too long, Toad will be navigating moving platforms, using see-saw bridges as improved springboards, and sliding through pipes that have divergent paths and very little time to choose a direction. It’s impressive just how much variety Nintendo has managed to squeeze out of the central idea, with more traditional, slower puzzle levels joined by fast-paced running stages in which Toad is constantly propelled along precarious ledges, or boss “fights” involving dragons that require the player to constantly use cover while scaling a vertical level series of platforms. Even when old ideas are reused (the aforementioned dragon appears multiple times), there’s usually some quirky new spin on the idea. Captain Toad‘s potentially gimmicky brand of puzzling is something that could get old quick, but the consistent mixing of the formula combats it deftly.
A number of stages make use of the Wii U GamePad’s extra features, as if it’s 2012 all over again. There are land masses that can be shifted up, down, left or right by touching them on the Pad’s screen, there are platforms that move along tracks when the microphone is blown into, and there are mine cart levels in which the controller is physically moved around to target objects. It’s the kind of tech-demo stuff that’s been around since the Wii U’s launch, and I didn’t find any of it particularly enthralling. Certainly nothing offensive, but I can’t help feeling that, two years into the console’s lifespan, we ought to have moved past random touch and gesture interfaces that exist simply for the sake of existing.
At times, even with the evolving ideas, Captain Toad can get a bit overly familiar. The relatively slow pace of the courses (they’re not on a time limit like they were with Super Mario 3D World) and the limited interaction can and does make for some pretty inventive situations, but there are a good handful of levels that just plod along with nothing fresh to offer. Less interesting levels can be skipped, though you’ll need to maintain a high number of gems to unlock later stages, so there’ll be no breezing past too much of it, and while each course is relatively short, a few are a bit of a slog – especially if you die, and have to do it all over again. Death is a rarity, since this is more of a thinker than a fighter, but it can happen. At least any recovered gems stay recovered.
As well as three episodes consisting of multiple courses each, there is a set of bonus levels based on stages found in Super Mario 3D World. Since Toad can’t butt stomp or throw a punch, these levels involve avoiding trouble while finding unique ways to get around the world. They’re also stuffed to the gills with precious coins, and there’s something immensely gratifying about running through from A to B while nabbing them all and scoring a bunch of extra lives. I actually found myself enjoying the bonuses more than the main game, and I wouldn’t mind an entire title based more about restricted runs of traditional Mario stages.
Complaints aside, Captain Toad remains a clever, inventive little puzzle platformer. For every middling course, there’s something more radical waiting to be found. A stage set up like a huge pinball table, with Toad sliding down its surface to collect items, a large tower of platforms set up like the first level of Donkey Kong, and numerous excellent haunted house-themed arenas are all lying in wait, among other smartly designed environments. The beautiful art style of Super Mario 3D World is retained, with character models appearing smoother and prettier than they did in the captain’s previous game appearance. The soundtrack is particularly delightful, though Toad’s screaming and Toadette’s “Oh yeah” piercing my ears at the end of every level could have been done without. I just value my ears, is all, and the inevitable shrieking of the mushroom monsters runs counter to that.
Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker isn’t going to blow minds with its humble presentation and laid back puzzling, but it’s still got plenty of imagination and some really sagacious architecture in its level structure. There are moments that tread water, but overall this is a smart puzzler that ought to appeal to most folks. You can’t really say fairer than that.