I wasn’t expecting much with Captain Toad Treasure Tracker, but I’ll be damned if it wasn’t a great little title to start this year for Nintendo. You start playing the moment the game loads, placing you in a very small, scripted course as opposed to a starting menu. It’s also one of the greatest, albeit simple, introductions to a game that I’ve every played. Captain Toad and (Captain?) Toadette are racing up a hill to get hold of a star, the currency over which wars are waged (essentially) in the Mario universe. Once they reach it, however, a gigantic bird swoops down, latching onto it and flying off. In an attempt to stop it, Toadette jumps onto the star and is instead carried off by the bird. It adjusts me to the games controls and mechanics, it sets up the very simple story and it shows me how to complete a level – all before I’ve even seen a menu screen.
Damn, Nintendo, want to use some of that ingenuity for your console designs?
I really like the approach that Treasure Tracker has in regards to narrative, the idea of saying a lot without saying much at all. Since the story is so uncomplicated, you’d also have a hard time finding fault with how the ending ties things up. It’s an idea that we saw at the beginning of Super Mario 3D World (SM3DW) though the execution this time around is far better. SM3DW relied on the reputation and known history of its characters in order to drive the narrative, it never stopped to actually explain itself. Treasure Tracker provides the characters motivation within seconds of… the annoyingly long Wii U loading time. More than that, it involves the player while it does so and makes that motivation personal. Or at least it attempts to and given that this is a Nintendo game, there’s an expectation that your suspension of disbelief is pretty strong going in.
Treasure Tracker’s simplicity is both its greatest strength and the primary source of its occasional shortcomings. The controls are pretty straight forward and make excellent use of the touch pad, meaning that the overall focus of the design is on how players explore the level. The levels themselves, which I’ll be referring to as bio-cubes from here out, are small slices of different Mario settings which have been condensed into a cube-like world to explore. Being unable to jump, you navigate the bio-cubes by activating switches, climbing ladders, and jumping off ledges, all in pursuit of the goal-star.
These things are basically blood diamonds in the Mario universe.
There are also three Super Gems, which can be found in each bio-cube and an optional objective which changes depending on the level, the latter of which will only be revealed after playing it once. This might sound frustrating, but I often completed them by mistake on the first play through in pursuit of the main goal. While it does extend the replayability of the game, I feel like there’s a better way to do that. I’d much rather know what the extra, optional objective is going in and just have the levels be harder. Instead, the game forces you to guess and then replay it if you don’t guess correctly.
Being what some mighty call a “family friendly” game, you won’t be stumped for long by the puzzles and a five-year-old probably could have done a better job of hiding the extra items. The few that did stop me for longer than a minute or two were because I was over-thinking things as opposed to struggling for solutions. One mechanic I don’t understand is the inclusion of lives; nothing of consequence happens when you get a game over, it just feels like a pointless interruption to gameplay. Some rad interruptions to gameplay, however, are the mini-games which crop up now and again after 100%-ing levels. They’re a couple of fun, but short-lived affairs involving the use and abuse of power-ups for coin looting and I wish they’d added a few more in.
Super Pickaxe: Bringer of good times, starter of parties.
If you’ve got Super Mario 3D World data on the console you’re playing on while you’ve got Captain Toad loaded, it’ll unlock a bunch of levels from that game to play through. The levels have been altered with pipes to allow the jumpless Captain Toads to get around and play more like a traditional platformer as opposed to the rest of the games puzzle-like levels. While it was a nice addition which helped to lengthen my play time and tried to add a bit of variance to gameplay, I feel like it could have done more. The levels from this bonus content, for instance, are generally longer than their bio-cube counterparts, but still only have one hidden objective. They could have easily added a few extra things to do in each level to make them more engaging.
Most of this is a great example of the how the games simplicity works in its favor for gameplay, but a major downside of this simplicity can be found in the camera controls. Depending on how precise you need the camera movement to be, it can be either very intuitive or so frustrating that you want to stab the touchpad to death with your stylus. Moving it around the cube world as a whole is quite fast and makes it easy to move around corners. The motion tracking when you move the gamepad around is also surprisingly smooth and can help for the smaller areas that the broader camera controls aren’t suited for. The two of them combined, however, makes controlling the camera a nightmare and the option to turn it off, or toggle it in-game, simply isn’t there. Eh? Eh?
Seriously, though, it’s really bads.
There’s a lot of charm to found in Captain Toad and the titular characters themselves are well characterised, even if the persona presented is just a polished version of what we already know of Toad. The humor is as tame as Grandma’s Sunday night reading, but still endears in the way that Nintendo games often do and even extracted the occasional chuckle from my rigid, bitter throat. The games appearance, as well, maintains the current standard Nintendo has for the presentation of their games though it doesn’t stand out as being particularly special. Likewise, the music is well composed and is certainly enjoyable to listen to, but it’s nothing memorable.
If there’s a fault with the overall visual design, it’s that the world and level designs are disjointed at best or incoherent at worst. The levels provide a wide array of environments that are often quite different from one another. It’s great for gameplay and they’re interesting to look at, but it makes absolutely no narrative sense. There’s a lot of familiar Mario monsters that show up, mixed in with some new ones, though there’s no real connecting theme between them all. The result is a series of pretty set pieces that don’t have any real impact on narrative and they don’t engage the player on a level beyond the base gameplay.
Captain Toad Treasure Tracker isn’t going to, or at least shouldn’t, win any awards for what it is, but I do feel like it’s a great indication of things to come. It’s a game which places gameplay above all else and doesn’t try to bog things down with gimmicky controls or mechanics – a philosophy that I hope Nintendo carries forward into the rest of the year with their larger IP. I likely won’t go back and replay Captain Toad any time soon since the replayability just isn’t there. However, I did enjoy my time with the game as it’s still a lot of fun for all it is and didn’t make me stop playing out of frustration. If you want a cheap(ish), short platforming game to kill time, then this will probably scratch that itch.
Disclaimer: this game was purchased at retail by the writer, and reviewed on Wii U across 10+ hours of gameplay.