While Nintendo as a company is often accused of playing things rather safe by relying heavily on its established franchises and game styles, titles like Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker remind us that we’re dealing with a company that is still willing to innovate and experiment with its most beloved properties.
Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker (Captain Toad hereafter) is a spinoff of the excellent Super Mario 3D World for Wii U. The titular Captain, who was first introduced as a character in the Wii’s Super Mario Galaxy, put in occasional guest appearances for single-player puzzle levels throughout Super Mario 3D World, and so well-received were these levels that they were subsequently spun off into a game of their own.
Captain Toad is far from a simple Super Mario 3D World reskin, however — and it most certainly develops the base idea considerably beyond the bonus levels found in its source material. The result is one of the Wii U’s most unusual but utterly joyful games, and an essential addition to any collection.
The basic concept behind Captain Toad is fairly straightforward. Captain Toad starts at one point on a level, and somewhere else in the level is a star. Collecting the star completes the level. The twist is that unlike in traditional Mario games, Captain Toad is unable to jump, so navigating your way to your goal involves finding various routes and mechanisms to get to higher ground or initially inaccessible parts of the level.
To further complicate matters, each level also has three diamonds in various inconvenient locations, usually (though not always) somewhat off the main path to the star. A secondary objective to each level is to collect all three of these diamonds, though this need not be done in a single attempt. Collecting the diamonds is mostly optional for those who simply want to solve the “main” puzzle of each level, though at various points throughout the game structure progress is gated by a requisite number of diamonds to continue further.
As if that weren’t enough, each level also has a tertiary objective that only reveals itself once the star has been collected once, though it can be “accidentally” completed without prior knowledge. These objectives vary from traversing a dangerous level without taking any damage to collecting a particular number of coins or locating a hidden item. They generally complement the main gimmick of the level in some way — levels that incorporate touchscreen-controlled movable platforms will often have a “clear the course in [x] number of taps” objective, for example — and are, like the diamonds, technically optional, though in order to get a “crown” mark on the level, denoting it is 100% completed, dedicated players will want to pursue these tasks.
On top of all that, when an entire episode of levels has been cleared, target times unlock for those who wish to demonstrate their speedrunning prowess. Successfully completing these time challenges doesn’t reward the player with anything more than a star mark on the level, but those who want to wring the maximum challenge and enjoyment from Captain Toad will doubtless want to give this a shot.
This basic structure is maintained for the entire game and never deviated from. The genius of the game is that the levels themselves are so varied and interesting that even though they all task you with the same basic goal, none of the 70+ challenges on offer feel like padding.
The majority of Captain Toad’s levels take place on a cube-shaped diorama somewhat like a miniature Mario level, albeit with a greater emphasis on using the full three dimensions than in the portly plumber’s adventures. In order to successfully traverse these levels and solve their various puzzles you’ll need to rotate the camera and look at the level from all angles; more often than not there will be plenty happening on what you’d initially regard as the “back” of the level — a place you typically don’t look at in this type of game. Indeed, several of the later levels in the game — one that takes place in a giant pachinko machine, another which unfolds in a delightfully pixellated homage to Donkey Kong’s early stages — draw particular attention to this fact by allowing you to drop “inside” the machine or break through the back wall to go “behind” the pixels respectively.
This type of level has plenty of possible variety in it, but it’s not all Captain Toad offers. Punctuating the diorama-style levels are stages that look a bit more like a traditional Mario level, albeit without the ability to jump. These typically require Captain Toad to run through them as quickly as possible with either platforms collapsing behind him or boost pads preventing him from stopping running once he starts. Other stages still might unfold on a train or in a ghost house, with the latter offering all the tricks, traps and illusions you’d expect from their previous incarnations in the Mario series.
There are even a number of boss fights throughout the game, though again, in keeping with the rather more cerebral nature of the game’s challenges these tend to require more in the way of lateral thinking than outright dexterity or aggression — though there is usually a certain element of dodging the boss’ attacks as you traverse their lair. Particular highlights include the confrontations against the game’s main antagonist Wingo, who harasses you with blasts of wind from his wings as you attempt to climb a large tower up to his nest, and must then be dispatched by hurling giant Super Mario Bros. 2-style turnips at him. The “fight”, such as it is, isn’t difficult, but it is well-paced and satisfying to complete, especially after successfully traversing the prior puzzle-centric challenges.
Captain Toad isn’t a long game — 70+ levels might sound like a lot, but most of them only take a couple of minutes, maximum, unless you really get stuck. Indeed, one later level can be beaten in less than 5 seconds once you figure out an important gimmick — though prior to this realisation you’ll be scratching your head as to how such a thing is possible. This isn’t a game you play for endless fun, however; there’s replay value from the diamonds, tertiary objectives and target times, for sure, but it will eventually end.
And when it does, despite its fairly short run time on paper, you won’t feel short-changed — the game as a whole is exactly as long as it needs to be to provide a satisfying experience. It doesn’t pad things out, it doesn’t repeat itself — with the exception of the boss levels, which comprise a total of five showdowns against just two different “enemies”, albeit with different core mechanics and level design each time — and it certainly doesn’t outstay its welcome. It’s one of Nintendo’s most tightly designed games, a wonderful complement to the joyful energy of Super Mario 3D World, and one of the Wii U’s most memorable, unusual titles.
Wii U Essentials is a series of articles that each focus on a single retail game from the Wii U’s library. These articles aim to build a comprehensive record of this turbulent period in Nintendo’s history: a time when the company released some of its very finest games, yet it struggled to recapture popular attention and commercial success in the same way as the original Wii did.
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