Customarily, game design employs an additive approach, progressively inserting new mechanics into each new sequel. It’s a method that’s helped Nintendo build an empire, with each new iteration of Mario Kart, Kirby, or The Legend of Zelda adopting the basic structure of its predecessor, while just as importantly- extending a few new wrinkles. Undoubtedly, the Kyoto-based company’s Mario titles are one of the best examples of this technique. From the protagonist’s humble barrel-hopping debut in 1981’s Donkey Kong to his space sorties for Super Mario Galaxy 1 and 2, the franchise has continually augmented Mario’s maneuverability, offering new ways for to interact with the environment.
Remarkably, the recent release of Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker shuns this trend, with the title taking away a crucial capability that has dominated the movement in the Mushroom Kingdom- the ability to jump. Fortunately, the outcome is far better than say, a weapon-less Master Chief or Fox McCloud being grounded during Star Fox Adventures. In fact, the subtraction works to Treasure Tracker’s benefit, endowing the puzzler with a gratifying dose of distinction and direction.
Admittedly, this isn’t Toad’s first spring-less escapade. Although the character exhibited agility in games such as Super Mario Bros. 2 and Mario Sports Mix, it’s the character’s appearance from Super Mario 3D World that serves as Treasure Tracker’s impetus. Offering a refreshing reprieve from clawing up the side of walls in a catsuit, the title extended a handful of levels where Toad served as a stalwart explorer, navigating his way through diminutive environments which concealed a quintet of collectable stars. Each stage was a mix of skillful design and meticulous polish, undoubtedly setting the stage for the character’s extended expedition.
Unmistakably, Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker delivers more, easily warranting its forty dollar MSRP. Instead of six, smallish stages, the game delivers seventy sprawling levels, as well as a number of bonus areas to explore. Whereas Super Mario 3D World tasked players with gathering five stars, here there’s multiple objectives, with one main star, three optional diamonds, as well as a stage goal. While the amount of content may seem comparable, Treasure Tracker wisely separates each of these objectives, allowing for players to revisit stages and rethink their strategies. That bridge that initially crumbled in your haste to grab gold coins? Now, if you go back and avoid razing the elevated pathway you can earn a stamp of distinction.
Much of the virtue in Treasure Tracker emanates from the mechanics that allow you to interact with the game world rather than the eponymous lead character. One early level uses the GamePad’s touchscreen to allow you to shift around entire pieces of the world, making the environment feel like a giant puzzle that’s held together by interconnecting parts. Other stages offer novelties like fans that can only be activated by blowing into the controller’s microphone. As many of the collectables are hidden in recessed alcoves and scattered around each space, players will be constantly moving the camera to scour each stage for clues and locate passageways. Most interesting are the mechanical elements of levels, which require Toad to navigate through giant gears and activate switches that stimulate changes to the landscape. Pleasantly, Captain Toad’s abridged moveset limits the number of solutions for each stage, eschewing the type of frustration that stems from an unsolved conundrum.
Although Treasure Tracker focuses on exploration and puzzle solving, that doesn’t mean the game becomes monotonous. Periodically, stages pit player against the occasional goomba or thwomp. While many can be circumvented by observing movement patterns, some can be taken of directly but picking up and tossing a vegetable (Toad’s specialty in SMB 2) or a super pick-axe power up that functions like the hammer in the original Donkey Kong. Nicely, puzzle solving and enemy management isn’t timed, giving players unlimited time to reconnoiter each level. As such, the stress of New Super Luigi U is absent, replaced with an enthusing sense of exploration.
But just because Toad (and Toadette) can’t jump doesn’t mean that Treasure Tracker don’t occasional stumble. Woefully, the game lacks an options menu, imposing a number of inconvenient selections on players. If you’re hoping not to disturb roommates, forgot about playing Captain Toad with a headset that’s connected to your television’s optical output jack. Unfortunately, the game’s volume is locked to the level of the GamePad, and can’t be turned off on that device. Even more is the forced functionality of the controller’s gyroscopic functions, which often inadvertently shifts perfective when players are asked to blow into the microphone. While the game’s storybook-like interface is visually pleasing, there’s no overarching tally of diamonds on the side of the screen, potentially pushing completionists to flip through dozens of pages.
While Treasure Tracker might recycle content from Super Mario 3D World, it’s difficult to be too disappointed since the game is an aesthetic pleaser. Each stage is drowning in detail, exhibiting elements like swaths of keenly cut grass that suggest a footpath to explore, or rock and stone textures that echo the pixel-perfect precision of a Pixar film. In each background, voluminous clouds linger, will movement of enemies kicks up fleeting billows of dust. Small character animations, like how the Toads quiver in fear when an ethereal enemy draw near helps to bring the protagonists to life, while a sinuous sixty frames-per-second frame expresses CG-like fluidity. Sonically, Captain Toad’s musical accompaniment don’t veer far from cheerful Mario Bros. whimsy, but the adept arrangements have a tendency to stick in your head.
Game spin-offs can often be a dicey proposition, with off-shoots into new genres providing little of the polish exhibited by the main franchise. But save for Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker’s lack of options, the game is an essential purchase for Wii U owners. For a reduced forty-dollar price tag, players receive at least seven hours of engaging, visually luxuriant playtime, with completionists adding at least another five hours to that duration. Nintendo should be commended for giving the perpetually deferential Captain Toad a role he can shine in.
Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker was played on the Wii U with review code provided by the publisher.
Platform: Wii U
Developer: Nintendo EAD Tokyo Group No. 2
Release date: December 5th, 2014