Super Mario 3D World's "Captain Toad" stages were absolutely brilliant. They were wonderful puzzle-platforming vignettes that varied the pace a little and gave players something fresh and new to do. Now everyone's favourite, useless little mushroom fellow has his own marquee game, and it's shaping up to be something truly delightful.
Much of the appeal comes from the fact that Toad is fundamentally useless. His only real ability is to plant a smile on your face -- he can't jump or attack or do much for that matter -- and that makes for a game that looks like it might be Super Mario 3D World replica with a new avatar, much like Nintendo did with New Super Mario Bros U and Luigi, but that couldn't be further from the truth. Captain Toad is no Goomba-stomping moustachioed maverick. He's a toddling mushroom with a benevolent god rocking a GamePad and a camera.
That's us. The players.
Our job is to steer Toad through a number of increasingly complex levels that can be spun around, their perspectives played with, to ferret out secret gems and hidden coins, and eventually guide Toad to the star at the end of each stage. It's a mechanism that evokes memories of games such as Echochrome (though Nintendo eschew Escherian temptations) and Fez, where the systems of stages are fixed, and the player progresses through manipulation of the camera angle and the stage itself as a whole.
It works wonderfully, with the GamePad providing alternative perspectives, depending on the level, and occasionally offering ways of interacting with the levels directly. On the first stage we tested out, which could have been plucked straight out of Super Mario 3D World, Captain Toad found himself exploring a little cuboid maze, complete with treacherous terrain, pesky patrolling spiked blocks, hidden pathways, spinning platforms and so on. Toad's a fragile fellow and he's not one for confrontations, but thankfully we were able to use the GamePad to hold enemies in place, so that we could sneak Toad through certain areas. Controlling the little blighter can be a little imprecise, so it's crucially important to give yourself the best camera angle possible, as we found ourselves falling off of spinning bridges a fair bit to begin with. But there's a button to root the camera behind the "Wahooo-ing" adventurer, which is pretty handy.
The second level shook things ups nicely. We had Toad jump into a mine cart and off he went, chucking turnips at enemies, floating coins, and those crucial collectible gems. However, with the GamePad used to present a first-person view and aim Toad's throwing arm, we still had to keep looking at the wider picture on the TV screen for fear of missing hidden items, and sneaky coins tucked away out of sight. We found nourselves constantly flicking our eyes from small screen to big and back again to ensure we'd snuffled out everything that we could from the level.
Finally, we encountered one of the boss creatures that'll pop up in certain levels. Here, we faced off against a fire-breathing dragon in a cave that spiralled upwards around a central lava chamber. The lava steadily rose throughout the duration of this stage, with the dragon periodically firing globs of fiery sputum about the place, meaning we had to ensure Toad was behind cover when that happened. It's more of a stop-start level, moving in between fiery showers, and occasionally having to look out from lava raining from above. On top of that, though, you're still looking for those gems and coins, and we missed a fair few on our first runthrough, including one right at the start. Treasure Tracker is one of those games where it pays to check your immediate surroundings as soon as you get into each stage.
It's also something that we've seen requested time and time again across Miiverse. People have asked for this game on Nintendo's forums and Nintendo have responded in kind with a game that works the brain even as it charms the soul. The question, however, is how well the concept will extend long-term. Nintendo EAD have proven themselves masters of design in the past, and Treasure Tracker encourages the exact relationship between designer and player that Nintendo have long been famed for in their singleplayer games, but in order to ensure there's a satisfying package here that's worth a full retail price, there'll need to be a reason to come back as well as a goodly number of levels themselves.
It seems like a game ripe for an editor in many ways -- a puzzler that relies on a premise that's simple to understand but vast in potential. If Nintendo dare to go that extra step, it could well turn Treasure Tracker from a quality Christmas curio into something with some real longevity. More so than any other console, the Wii U seems a perfect fit for user-generated content thanks to the community on Miiverse and the capabilities of the GamePad. Even more so than a keyboard and mouse, perhaps, the GamePad's tablet is an untapped editing tool that Nintendo need to leverage to make work for them. Mario maker is a start, but if they can deliver tools for Treasure Tracker, that'd be something truly special.
It's an incredibly "Nintendo" game in so many ways -- thoughtful and cerebral in design, stuffed with charm and whimsy in terms of presentation, and exploratory in terms of interacting with a world. Treasure Tracker works because of Toad's limitations and is all the better for it -- a familiar-but-fresh puzzler that'll make a fine addition to the Wii U's lineup later this year.