Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker is just as adorable, enthusiastic and bumbling as its protagonist. Perhaps its publisher too. At the very end of a year that delivered Mario Kart, Bayonetta and Smash Bros, we find ourselves playing a charming low-key puzzle game that was so low-key it wasn't even supposed to release this year in Europe. Except a few stores just decided to sell it anyway and Ninty went with the flow. Classic Nintendo.
No, really: it's classic Nintendo. Despite the hilarious launch and heavyweight competition, Captain Toad manages to showcase Nintendo at their finest: turning a simple concept into a truly delightful game with great visuals, engaging gameplay and real personality. What started life as Super Mario 3D World bonus levels is now one of the left-field success stories of this Christmas.
In fact, the rest of the games industry could learn a thing or two from this humble hero.
Captain Toad revolves around a disarmingly simple premise, and I do mean literally "revolves." Our hapless yet heroic captain scampers around some single-screen 3D levels in search of gems and coinage, unable to jump, stomp or pose any threat beyond sprinting and throwing the occasional turnip. In fact, your main ability is... wait for it... rotating the camera. Classic Mario trappings abound, from coins to double cherries and Shy Guys, but otherwise we're talking about very simple stuff here.
So simple, in fact, that the entire premise is delivered by dumping you straight into a playable wordless tutorial stage before even seeing the title screen. We adore this approach, by the way.
As anyone who played Super Mario 3D World knows, however, Nintendo are the masters of making something simple brilliant. Partly this is down to the exceptional visuals, which are chunky, astonishingly detailed and impeccably smooth (it's probably the best-looking game of the year, aesthetically speaking) and sense of real personality (Toad is thrilled to finally have his own game and his excitement is infectious), but it mainly boils down to level design.
Captain Toad is all level design.
Each small stage harbours one golden star and three optional diamonds to collect, but the obstacles and challenges constantly evolve and exciting new ways. You'll have to carefully rotate the camera to reveal new passageways and hidden secrets, using both brainpower and observational skills in equal measure. Moving platforms, beasties and pickups require different solutions to best, rewarding fast fingers and on-the-fly problem solving.
There's a great mix of execution challenges, observation, logic and memory on offer, as a well-thrown turnip or well-spotted destroyable wall can glean bonus rewards, while you'll gradually cultivate a preternatural sense of 3D spatial awareness that makes Captain Toad feel halfway between Fez and the physical satisfaction of Screwball Scramble. Or in other words, brilliant.
It's also worth noting that Captain Toad makes an effort to use the Wii U GamePad, from the touchscreen to the microphone, in genuinely enriching ways. I won't explain any further to avoid giving away puzzle spoilers, but would suggest that more would have been welcome and the menus ought to have been better laid out with an eye for touchscreen navigation. Still, hey, it's great to see a first-party title trying to use the much-maligned peripheral.
My nitpicks are exactly that; small yet aggravating. The all-important camera can occasionally obscure too much or make reflex sections a bit too taxing, while the limited lives system feels like an archaic throwback rather than a relevant mechanic.
Unlike many puzzle games I could mention, Captain Toad manages to hit a sweet spot when it comes to difficulty. Never fiendish, never simperingly easy, levels are always delightfully challenging without ever feeling punishing. That said, it does lack the unique satisfaction that comes from suddenly realising a solution two day afterwards while doing a completely unrelated task -- likely resulting in your dinner, tools or tax return or being scattered across the room with an almighty scream of 'Eureka!' Don't expect that here as the challenge curve is fairly smooth and frictionless throughout.
To be honest, I wouldn't have minded a little more challenge, and this is where Captain Toad's biggest weakness comes to the fore. Length. Though the campaign is longer than you think (I won't explain exactly why) and optional sub-objectives add welcome replay value, it still ends just as you're really hitting a groove and enjoying the laid-back puzzling.
Like Lara Croft And The Temple Of Osiris, I would have loved a couple more levels at the very least, except that Captain Toad released as a full priced retail title rather than a cut-price download. Perhaps Nintendo could have learned more from the rest of the industry when it came to release and pricing.
But screw that, because the rest of the industry could learn a lot from Captain Toad. It works perfectly and runs smoothly without a single patch. It's meticulously designed to be fun, rewarding and enjoyable for us gamers, not an IAP delivery vector or soulless product. Quality and substance was delivered without hype or flam. And instead of annualising Mario with diminishing returns, Nintendo filled an off-year with a refreshingly different yet wonderfully familiar spin-off.
Bravo. I'm half-tempted to send my loan review copy to Ubisoft HQ rather than back to Nintendo PR.
- Brilliantly simple yet deep puzzle gameplay, magnificent level design
- Gorgeous visuals, attention to detail and infectious personality
- Extra gems and optional objectives add replay value...
- ...but it's still a bit short for a full retail title
- Will lack challenge for genre veterans
- Could make even more of the GamePad and online functionality
The Short Version: Halfway between Fez and the best Screwball Scramble set ever created, Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker is a quietly brilliant puzzler. It could stand to be longer and slightly more challenging, but Nintendo have turned a simple premise into something truly lovely.
In an age when so many games are releasing incomplete or unacceptably compromised, it's a delight to play something perfectly formed and designed to be enjoyed, not consumed. I'd just like more of it.
8 – GREAT: Great games typically provide competent production values with a degree of innovation, personality and soul that's sometimes absent in titles that score lower. Or even just exceptional raw value on top of competent execution. There'll usually be a little something to stop games like these from reaching the very top - innovative but slightly flawed, fun but not groundbreaking - however you can buy games that score 8/10 with confidence.
Platform: Wii U (reviewed)