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Super Mario, minus the jump: the making of Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker

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Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker is an experiment for Nintendo. It's an upcoming 3D puzzle game for Wii U, spun off of the "Captain Toad" levels from last year's acclaimed Super Mario 3D World. It's essentially a puzzle-platformer in the Mario vein, with one radical change: There's no jumping in the game.

It's a new approach for Nintendo EAD, the developer of acclaimed main-series Mario titles Super Mario Galaxy 2, Super Mario 3D Land and Super Mario 3D World. When you think about how central Mario's jump is to this kind of game, and to a Mario universe title specifically, you begin to get an idea of just how different this is.

From Super Mario 64 to Captain Toad

Recently, Polygon had the opportunity to speak with the game's producer, Koichi Hayashida, and director, Shinya Hiratake, about how Captain Toad came about.

"We began with Super Mario 64," Hayashida told Polygon via video conference. "While Super Mario 64 was quite an interesting game, we heard that roughly 20 percent of gamers found it too difficult," he said, brandishing a copy of the Nintendo 64 game. "We kept that comment that the game was too challenging and made games like Super Mario 3D Land and Super Mario 3D World with that in mind."

But, in making 3D Land and 3D World, the team felt it was getting away from a fundamental design principle that made Mario 64 so special: the idea that the levels were a sort of "diorama" or a "garden in a box," entire worlds contained in relatively compact structures. In creating the Captain Toad stages for Mario 3D World, the studio was able to go back to that idea, and keep the challenge level accessible.

That's how the team created the handful of stages starring Captain Toad for Super Mario 3D World. They represented a different style of play from the traditional 3D platforming in the rest of the game — slower paced and more cerebral, they offered players something of a refresher between obstacle courses and cat-powered wackiness.

Miyamoto's influence

The Toad stages in 3D World proved to be so memorable that famed Nintendo designer Shigeru Miyamoto came up with the idea to spin off Captain Toad into his own adventure.

"At the completion of 3D World, Mr. Miyamoto said, 'That worked well, I think we should create a single spin-off title just featuring Captain Toad.'"

"At the completion of 3D World, Mr. Miyamoto said, 'That worked well; I think we should create a single spin-off title just featuring Captain Toad,'" said Hayashida. "The start of the conversation was, 'Let's take a lot of the elements that we have in 3D World and incorporate them' into what eventually became Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker."

There were certainly challenges along the way, mainly with the paradigm shift from jumping as a primary mechanic to Captain Toad's own unique approach to traversal.

"At the beginning we created over 100 stages, and the staff played around with them," said Hiratake. But the team quickly became aware of two major problems with the game, both stemming from the fact that Toad couldn't jump, and that the team was still essentially creating Mario stages.

The first, Hiratake explained, was that without jumping, the action felt limited. The second problem was a direct result of the design of standard Mario universe enemies. Without the ability to jump over them or jump on their heads, the average bad guy was overpowered — and had a tendency to mow down the helpless Captain.

"In order to fix the first problem, we came up with new things to do that suited his personality," said Hiratake. The team came up with the plucking action, where Captain Toad grabs goodies from the ground. By having him pluck, he was able to find coins and treasure, as well as turnips to attack with," said Hiratake.

"We call these pluck patches," he continued. "Basically these pluck patches serve the same function as blocks in a Mario game."

To solve the second problem, the team decided to throw a little touch of stealth into the gameplay. When the developers saw Captain Toad constantly getting run down by baddies, they started asking questions.

"Why don't we have him try to get around undetected?" Hiratake said.

Captain Toad stealth

"Why not have enemies that can only see in one direction? Why not Shy Guys? Their masks limit vision," said Hiratake. The team felt the Super Mario Bros. 2 enemy fit the role perfectly.

Design time

I asked the developers to walk me through the process of designing a unique stage: whether they start with an idea — say, a level based in Boo's haunted house — or whether they work out the mechanics first and apply an aesthetic later.

Both designers lit up when explaining the process.

"We take whatever mechanic [and figure out] what art style or setting would match."

"We start with what mechanics we want, what gimmick we're looking at," said Hiratake. "Then we take whatever mechanic [and figure out] what aesthetic matches that, what art style or setting would match that. Then we work with the graphic designer to fit it."

Over the video conference, Hiratake started flipping through stages on the Wii U, and began playing a stage set in a haunted house with ghostly doors and floating blocks. "We have a haunted house stage where the doors move," said Hiratake.

In the level, you need to push blocks around to arrange ghostly doors. Each door is connected to another in the stage. By experimenting with various configurations and popping into each door, the player is able to make their way through.

"At the beginning this stage was a puzzle stage. Originally these were just blocks," he said, pointing to the various doors. "We asked ourselves, 'Why don't we put doors in the blocks? That might add a cool element.'

"We thought perhaps that wasn't enticing enough for folks; we wanted them to be excited about starting the level." The team hit on the idea of using Boo's goofy world for the tricky mechanic and came to the conclusion that "a haunted house would be perfect for this," said Hiratake.

Tracking Treasure

Given how much success the team had with Super Mario 3D World, and with adapting features from that game into its spin-off, I asked both designers if this could be a new approach for Nintendo. Could we see more games spun off from core properties?

Neither developer was quick to confirm or deny that approach for Nintendo's future. They spoke about Captain Toad like a happy accident, one that stemmed from an organic design process.

Captain toad golden dragon

"When we were doing 3D World and creating these diorama-style worlds... we tested them using Mario as playable character. Because Mario has ability to jump, the types of stages we came up with became impossibly large," said Hayashida. That put the kibosh on making those compact, dense little gardens in a box.

"Mario made those stages too big, which broke our whole goal, so... it worked out that we had this character there," said Hayashida, on having the diminutive Captain Toad as the headliner. With his heavy backpack and mining equipment, he looks like he couldn't jump even if he wanted to.

Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker appears to be a case study in giving talented designers interesting limitations and seeing what they come up with. Nintendo EAD has continually come up with fresh takes on Mario's core gameplay — from Galaxy 2's giant, colorful stages to 3D World's multiplayer implementation. Captain Toad may represent the cleverest twist on the Mario formula yet.

Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker arrives on Wii U on Dec. 5.

[Disclosure: Nintendo provided transportation to its Redwood City, California, office in order to facilitate this interview.]