Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker review: adventure time

Game Info
Box Art N/A
Platform Wii U, 3DS, Nintendo Switch
Publisher Nintendo
Developer Nintendo Tokyo Software Development Group No. 2
Release Date Dec 5, 2014

Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker is best explained using the word "Nintendo" as a verb.

Rooted in a side mission found in another game, it seems at first blush like a weird, downloadable lark. To be fair, it might be just that for another developer, on another platform. Quirky experiments don't belong in retail games, and that's exactly what Captain Toad is — a series of shovel hits at a very specific quarry, in all sorts of directions.

Or rather, it's a very pure expression of what Nintendo games are: playable elaborations on a strong, central concept. Nintendo games explore their root mechanics thoroughly, finding fun through solid execution and exploration of the idea. Using that as a verb, Captain Toad Nintendos. It Nintendos hard.

It doesn't have a lot of bells and whistles. There's no quest to save a Mushroom Kingdom, or any kingdom at all. But what it has is great ideas, iterated on again and again. And the narrowness of its focus allows it to find an awful lot of fun without that other stuff getting in its way.

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If you played last year's Super Mario 3D World, you already understand Captain Toad's basic premise. Using (Captain) Toad or Toadette, you explore diorama-style stages grabbing coins, crystals and, ultimately, a gold star to complete the level. This is all very Mario, but the difference is in the details: You can't jump, and your walk is more like a waddle, even at full speed.

As a result, Captain Toad is less about action, and more about deliberation. You can't see every part of a level from one angle — how you position the camera and where you look is always important. Enemies and obstacles have to be considered, and a "simple" slightly raised platform might be the whole crux of a stage's challenge.

While Captain Toad seems subdued by the measure of modern Nintendo releases like Mario and Zelda, at its core it's pure Nintendo. The simple concept of wandering around slowly, without vertical navigation, is iterated on again and again. Themed levels with their own aesthetics are introduced over time, and each establishes its own gimmick.

The most frequently recurring gimmick is the goofy dragon "boss" stages that you'll encounter, and these work as well as anything to show the scaling challenge Captain Toad presents. At first, it's as simple as running from one head-height wall to the next to avoid timed breaths of fire that push toward you, but soon you'll be climbing ladders, or hitting switches to extend moving bridges, and then all three. Captain Toad expertly provides you with opportunities to feel like you're learning the game, and can excel with the tools it gives you.

It made me feel smart when I did things right. And over the course of more than 70 levels, Captain Toad finds a lot of ground to cover, a lot of ways to make players feel smart. I wanted to find collectibles and secrets because they were there, because I felt a sense of accomplishment in finding them, not because I had to.

Captain Toad does this again and again, playing with its limited control scheme not by introducing new actions, but new ways to juggle the worlds you're in. In fact, the only time the game's sense of invention falters is when it relies too much on control gimmicks instead of level design quirks. I'm sure I'm a unique, cranky individual, but there wasn't a single time where blowing into the Wii U GamePad's mic felt like a good idea.

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Camera issues in Captain Toad transcended my crankiness and felt like actual problems. They don't manifest often, but there are certain levels where the game's camera doesn't seem up to the task at hand, which led to a few deaths that didn't feel fair. Along with a few levels that revolve too heavily on twitch reflexes for a pair of heroes that don't drive particularly well, this is when Captain Toad is the least fun.

But I couldn't stay annoyed for long, in part because of Captain Toad and Toadette's outrageous cuteness. Despite starting with an increasingly tired and trademarked Nintendo Damsel-in-Distress Setup — which, admittedly, the game plays with a bit — Captain Toad isn't about a story, really. It's about Toad and Toadette fiending for as much treasure and gold stars as they can find, and being as likable as possible while doing it. They're infectiously excited all the time, save for when they're adorably scared. And this is when Captain Toad is the most fun — when there's as little friction as possible between you and exploring and unlocking each level's secrets.

Wrap Up:

Captain Toad succeeds on charm and smarts

For anybody else, Captain Toad's weird little experiment would be an afterthought. But Nintendo's exercise in digging has found something pretty special — an action puzzle game that succeeds on charm and smarts, rather than reflexes and spectacle.

Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker was reviewed using a pre-release "retail" download code provided by Nintendo. You can find additional information about Polygon's ethics policy here.

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8.5 Wii U