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Where Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker came from

And why Nintendo brought it back

Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker - Captain Toad waving Nintendo EAD Tokyo/Nintendo
Michael McWhertor is a journalist with more than 17 years of experience covering video games, technology, movies, TV, and entertainment.

In July, Nintendo re-released its 2014 puzzle adventure game Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker for Nintendo Switch and 3DS. Treasure Tracker originally spawned from a series of bonus levels in Super Mario 3D World, a 2013 Wii U game that featured six courses known as The Adventures of Captain Toad.

But the original idea for Captain Toad’s treasure-hunting escapades dates back further, when the title was originally pitched as a game starring Link from The Legend of Zelda. Nintendo developers explored the idea of small, diorama-style levels featuring a character that was incapable of jumping. Designers originally envisioned Link as the main character, as he’s known more for his dungeon exploring skills than his jumping abilities.

That Zelda game was scrapped, but Nintendo ultimately returned to some of its core gameplay ideas in Super Mario 3D World and Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker.

Captain Toad game director Shinya Hiratake said in an interview with Polygon that the development team wanted to explore small, self-contained levels that could be studied and puzzled out using a 3D camera.

“We always think about how we can introduce 3D games to more people,” Hiratake said through a translator. “We thought that Captain Toad in Super Mario 3D World was perfect because it brought in the element of searching to [Mario’s] world.

“We wanted to build a sandbox: a small, contained world that has a linear path, and someone that could not jump. By having a main character that couldn’t jump, we thought it would be easier for the player to explore the 3D world. Also, we would be able to contain the world and not make it too big.”

“In Super Mario 64, we were trying to find a way to have people be interested in controlling the camera when they play,” Captain Toad producer Koichi Hayashida said. “When we were doing Super Mario Galaxy, 3D Land and 3D World, we wanted to create gameplay where players didn’t have to control the camera. That was what we made our mission.”

Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker - Halloween house Nintendo EAD Tokyo/Nintendo

“But at the same time, perhaps the experience of controlling the camera would also be a fun thing to try,” Hayashida explained. “We thought about how we could have players that are beginners control the camera and control the game. We thought that putting the whole stage in one screen and changing the camera angle could be a fun [way to play]. That way it’s ... easy to approach. We wanted to explore that as a core mechanic of Captain Toad, and that’s how we ended up with those miniature worlds.”

Some elements of the original Zelda concept remain in Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker, like boss battles against the flame-spewing dragon Draggadon and giant bird Wingo. The designers envisioned Link hiding behind walls to avoid taking damage in big boss fights.

But Link was not a good fit for the game ideas the team wanted to explore, according to Hiratake.

“We thought Link would be a little too courageous and he would want to fight enemies with his weapons,” he said. “Captain Toad is still courageous, but maybe a little bit weaker, and by having a character like that we thought we could have the player focus on the geography and turning the camera, that kind of gameplay. In the end I think it worked out really well.”

The developer turned its attention to Captain Toad, who had previously appeared in Super Mario Galaxy. The character, weighed down by his immense backpack, fit the concept of an explorer who couldn’t jump. After experimenting with the idea in Super Mario 3D World, on which Hiratake served as level designer and Hayashida served as director, the team decided to expand the concept into a full game.

“From a game design perspective, in the 3D worlds that we create for Mario games, we tried to avoid things like small tunnels or pillars because it [makes things] hard to see,” Hiratake said. “But for Captain Toad, we made that be the fun element [of gameplay].

“One of the hard parts about creating these small worlds is that we have so many ideas, but [it can be hard to fit them in] because they’re so small. When we were talking about designing the game, we compared it to packing a bento box. Because you want to pack everything in but have to figure out the best way to get there.”

Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker - Captain Toad pulling a turnip out of the ground Nintendo EAD Tokyo/Nintendo

As for Captain Toad himself, the game’s creators said they wanted to imbue the character with an overwhelming lust for treasure as his defining trait.

“I really just want to make him someone that loves treasure and you can feel that from him,” Hiratake said. “I think honestly Captain Toad is someone that doesn’t really care what’s going on, but when he sees treasure he’s like, ‘I want it!’

“You know, I do question his loyalty to the Mushroom Kingdom a little bit. I think of him like a crow that loves shiny things or a moth to a flame. He just loves treasure so much that he can’t think about anything else — he’s just so happy finding treasure.”

After bringing Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker to Wii U and failing to find a wide audience — the game is not among Nintendo’s 10 top-selling titles on its previous-generation system — the team decided to port the game, first to Nintendo 3DS.

“When we were creating the game on Wii U, we really thought that that [stereoscopic] 3D would help and enhance this game,” Hayashida said, “so initially our idea was to port the game to 3DS.”

The team decided to also bring the game to Switch, so that it could revisit another idea: letting two people play Captain Toad cooperatively.

“While we were porting the game to 3DS, we were also making Super Mario Odyssey,” Hayashida said. “When Super Mario Odyssey was being developed, we started to realize that [players really liked] sharing the controls and playing with other people. When we were making the Wii U version, we considered putting in a two-player mode — we thought it would be fun, but unfortunately that didn’t make it in.

“When the Switch launched we thought perhaps there’s a way to share a controller and play with two people, and that’s how things started. When two people can play and it’s still fun, that’s when we decided to do both versions. It was a little tough, but it worked out. We definitely considered the fact that we do want more people to play and enjoy this game, but also I think the development team wanted to try new things with this version as well.”

As for the future of Captain Toad, Hayashida was noncommittal when asked if we’d see more games or add-on levels for Treasure Tracker. “Is that something you’d want?” he asked. “It really kind of depends on how people respond.”

Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker is now available for Nintendo 3DS and Switch. Read Polygon’s review of the Switch version for more.

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