Nintendo will occasionally buck from its trend of releasing new games in a host of franchise staples to introduce a new (usually weird) idea—one that either takes off or quickly falls into cult classic status.
Rarely do those strange concepts originate in Nintendo’s biggest franchise, but such is the case with Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker, one of the year’s most delightful, if all too brief, experiences.
Nestled in 2013’s Super Mario 3D World were a series of levels in which players would take control of Toad while trying to collect green stars in small, focused levels. These areas resembled puzzle boxes more than they did traditional Mario levels, and players could see the entire environment at once. The way to solve each level’s general puzzle was to figure out how to maneuver Toad through the space.
Treasure Tracker takes that original conceit and runs wild with it, throwing Toad and his “adventure pal”—Nintendo’s actual description of their platonic relationship—Toadette through a strange and adorable journey.
The two are on the hunt for three crystals in each level as well as a classic yellow Super Mario star. Every outing also includes a hidden objective—collect a certain amount of coins, clear out all the enemies—that vary from surprisingly easy to easily missed, which act as a nice incentive to revisit areas you’ve already mined for all those crystals.
Nintendo has made some smart limitations to ensure the rules of Treasure Tracker‘s world aren’t broken, but rather that the player can suss out the tricks to succeed in each location. Toad can’t jump—must be that backpack full of crystals weighing him down—and he can’t directly attack enemies, the creepy, soulless Shy Guys being the most frequent baddies to pop up. Levels become about manipulating the environment to find the perfect path to the star, while scooping up as many crytsals and coins along the way as possible.
Sometimes that manipulation is as simple as Toad flipping a switch, and at other times it’s as cheesy as having to blow into the Wii U’s microphone to move platforms on screen. It almost feels like an idea just as well suited to Nintendo’s handheld systems—a more bite-sized experience with novel ideas that can be played for five minutes or an hour. Treasure Tracker smartly adapts the model that has allowed games like Angry Birds and Cut the Rope to dominate the mobile space. Though to be fair, Super Mario games really started the model that those games would later capitalize on.
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This smaller scope may be Treasure Tracker‘s biggest drawback, as well as its greatest strengths. The gameplay limitations ensure the game is fun and well made, but it also leads to a package that is relatively small. It’s easy to blow through all of the stages in a couple of hours, and the lack of any real challenge doesn’t give the playing process much of an ebb and flow.
I found myself occasionally thinking I had played for hours when the experience didn’t last more than 20 or 30 minutes. And those sessions were a blur of location swaps and gameplay tools that are well executed in one level, but then immediately replaced by a new idea in the next.
But that engaging quality speaks to how fun Treasure Tracker is. It would be great to see Nintendo revisit the concept and take the time to further explore some of the many concepts introduced in this game. It lacks the surprising depth that recent Super Mario titles have showcased, but Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker still delivers the ingenuity and charm of Nintendo’s most intriguing experiments.