2014 Recap: Captain Toad and the Triumph of the Finite

2014 Recap: Captain Toad and the Triumph of the Finite

Toad may be a tiny hero in a tiny game, but that's what makes Treasure Tracker great.

Quick, what do Watch_Dogs, Destiny, Assassin's Creed: Unity, DriveClub, LittleBigPlanet 3, The Crew, Halo: Master Chief Collection, Warlords of Draenor, and Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare have in common?

Yes, they were all tentpole releases for major publishers this year. But there's something more tragic that unifies these games, a common bond they share, conjoined by tears and disappointment. All nine of these titles arrived at launch deeply broken, with major features compromised; in an extreme case or two, they simply weren't playable. Fans are still waiting for Halo matchmaking to work correctly, nearly a month later.

These are not bad games, any of them. In fact, we gave several of them top marks, or close to it. They're fundamentally entertaining. Essentially solid. But nevertheless, they arrived in our hands marred by crippling flaws. Unsurprisingly, the blowback to this state affairs has been considerable; with each new malfunctioning release, the tenor of conversations about these games has grown increasingly embittered on forums and social media. Open distrust and even blunt hatred increasingly seems to be the order of the day. The perception that massive publishers have settled on the exploitation and deception of their customers has lent game-related conversations a decidedly sour tone as 2014 wheezes to a close.

That growing ugliness is in part what makes Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker, which launches in the U.S. tomorrow, such a welcome change of pace. It's such an upbeat game, optimistic in tone, dripping with color, and polished to a mirror sheen. As I said in my review, it makes for a fantastic palate-cleanser coming at the end of such a divisive and often angry year. Yet while I praised the game's unusual bite-sized design for its accessibility, the more I think about what makes Treasure Tracker so appealing, the more I feel its humble scale may well be its greatest strength.

When you stop and look at this year's most troubled launches, you'll notice a certain pattern emerge. They may be good games made by talented people, but in just about every single case they look to be the victims of their own overly ambitious designs. They push the boundaries of graphics, of scale, and most of all they blur or even destroy the line between single- and multiplayer gaming. Online elements sit at the heart of nearly all these games' problems, whether because of a bold desire to break down the boundaries between solo and communal experiences (Destiny) or because of a corporate-level desire to integrate proprietary social media and microtransaction elements (Unity) into the experience. Or even both (The Crew).

Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker suffers from none of these issues. The entire game revolves, literally, around small, self-contained puzzle worlds. It has no online component beyond the system-level hooks for Nintendo's Miiverse. It has no microtransactions, and while Nintendo has stated their intention to add some DLC and Amiibo support in the future, you'd never know it from playing the game — it stands on its own. The most complicated thing Treasure Tracker does is to unlock a few bonus levels early if you have Super Mario 3D World save files on the same system... and even then, you'll gain access to those levels eventually simply by completing the game.

All told, it's an exercise in finite design and manageable scale. Of the "what you see is what you get" approach to publishing. The only hidden content and tricky convolutions here are deliberate products of the game design, with Rubic's Cube-like structures floating in free space, tucking obscure passageways and secret rooms within the folds of a spatially impossible temple or jungle. Treasure Tracker's efforts all focus inward on the core game content and mechanics, rather than outward on services and mechanisms. The game itself resembles the intricate little cubic puzzles that comprise its stages: Simple but clever, brief but entertaining, and above all neatly self-contained.

By no means am I trying to suggest that every game developer should look to Captain Toad as an ideal. That would be missing the point entirely; and besides, games as a service represent one of the medium's most important frontiers. This year's crop of online-capable games hit shelves so deeply broken because, in most cases, they're pioneering works. As technology improves, the engines and backbones to power these experiences will mature as well; no doubt Sony and Microsoft will help lead the charge (and quickly) to ensure games on their platforms work more smoothly on day one, and publishers will better come to terms with the current consoles. The tech problems that plague Unity likely won't appear in next year's Assassin's Creed, for instance.

No, Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker isn't the ultimate ideal for video games. However, it is an ideal. An alternative. A different way of doing things. Like every high-stakes, high-cost, corporate-driven entertainment industry, games tend to work on the lemming principle in which even a hint of success drives everyone else to follow the leader, even if that takes them over a cliff. Just look at how many major titles teased a few months back at E3 featured either an open world, online coop, Monster Hunter-esque combat with massive creatures, or a combination thereof. Games are deeply trend-driven. Part of what makes Treasure Tracker so unique is that it completely ignored every hot industry trend of the moment (except that oh-so-precious 1080p/60fps) despite boasting the production quality of a triple-A title. But if every game were to be like Treasure Tracker, Treasure Tracker would hardly be unique anymore, right?

I would never want every game to play like Treasure Tracker, just like I don't want every game to be a grand open-world adventure with eight-player coop. Variety is the spice of life and gaming alike, and all that noise. But as I mentioned in our Treasure Tracker review, the industry has a tendency to develop tunnel vision and focus in on an extremely limited palette of game concepts; Treasure Tracker offers a welcome reminder that, yes, it's OK to diversify. It's a top-notch game, and it's all the more entertaining for how rare this kind of work has become.

Of course, it's not hard to understand why you rarely see games like Treasure Tracker. Despite the game being sold for considerably less than standard triple-A games, most conversations to pop up in the wake of its reviews earlier this week hinged not on the design or creativity of the work itself but rather of its price versus the amount of content it offers. Games like Treasure Tracker all but vanished from retail some time ago in large part because of the perception that took hold a few generations ago — probably during the PlayStation era, since it's pretty well established that Squaresoft copy-and-pasted entire chunks of Vagrant Story to justify selling it for full price — that volume determines value. A small, compact game with nice graphics, clever puzzle design, and no extensive online mode doesn't have nearly enough meaty bullet points to satisfy many budget-conscious gamers. So we get ever-expanding games, vast, glitchy buffets of content.

There's nothing inherently wrong with gorging at an endless buffet. But sometimes it's nice to have the option to eat at a nicer restaurant, too — somewhere you pay a little more money for a little less food, when the meal is all so exquisitely prepared and presented.

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