Captain Toad and his men (or rather, toads) have popped up as side characters throughout Nintendo EAD Tokyo's Mario games, from Super Mario Galaxy to Super Mario 3D World, a team of determined if not exactly fearless explorers whose quest for riches parallels Mario's more selfless journey to save the kingdom du jour.
Not that Mario games are allowed to tell much in the way of a story, but Captain Toad's explorer squad serves a sort of minor narrative role, making Mario's universe seem a little larger by demonstrating that he's not the only one out there having wild adventures. Captain Toad may not have Mario's athleticism, but he and his crew seem to hold their own regardless. His presence makes you wonder what kind of mishaps others in the Mario world are up to, a mystery Super Mario 3D World neatly answered with the captain's dedicated mini-puzzle bonus stages.
It's somehow fitting, then, that Treasure Tracker, the captain's first solo outing (more or less — he actually shares the spotlight equally with Toadette), serves a similar function in the real world. Here's this little puzzle action game, one that any other publisher would have slapped together and tossed onto Steam or the eShop for $4.99 as a forgettable, throwaway quickie. And yet, somehow, Nintendo has made it into a proper retail release... and not only that, it's packed with content and looks the part of a big-budget HD game.
Sure, aside from some bonus stages that reuse existing Mario assets, Treasure Tracker consists of little more than small puzzle cubes. But that presentation conceit is part of the appeal: Each level is a unique, self-contained diorama, generally fairly small. But every one of them offers an absolute embarrassment of detail. Zoom in and you'll notice details that the game could easily have skipped, from shiny brass fixtures and velvet ropes to the rugged fabric of the captain's seemingly featureless uniform. Much like last year's 3D World, the simple design aesthetic of the Mario franchise doesn't look cheap in high-definition; instead, it offers a canvas on which Nintendo's designers can apply subtle details and effects to create a rich, solid, consistent world (and one with a solid frame rate, for those who care about such things).
The dioramas themselves present some surprisingly intricate environmental puzzles. Early stages, as you'd expect, play in a straightforward fashion, and the difficulty ramps from there. But what never changes are the objectives: Each level contains a star and three jewels to collect, as well as a hidden task that only appears once you've completed the level. And this is the entirety of the game. Yet it's all presented with obvious affection for both the game world and the player alike, simple but never simplistic; approachable but never dumbed-down or trivialized.
On the contrary, Treasure Tracker practically sags under the weight of the variety EAD Tokyo has invested in it. While certain themes and visual styles recur throughout its 70-ish core puzzles, and some of the later stages revisit earlier concepts with a vastly higher difficulty level, you still net dozens of unique ideas to explore. As you'd expect, most of Captain Toad's world carries over concepts and visual themes from the core Mario games, though they're all expressed in different ways here. Haunted house environments rarely come together quite right for Mario, but they're perfect here; the captain's headlamp and the zoomed-out point-of-view allow the designers to enshroud these ghost mansions with deep shadows and mysteries in a way that the more action-oriented Mario titles can't.
And so it is throughout the game, as Toad and Toadette's specific skill set — waddling, climbing, shining lights on ghosts, and plucking radishes at tremendous speeds to use as projectiles — put a different twist than usual on the familiar Mario universe. Some puzzles demand careful study of the environment, uncovering passages obscured by the structures and camera angles, but always hinted at by the layout of the stage or revealed by turning the environment to view from another angle. Some stages involve more of an adrenaline-style challenge as you rush (as much as stubby little Toad is able to rush) to collect treasures while avoiding enemies or outpacing an inexorable threat such as rising lava. By the end of the game, you're dealing with multiple challenges all at once.
It's never exactly hard, especially for seasoned Mario players, but it definitely offers a challenge. Sure, you can work through to the game's ending easily enough, but the bonus stages — which are sometimes familiar, sometimes surprising, and always incredibly fun — demand higher-level play to unlock. And all those bonus stage objectives (whether finding a hidden secret or completing the puzzle in an unintuitive or extra-difficult way) will absolutely nag at you as you wonder, "How could I have missed this? What have I overlooked?"
Treasure Tracker doesn't come without a few caveats. In some of the more intricate or faster-paced levels, the play mechanics and interface aren't quite up to snuff. It reminds me a bit of Metroid Prime — brilliant at a leisurely, puzzle-focused pace, but clumsy as an action game. This is especially true of stages that involve heavy use of touchscreen mechanics, such us spinning valves or tapping to shift blocks; a full decade after the DS introduced us to the folly of such things, game designers are still expecting players to switch control modality between buttons and touchscreens in an instant. And it still sucks.
And yet, these seem minor complaints at best. Treasure Tracker offers an immaculately crafted puzzle game experience, one bursting with good-natured cheer and lovely cartoon visuals. In that regard, it's truly unique in this day and age. When was the last time a game like this enjoyed the backing of a major developer and the budget that comes along with it? Puzzlers have been relegated to the digital Siberia of cheaply made downloadable releases. And yet, here's Treasure Tracker.
Just as Captain Toad's constant cameos throughout Mario's games left me wondering what kind of other adventures were taking place behind the scenes, Treasure Tracker leaves me contemplating a world where big game budgets aren't the exclusive province of violent, hyper-masculine action games that fall under either the "cinematic" or "open-world" headers. Not that there's anything wrong with such games — I've played and enjoyed several this year! — but they've squeezed all-ages games-for-games-sake creations like Captain Toad out of the market. And that's a shame.
Treasure Tracker combines a family/indie game spirit with the polish you'd expect from the world's most meticulous developers. The result is the kind of game that existed by the dozen in the PlayStation era but has been chased away to the medium's periphery in recent years. Here's hoping Captain Toad is the harbinger of a glorious comeback.
Simple but lavish. The diorama visual style allows for dense stages full of tiny details, all unified by lots of beautiful lighting effects.
Beloved familiar sounds like coins and 1UP chimes play in concert with perhaps less-beloved sounds, like Toad's wordless, constipated vocal utterances.
Without the ability to jump or fly or swim, Captain Toad's adventures are much simpler to control than Mario's. Switching rapidly between button and touch interfaces remains as irritating as ever, though.
While you can probably skip ahead to the ending in five or six hours, you'll almost certainly want to go back and play the stages you passed over, find all the secrets, and unlock the great bonus content.
Treasure Tracker may be relatively budget-priced, but it doesn't feel like a cheap, throwaway creation. Every inch of its nearly 100 stages and bonus levels has been buffed to a spit-shine finish, and the Nintendo content factory has produced dozens of one-of-a-kind stage concepts to explore here. Alternately a test of observation, reflex, planning, and deduction, Captain Toad's first standalone title (of assuredly many) demonstrates that spinoffs don't have to feel phoned in... and that there's room in gaming to give top-class love and attention to family-friendly creations, too. A perfect video game sorbet to finish up 2014.