At this point, the spinoffs of Super Mario Bros. outnumber the actual Super Mario games by something like 15 to one — everything from Yoshi's Island to WarioWare. So you might think that yet another new Mario spinoff would be about as useful as a hole in the head. But that would mean you haven't played Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker.
Captain Toad's first solo title takes the Mario franchise into not entirely unfamiliar territory; the series has dabbled in puzzle action games since the Japan-only Mario & Wario for Super NES. Donkey Kong '94 remains a standout example of the format, and that eventually mutated into Mario Vs. Donkey Kong. Treasure Tracker, on the other hand, approaches the genre from a much more conventional direction. Rather than featuring classic Mario mechanics (running, jumping, power-ups) or being one of those hands-off, Lemmings-esque puzzle simulations, Treasure Tracker gives you direct control over a protagonist who can't jump and has almost no combat skills to speak of. It belongs to the Adventures of Lolo school of puzzle design – excelling through its limitations.
Anyone who played last year's excellent Super Mario 3D World will immediately recognize Treasure Tracker as a more glorified take on the bonus levels from that game. (Anyone who didn't play Super Mario 3D World needs to get on it, stat.) It's the natural evolution of EAD Tokyo's fondness for Captain Toad, who has appeared in increasingly significant cameo roles in their Mario games since Super Mario Galaxy; really, it was only a matter of time before he would become the star of this own game. And, as you might expect of a game built around the secret best part of one of last year's best games, Treasure Tracker appears to be a real... well, it would be corny to say "gem." But you get the idea.
In keeping with the general style of the Mario 3D series, Treasure Tracker presents its stages as standalone isometric dioramas, which you can rotate freely on multiple axes to get a proper view of the action. There's a sort of dollhouse look to the game, its little miniature tableaus presenting self-contained puzzles that challenge you in a variety of different ways. In their most basic form, Treasure Tracker's puzzles echo those of the Toad stages in Super Mario 3D World — the intrepid explorer can't jump or attack enemies directly, so you're forced to work your way through the multi-leveled isometric structures while evading various hazards. Figuring out the proper path to the Star at the end of the stage while gathering the collectable treasures en route involves equal parts brainwork and footwork, as danger tends to be active and mobile — Goombas will waddle after Toad, and Boos will drift toward him (when he's not looking, anyway).
Because this is a full spin-off and not simply a handful of bonus stages, though, Treasure Tracker also includes many more varied challenges than appeared in Super Mario 3D World. One stage in the game's E3 debut demo sent Toad hurtling along a mine cart rail — no, wait, come back! This level didn't play out as one of those annoying tests of memorization and muscle memory that define mine cart stages in platformers; rather, it was more like a shooter. Toad can't jump, remember? So, rather than leaping over gaps or controlling the speed and pitch of the mine cart, players instead hold up the Wii U game pad to aim at enemies and treasures and chuck turnips at them as the cart trundles along. It's more shooter than platformer, incorporating the Wii U game pad's gyroscope to good effect. (Though fans of a certain age will inevitably come away salty that this aim mechanic is appearing in a Mario spin-off and not a Pokémon Snap sequel.)
Toad also faces his share of boss levels; for example, a fight against a what appears to be a Blargg (you know, those lava creatures from Yoshi's Island) or something like it. Since Toad can't really, you know, attack, his "battle" consists of climbing to the top of a spiraling cavern as it floods with magma, while the boss tracks you from the center of the room and lobs fireballs your way. Much more linear and less puzzle-like than the more familiar Captain Toad stages, both this encounter and the turnip shooter stage still feel decidedly grounded by the protagonist's limitations and not just like warmed-over Mario stages. (You ultimately beat the Blargg, or whatever it is, by reaching the top of the cavern and tricking it into knocking a stone column onto its own head — not really through any motive force on Toad's part.)
It can be tempting to take a cynical view of Nintendo's propensity for spinoffs and expansions on the Mario franchise, but playing just a few levels of Treasure Tracker at E3 reminded me why these games continue to sell: They're almost invariably excellent. The Mario concept lends itself to many variants and alternate interpretations, all familiar yet unique. And, let's face it, Nintendo's EAD Tokyo group has yet to produce a game that's less than superlative. Treasure Tracker appears to uphold that legacy quite nicely; not only does it play well, managing to feel fun and unfrustrating despite its main character's general lack of offensive capabilities, it's crammed with the charming details and polish you'd expect from a first-party Nintendo game.
By all rights, a limited and generally simple game like Treasure Tracker should be a throwaway release at best, a quick cash-in to fill the company's holiday release schedule. And maybe it is, at heart. Yet it doesn't come off that way at all. Nintendo gave the game to their A team, and by every appearance it'll play like an A-tier game. I don't know who thought the world needed yet another Mario spin-off... but I'm glad they did.