It was only recently that Nintendo began to present Toad as particularly memorable, and for me the first instance was 2011’s terrific Super Mario 3D Land. In one of the game’s early stages, it’s possible to look through a pair of mounted binoculars to spot the stage’s flag and end goal. Through the looking glass, not only can the flag be seen, but so can Toad; he hops along an ascending stack of blocks, steps back to prepare, leaps — and falls pathetically short of the goal, nearly on his face. Toad has provided adorable comic relief ever since, and Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker is the culmination of an increasingly endearing trend.
Of course, it’s actually Super Mario 3D World that’s responsible for the style of level design featured in the game, and if you enjoyed that title’s Toad-themed asides then you’ll surely adore an entire game built around a near-identical concept. It’s been fleshed out and iterated upon enough to feel like its own game with unique content, but if you didn’t enjoy 3D World’s Toad stages to begin with, Captain Toad is unlikely to change your mind. You are controlling an anthropomorphic (and that’s generous) mushroom who can’t jump, after all, and no amount of clever or cagey stage design can make Toad an action junkie’s preferred gaming deliverance. Still, Toad’s helplessness is near-irresistible, and it helps the game succeed.
If you were absent for 3D World last year, here’s the gist. Toad can’t jump or run (he’s limited to a brisk stroll), and must traverse small, geometrically varied stages that can be twisted and turned by the player via the Wii U GamePad. The stages often contain more secrets than meet the eye, and the geometry can be devilishly deceptive. The goal is the reach a stage’s “end,” but you’ll need Power Stars to unlock new levels, so collecting as many as possible is also a goal. Stages start simple, but are made more complex over time thanks to enemies, items, increasingly brain-bending layouts, and more.
The biggest change to the formula from the 3D World days is the pickaxe; a temporary power-up that sends Toad hacking madly at anything in his path, taking out enemies and often leaving behind a blazing trail of coins. It’s a nice touch since Toad is so weak most of the time, and almost feels like the Hammer power-up from Super Smash Bros. for that reason. The pickaxe is genuinely fun when you get your hands on it, but I would have preferred to see more strategic implementations of its relative madness (though tame by Galaxy or 3D World standards, it’s absolute chaos here). Such instances do appear, but not until later in the game.
Perhaps it’s for that reason, then, that I actually found the Double Cherry to be the best addition to Toad’s solo exploits. Also found in 3D World, the Double Cherry instantly creates a copy of the player-controlled character, and mimics the original’s movements. If the Double Cherry signified a hectic distraction in 3D World, for Captain Toad it’s like a test of mental fortitude — intense focus is key. Without the ability to jump or easily right the course when traversing complex geography, multiple Toads must tread extremely carefully. This is especially pertinent if you miss-step and send one Toad hurtling from of a ledge or protruding platform. Guiding Toad A through a level’s structure while Toad B waits at the top awkwardly mimicking the same movements is a serious challenge, and a hilarious sight for anybody watching.
Unfortunately, folks watching won’t be able to join in for co-op, and I can’t help but see this as a huge missed opportunity for the game. Nintendo’s Tokyo team is renowned for its rigid prioritization of gameplay first, and I understand that co-op was likely cut because it wasn’t “Tokyo-certified perfect,” but even so — its inclusion is sorely missed. When you consider the fact that Toadette is playable at times, with a a few unique traits of her own, it’s hard not to wish spectators standing by could join the fun rather than simply observe a game that’s not nearly as enjoyable to observe as the mainline Mario titles have historically been.
This is the EAD Tokyo we’re talking about, though, and as such you can pretty much expect a visual feast. Nintendo has finally nailed a sublime balance between tactile, mildly-skeuomorphic in-game surfaces and an overall polish and Galaxy-like sheen, and the end result is a genuinely gorgeous and nearly perfect looking game. 3D World’s engine has received wholesome tweaks in the year since it was first put to use, and some of Captain Toad’s finer moments (a particularly imposing Draggadon encounter is a brilliant example) excite for the next Mario as much as they impress today.
The important question for potential Wii U-owning Treasure Trackers to answer is, does the game offer enough content? And for that there’s no easy answer. If you adored the Toad levels in 3D World, then yes, absolutely, grab this — it retails for $40, a fair amount less than most first-party Wii U software, and there are over 70 stages. At the same time, it is a bit scant otherwise as a result; co-op is lamentably omitted, and gameplay, though clever, is limited to few powerups and distractions aside from literal level-traversal.
If you’re looking for a fun and worthwhile diversion between bouts of Smash Bros. or marathon sessions of Bayonetta 2 this holiday, or simply need your Mario fix while you await the next mainline installment, Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker is a fun little adventure with incredible polish. If you’re expecting layers of depth or co-op in any form (both strengths of 3D World), though, you may want to take a pass on what the Toads have been up to during Mario’s time off.
This review is based on the Wii U exclusive, which was provided to us.
Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker is a polished little gem, but the word "little" is key. While not brimming with content (it clocks in at about 7 hours), its brain-bending stages are a welcome dose of EAD Tokyo goodness, even if it does lack co-op. Short but sweet, Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker isn't a must-play, but you're unlikely to regret buying it.