When Nintendo announced Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker at E3, it felt like an afterthought to me. Granted, the Captain Toad puzzle levels were an ingenious way to break up the much faster, time-based gameplay in Super Mario 3D World. But an entire game based on them? I was pretty skeptical. Getting the game in my hands, however, made things fall into place. It’s clear that Nintendo only scratched the surface of these spatial puzzles in 3D World, and a full game can develop the idea into something deep enough to rival some of the biggest names in the genre today.
In Treasure Tracker, you take control of a solitary Toad explorer and guide him through relatively small floating stages packed with moving walls, obstacles and enemies. However, Captain Toad is a lot more fragile than his 3D World brother. This Toad can’t jump on bad guys and must run away or outmaneuver them; it’s been quite a while since I’ve been scared by a simple Goomba! His sprinting speed is barely faster than his normal walking pace, and like all classic Mario characters, he dies in only a couple of hits. Inside the levels he can grab stacks of coins for an extra life (or solitary 1-ups themselves), red super mushrooms to get bigger and gain an extra hit point, and special gems that are hidden ingeniously in secret rooms and passages.
This is all pretty typical for a Mario game but it’s the levels themselves that make this game stand out. They are Escher-like in their complexity and deviousness; to see the solution you’ll have to rotate the camera around the stage, which is usually a rough square shape or other simple geometric solid. Sections of the level will shift, however, and you often have to move large portions by tapping the GamePad screen; you can also stun enemies this way. It’s not unusual to come upon a series of door sections that will send you back and forth across the level, and it’s up to you to determine the correct positioning to reach the star at the end of the stage. Anyone who played 3D World will at least be familiar with the concept, but it’s been drastically expanded here.
The regular puzzle levels are supplemented with on-rails minecart sections where you shoot turnips at enemies, and of course boss fight levels. The bosses are typically avoided, however, and dispatched by manipulating the environment. In the boss level I played, I had to dodge the fire breath from a giant dragon and the falling lava inside a volcano, hiding behind moving cover panels as I made my way up the level’s structure. Making it to the top not only earned me a star, but dropped a huge stone pillar onto the dragon’s head. The whole thing was done in the expected cute Super Mario style (complete with a giant bandaged welt on the defeated dragon’s noggin) but I’d be lying if I said the experience wasn’t nerve-wracking.
From what I played, Treasure Tracker is a very smartly designed puzzler, with elements reminiscent of Pushmo and even a game with long puzzle heritage, Chuck’s Challenge 3D. Still, the whole time I was playing the demo’s four challenging stages, I couldn’t stop thinking that this game would be even better on the 3DS. I know it sounds strange, but Treasure Tracker plays a lot of the same perspective tricks as the most creative environments in Super Mario 3D Land. I’m definitely looking forward to Treasure Tracker on Wii U, but as a clever puzzle game with short, mind-bending levels, I feel it has an even stronger future as a portable series. If it’s successful, I have no doubt that Captain Toad will have many further adventures on a variety of Nintendo hardware.
As it stands, Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker is stacking up to be a solid secondary release for Wii U. Thankfully it’s not Nintendo’s flagship holiday title—that honor goes to Smash Bros. But at a budget MSRP of $39.99, I can see Captain Toad as a tempting impulse buy for anyone picking up Smash or finally pulling the trigger on a Wii U console this December.