Reviews

Raiders of the lost star — Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker review

Nintendo’s serial obsession with transplanting their Wii U catalogue to Switch is continuing with one of the much maligned console’s most unique titles: Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker. While the intrepid explorer spent many years relegated to guest appearances in titles such as Super Mario Galaxy, he got his first taste of the spotlight on the Wii U. Treasure Tracker is perhaps the quintessential Wii U title, representing the lion’s share of that machine’s exclusive line-up. Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker is a relatively accessible game with a strong core idea and a lot of polish. But, it is also a game with many faults, some within the title itself, but mainly sourced from what isn’t in the game at all.

Derived from a minigame in Super Mario 3D World and turned into a full title, Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker plays out as an action-puzzle game where you guide the titular hero around level-based, contained environments in order to track down stars. The twist: Captain Toad can’t jump. This allows for much more devious level design as every gap, ledge, and enemy is twice as menacing as they are in a traditional Mario title. Thankfully, none of the levels in Treasure Tracker feel as though they exploit this limitation, instead they feel purposely designed around the challenge. I never had moments where I felt as though the developers lazily put a chest-high obstacle in my path, just to force me to reroute. No, the lack of a jump is intrinsically connected to the level design, and I really feel as though this limitation forced the developers to channel a different sort of creativity. While the puzzles never became mind-bending, there is a nice difficulty curve as you progress through the game’s three episodes.

The structure of Treasure Tracker is rather interesting, but in the end boils down to, essentially, a linear set of levels. The game is broken into three main episodes, and each is presented as its own storybook with each page of the book corresponding to a single puzzle. However, just because the game is split into storybooks, doesn’t mean you should be expecting much of a story at all from Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker. Each episode features either Captain Toad or Toadette being captured by Wingo, with the other tasked with the rescue. This is a Mario game after all, so I wasn’t expecting Shakespeare, but even by Mario standards, this setup is weak. Repeating the same story with the same villains three times gets repetitive, especially when this repetition manifests in the gameplay itself, with endlessly repeated boss battles and story beats. I wonder why the game is even broken down the way it is in the first place; making the game one long adventure would’ve suited the content much better. Repeated story motifs and boss fights wouldn’t have felt as out of place if the whole game built to one climax, instead of three identical ones. But, the main attraction in Treasure Tracker is the gameplay.

Without a jump, Captain Toad’s other moves are even more important. He is quick on his feet, and rather nimble for a guy without legs. Channeling his inner Super Mario Bros. 2, Toad can also pluck turnips from the ground and throw them at the cavalcade of enemies in his path, from Shy Guys to Chargin’ Chucks, and everyone in-between. The controls are rather responsive as well, and I always felt confident bobbing and weaving between enemies and navigating narrow pathways.

Another equally important aspect of control is the camera, and I felt that it was good, with some room for improvement. The biggest issue with the camera is a lack of options. There are three camera zooms available; pulled back, close to Captain Toad, and somewhere in the middle. The camera isn’t fixed though, and it can be rotated freely with the right stick. For the most part, there is plenty of flexibility here, but I would’ve liked to see another angle; either over the shoulder or first-person. Because Treasure Tracker’s levels are almost all cubic, there are a ton of secret doors and hidden collectables that can only be seen by rotating the camera in particular ways. When Toad is within tightly constricted areas, the shortcomings of the camera are apparent. There are often hidden passageways parallel to these confined spaces, and trying to position the camera in a way that reveals the secret can become quite a hassle. I occasionally found myself frustrated with the camera in situations like this. Being able to simply click in the stick and see what the Captain sees would go a long way to making fiddling with the camera unnecessary.

While such a simple concept runs the risk of being repetitious, the developers thankfully had no shortage of creative locales to put the Captain in. From the expected grass, beach, and lava themes, to the more bizarre western and galactic settings, there is always something unique to look at. Even when a theme is repeated across several stages, the individual levels you’ll trek through are rather diverse. Take, for instance, the typical grassy plains theme present in just about every Mario game. Treasure Tracker uses this often, but in totally different ways; mashing it with unexpected elements, from spinning disc and pipe mazes, to elegant palaces. However, repeated themes are thrown randomly into the list of levels. Unlike in Mario’s core titles, there aren’t themed worlds. Here, you could bounce from a plains level, to a snow level, to space, and then right back to the plains. This lack of cohesion took a toll on the overall scope of Toad’s journey. Rotating through settings did help keep things surprising, but that comes at a cost.

Outside of that thematic variety, the aesthetic felt somewhat thin. For starters, almost every level is built within the confines of a cube. That’s alright– but it does give each level a bit of an artificial feel. The only times I felt as though I was exploring a living place was when the stage wasn’t confined to a cube, but these levels only made up a small portion of the game’s 60+ stages. Furthermore, the background that each level is housed in is vapid; there is literally nothing going on other than blurred ground and sky textures which vaguely fit into the same color palate as the actual environment you’re running about in. There is no sense of place to the world at all, and that holds back Captain Toad visually. I would’ve appreciated a greater attention to detail in this department, as blinking from cubic level to cubic level just doesn’t sell the grand adventure that Captain Toad is undertaking. The music doesn’t do the sense of adventure many favors either; it’s fun and bubbly, but totally forgettable. Honestly, outside of the main theme I can’t recall another piece of music in the game.

In terms of the actual level-to-level gameplay, the game does a nice job of keeping things fresh. There are the traditional levels in which the Captain is on foot, simply trying to navigate to the goal. But, different mechanics are often layered on top, from Double Cherries to Beep Blocks. There are even first-person, turnip-launching minecart levels for even more diversity. Combined with the relatively short level length, nothing feels overbearing or monotonous. You’re always bouncing from one idea to the next. While this did keep me engaged, constantly rotating through disparate level concepts feeds back into the issue of Treasure Tracker feeling somewhat disjointed. There is no natural mechanical progression; gameplay ideas, much like level motifs, are randomly distributed amongst the chapters with no rhyme or reason.

The game isn’t particularly long either, and I was able to complete it front to back in just over five hours; somewhere in the ballpark of six or seven. Without an actual play clock, it is hard to know for sure, but for those of you hoping for a lengthy campaign, you won’t find that here. However, the game is incredibly replayable, and completionists will easily double their playtime. Each level has three hidden gems, and upon completing the level, a new, secret objective is unlocked. The gems can be rather deviously hidden and, much like the Green Stars in Super Mario 3D World, are where the real challenge lies. The secondary challenges, though, I’m split on. They do typically offer different, more deliberate ways to approach the challenge, but a good portion of the objectives are rather bland; amounting to something as basic as “find the hidden gold mushroom” or “don’t take damage”. These aren’t particularly bad, but they certainly aren’t inspired. With how interestingly designed the levels are, I think that each could have certainly featured its own, unique secondary challenge.

This replayability combined with the hybrid nature of the Switch does lend Treasure Tracker to being the perfect pick-up-and-play title. However, the loss of the Gamepad does lead to some concessions depending on whether you’re playing on the TV, or in handheld mode. For starters, the game features many different touch components, ranging from sliding beep blocks to spinning cranks. On the Wii U, this was all handled on the secondary Gamepad screen. Here, anything interactable takes up a huge portion of your main screen, as the Switch naturally doesn’t have a second display. The problem is worsened in handheld mode, as your finger further obscures your view when interacting with the on-screen prompts. Besides, trying to hold the Switch in one hand while spinning a crank is just cumbersome, and lends itself to the same problems that Kid Icarus Uprising had on 3DS.

That problem doesn’t exist in TV mode, but the trade-off is that you must use a gyro-controlled pointer. Of course, if you’ve played any other game that uses a pointer on the Switch, you’d be familiar with the drifting issue that plagues this control method. To use the pointer accurately, you have to reset its position often with a press of the right stick. This is serviceable, but annoying when the pointer is so integral to many of the game’s levels. Even when you do get the pointer reset, the issue remains that using the gyro pointer just isn’t as accurate or as comfortable as simply tapping on the screen. Regardless of which mode you play in, you’re making some kind of concession. Personally, I find handheld mode to be the preferred way to play, but others might disagree. It is just disappointing that neither style is a hassle-free experience.

Of course, I would be remiss to discuss the replayability of the game without discussing the value for repeat buyers. As a Wii U owner myself, it is important to me that Nintendo makes a concerted effort to court the hardest of the hardcore; if they attempt at all. A game like Bayonetta 2, a Platinum game, but a Wii U exclusive nonetheless, is a straight port. I don’t particularly take issue with that, but if the effort is going to be made to fold new content into the core Wii U title, it should be deliberate; unlike smaller, laughable efforts such as the recent Funky Mode in the Switch version of Donkey Kong Country Tropical Freeze. Both Mario Kart 8 Deluxe and Hyrule Warriors Definitive Edition do a really nice job of this, but unfortunately, Captain Toad Treasure: Tracker feels much like Donkey Kong Country in this regard.

On top of small control and visual tweaks, the only new content is bonus levels inspired by Super Mario Odyssey. These are very well designed, and rather enjoyable to play through. However, there are bizarrely only four levels, and they amount to twenty minutes of new content. Personally, I played Captain Toad on the Wii U in the holiday of 2014, but never finished the game. So, between only playing a portion of the title, and four years passing since the original release, the Switch version of the game felt remarkably fresh. But, if you have any sort of intrinsic knowledge of the game, I’d be hard pressed to say that the new content comes anywhere near being substantial enough to justify a second purchase. Furthermore, if you have access to the Wii U version of the game, I’d pick that up instead as it is the much cheaper option, and actually features Super Mario 3D World levels not present in the Switch version– provided you have a save file for 3D World on your system. You won’t have the Odyssey levels, but the lower price is a good trade-off in my opinion.

Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker is really solid, but its relatively disjointed design, limited camera control, forgettable music, and awkward pointer concessions do hold this game back from the upper echelons of Nintendo titles. I definitely enjoyed my time with Captain Toad, but its shortcomings stand out just as prominently as its strengths. Its ability to execute upon the level-based, action-puzzler concept with so much polish is admirable–and the result is a fun, if forgettable, romp. I just expected everything that surrounds the game’s core concept and its level design to be just as high quality. Furthermore, I was surprised by the issues that are native to the Switch version of this game, and surprisingly make it hard for me to even call this the definitive way to experience Captain Toad. Should a sequel further flesh out this idea, we could be looking at something really special. But for now, the game is just alright.

65

Alright

Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker

Review Guidelines

Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker is fundamentally strong with a solid core idea and great level design, but doesn't succeed beyond that. A more cohesive atmosphere, extra camera options, and deliberate mechanical progression could’ve made the experience far more satisfying. The conversion to the Switch brings along its own problems as well, making it hard to call this version definitive. As it stands, the game is a fun but forgettable adventure.

Abram is an aspiring games journalist with a soft-spot for titles published by a particular company that starts with N, and ends with -intendo. When he's not playing, or writing about, video games, Abram is most likely ranting to no one in particular about various films he's seen, or breaking out the old colored pencils to do a bit of drawing.
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