Apart from their artistic talent and great technical skill, what EAD Tokyo studio should be commended on is their ability to surprise us with the tremendous creativity as seen in Super Mario Galaxy 1 & 2 and the recent Super Mario 3D World. There is just a wealth of great ideas found in these games. They manage to add new mechanics and twists so that no section of their games seems repetitive. It was crucial they kept that up in Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker, given the more focused approach of its more than 70 worlds or puzzles. As luck would have it they stayed true to their style and commitment to innovation and creativity.
As with most good Nintendo titles you will know how to play it after the first minute. You take Toad (or later Toadette) through a miniature world, looking for the star/level exit. This world is like a scale model full of paths, platforms, mechanisms and some enemies, and despite its limited size, it is packed with activities and secrets.
Although we just mentioned 'platforms', in this spin-off based on the Mario games you will not perform a single jump (a combination of not having legs - just tiny feet - and considering the heavy gold-filled explorer backpack you're carrying). What you keep doing here is rotating the stage looking for the best perspective and thus exploring every corner. If you imagine this is indeed a scale model you're holding in your hands, you can tilt the GamePad as if it was that miniature, taking a look from all angles. Of course, you can also move the camera with the right stick, the D-Pad or even the L&R buttons. These buttons move the view every 45 degrees for better convenience, in positions that you can fix by clicking the stick. Your other actions are zooming in/out, sprinting, and turning your helmet light on/off (especially important for stealth sections). This, and making good use of the items you find along the way. Super simple in its concept, but as it's a puzzle game, all the interest and fun lies in the level design.
One thing we really like is that, unlike the mini-games found in Super Mario 3D World, challenges in this game are never timed. You can see that this would have been the easiest route to raise difficulty or add an element of beating your best time, but the designers have committed themselves to find other clever ways to challenge the player with the basic premises described above. Thus, Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker is a more of a thinking person's game, in which you can really feel like a little explorer studying the field, and where it's a joy to share the experience with friends, discussing where the next secret might be, or how to reach it.
Reaching the end of each level requires discovering how the world in question works and finding the way to the star, but this is just the basic challenge, which only the youngest members of the family will be satisfied achieving. The real substance and the hook for completionists is found in the three hidden gems and the special challenge for each world. The hidden gems force you to inspect every nook of the level, while the special challenge is only known when you finish the mission the first time, and usually consists in meeting a specific requirement which makes your journey more tricky, interesting and fun. Again, it's never something like "complete the level in less than two minutes", but we're talking about tasks such as: taking no damage, sneaking around unnoticed, collecting a certain amount of coins, using mechanics efficiently, eliminating all the enemies, or finding another hidden treasure (the valuable golden mushrooms).
So close, so far away
The visual play that Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker constantly displays is not just that search for the best possible angle; it goes further than that. In a nice effect to make it 'feel' as if you're inside these miniatures, it seems that the camera is either too far or too close. Things look too small or you're so close to Toad that you can not assess the dangers ahead. While this could seem annoying or uncomfortable when the first complicated sections show up, in fact this combination of close-up and long shots is part of the challenge and the unique visual design. The game asks you to constantly change the zoom, or switch your own view from the TV to the GamePad, wherever you feel you have an advantage.
In other situations you should pay attention to the GamePad, but not because the closeness of its screen, but for its touch features or the microphone it sports. By using your fingers you can touch a range of interactive elements (platforms with different positions, spinwheels, enemies, bricks, blocks), while other objects are susceptible to blowing (mechanisms with propellers or even decorative objects). These additions never feel forced, they are well integrated and work just fine (although if you're used to the TV, you must remember to switch to the GamePad, especially during final bosses encounters). Again, it combines game design with immersion into these virtual models.
As you go about completing missions and writing the adventure diary of Toad and Toadette, the worlds keep growing in complexity, size and variety, and you'll also notice how your completion times keep increasing.
Although lots of graphic and sound assets have been lifted from the most recent works of the studio, and although ideas and concepts (such as the truly enjoyable transparent pipes from 3D World or the floating facedown structures from Galaxy) are imported, the game knows how to stamp its own identity on the features from said Mario games, and as it is a puzzle adventure, you're dealing with mechanics that are familiar but in a completely new context. On the other hand, despite its cute, playful and simple presentation, puzzle lovers will be content, for starting at the middle of the second book the game starts getting more difficult, missions become bolder and more beautiful, as the difficulty curve gradually grows steeper.
This, along with the increasingly smart level design, keeps Captain Toad from the falling into the cheap and sloppy spin-off category. Furthermore, the quality is maintained throughout; we find it hard to point out a mission we did not like, while, on the other hand, we were impressed by the sheer variety of worlds: miniature temples, hedge mazes, tropical islands, ghost libraries. Gold mines, sunny beaches, piranha plants forests, Mayan ruins with ancient mechanisms. Dreamlike meadows, a music box which doubles as a ship, a bird cage which is a toy. There's plenty of ideas in this one.
This game doesn't make us as excited or enthusiastic as with a great Mario adventure, but neither is it intended to. It's Toad, his world is simpler, his ambition is more humble and the price has been adjusted to reflect this fact. We feared a quick and easy cash-in, but instead we wound up with a little gem. Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker delivers both content-wise and with its own sense of character. It is a more relaxed and conceptual delight for genre lovers, ideal for sharing with friends on cold winter evenings. It's the best debut of a Mario-universe character since Luigi's Mansion and the best way to start the new year with a Wii U.
Check out a full mission gameplay in the following video (beware of the spoilers about gem locations) and find three more at Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker game page.
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