I never played Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker when it first came out for the Wii U in 2014. Or least not nearly enough of it. But with its rerelease on the Switch (and 3DS, if that’s your bag), I’ve been given the immeasurable gift of giving it another go. Much like Toad, it seems that I’ve found a treasure.
The core premise is simple enough: Toad wanders around Super Mario Galaxy-style dioramic levels and looks for loot in twisting mazes and puzzles. But the way it manifests is through a fascinating question: what if Mario couldn’t jump? This entire game feels like the consequence of a deep analysis of that question. When the famed Italian plumber can’t do the thing he’s seen doing in every single image of himself and his friends, what does that game become?
The answer is found in Captain Toad. Rather than being a game of instinct and rapid response, it stews in deliberation. Its bubbly, charming sheen belies a devilish machination. Even a tiny ledge that Toad could physically roll his squat, oblong body onto becomes a minutes-long challenge. It is an interminable crucible framed by green grass and cheery chirps.
It doesn’t even solely rely on the idea of replacing verticality with obstacles. It marinates in the idea that you can extrapolate a mechanic and add in complexity without sacrificing a foundational simplicity. There are many times when it feels like the conjugation from the single-button ascension of Assassin’s Creed games to the more involved and more rewarding traversal of the Mirror’s Edge series.
This sensation first rears its head in the little dragon battle levels. They’re still puzzle stages, but you are also combatting a lava-soaked dragon. And instead of finding a way to jump on its head three times, you transliterate that action into intuitive intervening steps. Hit this switch, connect these platforms, waddle past these flames. You never spend time figuring out what to do and only how to do it.
It’s a fine distinction but a vital one. One is frustrating, especially in the context of a puzzle game. The other is surfacing the triumphant design of the game itself. And it’s made better, from what I hear, but not being on the Wii U now that you don’t have to blow into the mic to trigger platforms or use the touchscreen to poke at things. (Though the additional Super Mario Odyssey-themed levels are rather bland.)
There’s an inherent beauty to how Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker finds something equally devious as the best Mario platforming has to offer in a conceit that revolves around, well, not that. But even more remarkable is how the game finds a way to add texture and intrigue to that idea rather than relying on the merits of that concept on its own.
It’s available now for the Nintendo Switch and 3DS for $39.99. (And on the Wii U if you have that still plugged in for some unfathomable reason.)