Eventually every character that’s ever appeared in a Super Mario game will have its own spin-off series. Between future Mario Karts and 3D platformers our kids will jam Lakitu tower defense games and Double Dragon-ish beat ‘em ups starring the Hammer Bros. Hopefully they’ll all be as good as Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker, the first game to ever put Toad in the title.
Toad, of course, is the Princess’s mushroom headed attendant, and a beloved sidekick who rarely gets his due in the videogames. Captain Toad is an adventurous alter ego first introduced as the leader of the Toad Brigade in Super Mario Galaxy, later appearing in a series of minigame puzzles within Super Mario 3D World. He is even more adorable than the typical Toad, with a miner’s headlamp strapped to his mushroom cap and a pack as large as his body on his back. Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker turns those puzzling asides from the Super Mario 3D World into a fully realized, stand-alone game.
Each level is a puzzle box with various obstacles to overcome and monsters to avoid. Captain Toad (and his pigtailed partner Toadette, who takes charge in a number of levels) can walk but can’t jump, so simply moving around the stage can be a stumper. The goal is to maneuver Toad to the star on the map, collecting up to three gems along the way. Because Toad can’t jump you’ll have to use ladders, pipes, sliding ramps, rotating walkways and other aspects of the environment to explore every corner of the level. There is also one secret goal on every stage that isn’t revealed to you until after your first play through. You only need to get the star to move on to the next stage, but if you nail that secret goal and collect all three gems before grabbing the star, you’ll ace the board. And you can’t completely ignore the gems—you’ll need to have collected a minimum number of gems to unlock later levels.
Along the way you’ll encounter familiar Mario creeps, from Goombas to Boos. Toad shrinks with one hit and dies with a second, but occasionally you’ll find a mushroom that will make him big and strong again. There are pipes and water levels and ghost mansions and plants to pluck from the ground and weaponized turnips that can be used to defeat enemies and fruit that somehow splits Toad into simultaneously controlled twins. It’s a full complement of Mario trademarks, confined in tight blocks of turf instead of rambling worlds, and with a hero who can’t jump or spit fire or do much in the way of self-defense.
Despite the variety of controller options for the Wii U, Captain Toad is only playable with the Gamepad. That’s because it makes use of some of the Gamepad’s unique characteristics. You’ll tap the screen to slide ledges and walkways around, or spin your finger around to turn cranks. You’ll blow into the microphone to raise platforms, and jab Bullet Bills to slow down their flight. The Gamepad isn’t the most popular controller, for some reason, but it’s well-suited for Captain Toad, which has the feel of a mobile game.
If it seems to work too well with the Gamepad, that’s because Captain Toad might be better suited for handhelds than consoles. It feels like something you’d play on a 3DS, from the discrete stages to the limited camera. It wouldn’t work on the tiny 3DS screen, and it’d be difficult to parse out details even on a 3DS XL, but it’s right at home on the more generously proportioned Gamepad. You can put it right up against your face to get the best possible angle on a level, which isn’t possible when you play it on a TV. This is yet another Wii U game that’s better viewed on the screen attached to the controller than on the massive HD TV in your living room.
The best part of Captain Toad is when it breaks from its formula. There are periodic mine cart levels that are part on-rails shooter and part rollercoaster simulator. You can look around in first person in a full circle, finding gems or coin boxes to throw turnips at, while careening through circular tracks with fast dips and turns. There aren’t enough of these levels, and with a little bit of expansion and extra detail they could easily form the basis of another spinoff.
If the game detects Super Mario 3D World save data on your Wii U, it unlocks a series of bonus levels pulled from that game. These aren’t the original Captain Toad puzzles, but standard 3D World levels with a new hero who can’t jump, run quickly or use any power-ups. The most puzzling part of a game full of puzzles is why Nintendo thought these levels would be fun. These bonus missions diffuse Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker’s tight focus into a sprawling, slow-moving, unnecessary retread of an older game. Thankfully they’re optional, and are only a small distraction from the main game.
Nintendo excels with puzzle games built around three-dimensional space. Think Picross 3D and Crashmo, two fantastic 3DS games that you should be familiar with. Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker isn’t as laser-focused on puzzle-solving as those two, but by dressing it up in the guise of a platformer Nintendo has created a deeper and more inviting game that also happens to be incredibly adorable. Almost thirty years after Mario first rescued him, Toad finally has a game that perfectly fits his friendly everyman persona.
Garrett Martin edits Paste’s games section.