Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker and purity of game design

The Wii U’s Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker looks simplistic, but other developers could learn from the purity and polish of its design.

Editor’s Note: Make sure to check our review of Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker!

One of the oldest names in gaming, Nintendo isn’t exactly regarded as a company at the cutting edge of innovation. The industry’s Mister Geppetto, Nintendo’s long been comfortable with remaining one step behind its competitors in terms of technology, and seems content to carve out its own brand of broad, colourful games rather than follow the latest boistrous trends.

Indeed, one of the criticisms levelled at Nintendo is that it’s sometimes a little too conservative; too reliant on characters it created in the 1980s, when the NES reigned supreme, and too keen to fall back on sequels to its biggest games – Super Mario, Zelda, Mario Kart, Smash Bros – to sell its systems.

A game like Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker, recently released for the Wii U, seems to play directly into the hands of Nintendo’s critics. A solo outing for a little mushroom character who’s been around since the early Mario games, Treasure Tracker’s an offshoot from Super Mario 3D World, with the same engine, same isometric perspective and even, it seems, some of the same character and background models. 

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Even the premise might sound like something more akin to a downloadable handheld title than a full-price game: you guide Toad around a series of small, self-contained mazes in the search for golden stars. There are additional trinkets to find and challenges to complete along the way, but in terms of pure mechanics, that’s it: you walk around and collect things.

It’s only when you sit down to play Treasure Tracker for at least an hour or so that its hidden, modest ingenuity becomes apparent. Each level is designed like a large cube consisting of many smaller cubes, most laced with some form of puzzle, trap or potential danger, from roaming Shy Guys (the little red-cloaked, white mask-wearing characters from Super Mario 2, which somehow manage to be creepy and endearing at the same time) or petulent, dive-bombing birds.

Treasure Trackers cuboid arrangement makes every level feel intimate and confined. It’s as though each one is a Rubik’s Cube dressed up with its own visual theme and problems to solve. The Wii U’s GamePad screen adds to the sense of intimacy; on some levels, you can touch the screen to move parts of the environment around.

On others, you can rotate bits of the landscape to find hidden pathways, which really does feel as though you’re fiddling with a digital Rubik’s Cube. In every instance, you have to manipulate the virtual camera to hunt for hidden items, or pitfalls deviously tucked away by Treasure Trackers designers. 

In an era where most game designers are competing to see who can create the most mammoth worlds as possible, Treasure Tracker goes against the grain, and aside from its more hectic and challenging moments (and there are a surprising number of these), it feels like a breezy Easter egg hunt rather than a Tolkienesque epic quest.

Again, Treasure Tracker’s bijoux quality could be seen as a further sign of Nintendo’s tendency to play safe. On the other hand, Captain Toad’s humble adventure is also an example of the company at its best: what Treasure Tracker lacks in breadth, it makes up for in sheer detail and thought. Game designer Shigeru Miyamoto has often spoken in the past about how carefully he positioned every element in the original Super Mario Bros; how the placement of the first mushroom was designed to show the player how the power-up system worked without having to resort to on-screen prompts or a quick scout through the instruction manual.

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Treasure Tracker has that exact same sense of precision. Admittedly, there are on-screen prompts, but the game also manages to guide the player through all its mechanics almost without seam: a trail of coins leads to a plant sticking up out of the ground, which in turn shows the player that interacting with the plant allows you to pull up turnips (which can be thrown at enemies, Super Mario 2 style), coins or other hidden items. 

The game also manages to pack a surprising number of elements into what at first appears to be a restrively simplistic set-up. There are stealth stages, several ingenious ones where you control two characters at the same time (a possible nod to Hudson Soft’s 80s puzzler Binary Land), 3D rail shooter stages where you use the GamePad as a means of aiming and throwing turnips, bonus stages where you can amass extra lives, and even some gently taxing boss battles. In fact, Treasure Tracker’s designers throw in ideas and small flourishes so casually that it’s easy to miss them – a detail like Toad’s tendency to shout “Hello!” whenever he passes a window out onto a wide open space is an adorable touch that most developers wouldn’t even think of.

In an era where games are hyped for their breadth and depth, but then emerge as hopelessly bug-ridden and in need of hefty patches to fix them, Treasure Trackers elegance and mirror-like level of polish is not only thoroughly refreshing, but also an example to other game designers: if your ideas are fresh and executed with care, sophisticated mechanics and 100-hour campaigns aren’t always necessary.

Eschewing all the hallmarks of a typical triple-A game – lengthy, motion-captured cut-scenes that likely cost a fortune, cavernous open worlds – Treasure Tracker nevertheless offers an absorbing, endearing experience that constantly surprises you with its abrupt changes of tempo and varied challenges.

Later this year, the launch of the next Zelda entry will see Nintendo attempt to create a fantasy game on a scale that approaches something like Skyrim, and we’ll have to wait and see how it manages to carry the torch for one of the most venerable franchises in gaming.

For now, Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker offers its polar opposite: a pure, jewel-like game with a delightful amount of depth beneath its sunny, simplistic exterior.

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