Ever since the bold experiment that was the Wii U, Nintendo has been in recovery mode. Despite having a catalogue of quality exclusives, the console was cumbersome and failed to meet the lofty expectations it was teasing.
Yet with the release of the Nintendo Switch in March 2017, it feels like Nintendo finally found a way to get their original point across. Where the technology hadn’t quite caught up with the idea with the Wii U, the tactile Switch is an instant sell, and since then, Nintendo has made strides to graft the highlights of the forgotten forerunner onto the portable console.
One of those games is Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker, a 2015 title that started life as a mini-game within the popular platformer Super Mario 3D World. The compelling diorama-based puzzle gameplay was expanded into its own fully-fledged experience and was met with mostly positive feedback.
Much like Mario Kart 8 and Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze before it, Treasure Tracker has received a remaster for the Nintendo Switch and 3DS systems, offering improved visuals, extra content and crucially, unmatched portability.
Experiencing the game for the first time on the Switch, I couldn’t believe what I’d been missing. The original game flew so far under my radar yet offers exactly the kind of innovation the puzzle genre needs.
In a genre bogged down by vapid mobile titles, Captain Toad riffs off of the popular set-up and provides a unique spin on the genre, constantly changing the tempo between levels.
At its core, players must reach their goal, a power star, with optional hidden gems available that bolster progression and let you unlock missions down the line.
The difficulty rears its head from the fact that Captain Toad and Toadette are weighed down by their heavy backpacks and can’t really defend themselves. Playing wonderfully to their position in Mario lore, both protagonists are hapless and scared, their trademark playful yelling a staple as they explore evil mansions, underwater bubbles and runaway trains.
Typical of Nintendo, the game oozes charm. Remixes of old tracks from previous Mario titles score the levels, and old enemies like Spikes, Boos and Piranha Plants appear frequently to throw obstacles in your way.
What I found most compelling was the way in which it never once settles for the same kind of puzzle.
Mission after mission, there is always a new idea to keep the recurring gameplay loop fresh. Yes, granted, some of the boss levels are re-skinned across the three episodes, but they always do their best to test the skills you’ve learned so far and make you sit upright again.
For example, following a familiar exploration-based level you are flung into a pinball board and asked to achieve the same goal, forcing you to adapt and use your Sonic Spinball muscle memory to find the star.
Treasure Tracker ensures it is never stale this way, and the rich aesthetic of the levels stick in your head even though you’re spending a maximum of five minutes with each. Boss rush modes, survival horror levels, first-person Disneyland minecart railgun missions, you name it, it’s there in some capacity.
HD rumble also provides a tactile experience in the small moments, like when you’re jettisoning a train cart full of critters as you make your way to the engine room for the power star.
The game’s variety and consistent veneer serve to remind the player of the finest moments in past Mario games. Certainly, Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker’s level design is evocative of the otherworldly secret levels in Super Mario Sunshine and Super Mario Galaxy.
Much like the latter, levels feel contained within a ‘world’ and are filled with unique character. I also found similarities with Crash Bandicoot, too. The careful platforming that requires patience and the funky soundtrack reminds me of my halcyon time spent with a certain orange bandicoot, which is never a bad thing.
Much like Crash Bandicoot, Treasure Tracker is not an easy game by any stretch, especially if you want to unlock the final few levels.
Treasure Tracker had me digging out my Amiibo’s for extra lives near the end game, but the difficulty also inspired me to actually explore each level in order to find the optional gems that eventually became crucially important to progression.
One of the compromises in bringing Treasure Tracker to the Switch has been the loss of a second screen. Often you will have to select environment assets to progress within the levels, which was easy enough on the Wii U, but the Switch struggles to match the fluidity.
Having played both versions, I can say it’s not as bad as the system on the 3DS. The screen on the handheld is far too small to carefully tap structures whilst your eyes are locked on Toad, but the remedy for the Switch isn’t perfect either. Whilst it functions fine in handheld mode when the Switch is docked you switch to a gyroscope in the right Joy-Con and a pointer on the screen reminiscent of Super Mario Galaxy.
The gyroscope controls in the Joy-Con aren’t incredible, especially if you’re attempting to be precise during tense moments. This is compounded when you have to spin a valve to reveal a platform, which involves making a circular motion with your right hand. Considering everything else that your right hand is in charge of, this is like rubbing your tummy and patting your head. Not ideal…
However, I will give credit to the developers for the amount of fun you can have with the gyroscope pointer.
In typical Nintendo fashion, no stone is left unturned, so when you hover over hedges and hold the trigger, it fills the topiary with blossoming flowers. The same thing happens with snow, turnip plants and coins. Small strokes, but design choices that grant the wider game a bursting heart.
It’s such a shame then that the gyroscope controls are so essential to gameplay in the more difficult missions, especially for making enemies pause in place so you can sneak past them. Plenty of times I found myself falling to a pin-point mistake that felt out of my hands.
If you’re a repeat offender, the Switch and 3DS-exclusive Super Mario Odyssey levels truly bring a lot to the already packed table, especially if you’re a fan of the top-flight platformer.
Whilst there are only a few levels, each diorama moulds the famed worlds of Odyssey into the framework of a Treasure Tracker puzzle in meaningful ways, using familiar assets and adapting the soundtrack and conceit of each mission, turning it into a wonderfully nostalgic and challenging puzzle, even though the game has only been out for mere months.
It’s frighteningly easy to root for Captain Toad. A hopeful, adventurous soul with a big heart and a desire to save his friends. His fearful pilgrimage through each carefully hand-crafted level is a wondrous delight, and Treasure Tracker quickly proves itself to be an upgraded version of the unsung original. A puzzle game for fans of the genre and wholesome folk of all ages, this innovative gem is not to be missed, especially if you couldn’t catch it the first time around.