Thursday, February 12, 2015

Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker (Wii U) Review

Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker is a charming little game from Nintendo EAD Tokyo and 1-UP Studio that is sure to be overlooked by many and overshadowed by the Wii U’s bigger releases (like this one). This is both a shame and somewhat appropriate, as Treasure Tracker feels like an indie game; a AAA Nintendo indie game based on the most well-known video game franchise in the world. This bizarre identity is just another aspect of Treasure Tracker’s charm, something the game seems to exude in abundance. Captain Toad is an engaging, atmospheric, and unique puzzle game that thankfully shows that Nintendo is still willing to take some risks with their iconic Mario universe, something we haven’t really seen since the original Super Mario Galaxy back in 2007. It’s nice to see something so unique suddenly emerge from the recently stagnating Mario universe, even if Treasure Tracker does borrow a lot of elements from the EAD Tokyo-developed Super Mario games (that is, all the 3D Super Mario games since and including Super Mario Galaxy).

                If you’ve played the Captain Toad mini-games in Super Mario 3D World for Wii U, than you’ve played the basis for Treasure Tracker. Treasure Tracker is essentially an entire game of those kinds of levels, except a full execution of the concept and a far more fleshed-out experience. The game features an incredibly simplistic narrative that involves Toadette being whisked away by a giant bird (really novel stuff for Nintendo here) and Captain Toad trekking off to save her (and collecting Power Stars along the way, because why not?). But wait! In an innovative twist for Nintendo, this narrative shifts a bit later in the game to Captain Toad being the one captured by the bird (named Wingo) and Toadette taking on the role of the intrepid adventurer tasked with saving him. Eventually, the game switches back and forth between the fun-guy and fun-gal (I’m so sorry) and although (spoiler warning) ultimately the endgame does come down to Captain Toad having to save a damseled Toadette and get the big hero moment, I appreciate Nintendo giving Toadette some time to shine.

Adorable Duo

Beyond the straightforward narrative, the game has a cute storybook-like format where players select one level after the next by turning the pages of a book. The levels themselves are what Nintendo calls “mini-universes”; essentially living dioramas that can be thoroughly explored, manipulated, and viewed from every angle in order for Captain Toad and Toadette to pluck, scour, and track down every treasure within (see what I did there). Besides dioramas, the environments in the game also remind me of something else as well: Lego sets. Also, those little miniature environment toys from the ‘90s like Polly Pocket and Mighty Max. Also, childhood. The miniature worlds have a great sense of charm and it’s an engaging and satisfying process to first view an environment from all angles, figure out what to do, and then conquer each world, discovering every little nook and secret along the way (including the returning hidden Luigi sprites from Super Mario 3D World and also some other neat Easter Eggs). There’s a lot of variety in the level designs as well and the formula is often changed up with something like a minecart ride through a dank cavern (where the Toads can throw turnips at enemies), the exploration of a steam-powered train during a fierce blizzard, or a battle against a gigantic, beautifully-rendered, and whimsically-animated dragon inside of a volcano.

These levels throw several mechanics into the mix throughout the game, such as making ample use of the GamePad’s touchscreen to move certain platforms around, spin large valves that manipulate certain pieces of the environment, and aim with in a first-person view on the minecart levels and also when using a stand-alone turnip cannon that is used to unleash vegetarian justice on the game’s baddies. I appreciate gimmicks like touching and blowing on the GamePad to manipulate platforms in a slower-paced, more methodical game like this than I do in the main series Super Mario platformers, where I get annoyed when this kind of stuff gets in the way of a smooth platforming experience. Overall, this kind of gimmickry works better in a puzzle game like Captain Toad and while none of it is drastically innovative or game-defining, these elements are often used in clever ways and add a certain tactile pleasure to the experience as well as contribute to its overall great sense of charm.

A "mini-universe" in Treasure Tracker

Besides all this, several other mechanics from the EAD Tokyo Super Mario games and the Super Mario series in general show up, such as Beep Blocks, Flip Panels, and Donut Lifts. The Captain and Toadette also utilize a handful of power-ups including the Super Mushroom (serving the same function here as always), the Double Cherry from 3D World, and a new Super Pickax item that can be used to smash through blocks and enemies and shares an animation and theme song with the Hammer of Donkey Kong (and Super Smash Bros.) fame. The Toads can use these power-ups as well as Super Mario Bros. 2-style turnips and their environment to overcome a plethora of foes from the Mario universe as well as some brand new ones unique to Treasure Tracker. It’s actually a fascinating dynamic encountering an enemy in this game because Toad and Toadette cannot jump and also cannot run very fast and therefore a player must find clever ways of outmaneuvering and defeating these creatures which usually aren’t much of a threat at all for Mario. With Mario, most of these enemies are a single quick jump away from defeat, but for the Toads, even a simple Goomba can be a tense encounter. Several different options often exist for defeating a baddie: do you hasten to pluck a turnip from the ground (and hope it’s not just a coin) or do you try to manipulate the environment in some way, such as by falling off a higher ledge onto their head or by luring them into a hazard? With usually only one Super Mushroom at most hidden somewhere in a level, making a mistake can often be costly. This adds a novel spin on the Mario universe and I quite enjoy the “fish out of water” experience. In addition to well-designed levels and clever, new kinds of challenges, like most EAD-developed Nintendo games, Treasure Tracker’s gameplay is impeccably polished and satisfying, and everything from collecting a coin to the satisfying pluck of a vegetable patch to touching the screen to spin a valve just feels great.

                Another area with a hefty coat of polish is Captain Toad’s presentation, including both wonderful animations and beautiful, appealing visual design that often pops with personality. One area where Treasure Tracker really shines in particular for me (and something I’m actually surprised by) is in its atmosphere. Remember earlier when I called this game a triple-A Nintendo indie game? The game really does feel like some strange, mysterious thing at times and I think its short development time actually benefited the game’s minimalistic, interesting atmosphere. For one thing, the game’s art design, despite some occasional levels where objects and backgrounds can look blurry and jaggy at times, is gorgeous and every world is intricately detailed. Most environments are just a cube floating in the sky, but they are often enveloped in flower petals blowing in the wind, enwrapped in vines and dotted with flora, or surrounded by beautiful blue skies, purple and pink twilight, or brilliantly starry skies. The game seems like it’s running on an enhanced Super Mario 3D World engine, with a similar art-style but much more detail packed into each corner of an environment (this could also be due to the fact that the levels are smaller and thus can afford to be more graphically detailed). Some of the environments in this game are truly fantastical and at times I almost wished they were levels in a more traditional Super Mario platformer (these locales are great in Captain Toad, but I would also love to explore expanded versions of them with Mario). One level took me aback with a beautiful nighttime, particle-filled forest scene, complete with chirping crickets. Other levels consist of onion-domed spires and floating carpets amid tranquil skyscapes. Another environment is a self-contained fresh water spring flanked by hollowed-out logs inhabited by cute little ants and complete with a pristine jet of water that shoots up and creates a rainbow. In addition to the regular levels, there are brief story segue portions that allow us to take a stroll through a gorgeous environment before setting up a campsite. These scenes serve no real gameplay function, but they have a wonderful sense of atmosphere and are such a lovely detail that adds a boatload of extra charm to the experience. The game’s largely minimalist soundtrack does a good job of supporting its atmosphere with several ambient tracks that majestically support many of these beautiful environments; most of my favorite levels in the game were accompanied by either this track or this one. The game just has this really interesting, unique, sometimes mesmerizingly enchanting vibe and it’s really hard to put it into words…I’d recommend experiencing what I mean for yourself!


                My experience with Treasure Tracker was overall a positive one, but it also wasn’t without some notable hang-ups. This is a very subjective thing, but for some reason I would often get notably anxious when playing this game. I struggle with general anxiety in my day to day life a great deal and it’s often a mystery as to why certain things in particular trigger it so badly, and thus it’s also hard to put my finger on what exactly about Captain Toad made me anxious as honestly it’s mostly quite an inviting, chilled-out game. However, I think my anxiety at least in large part comes from much of the game revolving around the path forward being obscured from the player and having to shift the camera to get a better view; not being able to see what’s ahead on such a frequent basis put me on edge a lot of the time. Of course, this is a key aspect of the game’s design and I’m not saying it in itself is a flaw or a poorly-designed aspect, but in my subjective experience it made this game uncomfortable for me at times (and in this game’s case, I don’t think “discomfort” is what the designers were going for). On a more objective level, there were certain times where I felt like a good view was simply unachievable and moreover I found myself wishing there was an additional camera view. Let me explain: there are two camera views in the game, a zoomed-out and a zoomed-in one. I found the zoomed-out one to be a little too zoomed-out at times, but the zoomed-in one would likewise be sometimes too zoomed-in and not offer a clear enough view of the action. Therefore, I would have appreciated a third, middle camera option in between these two views, but perhaps this would have been too cumbersome to program given the design of the game. I also got a little frustrated throughout my playthrough because there are no checkpoints in levels, and although the game’s collectible “Super Gems” (which there are three of hidden in each level and are used to unlock future levels, though not all are required to simply reach the end credits) save after being collected once, I’m the type who liked to do an optimal run of each level and collect everything in one run and failing late into one of the longer stages in the game and having to start all over again would get tiring. But it should be said that this was frustration that I brought on myself and wasn’t exactly the game’s fault. On another note, as much as I appreciate some of the game’s more atmospheric music tracks and think they supplement the experience very well, overall the soundtrack is a bit lackluster and doesn’t stand out too much. There doesn’t seem to be enough variety in the music selection and I found myself quickly growing tired of the same small selection of main level themes. None of it is of poor quality, mind, but there’s also not much that is particularly memorable, except for the game’s main theme (which I also got tired of hearing so much) and the remixes from the main series Super Mario games (there are a lot of new versions of songs from the fantastic Super Mario 3D World soundtrack as well as some other tracks from throughout the Super Mario series).

Finally, the game’s bonus levels leave a lot to be desired, and if you’d rather not have them spoiled than I would skip this paragraph. If a player has save data from Super Mario 3D World on their Wii U, they get to play through four levels from that game as Captain Toad, but while this is a novel idea, these levels drag on for too long with the slow-moving Captain Toad and obviously weren’t designed for him. All of the other bonus levels (except for one, which I’ll get to) are simply stages that are recycled from the game’s main “episodes” but with a few twists, such as having to track down all the members of the Toad Brigade and finish the level with them in tow or being tasked to finish a level with a mummified Toad (known as a Mummy-Me) chasing the player throughout the whole stage. These stages offer some mostly satisfying new challenges for previously-visited levels, but ultimately they are just the same level again. At the end of it all is the “Champion’s Road” of this game: “Mummy-Me Maze Forever”, a series of fifty consecutive mazes with semi-randomized layouts (this Mummy-Me Maze concept previously appeared as a bonus game that would randomly appear after completing a level in the game’s normal episodes) that get progressively harder that a player has to complete all while being chased by Mummy-Mes mirroring Captain Toad’s every move. This level was satisfying to finally complete after many, many attempts, but I found it incredibly tedious and was more than ready to give up after just a few attempts. Trust me, you will rage here. I stuck it out though and eventually bested it, but I definitely prefer the aforementioned level from 3D World (or the Grandmaster Galaxy and Special 8-Crown in Super Mario Galaxy 2 and Super Mario 3D Land, respectively); replaying those over and over again wasn’t so bad because after learning the level I could get back to where I was in a short amount of time, but Captain Toad’s gauntlet is far lengthier and also relies partly on luck. I usually love the addition of this kind of “ultimate test of skill” level that has appeared in all of EAD Tokyo’s Super Mario games (except for the original Super Mario Galaxy), but Captain Toad’s version is probably the most evil challenge they’ve devised yet. That aside, to be honest, I’m getting sick of the “remix” bonus levels that are in every EAD Tokyo Super Mario game (including the Prankster Comet challenges in the Galaxy games). They are bonus levels, so I can’t complain too much and they do add some satisfying challenges to the experience, but they’re more tiresome than engaging at this point for someone like me who has thoroughly played all of these games. I actually prefer the way the 2D Super Mario games do it: just one final bonus world with around eight original levels that take a lot of skill to get through. As I said, I also typically enjoy the singular “ultimate test of skill” levels that EAD Tokyo brought into the mix.

This game is pretty

                Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker is a novel experience from Nintendo and I’d like to see more stuff like it; smaller, unique projects that deliver a new kind of experience. An adventure with Mario enemies and themes but with the titular plumber, the princess, and the Koopa King nowhere to be seen is very refreshing and playing as the often adorable and charming Captain Toad and Toadette duo is an interesting new experience. Treasure Tracker definitely shows its short development time (despite being a surprisingly lengthy game with a lot to see and do), but this isn’t necessarily a bad thing as its minimalist approach is a big part of its charm and its “indie feeling” lends a unique experience to Nintendo’s arsenal. Captain Toad’s overall design and concept is quite unlike anything I’ve experienced before (besides, of course, the handful of Captain Toad levels from Super Mario 3D World) and it’s nice to see that Nintendo’s internal developers can still come up with something so fresh, even if the experience does still feel a bit too similar in ways to the EAD Tokyo Super Mario platformers a lot of the time, and borrows a lot structurally from those games. While I’m growing tired of the EAD Tokyo formula (as fantastic as most of their Super Mario games have been), this game is still an experience I enjoyed and one that also managed to deliver something novel. Captain Toad is a little morsel of delight that has a surprising amount of depth to it and is certainly a worthy treasure to add to your Wii U collection…*sigh*, I did it again…please don’t think too poorly of me.