Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker review (Switch): Diorama Dreams

Review by Matthew Codd

If there’s any character in the Mushroom Kingdom who didn’t deserve his own game, it’s Toad. He’s annoying, and he lacks personality. He tries to help his friends, but of all the extended Mario cast, he seems the least likely to be a leading hero.

That didn’t stop him from getting his own spinoff in 2015, and to a lot of people’s surprise, Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker turned out to be really, really good. Being a Wii U exclusive meant it each nearly as big an audience as it should have, but luckily, Nintendo saw fit to give this surprise hit another shot at life with a Switch re-release.

Riddle Me This

Though its platformer roots are clear, Treasure Tracker is more of a puzzle game. Since Toad can’t jump, navigating Treasure Tracker’s levels mostly comes down to figuring out how to use the environment to get where you’re going. Switches, elevators, moveable platforms, pipes, ladders, and all manner of other objects come together to create a puzzle-filled path from the beginning to end of each stage.

That may sound simple in concept—and that simplicity is part of the game’s appeal—but Treasure Tracker builds on those ideas constantly. The first few stages are a simple case of climbing ladders and dropping off ledges, but it didn’t take long before you’re moving pieces of the level around, finding ways to clear bricks that block the way forward, sliding through mazes of pipes, sprinting across collapsing bridges, and carefully timing your movements across blocks that phase in and out of existence.

There is a small handful of stages that break out if that mold, and offer a very different sort of expedience: mining cart levels. In these, Treasure Tracker turns into a miniature rail shooter, as you roll along a railway track throwing turnips at obstacles and collectibles from a first-person perspective.

World in a Box

One of the most brilliant (and charming) things about Treasure Tracker is that, with a few exceptions, all those clever puzzles take place within tiny, cube-based levels. Rather than the sprawling stages of your typical Super Mario game, Treasure Tracker‘s are like playful little dioramas suspended in space. You directly control Captain Toad, but you get too peer into this world from the perspective on an outsider.

The effect is visually stunning, and makes each level feel like its own little world with its own story to tell. On top of that, the unique perspective is crucial to solving the game’s more difficult challenges, especially when it comes to the litany of collectibles scattered about. Hidden pathways abound in every level, and twisting these tiny game worlds sounds in your hand like snowglobes is the only way to find them.

A handful of the new levels created for the Switch (and 3DS) release showcase that beautifully. Based on Super Mario Odyssey, the new bonus levels let you visit pint-sized dioramas of New Donk City, Fossil Falls, Mount Volbono, and the Inverted Pyramid. Whether or not you’ve played Odyssey, these stages are breathtaking to visit, explore, and solve.

I only wish there were more of them. Odyssey has so many great kingdoms that Treasure Tracker could tap into, and it seems a shame that only those four got the Captain Toad diorama treatment. Also, for anyone who’s already played Treasure Tracker on Wii U, these four levels are the only point of difference in the new release—and the replace four Super Mario 3D World levels, rather than simply being extras.

Head Stompers

Captain Toad also had to contend with the usual array of Super Mario enemies, like Goombas, Shy Guys, and Boos. Without a jump, though, you have no immediate way of taking out these foes. Instead, you need to use the level to your advantage, so that you might drop off a ledge onto Goomba’s head or pick up a turnip that you can throw. Figuring out how to attack or avoid enemies become as much a part of the puzzles to solve as any of environmental quirks or level design proper.

Boss fights are similar, but on a grander scale. You rarely fight a boss directly—Captain Toad can’t fight, remember. Instead, they play like regular puzzle-filled levels, but with the added threat of a giant monster spitting flames at you or trying to blast you off the side of a stage with a gust of wind.

Creative though these boss fights are, I wish there was more variety among them. You encounter the same two bosses repeatedly, with each new fight offering up a koe challenging spin on the same basic idea. Compared with the variety among the regular levels, I found the bosses anticlimactic—which defeats their purpose, really.

Of Toads and Toadettes

I also wish Treasure Tracker was a bit more creative with its storytelling. I don’t necessarily expect a grand, sweeping epic from a Super Mario spinoff, but it’s disappointing when the whole plot amounts to Toadette and Captain Toad taking turns being kidnapped and needing a rescue. Even a vaguely egalitarian damsel in distress trope is still a damsel in distress trope, and to call it tired and overdone would be an understatement. Nintendo, please, set it aside and never look back.

Bland plot aside, Toad and Toadette make for surprisingly delightful heroes—which is not something I ever thought I’d say. They say little, but overflow with personality in their animations, selling the image of bright-eyed underdogs who are out of their depth but nonetheless ready for an adventure. They’re the Mushroom Kingdom’s hobbits, in other words.

That charm is something that runs through the whole game, from the design of diorama stages, to the clever puzzles themselves, to the way the whole thing is presented like a series of picture books. The bite-sized levels are perfect for playing on the go, making the Switch release particularly appealing, and it’s a chance to introduce one of Nintendo’s most unlikely hits to a whole new audience.

Recommended


Captain Toad: Treasure tracker is developed and published by Nintendo. It’s available now for Nintendo Switch (reviewed), 3DS, and Wii U.

A copy of the game was supplied by the publisher for this review.

Matthew Codd

Matthew is a writer based in Wellington. He loves all things pop culture, and is fascinated by its place in history and the wider social context.