When summarising Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker, we feel that our editorial director Damien McFerran may have nailed it: "look at it, pure gaming joy on a screen". Few game companies portray 'cute' as successfully as Nintendo — relatively few even bother to try — and this is the epitome of that approach. It takes the deceptively simple but attractive engine used for Super Mario 3D World and makes Captain Toad and Toadette the stars; it's so adorable we want to pinch its metaphorical cheeks.
It all begins, too, without a menu in sight. When first booting up the game you're immediately in control, with gentle prompts telling you to pluck plants and dash with A; you waddle up some steps to meet Toadette and celebrate with a Power Star, before a pantomime villain of a blue bird steals the star and your heroic companion. Boy Toad sets off to rescue girl Toadette but, in the interests of pleasing as many players as possible, the roles do get reversed as the title progresses.
As storylines go, it matches up with standard Super Mario fare, and Toad's début in the limelight unsurprisingly refuses to go too far beyond the A to B in order to rescue C approach. In what certainly feels like a stylistic nod to the library in Super Mario Galaxy, however, stages are presented as pages in a storybook, adding further to an aesthetic designed to melt the hearts of adults and charm young gamers. Meaty sets of levels — Nintendo's promising over 70 — are kept within these books as 'episodes', of which we're covering content of the first two in this preview; it's struck us already that fears of limited content to justify a budget retail price tag will likely prove unfounded.
As should be the case early stages serve as a gentle introduction to various mechanics. The most important — and one that'll take some practice for particularly young or less experienced gamers — is utilising the camera; it's integral to how you play and solve puzzles, so those used to letting games manage the camera for them will be caught out. It's entirely manual, and you have a great deal of freedom to pan up and down, left and right, and to zoom (most of the time) with the X button. While there may be initial agonising for young players — in particular — in learning how to use this fully, early levels keep danger to a minimum and allow for comfortable experimentation.
That initial learning curve is worthwhile, however, as it sets the tone for what makes Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker a particularly promising puzzle experience. Levels are essentially 360 degree dioramas, with a zoomed out view allowing a full look to plot a path towards the final goal. Beyond the Power Star, however, there are three jewels to find — spotting them on the course is one part of the challenge, but some will be hidden under plants or appear inaccessible. With persistence there's always a solution, however, and the trickiest of jewels can be the most rewarding once picked up.
There's an underlying generosity at play, however, so that challenge for experienced players — which is at a decent level — is mitigated with subtle design choices to ease the pressure on those that are less skilled. If you grab a jewel and then die, for example, it counts as collected and allows you to skip past it on your fresh attempt; if you beat the level in the same sitting, you keep those you picked up prior to death. Likewise the hidden 'tick' objective in each stage is clearly displayed after beating the level once; it proves tempting to jump straight back in — if it was missed — in order to add the bonus objective to the three jewels. Even if the rewards are minor visual cues like a stamp on the book page, it says much for the charm imbued in this game that the 'one more go' mentality is tough to ignore.
A particularly notable aspect of Toad Tracker, meanwhile, is its insistence on the GamePad as the controller to use. It takes various features of 3D World — such as platforms moved by a tap on the screen — and incorporates them into the relatively short, focused puzzle areas. Environments sometimes evoke the outstanding platformer, too, with slides, signs to invisible platforms and more featuring at various points; the difference, naturally, is that the gameplay is far more sedate. Even when dashing Toad and Toadette have a fairly languid pace and an inability to jump, yet this doesn't feel like a lazy throwaway spin-off — the witty mechanics of these environments suit this puzzling rather well. We even see items like the Cherry return, cloning your character and tasking you with some tricky areas to navigate.
The GamePad is used in other ways, primarily for motion controlled aiming; most will have seen the on-rails mine cart footage by now, in which the controller's screen acts as a window into the world. A mix of the right stick for large adjustments and small movements gave us nicely accurate aiming in these stages; Nintendo's used this before, even occasionally on 3DS, and has mastered the mechanic.
Importantly, of those stages that we can cover here, there's pleasing variety and plenty of clever design. Levels may only take 2-5 minutes each, typically, but they're often fresh and imaginative, with solutions that often feel intuitive; the hope is that young gamers, in particular, will be able to learn and tackle later challenges. That's the only concern we have with Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker at this point — the 360 degree diorama-style levels are wonderful self-contained areas, but occasionally it is tricky to both react quickly and manoeuvre the camera, for example. As this is — at least from what we've seen so far — a single-player experience, whether young players (a key demographic with a release like this) will progress fully is an area that requires more scrutiny.
To round off on presentation, we feel it's worthy of a special mention. Relatively small stages — at least initially — may not tax the Wii U hardware too much, but this is nevertheless a hugely attractive game. Bright, colourful and diverse, we feel these diminutive stages may even make small improvements on the Super Mario 3D World visuals, despite the same engine being employed. Whether a trick of the eyes or not, it looks lovely, and art design once again prompts smiles from players and onlookers alike; the music plays its part, too.
At this stage we're yet to see how the whole Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker experience will fare in finding a balance of challenging dedicated Nintendo fans and entertaining younger or less experienced players for the duration. The foundation is strong, however, as its ambling pace and tricky puzzles — combined with actual usage of the GamePad's assets — bode well. If you were a fan of the Captain Toad bonus levels found in Super Mario 3D World, then this should be on your radar; it's a whole new world.