Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker has been Nintendo's greatest 2014 surprise, announced at E3 and rapidly turned around for a Holiday release — in North America, at least. In theory it's a new IP, too, taking the cute but minor Captain Toad character and providing him with his own game; the whole concept is a spin-off from the Super Mario 3D World bonus challenges, of course, highlighting Nintendo's approach to taking a good idea and expanding it fully. The challenge is ensuring that Captain Toad and Toadette can carry a full retail game, albeit at a slightly lower price; Nintendo succeeds, for the most part.

The immediate impact when firing up Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker is one of pure, untainted charm. Initially there's not even a title menu, as you immediately take control of the Captain to meet Toadette and claim a star; it's an early opportunity to become acquainted with managing the diorama-style environment, too. It's utterly adorable, and we've seen it charm and bring smiles to children, this 30 year-old reviewer and older gamers. When it comes to cuteness, Nintendo's got it down.

That's an ideal start, then, and early stages do a solid job of introducing players to the core mechanic and challenge in this title — the camera. The vast majority of stages are small dioramas, isolated mini-worlds that encompass one large puzzle. It's a clever concept that's well implemented, and shows the confidence of Nintendo in the engine and the puzzles that it's created that you have substantial control, tilting the camera in all directions and generally taking in the whole 'world'. It's impressive and daunting at the same time, and an immediate hurdle for less experienced or younger players, who are likely the target demographic with this sort of release.

The most effective way to navigate the camera is with the right stick, while you move with the left stick and dash or pluck items with A, B or even Y. An important tool is the camera zoom with the X button, which works on most occasions and is vital in some of the larger environments; while a wide view of the stage is helpful in scoping out a route and collectibles, there are certainly moments where it's vital to take a closer look. On paper, then, it's a simple setup.

The camera, as we've stated above, does add a degree of complexity. It's relatively easy for those that have been around the block in gaming, but is a step away from the impressive work Nintendo's done in the past in framing the action to make life easy for those learning the ropes. It's essential to the concept, however, and for the most part the tempo is sedate enough that you can pause, take in surroundings and plot the next move. An alternative means of control is to use the GamePad's gyroscope, focusing on the controller's screen: movement is less pronounced, but it's an instinctive solution for those struggling with the stick, albeit with visuals that are noticeably less colourful and attractive when streamed onto the low resolution screen.

There will be occasions when all players, regardless of ability, will have their eyes glued to the GamePad screen. This is a title that actually makes strong use of the GamePad, and some stages require you to manipulate environments with the touch screen — this can involve tapping blocks to shift their position, rotating levers to move platforms and ramps, or occasionally aiming weapons. As showcased a good deal by Nintendo, there are on-rails mine cart stages in which you fire turnips at enemies, blocks and collectibles, and we found that primarily aiming with the right stick and making small adjustments with the gyroscope provided terrific accuracy. Children may have fun relying solely on motion control, standing up and spinning on the spot — essentially looking through a window into the world. Throw in propeller-powered platforms that require you to blow into the GamePad's microphone — as also seen in 3D World — and you have some fun use of the unique controller.

That GamePad reliance also explains why it's required for play, with no other controller supported. That does highlight, however, a primary complaint: that there's no way for a second player to participate and 'help' Captain Toad or Toadette. While the single-player approach is understandable considering the concept, the fact this is a game that may be enjoyed by lesser-skilled gamers means that the absence of a means to assist — think Super Mario Galaxy — is an odd oversight. There's a lot of game management — in later levels particularly — when worrying about the camera, being rushed by enemies and also chasing collectibles; the option for a second player to highlight areas or slow down enemies with a Wii Remote pointer would make tougher stages far more forgiving. As it is you can disrupt enemies on the GamePad's touch screen, but holding an enemy while moving — possibly also using the dash button and shifting the camera — is actually impossible without three hands. This isn't a problem for experienced players, but the going will get tough for some, making the absence of this simple co-op a surprise.

With that in mind, what this does represent is pretty decent value for those keen to experience Nintendo charm that, perhaps, typically prefer easier, motion-controlled games. It's a step up for those used to Mario Kart or Wii Fit games, and in that respects this is a nice entry point. Without the jumping and precision of a platformer — it's all about Toad and Toadette being weighed down by their backpacks, it seems — it provides a unique challenge that doesn't require twitch reactions. Another accommodation for those that will struggle is the now-standard invincibility item, bestowed after too many deaths in a stage and a huge help when navigating the environment and worrying about enemies is too tough. For enthusiastic players, meanwhile, the challenge won't come from deaths — game over screens will be a rarity — but in grabbing all three gems in every level and completing optional objectives. It's classic Nintendo, catering for a range of players.

In terms of value, Nintendo's faced a tricky challenge in defining where this game fits in the marketplace, opting for a 'budget retail' approach. Experienced gamers will certainly blast through the 70+ stages — split into three 'episodes' — in eight hours or less, though may find another couple of hours in retreading stages to grab more gems and unlock some final extras. That play time can be greatly expanded for fans with less natural skill, meaning that there's decent value to be found; the strength of the title, beyond this length, is that this diorama puzzle approach feels unique and fresh, not just in the general market but even within the Wii U's own library.

Those Super Mario 3D World origins, too, bring us some truly lovely visuals, with chunky but colourful assets that look simple but attractive even when viewed up close. It utilises the same engine and has that Pixar brought-to-life feel, while the accompanying soundtrack drops orchestration in favour of upbeat, light-hearted ditties. Despite some repeats of boss levels, we're also treated to a wide range of environments and design tricks, with the Cherry item returning to bring us some of the best puzzles with duplicated Toads. There are lovely extras, too, including a few stages recreated from Super Mario 3D World, with ramps to help the jump-less Toad around; these are available early-on if you have the platformer's save date on your profile, or becomes available to everyone else eventually.

Taking the whole package together, this delivers another distinctive and unique experience on the Wii U. We're frustrated that there's no obvious means to assist young or struggling gamers, but aside from that we're struck by the joyous design and clever approach that runs through the experience. It's primarily a puzzle game, but finds a nice balance of complexity and accessibility to make its own impact and, we hope, lays the foundation for more in the series in future.

Conclusion

Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker is a rare case of a game that feels truly designed — from the ground up — with the Wii U in mind. The GamePad is utilised just enough to be worthwhile without being a nuisance, and the only mis-step is that the difficulty later in the game can't be eased by assistance from a friend, parent or game-savvy son or daughter. That aside, it's relentlessly charming and joyous, and is another example of Nintendo's developers flexing their creative muscles along with game-making skill. There's nothing else like this on Wii U, and it's a welcome addition to the system's growing library.