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Sometimes games play host to smaller experiences so fun they could easily stand as full-fledged titles of their own. Kirby games are famous for this, of course, with Kirby Fighters & Dedede’s Drum Dash on offer in the pink puffball’s latest outing, though Mario’s also been known to get in on the act — Super Mario 3D World’s Captain Toad stages, for example, were a delightful diversion from the main platforming quest. Apparently Nintendo thought rather highly of them as well, as Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker — a full game based on the mini-maze concept introduced in those bonus levels — was announced as part of the Digital Event at E3 this year. After spending some time with Toad’s first marquee title, we think Nintendo has made an excellent choice — Treasure Tracker looks set to be a great expansion of the concept, and a fantastically fun puzzle game in its own right.

We were able to try three levels of Captain Toad in our time on the floor, and each one felt unique. The first stage was most similar to the Captain Toad levels we were familiar with from Super Mario 3D World — we made our way deliberately around a small, self-contained, cube-shaped maze, hoping to collect coins and three shining gems (in place of the green stars of 3D World) before reaching the star which signifies the end of the level. There were spinning platforms, trap floors, rotating rooms, and patrolling enemies along the way, and as in the original mini-game stages from 3D World, the fun comes from working within the limitations of Toad’s abilities — he can’t jump or attack — and exploring the environment from different perspectives. The TV and GamePad show slightly different views (with the GamePad giving a closer look at the stage), and you’ll need to use both, as well as manipulate the camera with the right stick and peer around with the GamePad’s gyroscope, to spot all the coins and gems hidden within each world. In a sense, reading the stage becomes the puzzle in and of itself; rather than manipulating elements within the level, as in most puzzle games, you’re tasked instead with manipulating the level until you can figure out its layout and secrets - an incredibly satisfying process.

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The second stage we tried switched things up entirely: from the start, we waddled Toad over to a waiting mine cart, and then the real fun began. Hopping in the cart took us on an on-rails ride in and around the field, where the TV gave a zoomed-out, third-person perspective of the action, and the GamePad provided a full 360° Toad’s-eye view of the world, as well as the ability to toss turnips from the relative safety of the cart. Here the differences between the TV and GamePad displays were even more pronounced than in the first level; we were constantly shifting our attention between the two, and constantly discovering gems and coins on one screen we’d missed on the other - often just in the nick of time. Despite some difficulties in freely manoeuvring the GamePad as a result of its demo-unit tethering, this stage was great fun; it reminded us of a slightly sped-up Pokémon Snap — exchanging pelting Pokémon with fruit for trying to hit Piranha Plants and gems with vegetables — and the one-shot nature of the on-rails run meant we were itching to replay it and do better the second we reached the finish line.

The third level we played was a haunted house-style stage, which added another mechanic: moveable parts. There were several doors on the outside of the house which could be moved by tapping or dragging them on the GamePad’s touchscreen, and in order to get Toad to all three gems (and the exit, of course), we had to work out multi-step puzzles using these doors. Once again, panning the camera and looking around with the GamePad was key, and the final move evaded us for what must have felt like an eternity for poor Toad, doomed to enter and exit the same two doors over and over again until we got a better view of the situation and were able to work it out. It was tricky, fun, and rewarding in the same way that Pullblox puzzles are, and even though we didn’t manage to find all three gems before the exit, the big finish of Toad popping out of a door suspended in the air and crushing a stack of six Goombas with a gloriously fortuitous butt-stomp made us feel like winners anyway.

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The Captain Toad levels in Super Mario 3D World were already beautiful, but Treasure Tracker improves on their visual legacy considerably. While the 3D World stages were marked by pixel-like configurations of blocks and a 3D grid aesthetic, Treasure Tracker’s courses are more organic looking, with the type of varied terrain and settings you might expect in a mainline Mario game. Sharp and varied textures, bright colours, distinctly charming animations and gorgeous lighting effects — including the beam from Toad’s head-mounted lamp — bring the art style to life, and the compact, cubic, Escher-esque stage designs make the game feel like an collection of lovingly rendered dioramas to be picked up, twirled around, and explored one by one. The sides of each stage are particularly appealing, especially when water runs off the angled edges like Mushroom Kingdom-themed infinity pools.

Due for release before the year is out, Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker seems sure to satisfy fans of the original stages in Super Mario 3D World as well as puzzle-loving Wii U gamers in general. While we don’t know exactly how many stages will make it into the final game, a Nintendo rep assured us that there would be plenty of content, and that we’ll learn more about specifics and further features in the coming months. In the meantime, we certainly enjoyed our time with the Captain; Treasure Tracker takes the wonderfully unique gameplay concept of the 3D World bonus stages and runs with it, improving on and expanding the idea into what already feels like Toad’s first chance to truly shine.

Be sure to check out our other hands on features from E3: