Nintendo's Tokyo EAD has long been cherished for the abundance of ideas in its games, for the little novelties that bubble up in single levels of Galaxy and 3D World before being gleefully tossed aside as the developer tirelessly works its way through a bottomless toybox. Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker is a little different, though. Here's a game with one big, very bold idea at its core: let's see what a Mario game would be like with the ability to jump completely excised.
This isn't the first Mario spin-off to move away from shifting platforms and arcing leaps - far from it - but it's the one that treads closest to that template. Here you guide Captain Toad through a world of familiars, where Shy Guys dawdle like toddlers through grass green mazes and where Goombas lazily recline in lifesavers before frantically paddling towards you. It's a world of well-worn assets, plucked from last year's Super Mario 3D World, where the seeds of Treasure Tracker were sown in a slim selection of bonus levels.
With a dose of cynicism, you suspect that those bonus levels were never meant to be spun out on their own. For a throwaway folly to hit the eShop, sure, but as a full-priced packaged affair? Nintendo's got to have something on the shelves beside Smash Bros., sure, but can something like Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker ever step away from the shadow of the game it's been cut off from?
You'd be a fool to underestimate Nintendo, of course, and to discount the wealth of imagination over at Tokyo EAD. Captain Toad is a curio, yes, but it's a fully formed one, a game as strange as it is compelling. It's fascinating to see the developers work their way around Treasure Tracker's self-imposed limitations, zipping past those boundaries before dusting themselves off and running head-first through them all over again.
Like the Galaxy games and 3D World before it, Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker is a game where the ideas come thick and fast. As in the 3D World mini-game, you're negotiating levels as Captain Toad (who sports a finely textured and rather fetching safari suit), but now you're also searching out three gems before finishing things off by grabbing the star. Each level also comes complete with its own mini-objective - clear the level of enemies, negotiate a touch-operated maze in as few moves as possible or find the hidden golden mushroom, for example - though they're not always clear until after the fact. Still, it's not as if revisiting the short levels is ever that much of a chore.
'Ready for adventure' Toad childishly croaks before each outing with infectious energy - you're both never quite sure what's just around the corner. He's kitted out like a spelunker, flashlight on head and, on occasion, with an ice-pick to hand, squatly moving between levels that fold in and onto themselves with dazzling complexity. As in any 3D Mario game, success is about unravelling those levels, identifying correct paths through them, though without that jump they're now dissected by light puzzles and by grappling with perspective.
It's an odd feeling at first, especially coming from a series that's done so much to make the camera invisible in its 3D outings. In Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker, it's a wilful obstruction you have to wrestle with, either through the thumbstick or via the GamePad's gyro controls. There's a clumsiness in it all, a certain lack of elegance that's perhaps befitting of the plodding Captain Toad himself, but slowly it clicks into place - and soon you realise it's not the camera you're manipulating, but the levels themselves.
They're little dioramas you can twist in your hands, allowing you to explore the mini-marvels of engineering contained within. Hidden pathways course through pixel bricks, secret warrens carved out beneath the chocolate mud as wooden walkways criss-cross the upper reaches. There's novelty, too, explicitly in the occasional minecart levels that switch your view over to the Game Pad and have you aiming at Para-Biddybuds, but also in the variety elsewhere, where Ghost Mansions run through to multi-coloured chutes, water rafts and high pressure chase sequences.
There's challenge, too, especially once you've run through Captain Toad's initial set of levels and unlocked Toadette's episode (where, nicely, it's Toad who's fridged at the outset and must be rescued), a set that requires as much dexterity as it does lateral thought. Nominally this is a puzzle game, but in the hand it feels more akin to a mainline Mario game than anything else, even if the rhythm is muted, the more frenetic energy dialled back.
Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker is a repurposing of the old in often surprising ways, something Nintendo's been adept at ever since it repackaged Doki Doki Panic for Mario's first delightful tangent. There's something of Super Mario Bros. 2 throughout the game, in fact, a connection that goes further than the pluckable turnips dotted throughout both, and in their own ways they're both strange, loveable offshoots. There's the danger that Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker might seem too slight to some, but it'd be a shame if it was overlooked; this feels very much like a curio that deserves to be cherished.