Mario’s out exploring the galaxy, but Captain Toad is about examining the most minute details.
When I was a kid, I had a bunch of Micro Machines Star Wars toys. Alright, “kid” is probably a generous term, but I defy anyone to question how cool those things were.
I especially enjoyed the ones that started off as statuettes and unfolded to reveal a meticulously constructed diorama. They were more than dioramas though, since they all had some sort of mechanical trick. Poke around and you’ll find that the Rancor’s cage door moves and that Greedo can be launched out of his Mos Eisley seat after taking a shot from a miniature Han. Something that initially looked simple was actually a collection of intricate details meticulously designed to make the small environment a densely packed one.
Nintendo taps into the same feeling with Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker.
It’s a subtle detail, but Captain Toad’s cold open sets the tone for the rest of the game. Loading up the game for the first time puts you right into a level. It’s a simple one where you walk Toad up a spiral staircase-shaped level, but it explains the fundamentals for the rest of the game. Just as Super Mario Bros. world 1-1 introduces jumping as a central mechanic seconds into the game, Captain Toad introduces observation. Toad can’t jump or move very fast, so finding a safe path through the level requires investigation and planning. You have to use the steps to make your way through the level, which means you have to manipulate the camera in order to navigate all sides of the cube-shaped world.
The opening isn’t frantic, but it is immediate. There aren’t any credits, legal notices, or Bink/Scaleform/SpeedTree logos to remind you that you’re playing a game produced as a result of a vast corporate undertaking. You’ve simply found this little curiosity and can now examine it. It makes the game feel like discovering an antique mechanical toy (in a good way). There isn’t much of an instruction manual, but the more you poke at the hinges and seams, the more detail and craftsmanship you discover.
Like those old Star Wars toys, Captain Toad's world is charming because of its depth rather than because of it’s breadth. There are plenty of games in which climbing towers and surveying a sprawling world is the central theme, but Captain Toad's scope seems like it’s on the opposite end of the spectrum. You can see the entirety of most levels immediately. However, what you actually see is limited to the surface of one side. Swing the camera around, and there is a network of tunnels behind a sheer rock face. Switches are nestled away in corners and restructure the landscape when pulled. Pathways that look like one way streets can be traversed multiple times from different angles. All of this is illustrated in a vibrant art style and with an attention to detail that accounts for small dust particles or the ripples in a shallow river bed.
The Grand Canyon is impressive, but so are the inner workings of a Swiss watch. Captain Toad’s enemies pace back and forth in a rhythm that corresponds with that of the moving platforms in the environment. Collecting some gems requires you to carefully budget the number of tools you have. Finishing levels unlocks new challenges that hint at even more hidden items or more efficient ways of navigating the levels. There have been many instances when I’ve been baffled when trying to find a secret gem, only to discover that it was simply on the other side of a wall that I had walked past a dozen times. Other puzzles ask you to slide blocks around the world to make a pathway. Finishing them makes you feel clever -- until you see a challenge that suggests the puzzle can be solved in fewer than half the moves you originally made.
Toad and Toadette (who, in a refreshing display of gender equality, take turns rescuing each other) don’t possess the same flashy style as Mario. They don’t get to leap over obstacles or barrel through enemies using a super star. Instead, they’re stuck on the ground and have to use their wits to navigate the world. This shifts the game’s focus away from massive spectacles and towards minute details. Seeing how much can be packed into a confined environment is delightful. Every time you think you’ve seen everything, another layer gets peeled back.
Like my old Micro Machines Star Wars toys, Captain Toad is about density. Everything has a small footprint even though there is a lot happening in any given scene. Tiny details and clockwork interactions give the world personality and make set pieces even more dramatic. It’s a restrained, disciplined approach to design that fits the spirit of it’s title. Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker isn’t about conspicuous display of open-world wealth. It’s about examining something that initially seems ordinary and finding treasure hidden behind the facade.