CrossSection | Why You Should Be Playing Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker

In this article, Laurie ‘TheEggman64’ tries to convince you to go back and play a classic game many people might have missed…

People of a certain age will remember growing up and playing the classic game ‘Screwball Scramble’. No, not a video game, but the toy from Tomy where you had to guide a small ball-bearing round a maze using small levers and dials to manipulate a series of bridges, mazes and jumps. It’s a quaint toy, especially in today’s world where every toy comes with an accompanying app and wifi connection, but it’s enduring popular nonetheless and no-one who makes it to the end will fail to smile with satisfaction.

It’s the same playful heart that sits at the core of Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker. It seems every article on Nintendo has to mention they were originally a toy manufacturer, but in this game it really shows. Each of its 100+ stages is a small playset that has been carefully designed to reward a curious mind. In its best stages, it invokes such a strong sense of childhood play, reawakening a part of the brain adults have left to shrivel up, like the old prunes we are all slowly becoming.

“There’s a magic moment before each level opens for the first time, you literally have no idea what to expect. Then the curtain is raised, and you find yourself just staring at the screen for a while, taking it all in.”

Its design is based on the Japanese tradition of ‘Hakoniwa’; the creation of miniature gardens packed with tiny details. Literally; sandboxes. This approach to the design of 3D spaces first informed Nintendo in their creation of Super Mario 64 and it was an approach Nintendo doubled down on here. In a past Treehouse Live broadcast, Nintendo’s Shigeru Miyamoto reminisced about the time he was making their first 3D masterpiece, when he used to let his pet hamster run freely around the room simply for the enjoyment of watching it explore. We’ve all done it; whether you owned a pet hamster as a kid or simply stood in a pet shop and marvelled at the cages consisting of interconnected tunnels and pipes. It’s classic Nintendo, take an intrinsically child-like experience and turn it into a game. One of Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker’s levels is literally a giant hamster wheel you spin round to reveal secrets. 

We don’t use the word ‘sandbox’ so much these days, now we’re all about open worlds. Assassin’s Creed Odyssey may be a remarkable game, but I couldn’t tell you what any of the cities or spaces in it look like; a game so massive has to be filled with cut and paste buildings. Meanwhile, each of Captain Toad’s levels are packed full of charm.

Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker should be a textbook game for game design students; this is how you create 3D spaces that are interesting and fun to navigate. The game’s director Shinya Hiratake compared the levels to bento boxes when discussing the game’s design and you can see that – these are levels that have to be unpacked and unfolded, investigated and manipulated. This is definitely a game that is best played in handheld; these toy sets deserve to played with by hand, not by the odd motion-controlled on-screen pointer Nintendo provide for docked play. 

Is the game perfect? No, of course it’s not. There’s a feeble attempt at a story, even by Nintendo’s standards. Obviously I don’t expect much but it wouldn’t have been difficult for Nintendo to work into some links to the wider Mushroom Kingdom or some cameos from other characters. An online high score or time trial element could have helped to increase longevity. Finally, some of the levels are repeats of others – some ideas feel like they are re-used one too many time. 

These are soft complaints though, in a game so generous with content for its £30 asking-price. Playing to collect the star in each stage takes but a few hours; the real fun, where levels reveal their true ingenuity, comes in collecting the hidden gems and completing the secondary objectives. Then there’s the hide-and-seek pixel toad challenge, the target times to beat each level, the recent free VR and two-player co-op updates, and the bargain DLC with another big tranche of new levels. Finally there’s the (spoiler?) procedurally generated final level that is more fun on its own than many an indie rogue-like I’ve played in the past. 

There’s a magic moment before each level opens for the first time, you literally have no idea what to expect. Then the curtain is raised, and you find yourself just staring at the screen for a while, taking it all in. You know there’s more to it than meets the eye though, so there’s only one thing for it – time to get stuck in.