Designer Koshi Igrashi once pointed out that cameras make us think that the translation of 3D environments to 2D screens is a simple process, when it’s actually quite complicated. Game designers have spent the last decade and a half trying to solve the misrepresentations of space that this translation creates, with wildly varying levels of success. Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker takes an infectious delight in behaving as though it’s the first one to discover these problems, and finds them thrilling.
Each level is a little 3D diorama, which you have to navigate to get a star. Sometimes your way is blocked by enemies, but Treasure Tracker is less about manipulating enemies and more about manipulating your point of view; the main gameplay mechanic is looking around. There’s plenty of switch-flipping and dodging of piranha plants, but many puzzles are built around your inability to see things your character would, and are solved by carefully moving the camera until you find the hidden path. 3D games usually have to employ many visual tells to signal to the player where they are and where they should be going, but this a world where you just have to waddle around bumping into things, like life.
Put it that way, and it all seems pretty depressing. But this is a Nintendo game, and they’re masters of using design to sweeten sadly adult lessons. With blue skies, puffy foliage, and some of the most triumphant MIDI music since the original Link to the Past, Treasure Tracker is as huggable as its apple-cheeked protagonist. Aesthetics aside, what really makes it a joy is the clever level design. While this is primarily a puzzle game, there are levels devoted to stealth, action, boss battles, and even the occasional bout of first-person shooting. It’s like a stroll through all the genres of 3D gaming, each one approached with a bold willingness to introduce a neat gameplay element and move on from it just as quickly. It even revives the old blow-in-the-mic mechanic from the original DS days, which isn’t particularly necessary, but is a fun callback for fans of the first great/weird Nintendo system.
The game even does a nice bit of expectation flipping with its otherwise vestigial story. It begins with the old-fashioned video-game setup of Toadette being kidnapped, and Captain Toad going out to rescue her. But when the credits roll, a new chapter is unlocked, in which Toad is the captive, Toadette the rescuer, and all the puzzles are deeper and more challenging. It’s like they’ve packed both Pac-Man and Ms. Pac-Man into one game, and that scenario is followed by yet another chapter in which both genders of Toad work toward a common goal. There’s a lot of content here, and each level’s optional diamond collecting, and extra goals only revealed after a first play-through, encourage obsessive-compulsive exploration.
Treasure Tracker is a powerful gesture of confidence by Nintendo: a spinoff game with more original ideas than most companies’ new IPs. Poor little Toad might be a wimpy doughball of a hero, unable to jump, attack, or even run. But that makes his staunch toddle toward victory a more inspiring sight.