Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker feels like a design challenge for Nintendo. How do you make a Mario game without jumping? The classic move is a platforming staple forged in large part by the company's own mascot. The enjoyable Captain Toad stages in Super Mario 3D World provided a brief glimpse of such a concept, but transforming it into a full-fledged platformer complete with boss stages is a much harder task. I say all this to illustrate just how impressive it is that Captain Toad works at all, much less stands on its own as a fantastic game in what I can only hope is a burgeoning new series.
The adventure begins when Captain Toad and Toadette discover a golden star. Their treasure is quickly pilfered by a villainous bird named Wingo, but Toadette isn't letting it go without a fight. As a result, she's carried off with the star. Captain Toad goes off in search of her--or the star, as he seems a bit single-minded about treasure. It isn't long before the whole thing starts anew, this time with Captain Toad himself being carried off and Toadette handling the hero duties. The two switch off several times during the course of the game, looking for each other and collecting treasures along the way.
Despite the dual leads, this is all kept strictly single-player. The combination of Toad and Toadette would seem to lend itself to co-op puzzle-solving, but that's nowhere to be found. It doesn't make the overall experience feel too lacking, but it's easy to see how the series could have room to grow.
Nintendo uses short and often funny vignettes tell the story, such as it is. These never get too bogged down or plot-heavy, because the story is just sweet and simple. The art style is fit to match, with colorful splashes and expressive enemies. Even the bosses are plush and chubby. It's the little touches that really show it off as a living cartoon. Captain Toad himself, for example, seems perfectly content when standing still, but when you break into a run his face gets a gigantic grin, as if to shout "I'm going on an adventure!"
The stages themselves show off the same knack for inventiveness and imagination that made Super Mario 3D World our 2013 Game of the Year. It borrows a few elements for select puzzles, like the Double Cherry to clone Toad, or the musical flip plates that switch after a few beats. Mostly, though, the stages revolve around manipulating the camera and finding the correct path for Toad on his way to the stage's star. He can't jump due to his heavy backpack; no such explanation is offered for Toadette, so I presume Toads are just terrible jumpers. Obstacles and enemies stand in the way, but you can dispatch them with a well-tossed turnip or a Super Pickaxe.
Similar to 3D World, each stage has a set of hidden baubles. In this case it's three gems, which are each stashed away in locations that are more challenging or require you to view the puzzle differently. Stage progression is also locked behind gems, requiring you to collect a certain number to take on boss stages and move forward in the story. I've never been fond of this particular mechanic, since the gating feels artificial, but the gems do at least encourage exploring stages thoroughly.
And it is chock full of stages. Captain Toad's tendency toward the creative and surprising is especially notable given the sheer number of puzzles. On top of the regular stages, it lets you explore some select Super Mario 3D World stages as Toad if it detects a save on your system. These aren't as fun as the puzzles designed specifically for Captain Toad, since they weren't built for a character with such limited mobility, but it's still a nice touch.
Top to bottom, Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker is a delightful little treat of a game. It shows a purity of puzzle design that few studios can match, and it wraps it all in a sugary-sweet presentation that only the most jaded could refuse. With a game this good, Captain Toad may just be Nintendo's next breakout star.
This review is based on a Wii U downloadable code provided by the publisher. Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker will be available in retail stores and on the Nintendo eShop on December 5, for $39.99. The game is rated E.