'Captain Toad' Is Basically Upside-Down Mario, and That's Why It's Great
'Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker' is a gem of smart, delightful puzzle design.
All images courtesy Nintendo
In one of my first pieces ever for Waypoint, way back in my first week, I talked about how great the Wii U was, as a console. It had some of the finest games at the time.
There are two, in particular, from 2014 that this applies to: Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze, and Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker. They reviewed well, and then, come game of the year discussion time, they were all but forgotten, in the midst of “ugh, 2014 sucked for games” bullshit that was unsubstantiated.
(2014 sucked for many reasons, but the games? They were great.)
As of now, both of those games are available on Switch, and if you didn’t play them before, this is the perfect opportunity to see what I’ve been hollering about for years.
I’ve sung the graces of Tropical Freeze loudly, and now it’s Captain Toad’s turn: this is a beautifully designed puzzle-platformer, a game that takes the central tenets of platforming and twists them on their head. There’s no jumping in Captain Toad, and the little dude (and dudette, in the sections where Toadette is the hero) moves pretty slowly.
Instead, you need to manipulate the environments—floating dioramas, often with their own unique mechanics and tricks—and guide your stalwart protagonist through. There are hidden gems on each level, and the end-stage star.
New to this version are some Mario Odyssey-inspired courses, and a pixel Toad feature: once you beat a level, you can re-enter it and twist the camera just so to find an adorable, hidden 8-bit Toad decal hanging out. But it's largely the same game as before. Which is fine, because it’s a fantastic game: with level design that consistently surprises, delights, and offers new ways of interacting with the world.
Here’s an early stage, for demonstration: Spinwheel Library. It’s relatively contained: a chunky set of rotating platforms, themed after a creepy little library. On the first platform, where’s an industrial-looking wheel, which you spin slowly on the Switch’s gamepad. Turning it one way rotates the second platform clockwise, allowing you access to a secret gem in the middle for one turn, or a new staircase to the third platform on a second rotation. Once you’re up there, you can go ahead and finish the stage, grabbing the star. Or you can pan the camera a little bit and discover a whole side section you would’ve missed if your eye was only on the main prize.
There’s a pipe that leads to this mysterious mid-section, and some coins to entice you, and what’s that? A hidden gem in a nook just to the left? It’s time to get cooking with that spinwheel and see where you can get to.
Figuring out that you need to interact with platform X to clear a path to Y, which allows access to Z is much of the game. In some stages, you do that by touching panels. In others, you will flip switches. In still others, you get access to a toad-multiplying cherry, which tasks you with navigating mazes as several Toads—with only one input. Success in those areas requires you to make careful use of nooks and crannies for turning one little figure to the right while hugging the wall with another.
There are dozens of unique mechanics like these, along with more skill-based sections (like boss fights!) that require a little more active timing on your part. And there are even plenty of stealth sections, where your only tools are hiding or throwing veggies at shy guys. But the game is largely chill and cerebral, rewarding players for their clever thinking and curious camera panning.
It's a brilliant inversion of the usual Mario formula, which certainly rewards exploration, but emphasizes timing and skill. There's a range—certainly, there are more cerebral 3D Mario stages (like Wet-Dry World in Super Mario 64, basically a world made of spatial puzzles). But here's a game built around the what-ifs: what if Mario couldn't run or jump, but the general rules of the world were the same? How would you get by?
Thanks to that pacing and emphasis on thinking your way through obstacles, it’s pretty much perfect on the Switch, for playing in bed or on the subway to work. Or anywhere, really, you find yourself wanting to enjoy some of the most relaxed Mario-style action Nintendo has available.