‘Captain Toad’ Remains the Epitome of Nintendo’s Toymaker Ethos

AKA: Look, Nintendo, this game is sweet, and we need it on Switch, okay?

by Chris Schilling
Jul 20 2017, 8:59pm

Screenshots courtesy of Nintendo.

Chris Schilling's column The Pick-Me-Up focuses on games that can make you smile in just ten minutes.

Like many of you, I'm sure, I play my Switch almost exclusively in handheld mode. It helps—or not, in productivity terms—that it's within arm's reach of my workstation: I simply wheel my chair slightly to the right and lean across to lift it out of the dock. Convenience is a factor, then, but I'm finding myself increasingly drawn to playing that way in general. The only problem is the battery drain—and it depletes quicker than it charges even when it's plugged in. Which means sometimes, reluctantly, I have to put it back and wait until it's sufficiently juiced to have another go.

Long story short, the other day I completely drained the battery, and so, with a bit of time spare, I fired up Ye Olde Wii U for a brief blast from the recent-ish past. The game? Well, you've surely already guessed.

Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker is the kind of game Nintendo should probably make more of, but probably won't—at least not for a while. It's leaning on second and third-party partners to prop up the 3DS for the time being while it reallocates most of its internal resources to work on maintaining Switch's one-big-game-per-month schedule.

I'm not quite sure where that leaves mid-range stuff like this, at least until 3DS finally shuffles off its digital coil. But a re-release—or, and this is wishful thinking in the extreme, an enhanced edition—of Captain Toad on Switch surely isn't out of the question? Let's hope not.

It's not far off three years old, and there's still a strong argument for Treasure Tracker being Nintendo's best-looking game to date, despite the soft-focus filter provided by the GamePad's 480p display. The Wii U's processor doesn't need to handle huge draw distances or render hundreds of different objects, which means a greater focus on lighting and fine detail.

This is Nintendo fully embracing its toymaker roots.

The game's compact, self-contained stages are like artisanal executive toys reimagined by Fisher Price, built from materials and mechanisms that look tangible—so convincingly solid you'll feel as if you could reach into the screen and bring them into the real world.

It belongs on the GamePad, not so much because it feels particularly like the kind of game you'd see on a handheld (though I've often wondered how it might look on the 3DS's autostereoscopic display) but because it's like cradling a physical object in your hands. On release, it was compared to Monument Valley, but when you're just examining a level rather than moving around it, it has something of the intimacy of Fireproof Games' The Room and its sequels. When you tilt the controller and zoom closer, you're peering under, over and into each object; nudge the right stick and it's like you're turning it over, studying it for secrets.

Which, of course, you are, since that's the whole point: grab the three gems on each level, reach the Power Star, and you're done. It's a game about exploration of a different kind from the likes of Breath of the Wild; where you discover things not by travelling great distances but by studying your locality with great care. You've still got to guide the Captain around, as he waddles adorably past Shy Guy patrols, but you do most of the work with your eyes. That's partly why a port would be so welcome: the colors would pop all the more on Switch's screen, the details showing up clearer with that Vaseline smear removed from the camera.

It's an easy ride, for the most part, even factoring in the bonus objectives on each level that encourage you to replay them at least once. But the pleasure isn't found in conquering difficult challenges; the real joy is in the physical sensation of it all. Like when the Captain plucks turnips from the ground to lob at enemies, and they yield with a satisfying pop. And when he tugs levers that cause platforms and ramps to whirr and rumble into place. If these moments aren't absolutely made for Switch's HD rumble feature, I don't know what is.

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This is Nintendo fully embracing its toymaker roots, narrowing in rather than broadening out, finding the wonder in tiny things instead of vast open spaces. Which is perhaps why I'm so doubtful of seeing a follow-up. It seems as if Nintendo is pulling in a different direction now, relying on indies to give Switch the games that feel more at home when you're carrying it around rather than hooking it up to the TV, while committing resources to more substantial games like Breath of the Wild and Super Mario Odyssey (which, coincidentally, has Treasure Tracker co-director Kenta Motokura at the helm).

I know port begging is kind of gauche, and lord knows I've got enough on my plate at the moment between ARMS and Splatoon 2. But with Mario Kart 8 already having made the short hop over to Switch, and PlatinumGames hinting at the possibility of The Wonderful 101 making its way across, surely there's room for another of Wii U's underappreciated gems?

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Puzzle Games
Wii U
Captain Toad Treasure Tracker