Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker, You Get Out What You Put In
Despite what I’ve heard a lot of people saying, Treasure Tracker isn’t really all that much like it’s 3D World counterpart. Superficially, they are similar in that they have much the same scope of very condensed-down, “toy box”-like level structures. But Captain Toad in 3D World was much more of a rigid puzzle game, whereas I feel that Treasure Tracker is much more of an exploration game. In 3D World, the goal of Captain Toad’s stages are to collect as many of the 5 accessible green stars as possible before a timer runs out. The challenge presented is that Captain Toad is not capable of jumping, only falling, so the player must figure out a pathway through the level that will allow them to reach each star. Treasure Tracker is more like standard Mario stage design. The goal is merely to reach the exit of each level, which in this case is represented by a gold star. To reach the gold star requires either some light puzzle solving, avoidance/combat of enemies, or technique-based “maneuvering” (platforming might not be the right word since you don’t jump) through the level. Reaching the gold star is, in almost all stages, a pretty simple task that can be completed within the span of minutes.
With that simplicity in mind, the uninitiated to Treasure Tracker may wonder why the game need exist at all, especially as a $40 retail release. To answer that, there are two things which I think make Captain Toad worthwhile to me. The first is the creativity put into each level. As you would expect from the makers of Mario games (3D Mario games at least), each level tends to display its own unique, imaginative ideas, both in terms of aesthetics and gameplay mechanics, albeit cut down into smaller-scale spaces. Since Mario Galaxy, I don’t know of anyone other than Nintendo who are capable of so completely capturing my sense of wonder on such a regular basis. Second, and this is probably key, is that the secondary objectives of each Treasure Tracker level really make the game compelling to master.
Each Treasure Tracker level hides away three diamonds, somewhat similar to the green stars of 3D World or the giant coins of New Super Mario Bros. The collection of diamonds works as a sort of ancillary objective that will do way more to challenge and stimulate players than merely reaching the exit. The diamonds are not completely superfluous to completing the game, as certain parts of the game are gated with a minimum diamond requirement that blocks further progression. But exhaustive diamond collection is an unnecessary requirement to technically complete the game. In addition, each level has a bonus objective. Sometimes, this objective is fairly straightforward, such as collect a certain number of coins or find a hidden gold mushroom, but the simplicity of these goals can be deceptively challening. Other times, the objective is more unique. For instance, one level has Toad sneaking through a town of Shy Guys and gives the player the bonus task of never being spotted by these enemies.
These side goals (diamonds and special objectives) are why I say that you get out of the game what you put into it. In Treasure Tracker, it’s true because players merely trying to reach the end credits will miss out on the best aspects of the game. Some criticize Nintendo for making such interesting gameplay features into optional side content, but I’ve come to feel that that attidue is the result of a harshly consumerist view of games as being merely products that are to be consumed as quickly as possible so that the player can move onto the next big release.
Back when I was a kid, “mastering” a game was a feat that everyone treasured and bragged about. Nowadays, it feels like I hear people more wanting to have games that are incredibly “digestible,” so that they don’t have to spend a lot of time with them and can thus play more games. Probably, it’s less a reflection of the times, rather a reflection of an adult’s view on gaming vs. a child’s. Adults have plenty of money to buy the next big game coming out, while children don’t, so these nascent gamers focus instead on squeezing the most they can out of what they have. This is why I think Minecraft is so enormously popular with young people today, as it has an incredible amount of replayability. Meanwhile, I hear a fair few of the adult gamers I know complain about its lack of “direction.”
Back on the topic of Treasure Tracker, in some ways, this side quest focus is merely a representative part of modern Nintendo game design. They make the core game progression somewhat easy so that everyone can enjoy it while also making more difficult optional content that the hardcore can sink their teeth into. Personally, I think they are quite good at this format, meaning they are better than most developers at making me want to complete the bonus stuff. Nintendo puts a lot of creativity and thought into their side content. For example, the special objectives in Treasure Tracker, even when they are as simple as having to collect a certain number of coins, usually require the player to think a bit outside of the box in really inventive ways. Sometimes, that final batch of coins can be hidden in very clever places or may need the player to figure out a special trick to reach them. These objectives aren’t merely a poorly designed, rote test of blunt skill, and, consequently, Nintendo avoids the tedium that most developers tack onto their games, because they’re not treating the side content as merely an afterthought to the main line of progression. Rather, the side content is an integral part of their philosophy of designing games that have compelling content for all possible players.
In a way, Treasure Tracker sort of reminds me of one of my all-time favorite games, Donkey Kong for the Game Boy. Both games seem to share a similar philosophy of concentrating down gameplay design into quickly-attacked, reduced spaces. In addition, it’s a bit unique as it’s not a full priced retail title, rather it seems to be a sort of side project for Nintendo EAD. Nintendo is basically the only developer really supporting the Wii U right now, via both it’s own studios and partners such as Platinum Games. I know a lot of people out there use the lack of third-party support to knock the Wii U, but really, the raison d’être of Nintendo consoles has been Nintendo’s own games since at least the N64. I see the Wii U as more of a secondary console that justifies its existence simply because of the high quality and uniqueness of Nintendo software. I don’t think I would buy, say, a Ubisoft console, simply because their offering don’t really stand out enough, in either quality or creativity. The problem for the Wii U (and previous Nintendo consoles) is really that Nintendo is not a massive company and have difficulty in keeping a steady flow of releases for their platforms. I think Treasure Tracker may represent the start of Nintendo’s solution to that issue, as we’re going to see more smaller side projects like this fill out the release calendar. Kirby and the Rainbow Curse and Mario Maker fall into this category, I believe. Hopefully, it will provide for some interesting new experimentation from the venerated developer.