Ranking the top 101 Nintendo games: No. 45, Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker

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I’m ranking the top 101 Nintendo developed/published games of all-time, and you can read about the thought process behind game eligibility and list construction here. You can keep up with the rankings so far through this link.

Tucked away inside the excellent Super Mario 3D World was a set of levels featuring a side character Nintendo had not done very much with to that point. Captain Toad got his start back in Super Mario Galaxy on the Wii, as the leader of a group of space-faring Toads helping Mario track down Power Stars. You would sometimes see them and their ship in various levels, and on occasion they’d gift you with a star they had found in their own travels, but that was the extent of it.

In 3D World, though, Captain Toad got his moment in the sun, as you were able to take control of the little adventurer in one stage per world. These levels were different from anything else in the game, as they were rotating, self-contained puzzle platforming stages with their own sets of rules. Captain Toad would walk (slowly) around a stage, climbing and falling and avoiding as necessary, to collect the five stars scattered throughout. Toad can’t jump like Mario can, so stages that, for Mario, would have been a breeze or simply a room he piped into and out of, became more elaborate exercises that required you to think about how Toad was going to reach the next star from where he was.

The stages weren’t taxing, but they were a lovely change of pace from 3D World proper, and were very much an obvious candidate for their own spinoff. That didn’t mean Nintendo would give us that spinoff, of course, but thankfully, they did. Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker released for the Wii U in December of 2014, and it was so much more elaborate than the teaser 3D World gave us just over a year beforehand.

Captain Toad, like Super Mario 3D World, was developed by Nintendo Entertainment & Analysis Tokyo Department No. 2, a subdivision of Nintendo’s Tokyo-specific operations — the original EAD, previously known as Nintendo R&D and responsible for, oh, most of the major Nintendo franchises, is located in Kyoto. While EAD no longer exists as its own separate unit(s), thanks to waves of internal restructuring six years ago, Captain Toad’s developers made nine games during their existence between 2008 and 2014: seven of them are on this list. That’s some batting average.

They did not develop Captain Toad by themselves, though. 1-Up Studio was a co-developer of the game, both on the initial version released for the Wii U as well as the ports to the 3DS and the Switch. 1-Up Studio, you might recall, was formerly known as Brownie Brown. They were founded back in 2000, as one of the various studios created by former Squaresoft employees who had left the company, and focused exclusively on handheld games for Nintendo. Magical Vacation and Magical Starsign, Fantasy Life, handheld-spinoffs from other franchises like Blue Dragon, the Mana games. Mother 3, Super Mario 3D Land… it was an impressive list. In 2013, though, they switched over to 1-Up Studio, which was designed to be a supporting developer to some of Nintendo’s larger studios. The idea might have seemed a little odd at the time, but Nintendo was also just a couple of years away from combining the handheld space with the home console space, too, so the need for a handheld-specific developer wasn’t what it used to be.

I bother to mention 1-Up Studio’s contributions not just to give you some space-filling background on who made this game, but because Captain Toad shares some DNA with a game 1-Up Studios made on their own, back when they were still Brownie Brown. And that’s the DSiWare title, A Kappa’s Trail. If that sounds familiar, it’s because you’re one of the few people who played that title — it is obscure enough that it doesn’t have its own Wikipedia page — or you remember it from the write up I did on Nintendo games that just missed making it into these rankings.

In A Kappa’s Trail, you are relatively defenseless in the levels you must traverse. You’re seeking and collecting and trying to make it through to the end of the stage, before some harm can befall you. Sometimes you might find some items that keep enemies away or stall their progress. Sometimes all you can do is keep moving and hope that’s enough to keep you safe. Captain Toad isn’t quite as intense as A Kappa’s Trail in these regards, as it’s designed to give you more time to stop and think things through before you set off on your path, but they’re very much cousins in this space. Just like the titular Kappa can’t do anything besides walk around, Captain Toad is stuck on land, too: he can’t jump like other Toads, with the reasoning being that his backpack full of adventuring tools and treasures is weighing him down, and defeating enemies is often more a side-effect of his travels than intentional.

The lack of jumping makes these small-scale courses much larger than they appear, because there is going to be a lot of hitting of switches to open up pathways, a lot of climbing up and climbing down — or even just falling down — in order to get where you’re going. In the 3D World levels, Captain Toad would collect five stars, and the stage was over. Here, in his own game, there is just one star per level. Sometimes, getting to it is a simple task, but just getting to the star isn’t enough. There are also diamonds to be collected in each level, and this is usually where the challenge and puzzles reside. To unlock more levels, you can’t just collect the stars and move on. You need these diamonds, too, which gatekeep later stages like stars tend to in Mario games, so you don’t want to just pass over them if they’re proving difficult to collect. You need to find out how to reach the hard-to-reach ones, discover pathways to diamonds you can see but can’t see how to grab, to interact with your environment — enemies, plants, fellow Toads — to see if you can shake loose, figuratively or literally, any of the world’s hidden goodies.

The diamonds are the only necessary collectible component, but why be satisfied with the bare minimum? Each stage also has a task for you to complete. Sometimes it’s collecting a set number of coins, which will almost always require you do quite a bit of exploring to find hidden coins, and maybe even avoid taking any damage while also finding a mushroom: if Toad hasn’t been shrunk via damage, a mushroom is worth coins instead of serving as a power-up. Sometimes it’s finding the hidden golden mushroom worth 50 coins. And sometimes it’s avoiding contact with all of the enemies — that’s right, Stealth Toad is back, baby. No cardboard box this time, though.

And that’s not all! Each stage also has an alternate version to play where a hidden, pixelated, 2D Toad must be found. Sometimes the Toad is pretty easy to spot, other times you need to do some digging and camera maneuvering. And lastly, each stage also has a challenge time to best. The challenge time is essentially exactly how long it should take you to get from the start of a stage to its star, with no other deviations at all. The very first stage has a 16-second challenge time, and others can be higher depending on how intricate they are, but there are also some as short as five seconds. Like with the hidden Toads and the goals like coin collecting, the challenge times are not required to progress or to complete a stage. But they’re fun, and a worthwhile change of pace from the gameplay proper, and don’t just feel tacked on to extend the game’s playtime. They feel like reasons to stick around in the Captain Toad universe, because you want to do that, because this game rules.

This is also a good time to point out that this is just how one part of the game works. Captain Toad has his own “episode” comprised of 17 stages, played in the above way, which is followed by a second, 18-stage episode where Toadette is your playable character. Then there is episode three, where you use both characters, and there are 27 stages. And then there is an unlockable bonus episode with another 18 stages: the first four stages are different depending on whether you’re playing the Wii U version or the Switch version, as they’re based on those systems’ corresponding original Mario title (3D World and Odyssey, respectively). The other 14 are the same, though, and are, in the traditional Mario setup, more difficult and modified versions of earlier stages. They have their own additional tasks and challenges to complete — like, say, traversing a level while a mummy Toad (filling in for Shadow Mario) follows your path exactly and defeats you if it catches you, or, rescue and escort the rest of Captain Toad’s crew to the end of a stage while enemies try to one-shot kill all your buddies.

It’s not just enough to complete the earlier episodes, as said: you need to be collecting the diamonds and working toward a 100 percent complete rate in order to play all of these bonus stages. You’ll want to hit that completion rate for reasons other than “I must,” though, which is a wonderful feeling. You’ll just want to do it! I completed the whole thing on the Wii U back when it released, and have sunk another 40 hours into the Switch port, too. Writing about it now makes me want to go back and play some more. It seems so simple, but simple isn’t bad: it’s very satisfying, and between the gameplay and the music and the adorable nature of it all, I want to go there.

And then there is the DLC episode, which features five new maps and more of the bonus-style levels, where earlier stages are revisited with more challenge and new tasks to complete: some of these have a new goal where you’re grabbing crowns as they spawn before they can disappear and reset the collection, and others turn levels you’re used to into haunted ones full of Boos. And alongside that DLC, Nintendo updated the game so that every single stage is able to be played in co-op, too: Captain Toad is great on his own, but the Captain and Toadette together makes for a lovely little co-op adventure.

There isn’t much else like Captain Toad in Nintendo’s catalog, and it’s unclear if they’ll ever even revisit with a sequel down the line or if this was it. Regardless, it’s a wonderful concept that Nintendo has built and improved upon for years, between its origins in 3D Mario World to the Wii U release to the Switch and 3DS ports that further enhanced the gameplay and volume of stages. We’ve already got this version of Captain Toad, and that’s plenty impressive on its own. If you haven’t played yet — and lifetime sales for the game suggest not enough of you have — then that’s something you should rectify.

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