The much-maligned Wii U has had a pretty good 2014. This year saw the release of both a new Mario Kart and a new Super Smash Bros. on the struggling console, and both are the best in their respective series (not to mention the console's two best selling titles to date). Those games are joined by less-heralded, but still wonderful, releases like Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze, Hyrule Warriors, Shovel Knight, and Bayonetta 2. Two years after launch, the Wii U's lineup is finally starting to take shape. Now, Nintendo is taking one more stab at luring you to the Wii U this year with a fantastic little puzzle game starring one of the company's oft-neglected characters.
Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker, which launches December 5th, actually started life as a mini-game in last year's excellent Super Mario 3D World. The new version expands on that basic concept, which is simply to get the star at the end of each level. But unlike Mario, Toad can't jump, and so the levels are more like puzzles you need to solve as opposed to obstacle courses to race through.
Each stage is a like a tiny world unto itself
Each stage is a like a tiny world unto itself, an island just floating in space, as if you're exploring a virtual diorama. It looks especially great in levels with water, where the cutaway effect makes it look like you're walking around a colorful fish tank. There's also a huge variety of locations to explore: you'll venture through everything from haunted houses to volcanoes to peaceful gardens. You can rotate the camera to scan the level from every conceivable angle, which lets you figure out how to get around, but it's also just a great way to appreciate all the small, wonderful details tucked away.
Those cleverly designed levels are the core of the experience. Because there's no jump button, you don't have to worry much about timing or reflexes; instead, each level is like a puzzle box, and you just need to figure out how to get from one end to the next. Sometimes it's as simple as being observant and finding all the hidden pathways. Other times you'll need to use switches and levers to manipulate the level itself. There are even boss battles, in which you can defeat a giant dragon just by outsmarting it. The level of variety and ingenuity on display is impressive; one minute you're being sucked into a level made of Futurama-style tubes, the next you're using a cannon to shoot turnips at goombas.
The level of variety and ingenuity on display is impressive
What makes the different levels so fun is that they're all full of secrets. In addition to the star at the end of the stage, which is your ultimate goal, you can also find three diamonds in each level. You won't have to find them all to progress through the game, but it's incredibly satisfying to go back and see things you may have missed the first time around. Whereas some games force you to replay levels, making it feel like a punishment, I actually wanted to check out levels in Captain Toad multiple times, and there was only one instance where I had to replay a level in order to progress. In fact, for the most part, Captain Toad is incredibly forgiving: for example, if you die too many times in a level, the game just gives you a power-up to help you along. This helps make things challenging without becoming frustrating.
That attention to detail and focus on fun isn't really too surprising for a Nintendo release — after all, this is a company that turned video game bowling into a global phenomenon with Wii Sports. While the basic concept and core gameplay of Captain Toad are incredibly simple, the game is infused with smart ideas that elevate it above the level of a standard puzzle game. Everything from the structure and the visuals to the sheer variety of challenges feels just about perfect. It's hard to play this game without a smile on your face.
Whatever fate awaits the Wii U, Nintendo is doing just about everything it can to make sure the console has some amazing games. It may not have third-party support, but Nintendo's own releases feel exciting in a way they haven't for years. At a glance, Captain Toad seems like a throwaway game, a weird little spinoff starring a character no one really cares about. Yet it's one of the best puzzle games of the year, and another one of a growing number of reasons to pick up a Wii U.
Captain Toad is available December 5th on Wii U.