Like its diminutive heroes, Captain Toad: Treasure Track is much more than it first appears. It is a curious exercise in subverting expectations that is as polished and complete as any Nintendo game, despite boiling down an established formula to its bare elements.
Essentially this is a Mario platformer without the ability to jump. Technically that makes it more of a puzzle game, but it is one with many of the familiar tropes seen in Nintendo's 2013 Mario adventure Super Mario 3D World – the game in which Captain Toad made his debut.
Toad's handful of levels in that game were a lovely garnish on an already exquisite dish, but it also provided a taster for what was to come in this, Toad's first solo game, which offers over 60 levels for players to plod through.
There are coins, Goombas, Shy Guys and visually there's no deviation from 3D World, but in terms of gameplay this is a fresh and bold departure for Nintendo. The inability to jump forces players to avoid enemies more often than they confront them and the slower pace creates puzzles unlike those seen in other Nintendo platformers.
Like Echochrome and Monument Valley, players are also granted the ability to manually control the camera, spinning the diorama-like stages to get a better view and spot collectables. There are no mind-bending Penrose Steps-style puzzles to find, but spinning the camera around to drink in the beautiful designs does provide some of the game's purest joys, and makes the simplistic gameplay more engaging than it otherwise would have been.
Each level has three gems to collect and a level-ending star. After completing a stage for the first time a bonus objective is also revealed, intended to provoke the completionist in us all. It works of course, and as always with Nintendo products re-treading old levels to find all their secrets never feels like an arbitrary way to stretch the game out, but a genuine part of the game proper.
Levels are split between three "books" and an additional bonus set of levels for those with 3D World saved data on their consoles. Each book tells the standard tale of a kidnapping and subsequent rescue attempt.
In the first instance Toadette is kidnapped by Wingo - a large star-craving bird - but refreshingly in Book 2 its Toad who is captured, and Toadette making the save. The final book sees Toadette snatched once again, but you'll play as both characters over the course of its stages.
The role-reversal is good, but that's not enough to shake a feeling the repetition, particularly in boss fights that vary in difficulty but are similar and always against the same two foes - Wingo and Draggadon, a dragon in his volcano lair. Mario games get away with a certain amount of repetition over the course of larger games, but here it seems wasteful and unimaginative.
These boss encounters only make up a small portion of the stages on offer however, the rest of which more than make up for any lack of invention there by offering the kind of wild variety expected of all Nintendo platformers.
There's a plenitude of settings and aesthetics of course, but gameplay too is shaken up regularly with levels that impose time limits, give you hordes of enemies to manoeuvre through or quicken the pace with a series of chutes or speed-boosting pads. Treasure Tracker also switches to a first-person Gamepad shooter briefly for some on-rails mine cart stages.
There's plenty to do, and it never gets complicated, making it perfect for its young audience. Older players will find the simple but hearty gameplay satisfying but may be left disappointed that the games mechanics aren't used in more challenging ways.
Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker is a delightful start for what has potential to be a successful new series for Nintendo and continues their streak of experimentation. Arguably better suited to the 3DS due to its bite-sized levels, that doesn't detract at all from the top-notch production value offered by the Wii U and implemented well.
There are some issues with variety (the game is just shy of outstaying its welcome) and it has more of a difficulty plateau than a difficulty curve, but Treasure Tracker is nevertheless a great addition to the Wii U catalogue, which grows more robust with each new exclusive.