A World in a Toy Box

Captain Toad is just a little fella, another laborer in The Mushroom Kingdom. They work, sleep and adventure. Mario might be off saving the entire kingdom, but Captain Toad is out there saving their own little corner of The Mushroom Kingdom. Their backpack bounces as they waddle through each level, the beam of their headlamp keeps ghosts and mud zombies at bay—there is a big bird that hates them that also can’t stop kidnapping either them or the pink Captain Toad. The big bad bird’s presence is rarely seen but always felt. The beast is the start and endpoint of each adventure, but Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker, like most great adventures, is more about the journey than the destination.

Each step along the way is a page in a book, and those pages turn as Toad’s journey progresses. Each page is its own world. Each world is a toy box—a zoomed out cube-like thing that is always original and visually arresting. These cubes can be various things: different biomes, various forms of architecture from cabin-like buildings to pieces of a castle, a train, various forms of minecart madness, and abstracted levels of disappearing and reappearing blocks, nodes, elevators, and tubes that Captain Toad must puzzle their way through. Like a toy box, these mini-worlds are constrained by angular, often 90-degree-angle boundaries. Beyond them lies nothing and everything—a colorful, seemingly endless void. Captain Toad stands on the edge and peers into the great beyond. They don’t seem to concern themselves with anything but the immediate.

Each toy-box-as-a-world is Captain Toad’s everything while they are in it, and these worlds—like physical, playful objects—can be manipulated in a litany of ways. The biggest mode of interaction is the power of a shifting perspective. The birds-eye camera can be shifted around the level so that every nook and cranny of the mini-world can be explored and peered into. It is in this interaction that Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker becomes wondrous. These digital spaces become tangible. The idea of “game feel” just becomes “feel”. We, as players, move and shift these small worlds, and how this pairs with the game’s gorgeously sleek (near plastic) art style creates a sense of play that can best be correlated to messing with a real playset and the action figures therein. There are puzzles to be solved, diamonds to collect and stars to save. But what makes Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker shine is how the toy box design plays into Captain Toad’s character. They are portrayed as a happy-go-lucky adventurer who, if the players leave them alone for a bit, will just take a nap. Peril is often (literally) around every corner but by all intents and purposes, Captain Toad just seems to be vibing. This is highlighted by the toy box-as-world design. From the musical to the sparse-but-intimate art and level-design approach, everything about Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker is just relaxing, as any interaction with a toy box and its contents should be.

These toy-boxes-as-worlds find creativity through limitation. They are often just big cubes with defined boundaries so the level design finds room to manipulate and change each level within those given boundaries. The inherent beauty of these worlds comes into a starker view when they are juxtaposed with the boss battles in Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker. These levels are often linear in the sense that there is a sense of motion that is not felt in the game’s other levels. This linearity is vertical—levels featuring bosses tend to move upward rather than horizontally from point A-to-B (granted none of the game’s levels use a horizontal A-to-B approach to level pathing, everything is done through manipulation and players can often find their own ways to each level’s specific goals)—and it is in these levels that the beauty of Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker’s core approach to level design stands out. Objectives are clearly set and made obvious so that the core challenge comes through level manipulation, discovery, and simply moving Captain Toad as they cannot jump or fight back (unless they have something to throw or are facing off against ghosts who are weak to Captain Toad’s headlamp). Discovery comes through shifts in perspective. Find a new way to look at the world and you will have found something hidden; find a new way to look at a toy and you’ve discovered a whole new way to interact with and find fun in the object that you are holding.

Yet, there is one last mode of perspective and level in Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker. I call them “chapter breaks” but they aren’t that because they don’t occur between chapters, but they feel like chapter breaks. Every now and then players will flip the book of the chapter they are in to a page/level with no objectives. These levels just give us a look into the life of Captain Toad. From a behind-the-back third-person perspective, we move them from point A-to-B as beautiful music/ambient sound plays. What we are shown are the steps we rarely have ever seen along the journey of most Mario games. This is downtime, the moments between the boss fights, puzzles, and platforming. Captain Toad’s headlamp leads them on, sometimes they’ll hum, but they are always moving forward. They are committed to this journey and to this life, whatever that life may be. We never really get a sense of what a Toad is or does, but that doesn’t really matter. Captain Toad is a hero obfuscated by the shadow of Mario in both The Mushroom Kingdom and the real world. No one ever asks Toad to save the day and Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker rarely comes up in conversation when discussing Nintendo’s best modern games, but it should. Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker, like the character themself, is a small, considerate and delightfully relaxing wonder. My childhood toy box may be taking up space in some plastic landfill somewhere, but the toy-boxes-as-worlds in Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker will hold my heart and imagination alike for years to come.

Words on games, death and stuff like that.

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