Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker is a game designed around the concept of exploring every little aspect of a level at every angle. Sure, you could go straight for the star at the end, but that would be missing the point of the game itself. The fun is in exploring these densely packed little worlds to find secrets and hidden items that are there for you to discover that were purposefully placed for you to truly complete a level once you have explored it. However, in the game’s effort to create fun items to be found throughout its levels, there are many times that the player is forced to make a decision without knowing the implications, going right past a hidden item with no way of correcting their mistake.
A Toad in a Box
To understand why this design decision is a problem, it’s important to understand how a typical level in Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker goes. Initially, you are dropped into a level and tasked with reaching the end of the level, marked by a star. Along the way, there might be enemies, pitfalls, puzzles, and secret alcoves for you to find. Inside those areas, some might contain gems (something important to find in every level) and coins (something important to find in most levels). However, you don’t always know that a certain spot exists or is even reachable until you have already passed it and can’t turn back. This design flaw is seen time and time again throughout Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker and no level exemplifies this problem more than Pickax Cave Plummet.
This particular level is found in Chapter 3 of Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker and features all the literal and metaphorical pitfalls that the series’ level design falls short of.
The layout of the level is broken into two main parts, the start of the level, and the rest. At the start of the level, you have three main choices. On one end, there is a pit with an arrow pointing down that you can drop into surrounded by blocks. In another corner, there is a small lake that can be briefly explored. And above, there is a walled off area sealed by destructible blocks that can be broken with the pickaxe power-up. Now to access the gems in all these mentioned sections, you need the pickaxe power-up, but there is only one correct way to do it without needing to do it again. The correct way is to pull up the groundhog that is moving around on the surface to reveal a pickaxe. Once you have the pickaxe you can quickly break the blocks in the corner and then move over to the lake and break the blocks in there. If you are too slow to get both, now you start running into problems.
In this, and many other levels in Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker, this creates a cascade effect of limitations that cannot be undone. By failing to break one set of the blocks quick enough, it now becomes a question of what are you going to miss. If you went to the lake first, you would get some coins and a gem, missing some additional coins in the other breakable wall. If you went for the breakable wall first and missed the lake, you would miss a gem and some additional features. And if you opted to go straight for the pit, you would have missed all of the above. Again, there is only one right answer, but there is no way of knowing which one is right until you learn it is wrong by making the wrong decision.
Now, once you finally drop into the pit, you are once again left with a right or a wrong choice. The right choice, in this case, would be to take your pickaxe power-up and break the blocks in the furthest corner to get another pickaxe power-up to continue breaking blocks as you descend. In order to get the next gem, you need to continue finding the pickaxe power-up while descending through the level until you come upon the next gem. Which, once again, is hidden behind a series of blocks that can be destroyed, the catch is that you need the pickaxe to get to it. But it’s not just the fact that you need the pickaxe to get to it, it’s that the only way to have the pickaxe at that point in the level is by keeping the power-up going through several different points while descending, and you don’t know which breakable blocks hold the powerup until you break them. Once more you are stuck simply guessing on what to do, one path is the correct one, but the only way to know which is the correct option is to just guess and hope it is correct.
Finally, after reaching the second gem, you must find the last one hidden behind a wall of blocks that can be broken with a pickaxe. But once more, a choice is needed to be made and there is no inclination over which decision is the right one as there are two walls. At this point in the level, you are aware that the pickaxe has a fairly short window of time before it runs out, so you need to choose which wall you are going to break first. If you break the right wall, you will just find coins and nothing more. Pick the left wall, however, and you will not only be treated to another pickaxe to break the wall to the right, but the gem will be within the left wall as well. Looking at the walls from the outside, there is no way to tell that one contains a gem and one doesn’t; so once again, you need to guess. If all the correct choices were made, you should have all three gems at this point to complete the level. But, you’re not done just yet, after all, each level contains a special condition that needs to be completed as well, except you don’t know about it until you beat the level at least once.
Once you get the star in Pickaxe Cave Plummet, the special condition is finally revealed. And what is it? Beat the level without breaking any of the blocks. The entire premise of completing this level just moments ago was to break the correct blocks. However now, you are being tasked with a goal that completely contradicts the last by forcing you to play through once more without breaking any blocks. Not only have you potentially gone through this level several times already to acquire the gems, but now you are tasked once more to do the exact opposite and far more boring task (because you know how to beat the level already) to complete the level. But, the level doesn’t end just there, a Pixel Toad is left to be found.
Every level features a Pixel Toad mode that is unlocked once you collect the star for the first time in a level. Pixel Toad can be anywhere in a level and all you need to do is spot and tap on him to complete the task. However, to find Pixel Toad, you must start the level again in its own unique mode. Not only do you now need to play the level over again but depending on the layout, you may go right past the part where you could see the pixel toad, once more, needing to restart the level.
Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker does a lot of things right when it comes to being a simple and enjoyable puzzle/exploration game. But the design of many of the levels forces the player to repeat the same old content far too many times by simple design decisions that don’t allow for any backtracking or information to show the player the correct way. It takes what was an enjoyable level the first time, and continues to regurgitate it as many times as it can until you are completely burnt out from the level. Simple changes such as providing ways to return to blocked off areas, allowing to complete multiple objectives in the same run, or making sure additional objectives fall in line with the others would have gone a long way from turning these frustrating designs into a more fleshed out experience.