While the home console releases saw fit to push The Legend of Zelda further and further into expansive 3D territory, the franchise has also maintained a strong handheld presence. The handheld Zelda games though are, for want of a better phrase, more old-fashioned. It’s here where the original top-down Zelda style is kept alive, presented in ever more elaborate and gorgeous forms. While by the mid-2000s the console scene was enjoying the vast open seas of The Wind Waker, on the handhelds at home a smaller adventure was left to unfold in the form of The Minish Cap. Previous forays into the handheld Zelda games have been a bit of a mixed bag for me, but The Minish Cap retains a significant fandom and is often cited as among one of the best Game Boy Advance games ever, so I went in to this one with high hopes.
The Legend of Zelda: The Minish Cap (GBA)
Released Nov 2004 | Developed: Capcom / Flagship | Published: Nintendo
Genre: Action-Adventure | HLTB: 16 hours
In this edition of The Legend of Zelda, we’re introduced to a Hyrule populated by not just the usual range of Hylians and other franchise-standard species, but also the titular Minish, diminutive elf-like critters who hold a special place in Hylian legend. Far in the past, the Minish forged a special sword for a hero who went on to save the world; this sword, named the Picori blade, held the power of the four elements and after the land was saved found itself turned into a seal for a pandora’s chest full of monsters and evil. As is the fate of all legendary feats in the world of fantasy narratives, as the years passed on and the threat that the world faced faded from memory, so too did the Minish withdraw from the world and found themselves reduced to nothing more than fairy stories and mythical tales, and the chest with its ancient sword pierced through the lock sat unremarked in the deep chambers of Hyrule castle.
As our game begins, the events of the land’s hero, a shining gold-haired progenitor of series protagonist Link (well, naturally), have long since become enshrined in the form of a celebration. During this festival, a pale and cloaked chap called Vaati shows up, and at the height of the festivities he tricks the king into removing the Picori blade from its plinth, unleashing all the monsters sealed within the chest across Hyrule. With a menacing flourish, Vaati reveals himself to be a powerful mage and turns the princess Zelda to stone before shattering the Picori blade and disappearing. Because only children can still see the Minish, Link is chosen to be the new hero and he sets off, sword fragments in hand, to find the near-mythical Minish and have them reforge the blade.
Of course, finding a near-mythical and tiny race of magical critters is easier said than done. Although Link manages to stumble into the forest where they’re said to live, he doesn’t have much luck in finding the Minish; he does however run to the rescue of Ezlo, an animated hat who shows his gratitude to Link by perching upon his bonce and offering out his vast wisdom and guidance to the young hero. Basically he’s Navi from Ocarina of Time, but in hat form. However, more importantly, Ezlo is also an accomplished mage and with him sat atop his head, Link finally gains the ability to access the world of the Minish as Ezlo can cast a spell to help him shrink down to tiny size.
I think practically any and every Nintendo fan will be fairly au fait with the concept of dual worlds in games – I’m pretty sure basically every main franchise from the company has at some point used some sort of similar mechanic, and The Legend of Zelda definitely loves it. Instead of the customary Dark World however, The Minish Cap splits our time between the full-size land of Hyrule and the fun-size land of the Minish; well, technically they’re the same place, obviously, but once shrunken down to teeny-sized, Link soon learns that things he took for granted or barely even registered can suddenly become mighty obstacles and dangerous threats indeed.
In fact, I think it’s accurate to say that almost all the best action in The Minish Cap takes place when you’re small. Link’s quest to restore the Picori blade takes him to four temples of the elements, and at least a couple of them are only accessible when you’re Minish-sized. This allows for far more interesting dynamics when it comes to enemy and puzzle encounters, such as in the first dungeon when Link finds himself spinning around the interior of a barrel that has become lodged in the temple, turning it into a minor puzzle. There are at least a few bosses as well that are actually just regular enemies but made into colossal, deadly foes purely by dint of Link facing them when shrunk, such as the slimy green chuchu that serves as the first temple boss – when regular sized these monsters are dispatched with a simple sword blow or two, but as a Minish-sized warrior Link needs to find a more creative way to topple his now giant enemy. It’s this creativity which keeps The Minish Cap feeling appealing and inventive amidst the now-standard Zelda framework.
And it certainly is a framework. Like with many of Nintendo’s great long-running franchises, The Legend of Zelda has a basic way in which it works, and generally each game offers some sort of small iteration on that formula. As with any Zelda game, the fundamental core of The Minish Cap remains guiding Link around the world as he seeks out dungeons which contain whatever specific macguffin he needs, do some light puzzling and daring swordplay as he delves the depths until he finds whatever special item is interred there, and then use that newfound treasure to defeat the local boss monster. In many respects The Minish Cap offers a relatively unadulterated experience; where it does differ, it’s in what might seem quite innocuous ways, such as having a fairly unique selection of items that clog up Link’s inventory.
Take the humble Gust Jar, for example. One of Link’s earliest tools in The Minish Cap, the jar is a magical receptacle that lets Link suck up loose items around him and then fire out a burp of stunning air, making him into a kind of crockery-wielding Kirby. It’s an item that feels at home in the slightly cartoony, exaggerated world of The Minish Cap but I can’t imagine any other Link carrying it round in their satchels. That is, in and of itself, part of the charm of Minish Cap; although it was contemporaneous with the GameCube darling The Wind Waker, and although it bears visual similarities with that game, this GBA outing for Link has a startlingly unique sense of identity. Other items are along comparable lines, such as the Cane of Pacci, which can only be used on holes in the ground to create temporary magical trampolining points to launch Link into the air, or the Mole Mitts, which allow Link to haltingly burrow through soft piles of dirt. I sometimes wonder if the handheld games are used as testing grounds for the random items various team members come up with but no one is sure if they have the mileage for a console Zelda.
Another thing that The Minish Cap does differently than many other Zelda games concerns its dungeons; namely that there aren’t that many of them. Previous handheld Zelda games have done their best to stuff their worlds full of dungeons to a point comparable with their console cousins, and even in the ones I like best like Link’s Awakening, I confess to finding it very wearing eventually. It’s a problem that I find is also exacerbated by the older handheld Zeldas – that is, Link’s Awakening and the Oracle pair – being hamstrung a little by their age; as beautiful as these games are, and for as much effort they make to push the Game Boy and Game Boy Color as far as possible, their dungeon designs are still inescapably bland at times. Chalk it up to the influence of the original Legend of Zelda, which also saw Link traipse through often largely nondescript blocky rooms, where the focus was more on overcoming an obstacle than enjoying the view along the way.
In contrast, The Minish Cap features some practically lavish dungeons and temples for Link to trundle through in his quest. The game is almost certainly the best-looking GBA title I’ve ever had the pleasure of seeing, with bright, eye-popping colours and gorgeous, detailed spritework that is enhanced by a lively and bouncy animation. Work has been done to draw parallels between the Hyrule of The Minish Cap and the visual aesthetic of The Wind Waker’s Great Sea; if you’ve a keen eye you’ll be able to see it in the swirling poofs of smoke and fire, in the deranged jiggling look of enemies like chu-chus, and in the subtle brush-like spirals that adorn the bodies of a late-game boss. The end result is a stirring, vibrant Hyrule that begs to be explored, if only to see what else awaits you. By this point in the franchise’s lifecycle, I think there had been a broad idea within Nintendo that the worlds of future Zelda games needed to have something different about them in order to preserve that sense of wide-eyed peregrination; hence, I suppose, the existence of the bleak, harrowing terror of Majora’s Mask’s Termina, or the endless rolling waves of the Great Sea. The Minish Cap eschews this; the Hyrule we get here is a standard fantasy land, Hyrule classic, if you like; we’ve more in common with A Link to the Past than anything else, but I think that works in its favour. After slight reinventions, it’s invigorating and comforting to return to the familiar done exceptionally well.
It’s not just good looks that spur the player on in their journey though. There’s also a lengthy and vital side-activity that runs the entire playtime of The Minish Cap in the form of kinstone fusion. Throughout his quest, Link acquires these curious shattered fragments, stuffing them away in his bag for later. Turns out, almost everyone in Hyrule has at least one half of a stone themselves, and since a local legend says that reuniting a kinstone half with its opposite number brings good luck, everyone sure is happy to indulge Link in slapping rocks together in case he has the bit they needed. Fusing kinstones correctly does indeed engender some good luck for the player, invariably opening up a pathway somewhere or spawning a chest with a rare item in it out in the world for you to find. While green kinstones are plentiful and can easily be found out in the overworld, some folk have rarer blue or red stones that need a-fusing, and these are a more precious commodity so finding them can become quite the grind. It’s important to do so though if you want to uncover all of The Minish Cap’s secrets since there’s quite a few collectibles hidden behind these rarer kinstone fusions, so if you’re a completionist, sorry but I suspect The Minish Cap might be a merry hell for you!
As I was approaching the end of The Minish Cap I found it interesting to see what kind of a legacy it had online. Although it was released to critical acclaim – and rightly so – I can’t help but feel that it never seems to have had the impact of other games in the franchise, and I certainly don’t think it’s ever enjoyed any kind of status comparable to other Zelda games. While obviously there’s very little that can stand up to the reputation of Zelda’s biggest titles, and of course it’s to be expected that, as a handheld title, pretty much any console release will eclipse it in terms of the audience reached, I still find it noteworthy that The Minish Cap even seems to slip under the radar against even other handheld Zelda games – and that’s a shame! I surprised myself at how much I enjoyed The Minish Cap. I suppose I assumed going into it that even if it were good, any kind of standard Zelda experience wouldn’t offer much beyond a broad sense of satisfaction at another game well done, but once I got going I found myself charmed by it. Its aesthetic is joyously engaging, its dungeons felt creative, and exploring the world never sunk into tired obligation. Even its slightly truncated length works in its favour; this is maybe the first handheld Zelda that felt truly at home on a handheld system to me, with clear, easily digestible goals that suited shorter play sessions, and yet it absolutely manages to preserve the feel of a console title. I figured The Minish Cap would wind up an okay time, but in reality it consumed my free time, and I eagerly returned to it, reading to see where Link’s adventure would take me next.
6/7 – EXCELLENT.
Games with a touch of brilliance. It might only just miss out on being an absolute favourite, but you should definitely play this.