The Legend of Zelda: The Minish Cap
An instalment in the Zelda series arriving on a Nintendo console is as inevitable as the sun rising to the East or a game with the word ‘Wii’ in its title selling millions of copies. After the Oracles dualogy on the Game Boy Color, developers Flagship and Nintendo have kept the series in its 2D guise, tipping the hat to SNES classic A Link to the Past while embracing an art style reminiscent of GameCube instalment The Wind Waker.
It starts off well. Boasting the series’ familiar music and beautiful graphics reminiscent of The Wind Waker, Link attends a festival in Hyrule Town where a mysterious newcomer named Vaati has won a sword-fighting contest and awaits his prize – to touch the Master Sword in front of the King and Princess Zelda. Unsurprisingly Vaati’s intentions turn out to be dishonourable, and after unleashing evil on the land and turning Zelda to stone, it’s down to Link to find the mysterious Picori people who are the only ones who can help the princess.
And so, once the premise is established it’s business as usual – Link soon meets his companion, the titular Minish Cap named Ezlo, and together they negotiate a series of increasingly taxing dungeons to gain items to aid in his quest to restore the kingdom and defeat the sorcerer Vaati. It’s perhaps not quite as involving a narrative as other entries, not least because Vaati isn’t as interesting or threatening as series principal antagonist Ganon, but then this is harder to convey in a bite-size handheld format, so that’s an inherent flaw rather than a specific criticism. Across the adventure Link will have to navigate all manner of areas including mountains, forests, ice caverns and a swamp. The inventory gets a good workout traversing these environs, and thankfully later the ability to warp becomes available.
The Picori – otherwise known as the Minish – play a huge part in the game. Using the cap, Link can at certain points shrink to microscopic size and enter their world – cafes built on rafters, homes accomodated by mouse holes, entire villages roughly the size of a small garden plot, or even a whole dungeon barely a meter or two across. This ability to shrink at set points is key to the puzzling – often areas are only accessible in miniature size or mechanisms can only be operated by a pea-sized Link, and small Link can’t, for example, mount a tall pavestone or cross a trickle of water. This results in lots of shrinking, scouting otherwise inaccessible areas and finding a full-sized entry point. This does result in a lot of to and fro-ing and some annoying instances where the way forward is blocked by a tiny ledge, but overall the transition and its weaving into the puzzles is quite well handled.
The other big gameplay addition is with the Kinstones. These colourful emblems come in halves and must be bonded with NPCs’ Kinstones, resulting in a repetitive and tiresome requirement of having to check if anyone else’s match your own. If this was merely a diversionary element then it would not be so bad, but time and again its necessary to find the person with the matching piece to make something happen in order to progress. This results in more than a few cheap instances whereby Link can’t proceed without matching with the correct NPC and then having to find the corresponding item or door which has been unlocked. Making the Kinstone bonding so focal has unfortunately made The Minish Cap often feel tiresome and drawn out.
Moreso perhaps than any of its sister entries, The Minish Cap suffers from poor signposting. Ezlo gives hints, but they tend to be so vague and broad that they’re generally of little use, such as telling you to go somewhere when a smaller objective must be done first in order to proceed. Similarly, there are occasions where the key to progression lies in blowing up an indistinct wall, which is a thoroughly irritating aspect that messes with Zelda tradition (i.e. in past entries a weak wall has always been indicated by cracks on the surface). There is also the frustrating but persistent series aspect of characters appearing only when they are needed for a specific task according to the plot or progression, and it’s a little punishing that healing items in this iteration are very frugal. At least the game is generous upon death, allowing a continue at the last doorway passed through.
Criticisms have been leveled suggesting The Minish Cap is not a full-sized instalment, which isn’t totally accurate. There are six full dungeons and the game world is of a fair size; probably roughly the same as Alundra, or a little smaller than its SNES equivalent. Given this is a handheld instalment the completion time is adequate, weighing in around the 10 – 12 hour mark, and there’s so much secret stuff to uncover that it could easily warrant a re-play for completionists.
While puzzles are enjoyable and the adventuring through the game world is sufficient, combat is a mixed bag. Link has the typical repertoire of items with a couple of new entries in the shape of the tunneling Mole Mitts and vacuum-esque Gust Jar, and as usual most of the items can be used against foes in some capacity. In latter dungeons there is a proliferation of Darknuts (big armoured foes) who can block, counter and power-attack proficiently, which causes frustration when encountering a few of these foes who clearly have the advantage over Link. Bosses are of typical Zelda high quality, requiring both use of any items gained and Link’s shrinking ability, although it must be said that the last boss is ridiculously tough, and extremely hard to beat without significant preparation beforehand.
The Legend of Zelda: The Minish Cap is a solid entry in the series, and it has lovely presentation and some of the best music and visuals on the Game Boy Advance. It falls down in a few areas – some as a result of design decisions and others with problems inherent in handheld gaming. As a spiritual successor carrying the flame for the 2D Zeldas of old, it doesn’t quite live up to their impeccable reputation, but it’s definitely worth trying for fans of the series and for the kind of prices it can be found nowadays, it would be foolish to miss out.