"I felt excited after leaving each dungeon, wondering where I could get to now, what new characters I could meet, and hoping to discover another hidden secret!"
It is common knowledge that Legend of Zelda is one of Nintendo's flagship franchises, having been a staple of their first-party development since 1986. In 2001, Nintendo released Link's second and third handheld adventures — projects they had entrusted to Capcom and its former subsidiary Flagship — Oracle of Ages and Oracle of Seasons on the Game Boy Color. This delightful and challenging pair of titles proved the developers could handle one of Nintendo's prized possessions better than Link handles pottery. Thus, they brought The Legend of Zelda: The Minish Cap to life on the Game Boy Advance.
Players are treated to another divergent version of Hyrule which falls early in Nintendo's now-canon timeline. The world is beautifully rendered in a top-down fashion established by the classics in the series,, while greeting us with characters, enemies, and music from both Ocarina of Time and Wind Waker and offering new gear alongside items Capcom established in their previous entries. While plenty of staples are present, the developers attempt to invigorate the formula with new elements.
The tale is as straightforward as they come in the series, recounting a time of darkness, the hero's rise to vanquish said darkness, and the subsequent sealing of said darkness so that Hyrule can enjoy a time of peace. After this brief history, players are greeted by some wonderful pixel work in the form of Link's abode where he, yet again, is awakened and sent on an adventure. Vaati returns from the Zelda: Four Swords games as Minish Cap's main villain, this time in a mortal form to shatter the ancient Picori Blade and unleash evil upon Hyrule. It quickly becomes apparent Link and his soon-met companion Ezlo are meant to disrupt Vaati's plans by tracking down the elusive Picori, more commonly known as Minish, for aid in repairing the broken weapon and restoring peace to their homeland. While the story does not break new ground for the series, it has enough tension and urgency in the moment-to-moment storytelling to compel players along on their adventure.
I was immediately struck by the art style and sprite design. The world is incredibly vibrant and full of life, from the bouncy characters to the intimate details in dungeons and homes. The Picori Festival at the game's start feels so alive with folks wandering to and fro while balloons and pennants hang overhead and waver in the breeze. This becomes even more apparent when exploring the world of the Minish where you see them using buttons as decorative plates and stamps for artwork, evoking flavours of The Borrowers. Link is similarly detailed, with a Wind Waker-inspired design showcasing some of the most fluid movement he has ever had in a 2D setting. Many of the monsters also evoke The Wind Waker's style, with just as much character and vibrancy as the rest of Minish Cap's cast. The game plays well on the Virtual Console, suffering little from slight stretching, while the Gamepad seems like a perfect fit for this handheld. It is clear the development team put great care into crafting a lush experience for the player's adventure, as the game still looks great 14 years later, holding its own amid the industry's resurgence of retro-inspired art direction.
Another gem (or rupee?) is the game's sound design and music. Players will likely recognize some of the character expressions with soundbites pulled from Wind Waker and Ocarina of Time, but it comes together with new work that helps the world thrive. Sword swings sound vicious, the flare of the lantern as it bursts to life is satisfying, and the general crunch of the earth beneath Link's feet puts players right alongside him. The soundtrack, while not helmed by series favourite Koji Kondo, is in the capable hands of Mitsuhiko Takano, who brings some wonderful new arrangements of classic Legend of Zelda fare to life alongside the original creations. For example, the steady marching theme of Mt. Crenel, while its own piece, incorporates subtle nods to Kondo's Dark World theme in A Link to the Past. It makes for an imposing ambience as you explore the heights. When exploring homes, caverns, and Hyrule Field itself, players are reminded that, yes, this is a legend wherein there is a Zelda, as familiar orchestrations are at play. I find where Takano's work really shines is the final battles with Vaati — a series of pulse-pounding works of grandeur culminating in a final battle that impresses upon the player the weight and fury of their foe's goals. I cannot speak for the quality on the GBA itself, but from my Wii U Gamepad and TV, the sound team was able to squeeze impressive clarity and fidelity from the original system. Though it was a bit crunchy in some of the bass parts, the instrumentation is a delight for the ears and lends well to immersing players in Hyrule.
Minish Cap's gameplay is nearly as laudable, as combat is largely snappy and responsive. My only criticism is the return of Capcom's inventory system from its previous Legend of Zelda titles. Players can only use A and B as inputs, having only two items assigned at a time. I understand the limitations the GBA presents for inputs, but it feels tedious having to pause and shuffle around items especially as exploration and combat become more intricate and require more than one or two tools for the job. Thankfully, the shoulder buttons allow the rolling command to return, which was my main method of travel for the better part of the game. While I wish the other shoulder could have been locked to the sword or an item slot, it was left for the trading of Kinstones, one of the game's myriad collectibles. On the GBA, movement is limited to the D-Pad, but with the Wii U, the analog stick is the better choice, as it feels like the game's fluid controls were made with it in mind.
Now it looks and sounds delightful, plays swell, and while the story seems simple enough, don't let yourself be lulled into a false sense of security. The puzzles the series is known for are still present! As Link explores Hyrule and the world of the Minish, he must, of course, overcome challenges presented in the game's various dungeons. Minish Cap follows the standard progression of find dungeon, locate legendary item specific to the puzzles and boss therein to earn a piece of heart, and, in this title, the elements needed to reforge the Picori Blade. The six dungeons, while lovingly rendered to feature their specific themes, seem to lack some inspiration that exists in the rest of the series. I definitely had some gratifying "Aha!" moments, but they were few and far between; most of the dungeons are fairly brief. Still, they do make use of the game's main conceits well enough, though they offer small problems of their own.
One issue I found comes with the Four Sword, a blade that allows Link to create temporary copies of himself for certain puzzles and battles. While neat, the process of charging the blade seems needlessly slow, which leads to a lot of frustration in battles where the mechanic is necessary. While strategizing execution of these attacks is part of the game's challenge, it could have benefited from being a touch quicker on the draw. Furthermore, the new concept of shrinking is underutilized. The developers have given players an exciting way to explore Hyrule from a new perspective, and even some of the dungeons are done in miniature, offering a really neat opportunity as Minish-sized Link faces off against common monsters that seem giant now. Unfortunately, this was only used in a few battles, and while I understand that perhaps they did not want to tire the idea out, it was a missed opportunity to change the perception players have had about many of Hyrule's most rudimentary foes.
Furthermore, the moments in full-sized dungeons that use the Minish mechanic feel more like item filler. I was hoping to explore inside the walls of dungeons, to poke around and evade obstacles and foes in unique ways, like the wall-traversing power in A Link Between Worlds, but I am left wanting. Still, even if the dungeons seem ho-hum, the world of Hyrule offered here is not, as getting from plot point to plot point can become a trek and puzzle in itself, challenging players to make use of their newly acquired gear to find new paths around the world. These are satisfying moments and I felt excited after leaving each dungeon, wondering where I could get to now, what new characters I could meet, and hoping to discover another hidden secret! It is only a shame that each dungeon did not fill me with that same thrill.
Capcom and Flagship once again proved they could handle The Legend of Zelda, and Minish Cap will satisfy any series fan's itch. Despite its shortcomings in dungeon execution, which can be seen as a boon to new players looking to jump in, the game offers just the right amount of challenge and gratifying puzzle solving to be easily digestible. All of this is helped by great presentation that stands the test of time. If you have not had the opportunity to play this entry before, do as I have and take advantage of its Virtual Console presence see how big an adventure can be found in this small, once portable package.