The Legend of Zelda’s closet brush with fairy tale territory might not be the series’ biggest or most epic entry, but it safely is the most charming one
As a company that is aware that its signature franchises are its most valuable assets, Nintendo has never been keen on collaborations, opting to almost invariably trust its own developers with the task of keeping the wheels of those products in place and turning as effectively as possible. As it can be attested by the general high quality of Nintendo’s first-party products, such strategy has indeed yielded positive results, since its characters have mostly avoided starring in electronic disasters. Given that hermetic nature, it is strange – even after quite a long time – to think that during the first few years of this century, Nintendo and Capcom collaborated on a string of three handheld Zelda games.
As it turns out, working alongside a new partner can infuse a good deal of creative ideas and bring a new perspective to even the oldest scenarios. And nowhere in that collaboration is that reality clearer than it is in The Minish Cap, the third and final link on that chain. Oracle of Ages and Oracle of Seasons, the twin titles that introduced the world to that unexpected partnership, were excellent games in their own right, displaying spectacular levels of design craftsmanship and intelligence, but they were somewhat safe undertakings; entries that never went too far away from the sources from which they drank, namely A Link to the Past and Link’s Awakening.
Three years later, though, it seemed that Capcom had gained enough confidence – both in itself and from Nintendo – to take grander risks and The Minish Cap is the evidence of those stronger ties. For starters, the title’s plot moves away from the established Hyrulean mythology and advances into fairly new grounds, touching on a few brand new elements that remain relatively unique within the franchise as a whole.
Every 100 years, the people of Hyrule celebrate their connection with the Picori through a sword-fighting tournament. Legend has it the bug-sized gnomes came from the sky one day and bestowed the land’s hero with the Picori Blade, a weapon that was used by the boy to banish evil from the land. In fact, said sword still exists, locking up a mysterious chest, and the winner of the tournament earns the honor of touching the historic artifact. Sadly, for the poor folk of Hyrule, the festival’s victor ends up being none other than Vaati, a wizard that proceeds to break the sword, unlock the seal, unleash numerous monsters across the world, and turn Princess Zelda into stone.
Reconstructing the legendary blade and using it to once more do away with evil is the only way to save Zelda and the kingdom itself, and given the Picori, also called Minish, are the only ones who could forge the sword back together and that the little creatures can only be seen by children, Link – Zelda’s childhood friend – is chosen as the land’s savior.
The fact that there is some sort of intricate connection between the beings that lend their name to the adventure and children is more than a plot device to force the young blond boy to be the hero once more; there is actually a child-like aura that emanates from every single corner of the game. Link’s quest to make contact with a mysterious enchanted race that is only visible to a few people and that hides in the Hyrule landscape makes The Minish Cap come off as a whimsical clash between the partially medieval Zelda setting and a book full of charming fairytale stories. That mixture permeates the game as a whole, easily turning it into the most magical entry in the franchise and giving it a rather unique and playful tone. The writing, however, is not the sole pillar sustaining that joyous spirit; as a matter of fact, it is accompanied on that task by both the game’s art style and its key mechanic.
Regarding its visuals, it is blatant that The Minish Cap is directly inspired by the Zelda game that preceded it: the gorgeous The Wind Waker. Its lines are delightfully cartoonish, albeit in a more hand-drawn style than those featured in that Gamecube masterpiece. Within the restrictions of its miniature hardware, it matches that title’s knack for both the expressiveness of the characters and the uncanny allure of everything that appears on the screen. In fact, The Minish Cap seems to be so conscious of its artistic goodness that its top-down view is considerably more zoomed in than that of other Zelda games that follow the same gameplay style, a decision that ends up being extremely wise for it allows players to take in all the wonderful colors and details that lie within the game.
Naturally, as a consequence of the visual fireworks, The Minish Cap also excels in the settings it involves. Truth be told, nearly all the natural environments presented here have already been tackled by the saga, but thanks to game’s vivid colors and unique art, places that would run the risk of coming off as dull truly shine, such as the case of the plains of Castor Wilds; and those that have inherent qualities, like the slightly ominous Minish Woods and the daring Mount Crenel, are catapulted to a very high quality level.
The final asset that greatly contributes to The Minish Cap’s fairytale fantasy soul is its key feature: the titular hat that Link comes to wear, which besides being his main helping hand – one that has far more personality and is much more likable than the now infamous Navi or the awkward Fi, is also relevant to the plot and useful in terms of gameplay, for it is what allows Link to become tiny. To gain access to the world of the Picori, Link must locate pads spread around Hyrule and magically go through a needle-sized hole that shrinks him to the same size as that of the mystical creatures. Whether as integral parts of the main quest or as hidden sidequests, going through that process reveals a world hidden in Hyrule’s plain sight where the Picori live, sometimes alongside the dust particles of an old bookshelf, by the blades of grass of a nearby garden, or hidden deep inside forests, mountains, and others.
When shifting to that perspective, Link’s world radically changes: puddles become lakes that can only be traversed by hopping onto fallen leaves; tree trunks become caves; gardens turn into grassy mazes; and silly ChuChus transform into killing machines. Capcom uses those quirky scenarios to good effect, not only taking the game’s visuals one step further by making everything spectacularly oversized, but also – and most importantly – by employing those shrinking mechanics into intriguingly fresh puzzle solving and exploration situations.
That greatness in design is also present in The Minish Cap’s dungeons. Their themes are slightly more surprising than those of the outdoors environments, but the reason they truly shine is simple: the items around which they are built. Each of the game’s five labyrinths houses a piece of equipment whose appearance is almost exclusive to The Minish Cap, like the Cane of Pacci, which flips objects; the Mole Mitts, which allow Link to dig through walls or deep into the ground; and Roc’s Cape, introduced in the Oracle titles and that adds a flair of platforming to the game by allowing Link to jump. All those novelties, when added to the shrinking mechanics, naturally pave the way to the creation of unique puzzles, boss battles, and gameplay scenarios of delightful inventiveness.
For all of its qualities, The Minish Cap is not without its flaws. The Game Boy Advance’s limited number of buttons is the reason behind one of them: only the A and B buttons can be assigned to the use of items, including Link’s trusty sword and his shield, meaning that players will constantly be flip flopping between pieces of equipment by going to the menu and reorganizing them, a cumbersome setup that breaks the game’s flow but that was somewhat inevitable. The second issue is related to The Minish Cap’s length: the game can be cleared within eight hours by experienced players, a number that is certainly belowaverage for a Zelda adventure, and the tame difficulty does little to push that gameplay time to a more reasonable height.
However, it is worth noting that, through its sidequests, The Minish Cap does a decent job at extending its playing time in creative ways. Other than the traditional heart pieces, it offers the new concept of Keystones and borrows the collectible figurines from the Wind Waker. The latter, which display characters, locations, and enemies that have been encountered during the adventure, can be purchased by accumulating Mysterious Shells that are scattered around the world; the former, meanwhile, come as one of The Minish Cap’s greatest additions to the Zelda formula.
Keystones are half-pieces of medallions that Link can find in his quest. When the hero finds either a character or a spot in Hyrule that has another half, he can try fitting the piece together with one of his. If he has the matching piece, changes will occur in Hyrule, such as the opening of a hidden location, the appearance of a treasure chest, or specific events happening to certain characters, adding yet another layer of sidequests to the experience.
The Minish Cap’s qualities, which are only marginally affected by relatively big but not completely harmful problems, amount to a great entry in the Zelda franchise and one of the best Nintendo handheld games ever released. Where Oracle of Ages and Oracle of Seasons felt like fantastic continuations of a structure that had been set up by A Link to the Past and Link’s Awakening, The Minish Cap is a step towards a different direction without abandoning the series’ essential roots. Never has a Zelda game played, sounded, and looked as magical and light as The Minish Cap, and no portable Hyrulean adventure has displayed the same level of creativity since then. The Minish Cap might not be the biggest or most epic Zelda game, but it safely is the most charming one.