Legend of Zelda: The Minish Cap

Review by Davo
June 2006

The 2006 Game Developer's Conference and E3 have come and gone and, as usual, there were more games revealed than I could every play in two lifetimes. One of the most exciting announcements at both shows (for me, anyway) was Nintendo's unveiling of the new Legend of Zelda game for the Nintendo DS, The Phantom Hourglass. The upcoming DS game bears a strong visual resemblance to the excellent Wind Waker title on the Gamecube and appears to make clever use of the dual-screen hardware and stylus controls. There's just one problem: it's June 2006 at this writing, and the new game isn't scheduled to release until the end of the year. What's a Zelda fanatic to do in the interim? Well, you could start by playing the Legend of Zelda: The Minish Cap, an outstanding Gameboy Advance game that deserves every bit of its stellar rating.

Shrinky Link

In part, The Minish Cap reinforces the cliché that everything old is new again. The Minish Cap recycles a number of tried-and-true ideas that have been used in Zelda games before. Gameboy Advance and SNES Zelda veterans will instantly recognize the familiar tunes, interface, controls and overhead camera view. These elements end up feeling fresh, however, because Nintendo has wrapped them around an interesting new addition to the world of Hyrule. Link now has the ability to shrink himself down to the size of a flea and explore cracks, corners and crevices unavailable to normal-sized folk. As it turns out, a hidden world exists beneath the view of the denizens of Hyrule. A tiny race of elf-like creatures known as the Minish live underfoot, collecting coins, thimbles, matchboxes and other "giant-sized" detritus.

Shigeru Miyamoto, creator of the Zelda series, once pointed out in an interview that the inspiration for the Legend of Zelda came from his own exploration of fields, forests and caves as a boy. Miyamoto said he wanted to capture the sense of wonder and adventure he experienced as a child discovering mysterious, unknown environments. The Minish Cap embodies the spirit of Miyamoto's inspiration perfectly. You can't help but feel childlike wonder as you explore the normal-sized world from the perspective of an ant. Everything is exactly the same as it was when you were full-sized, except for your perspective. It's amazing how this single addition to the Zelda universe invigorates this most recent entry.

"Oh, the Places You'll Go and the Things You'll Do!" Dr. Seuss

The Minish Cap begins with the familiar "rescue Princess Zelda" story. That wacky Princess Zelda is at it again. She manages to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, as usual, and gets herself turned to stone by Vaati, an evil magician. Vaati, who is a stand-in for Link's usual nemesis, Ganon, has some connection to the Minish people. It's up to young hero Link to save the princess and foil Vaati's evil plans. Link can restore order only by shrinking and seeking help from the teensy Minish, who will speak only to children without evil in their hearts. The story is a light and whimsical affair that fits the colorful game world perfectly. The core "rescue Princess Zelda" story maintains its viability, at least in part, by avoiding heavy, dark, adult themes. The Minish Cap's story is far more Discworld than Thieves' World. If you're looking for a bleak, moody, adult-themed story, look elsewhere.

Story is somewhat beside the point, anyway. Although the story is well-presented and fun to follow, it's gameplay that makes The Minish Cap so enjoyable. There are so many things to do in the game that are fun, intriguing and addicting. Frequently, you'll experience all three at the same time.

You begin by exploring Hyrule looking for clues to guide you on your quest. Early in the game, you acquire an annoying talking-bird hat that allows you to shrink down to the size of an insect and interact with the Minish. Spending time among the Minish is one of the best parts of the game. Past Zelda games have utilized light and dark worlds to add depth and variety. In previous games, you would begin in a light world and enter the dark world halfway through the game. The dark world was generally a wrecked mirror image of the light version. It was a great device that made you feel like you were playing a second game. The only downside was that you had to play half the game to experience the alternative world. In The Minish Cap, you experience the alternative world at will. You can shrink down to Minish size anytime you want to as long as you have your bird hat and you find a type of pot that triggers the transformation. As soon as you shrink, you're in the other world. Now you can wander through mouse holes, floor cracks and sewer grates and interact with the Minish. As it turns out, the Minish are everywhere. When you're outside, they're in gardens, sewers and backyards. Inside, they're in fireplaces, attics and basements.

Since The Minish Cap is a Zelda game, dungeons are a critical part of the package. Soon enough, you'll find yourself delving into dungeons filled with wicked traps, mysterious puzzles and difficult boss fights. The Zelda games have always maintained an adventure game sensibility while being primarily action games. Character movement and combat are purely action-based. You fight enemies in real time, maneuvering for position, deflecting attacks, looking for weak points and striking when the moment is right. At the same time, you'll have to pay close attention to your environment for critical clues. Enemies and bosses generally have some crushing weak point that allows you to dispatch them with relative ease. Figuring out that weak point, however, can be a real exercise in mind-bending cleverness. You've got to think like an adventure gamer but play like an action gamer.

This adventure game sensibility extends to the game's many traps and puzzles, which are usually incorporated logically into the environment. When you're in the wind maze, you'll come to an area where you have to work your way across a wide chasm by jumping into a series of tornadoes that spit you from one to another. Halfway across the chasm, you'll encounter a row of air jets that blast you out of the air and send you hurtling to the ground. You have to figure out how to turn off the air jets so you can get across. The answer is usually right in front of you. Good luck seeing it if you're not paying attention very closely—and sometimes even if you are. Even familiar puzzles are perfectly placed, in a nostalgic kind of way. You may find yourself, for example, trying to work through a graveyard with a repeating-screen maze. If you leave through the wrong exit, it's back to the beginning of the maze. Repeating-screen mazes are as old as the first Zelda game, but they are not out of place here. They also embody the adventure-game feeling that permeates the game. You don't need arcade skills to jump tornadoes or navigate mazes. You have to think and pay attention. Trial and error also plays a large role.

As with past Zelda titles, Link's tools are among the real highlights of the game. You start with a sword but quickly accumulate shields, bombs, boomerangs, wands and other devices. Some of the tools are unusual, like a vacuum jar that can suck in enemies, rocks and other environmental obstacles. The great thing about the tools is that they usually serve multiple purposes. A tool that flips objects may also prove useful for collecting distant items, fighting bosses or crossing barriers. Boots that let you run really fast also allow you to skim across poisonous swamps and explore previously inaccessible areas.

Speaking of inaccessible and hidden areas, the game is filled with them. As with all Zelda games, much of the fun lies in exploring every inch of the landscape looking for secret places or ways to get into areas you can see but not reach. Players who love exploration will get the most mileage out of the tools. A cape that lets you float across gaps and chasms may also allow you to glide into other areas you couldn't reach earlier. You can have a lot of fun just wandering around the landscape using bombs or the cape or some other tool in random areas. Sometimes you'll even get lucky and open up an unmarked hidden area. Most of the hidden spaces have environmental clues, like a crack in a wall, pointing them out. A few, however, have no clues. Experimentation is very important.

If you're a packrat at heart, The Minish Cap has a subgame that you're just going to love. Throughout the game, you'll collect mysterious objects that look like blue seashells. A merchant in the main town will trade you the shells for a chance to use his figurine machine. The machine is essentially a coin-operated toy dispenser similar to the red-topped ones you see near supermarket entrances. There is a percentage ratio assigned each time you use the machine. The first time, you have a 100-percent chance of getting a new figure. As you continue using the machine, your odds of getting a new figure decrease. Each shell spent decreases your percentage by one point. By the end of the game, you'll have something like a 3-percent chance of obtaining a figure you don't already have, and the shells become scarcer and scarcer. I don't usually bother with side activities that add nothing to the story. Give me a new dungeon or a new item, and I'm in. But I love miniatures and was completely addicted to this particular subgame. There are more than 100 figurines depicting characters and scenes from the game. You can collect bosses, enemies, friends, locations and other people and events you've come into contact with on your quest. I mismanaged my shells early in the game and ended up putting in an extra six hours or so of play time at the end scouring fields, caves and forests for more shells to complete my figurine collection. If you have any propensity for collecting, it becomes a bit of an obsession, really.

But wait—there's more. The game also channels your inner scavenger hunter by scattering kinstones all over the landscape. Kinstones are Minish coins that have been cut in half in a variety of configurations. When you encounter one of the Minish, you can ask him if he wants to match kinstones with you. If you possess a matching kinstone, you'll unlock additional hidden areas, heart pieces or quest objectives. Once again, you'll have to pay close attention to your environment. Later in the game, you'll be able insert kinstone pieces into wall slots to find even more hidden stuff. The kinstones come in common, uncommon and rare varieties. As you might expect, the rare ones are hidden in the most devious places.

Graphically, the game looks outstanding on the Gameboy Advance and takes advantage of everything the hardware can produce. The world is presented in a vibrant and well-drawn style that fits the game perfectly. The Minish viewpoint is especially suited to the art style. It's really fun to walk through a garden and see Link disappearing under leaves and blades of grass as you look down from your bird's-eye view. When Link is in Minish form, you'll play him in one of two modes. In one mode, he appears normal-sized, but the environment is gargantuan. Blades of grass are as big as trees, and berries are as enormous as hot-air balloons. In the other mode, the environments are unchanged, but Link is a few pixels tall. It would be easy to lose track of Link in this mode had the developers not come up with a clever solution: When Link is tiny, a thought bubble with a picture of his face follows him around wherever he goes. The bubble is tethered to Link's head, so you always know exactly where he is.

Musically, the game mixes old and new tunes in a very appealing presentation. The quality of the musically compositions is especially worth checking out. Sound is a bit tinny on the Gameboy Advance, but it isn't really a problem unless you're fanatical about audio quality. Even with the hardware limitations, many of the tunes manage to come across as grand and sweeping.

Picking Nits

Is there any bad news? Honestly, I feel like it would be extremely picky to say there was anything about this game that I didn't like. However, if you don't like Zelda games, then it's unlikely you'll find anything here to convert you.

I suppose you could say the game is a tad on the short side when compared to other Zelda games. You could work through the main quest in about 15 hours if you ignore all of the side missions and collectibles. But few Zelda fans are going to skip these optional quests, which generally provide real benefits in the sense of extra life hearts, hidden weapons and useful tools. Hunting down even half of the side-quest stuff should add at least another 10 hours of game time. Collecting the figurines takes another five or ten hours. If you add it all up, there's a good 30-plus hours of game time here.

Some of the end-level boss fights are hard—really, really, toss-your-Gameboy-down-in-frustration hard. But that's always been the case with Zelda games and hardly a negative unless you hate difficult boss fights. Boss battles are always hard in Zelda games, and some puzzles are so difficult that you could spend days stuck in one dungeon. The boss battles may be the real deal-breaker for traditional adventure gamers. You need some arcade reflexes to beat many of the bosses. Although nearly every boss battle comes down to some core weakness that you can exploit, you still need midrange arcade skills to pull off some of the more complicated attacks. And, admittedly, some of the puzzles are obscure and difficult enough to vex all but the most experienced players.

Step Away from the Next-Generation Console and PC!

The Legend of Zelda: The Minish Cap is pretty amazing. I have an Xbox 360 and I just got a shiny new PC. I'm on the cutting edge of technology. But when I think of all the games I've played over the past six months, The Minish Cap—a Gameboy Advance game—rises right to the top of my list. It's just that good. The End

The Verdict

The Lowdown

Developer: Nintendo
Publisher: Nintendo
Release Date: January 10, 2005

Available for: Game Boy Advance

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