Today marks an historic day. The tenth anniversary of The Legend of Zelda: The Minish Cap. Perhaps one of the most unappreciated and overshadowed chapters in the long and lucrative series - selling just over 1 million units since its release - it's also one of the most unique, quirky and charming Zelda titles to have been released. Here, we look at what made The Minish Cap so wonderful when it released a decade ago, and why it's still one of the strongest Zelda titles to this day.
The Minish Cap was released to the US public on 10th January 2005. The title was delayed in the US, in order to allow Nintendo's hot product - the newly released Nintendo DS system - to prosper during the holiday season of 2004, and to not "cannibalise" the market. Elsewhere in the world, the Minish Cap was released as a 2004 holiday title due to the DS instead being given an early 2005 release. It was undertaken by Capcom's Flagship Co., Ltd. and was to be the third and final entry in the Zelda series developed by Capcom (having previously helmed production of the Oracle of Ages and Oracle of Seasons titles). The Minish Cap expanded on the Four Swords series of games and featured many of the same art assets and styles previously seen in The Legend of Zelda: Four Swords and The Legend of Zelda: Four Swords Adventures.
Flagship certainly did not shy away from introducing new characters, races and elements to this fully fledged instalment of the Four Swords universe, giving the Minish Cap its own characteristic feel whilst keeping the traditional "Zelda" aesthetic. The miniscule "Minish" from the title's namesake were created especially for this entry, and were yet another race added to the rich history and lore of Hyrule. As well as the Minish, we were introduced to perhaps one of the most kooky and humourous Zelda characters to date - Ezlo. Appearing as a sort of hat-bird, Ezlo serves as Link's "Cap" for the duration of the game - offering him guidance, advice and the odd quip in-between. Ezlo is certainly one of the more endearing and loveable guides/companions Link has had on his many journeys, and simply being accompanied by him as opposed to the likes of Navi makes the adventure all the more delightful. The Minish Cap also retained the villain Vaati (previously seen in the Four Swords series) as the antagonist of the game, in place of Link's usual nemesis - Ganon.
One of the most enjoyable (and unique) new introductions of the Minish Cap was the introduction of "kinstones". These little medallions, intricately split in half, were found scattered around the Hyrule overworld and waiting to be collected by Link. Finding a Kinstone half didn't mean much, but finding its corresponding half meant a great deal. The kinstones not only served as a collectable extra and a means of gaining rewards and opening side-paths, but also gave the player much more of an incentive to talk to the many NPCs found throughout Hyrule. Gone was the useless chit-chat and rather patronising hints present with most RPG's NPCs, and in its place were characters seeking to pair up their Kinstone piece, with a reward or bonus giving to the player for doing so. Collecting didn't only come in the form of Kinstones, however. During the adventure, similarly to in Link's Awakening, Link can gather "mysterious shells" from across Hyrule. In turn, these shells can be traded in at the Figurine Store in Hyrule Market for collectible figures (similar to the ones found in the Nintendo Gallery from The Wind Waker). The collectability within the Minish Cap really added greater purpose to the adventure beyond simply completing the main storyline, and helped to make up for what was a relatively short main quest.
The Minish Cap's most defining attribute, however, was the ability for Link to shrink himself down to the size of the pixie-like Minish race. This transformation really brought Hyrule to life in a way never previously achieved. Now you could explore just about every nook and cranny of the world, from the earthy forest floors to the dusty roof beams of a Hyrule Market store. Shrinking down in size added a whole new take on both the exploration and puzzle solving, with the ability to become Minish Link (and the many hazards that come with it) being essential for not only advancing through the overworld, but also in collecting essential items and heart pieces, as well as entering large portions of the map that were accessible only when in Minish form.
This not only presented fresh mechanics for exploring, but also allowed for a new and interesting take on many of the boss battles. Besides the ability to diminish in height, another noteworthy mechanic (which admittedly was somewhat of a hangover from the Four Swords) is Link's ability to "copy" himself. Collecting the four elements, and fusing them with Link's blade, gave him the ability to clone himself two, three or four times. Standing on specific tiles and charging your sword would allow Link to form a duplicate of himself. This was required in order to solve allocated puzzles in specific areas where Link alone would not do, and only two, three or four Links will muster up the strength to move a rather hefty block or stand on switches simultaneously. The cloning ability is yet another example of how the Minish Cap took the age old Zelda formula and rejuvenated it, by giving the player a different means of solving the usual puzzles in exciting new ways.
The gameplay was further complimented by some fun new items and weapons for Link to use. As always, Link was equipped with his arsenal of bombs and arrows, but some of the new additions were truly remarkable - and a little bizarre. There was the gust jar which was essentially just a jar, but graced with a plethora of uses - from uncovering secret patches on the floor by sucking up dirt, to propelling Link as he floated on water with a backdraft of air and even fetching out-of-reach items.
Then there were the Mole Mitts, which allowed Link to burrow through otherwise impassable obstacles and walls. The Cane of Pacci allowed Link to flip over various items such as blocks, enemies, and uncovered minish pot portals - necessary to shrink down to Minish size. And of course there was Ezlo, Link's wisecracking hat who even had his own nifty uses - such as acting as a parachute, allowing Link to glide from one area to another, and ultimately the ability to shrink. All in all, The Minish Cap featured some of the freshest new items and mechanics the Zelda series had seen to that point.
Having such a late release in terms of the Game Boy Advance's lifespan certainly did no harm to the title's audiovisual appeal, and The Minish Cap arguably remains the most attractive 2D Zelda title to this day. The Minish Cap's rendition of Hyrule is awash with vibrant colour, wonderful textures and minute details, such as flowers swaying in the breeze, beams of light breaking through forest canopies and the glistening gleam of the many rivers and streams found running through the land. Seeing the environments in such microscopic detail further emphasised not only how beautiful the areas you can see in Zelda are, but also the areas you can't see, especially true when in the Picori settlements.
It's extremely impressive to see just how much tiny details are incorporated into the environment, as the developers spared no effort when making Hyrule look as attractive as possible. Being so minute for much of the game gave the developers further opportunity to wow the player and fully immerse them into the world. Now you could see giant leafs in the foreground looming above, obscuring parts of your path and casting giant shadows down onto the floor below. It's touches like this that entirely envelope you into the Minish Cap's world, and leave you with a sense of being truly small and vulnerable. This vibrancy and lovely visuals were accompanied by wholesome music which will leave you hard pressed to find a GBA title with a more hearty and rich sound.
Like the aforementioned Oracle games, having been developed by Capcom The Minish Cap had a strange air of freshness to it, whilst remaining familiar enough to not seem alien. The Minish Cap is a bit like hearing your favourite song covered by another artist, albeit a truly respected and gifted one. The title, despite feeling very distinct in its own right, also felt like somewhat of an amalgamation of many other great Zelda titles.
Borrowing elements from stellar titles like A Link to the Past and The Wind Waker gave the Minish Cap somewhat of a throwback feel, whilst not feeling dated. Flagship kept the right elements in place and added enough new ones to make the title a genuinely well rounded adventure. The Minish Cap also had a wonderfully quaint and charming "fairytale" feel to the whole experience, making it quite unlike any other Zelda game. At times it felt like Link had tumbled into the realm of Gullivers Travels, the Borrowers or Jack and the Beanstalk, and it's these little, unusual nuances that further distinguished the Minish Cap from the many Zelda titles that preceeded and followed.
Looking objectively at the Minish Cap, one may give a host of reasons as to why it's not the "definitive" or "greatest" Zelda of them all. Sure, the storyline may not be the most original tale ever told, and it certainly isn't flowing with plot twists and a branching narrative. Yes, it lacks any substantial difficulty and the relatively short storyline shouldn't take veterans long to complete. But to get hung up on such qualms would be doing the Minish Cap a disservice. Despite its shortcomings, it got an abundance of things right, and to this day is one of the more interesting Zelda titles released. The Minish Cap was crammed full of vibrant and diverse environments, fun and adorable characters, interesting new gameplay mechanics, and featured a truly magical Hyrule overworld that has never felt so teeming with life and personality.
If you haven't revisited the title for a few years, or have never even experienced The Minish Cap at all, do yourself a favour and check out the game in honour of its tenth birthday, either on the Game Boy Advance or the Wii U Virtual Console. You will not be disappointed.