Review: The Legend of Zelda: The Minish Cap (3DS eShop / GBA)

Small but mighty

Those poor Hylians just can't have any fun, can they? Just when everything seems to be all well and good, some creep with bad skin comes along, unleashes a whirlwind of evil and shrouds the land in darkness. It's tough for us to feel too bad for them, though. Because as history has shown, bad news for Hyrule means great news for gamers.

The Legend of Zelda: The Minish Cap is the third handheld Zelda game developed by Capcom's Flagship Co., Ltd. and the first (and last) original Zelda for the Game Boy Advance. The game was released during the very end of the GBA era — around the release of the DS in North America — moving little more than a million copies worldwide in its lifetime. It may be one of the weakest-selling of the series, but in no way is that a mark of its quality. The Minish Cap is an expertly designed title that stays true to the series' old school roots while introducing a host of new ideas that make it feel fresh seven years later.

Formulaic they may be, but between Majora's Mask, The Wind Waker, Twilight Princess, and Skyward Sword, the Zelda games have given us some cracking narratives over the years. Unfortunately, The Minish Cap's story stands as one of the series' least memorable.

After the evil sorcerer Vaati shatters the legendary Picori Blade, thus breaking an ages-old seal that has kept evil from spreading throughout the land of Hyrule, he turns the princess into stone just to rub it all in. He then dramatically disappears, mumbling something about finding a golden light.

The king says the only way to break the curse on the princess is by restoring the Picori Blade, and the only people who can do that are the Picori themselves. The Picori — or the Minish, as they prefer to be called — are extremely tiny creatures who can only be seen by good-hearted children. Since Link is the only good-hearted child standing in the room at the time, he gets stuck with the task.

If that sounded a tad uninteresting, it's because it is. It gets slightly more interesting as it goes along, but ultimately, it's just not presented in a way that gets us excited. The best part about the whole set-up is that it's brief, and lets you jump quickly into the action. And that's a good thing, because nearly every other aspect of The Minish Cap is positively outstanding.

From even the earliest moments in the game, it's clear that the folks at Flagship set out to create a truly beautiful experience that would set a new benchmark in terms of what we expect visually from a 2D Zelda game. Following in the footsteps of Four Swords and Four Swords Adventures, the visuals in The Minish Cap are a culmination of everything great about A Link to the Past and The Wind Waker. When escorting Princess Zelda to the Picori Festival at the game's outset, the player is immediately drawn in by the intense care and craft that the team put into creating the land they're about to explore. The broad colour palette, the expressive sprites, the meticulously detailed environments — all of these things come together to create one of the most whimsical and fully realised interpretations of Hyrule in the history of the series.

And in the typical Nintendo fashion, the visual style has been carefully chosen to best accent the gameplay — and as far as gameplay is concerned, The Minish Cap has a pretty strong case for being the best handheld Zelda to date.

No time is wasted in introducing exciting new mechanics. Early on in the game, Link meets a strange, loudmouthed and conveniently hat-shaped creature named Ezlo. As it turns out, Ezlo has a grudge to settle with Vaati as well (though he's initially hesitant to go into details about it) so he eagerly decides to join you on your quest. This proves to be quite a blessing, for in addition to making a lovely bit of headgear, he also grants you the remarkable ability to shrink down to Thumbalina-esque sizes. It could have been a simple gimmick, but Flagship has made such effective use of the concept that it ends up being one of the most interesting gameplay twists the series has seen so far.

Shrinking allows you to interact with the tiny Minish creatures who live throughout Hyrule, but to do so you'll need to find a portal that allows you to decrease your size. You soon come to find that many seemingly normal things in the human world (such as tree stumps and cauldrons) are actually portals to the world of the Minish. Standing on such objects and singing a little song (which is done by the pressing of a button, of course — actually singing out loud will accomplish very little) allows Link to shrink down and explore the land around him from a new perspective. This brings a riveting new dimension to exploration. Small puddles become enormous lakes whilst Minish-sized, and walking during a light drizzle of rain can prove to be as hazardous as climbing Death Mountain — tiny water droplets are as large and as dangerous as falling rocks and boulders.

One the game's most endearing qualities, however, is its emphasis on new items. Zelda titles have recycled items for ages; while there's always a few new ones thrown in, we often find ourselves using arrows, bombs and boomerang as much as ever. This is not the case in The Minish Cap. Series staples like the Hero's Bow and the Bomb Bag are handed out with little excitement or fanfare, while obtaining the boomerang is entirely optional. Instead, the focus is placed on items that were entirely new upon its release (some of which were later used in Skyward Sword) — like the Mole Mitts, The Gust Jar and the Cane of Pacci — or that are fairly obscure, like the Pegasus Boots or Roc's Cape. They may not the most exciting items that Link has ever had (the Gust Jar is literally just a big blue jar that sucks in air) but the fact that they take the front seat provides a refreshing change of pace.

The only problem with all these new gameplay mechanics and items is that they don't always seem to tie in with the story particularly well. The biggest culprit is your sword. Link has to fuse the once-powerful weapon with four sacred elements so it can be restored to its former glory and thus destroy Vaati; each time a new element is collected and fused with the sword, Link is given the ability to “split” himself by standing on certain panels. Charging your sword while standing on these panels creates ghost-like copies of Link that can be used temporarily to solve puzzles. It's a remarkably fun addition, and its put to excellent use, but why the sword allows Link to do this is never explained. As cool as it is, its lack of context makes it feel like a bit like a forced tie-in to the Four Swords releases.

Once you set foot in one of the game's brilliant dungeons, however, these problems just melt away. Like the game that would follow it, Phantom Hourglass, the primary focus is on puzzle solving, not combat, and as a result you likely won't see too many Game Over screens. But arguably unlike Phantom Hourglass, The Minish Cap can actually be legitimately challenging at times: the dungeons are not only incredibly unique, they're also some of the most cleverly designed in the series. Later incarnations in the handheld Zelda games would suffer from an unfortunate sort of sameness in their design from one to the next, but Flagship has made certain that each dungeon in The Minish Cap feels distinctly different from the last, going as far as having unique theme songs for each one.

The most impressively designed labyrinth, however, is Hyrule Field itself. More than any other Zelda game, The Minish Cap's overworld is one that begs to be explored from head to toe. It's almost Metroid-like in its design — at first it appears linear and restrictive, but as new items are acquired and new tasks are accomplished, it reveals itself to be one large, intricately designed and interconnected maze; a design philosophy that would later go on to directly inspire Skyward Sword. While Twilight Princess's overworld often felt barren and lifeless, it's tough to go an inch in The Minish Cap without encountering some enemy, town, character or puzzle. A diverse soundtrack and some addictive, well-integrated sidequests like Kinstone fusing add even more joy to the experience.

Conclusion

It may not be the longest game in the series — Zelda veterans could easily beat it in a weekend — but Nintendo and Flagship have packed so much content into this tiny title that it's hard to believe it's not a full-fledged console release. With several mini-games and a plethora of sidequests, you'll almost definitely be playing long after the credits have rolled, and what it lacks in a compelling narrative it makes up for with a charming presentation and some of the best gameplay the series has to offer. It's an essential and hugely influential entry to the franchise, and further proof that in the world of Zelda, the difference between the console iterations and the handheld ones is not the quality — it's merely the size of the screen.