Personal Score: 9
The Minish Cap is one of the most forgotten entries in the Zelda franchise, yet it is also one of the most beloved. The Minish Cap had the unfortunate disadvantage of appearing at a time when handheld gaming was just starting to cater almost exclusively to the casual, younger audience. As such, a more involved, perhaps hardcore (in terms of the fanbase, at least) franchise like Zelda was in danger of being overlooked amidst games like Warioware: Twisted and Pokemon Mystery Dungeon. Indeed, The Minish Cap only managed to sell approximately 1 million units, unable to match the sales of the previous Gameboy Advance Zelda title (A Link to The Past/Four Swords), despite great reviews from both published critics and fans alike. Nevertheless, The Minish Cap has managed to burrow itself deep into the hearts of many Zelda fans, as it is one of the most endearing entries in the series. At the time of The Minish Cap’s release, the ‘Toon Zelda’ style had established itself as the art-direction of choice for Zelda games. The art and graphical style seen in The Minish Cap is unprecedented for handheld Zelda games, bursting with colorful, vibrant 2D characters and gorgeous environments. Building off what was accomplished in A Link to The Past/Four Swords, The Minish Cap presents an astonishingly expressive world by fusing old-school 2D visuals with the ‘toon’ elements of The Wind Waker. Additionally, The Minish Cap presented a story that was familiar, yet full of new ideas and interesting wrinkles into the Zelda mythos. Ganondorf is nowhere to be seen, and instead the backstory of Vaati (the villain first introduced in Four Swords) and the history of the Four Sword/the Picori race are highlighted. The Minish Cap has all the makings of a masterpiece in a series comprised of titles synonymous with gaming perfection.
The story told in The Minish Cap takes place before the timeline split following Ocarina of Time, and is currently the second canonical entry in Zelda lore (following Skyward Sword). The story centers around Link, Ezlo (Link’s talking hat) and Vaati (the Picori apprentice-turned evil sorcerer). During the games introduction, Link is attending a festival celebrating Hyrule’s history with the Minish Tribe, a race of tiny elf-like creatures that are only visible to the eyes of children. During this festival, Vaati kills the celebratory mood by opening the Bound Chest and unleashing its foul contents upon Hyrule. Naturally, Zelda jumps in to save the day, only to be turned to stone by Vaati. Link must now set out on a quest to save Zelda and stop Vaati from draining the ‘Light Force’ from Hyrule (a precursor to The Triforce? Theories upon theories!). This sets up a narrative flow definitely feels familiar, but a change in the cast of characters and locales shakes things up just enough to prevent The Minish Cap from feeling like another rehash of A Link to The Past. As the story progresses, we learn the origins of Vaati and Ezlo, as well as the history of the Picori Tribe and the Four Sword. For me, the narrative was exactly what I wanted to see in a Zelda game. It added logical layers of narrative material into the Zelda mythos and provided some interesting character developments throughout. While the Barrie-esque themes of childhood innocence are central to the majority of Zelda games, The Minish Cap embraces those themes with more enthusiastic fervor, resulting in a magically surreal experience.
The Man Who Mistook His Wife (er, traveling companion) For A Hat
The characters of The Minish Cap once again provides memorable entertainment and development, continuing the trend Nintendo has established in Zelda characters (simple, yet endearing). Link himself is once again the brave and bold youth we’ve seen in every Zelda game. Link benefits from the ‘Toon Link’ artstyle once again, as it gives his character a level of expressiveness that isn’t apparent during his interactions with the other inhabitants of Hyrule (Link is once again vapid and hollow, which is reasonable considering his role in Zelda narrative). While the Link seen in The Minish Cap is not a departure from the Link presented in other Zelda titles, he remains an endearing character thanks to his selfless, occasionally comical bravery. Ezlo is similarly not a far cry from the fairy companions that usually follow Link around. Instead of a pestering, overly optimistic ball of light, Link’s companion is a cantankerous elderly person with a personal tie to the main antagonist. Link and Ezlo’s interactions are comical and endearing, with Link being the brunt of the typical verbal abuse and nagging advice. As the story progresses, we see two characters with growing respect and admiration for each other, becoming a formidable force against the evil forces plaguing Hyrule. In the end, the pair are perhaps not the most iconic in the series’ history, but are charming and captivating in their own unique way.
Without the presence of Ganondorf, Vaati fills the shoes of ‘main antagonist’ beautifully. Prior to The Minish Cap, Vaati was just another power-hungry villain, seeking power and dominion over the lands. In The Minish Cap, we are given Vaati’s origin story. We see a villain driven by hatred for mankind, disgusted and twisted by the greed and evil he sees in the hearts of Hyrulians. Vaati is given motivation and depth, as Ganondorf was given in The Wind Waker. While Vaati’s origins and motivations are harder to empathize with than Ganondorf’s, he remains an interesting villain and perhaps an even more sinister force than the franchise’s more familiar antagonists. Prior to his defeat during the game’s conclusion, Vaati has transformed into a hideous blob, consumed by hatred and a hunger for power, who returns as such in Four Swords and Four Sword Adventure. Vaati’s fate is uncertain at this point, as he was merely sealed away once again following the events of Four Sword Adventure (which takes place much farther down the timeline). If Nintendo decides to revisit Vaati, I would enjoy seeing his backstory explored even further.
As noted in the introduction, The Minish Cap features some of the best visuals used in handheld Zelda games (perhaps even in ANY Zelda game). Link, Vaati, Zelda, and the rest of the core cast make for some of the most expressive, beautifully animated sprites in Zelda history, reminiscent of the sprites used in FFVI and Chrono Trigger. The sprites that populate Hyrule are small and occasionally simple in design, yet brimming with life and personality. The denizens of Hyrule are once again mostly familiar faces, content to go about their lives in sweet ignorance of the catastrophic events happening around them, but it lends itself to the narrative to have them behave as such (considering that most of the events taking place are invisible to their adult eyes). The world of Hyrule itself is also beautifully animated, brought to life with pastel-ish color palettes and intricate designs. When Link travels to the miniature world of the Picori, we see blades of grass and fallen berries/nuts become the foundation of a landscape intimidating and unfamiliar, yet friendly and begging to be explored. Many individuals in the gaming community often compare The Wind Waker to films created by Studio Ghibli, but I would argue that The Minish Cap deserves that comparison a bit more. The pre-rendered backgrounds of Hyrule and the world of The Minish are every bit as charming and colorful as what was presented in The Wind Waker.
Honey, I Shrunk the Kid With The Talking Hat…
Once again, Nintendo demonstrates their mastery over gameplay elements with The Minish Cap. Controls for the game are stellar, with the smooth interface and novel mechanics we’ve come to expect from Zelda games. Rolling around Hyrule, fighting monsters, and solving puzzles all feel sublime, and are never a hindrance on the gameplay experience. The Minish Cap introduces some memorable items into the Zelda universe, some we’ve seen Nintendo reintroduce in contemporary entries (Gust Jar, Mole Mitts). Apart from the traditional gameplay elements, The Minish Cap also provides players with some novel distractions from the core gameplay. Kinstones are used by players to interact with NPCs and unlock hidden treasure chests throughout the game. While occasionally necessary for the advancement of the plot, the Kinstones are mostly a fun way for completionists to extend their length of play. The Minish Cap also reintroduces the ‘figurine’ concept first used in The Wind Waker. These diversions are welcome additions to the game, for reasons you’ll soon be privy to…