15 years since its release and in the storm of Zelda’s intense period of reinvention, it’s time to pay dues to the series’ unsung highlight. Released at an unfortunate time and with an infamously short quest, even some of the most hardcore LoZ fans gave the series’ only GBA title a miss, to their loss – Minish Cap is a worthy contender for the best game, handheld or otherwise, in the franchise.
In a series saturated with universally acclaimed titles, it’s easy to overlook the short and seemingly derivative Minish Cap. Released toward the end of the Game Boy Advance’s life, this title – the last classic-style top-down Zelda until A Link Between Worlds almost a decade later – was largely overshadowed by Ninty’ new behemoth, the Nintendo DS.
But Minish Cap is criminally underrated – not just a celebration of the franchise right from the start, in many ways it perfects the series’ top-down formula.
Minish Cap is in a way a bricolage of everything that had come to represent Zelda up until 2004. Of course, there is the classic top down perspective; but intergrated into the Wind Waker-inspired graphics are visual and auditory cues and characters right out of the series’ Nintendo 64 handbook. A maze outside of Hyrule castle? Why not! Deku Scrubs whose projectiles you must reflect with your shield to initiate a purchase, albeit in rooms reminiscent of the secret caves of the original title? Fans would love that! The franchise’s most infamous instrument returns, too, albeit reverting to the role it originally played in A Link to the Past, while the new zany characters are heavily indebted to Link’s Awakening.
“Minish Cap shines brightest while carving out its own woefully muted identity“
While Minish Cap‘s celebration of now-classic Zelda tropes may be more nostalgic now since the franchise’s subsequent reinventions (Phantom Hourglass shook up the 2D formula just as much as Skyward Sword did for the 3D games), to reduce this gem to its fan-service moments would be doing it a great disservice, as the game shines brightest while carving out its own woefully muted identity.
New and inspired items such as the Cane of Pacci, Mole Mitts and the brilliant Gust Jar introduced many new puzzles still unique to this outing of the franchise, while importing Wind Waker‘s Deku Leaf mechanic via Ezlo, your cap/companion, into top-down Zelda gave Minish Cap a sese of depth previous 2D games in the franchise lacked, to the extent that the game occasionally felt almost like a 3D action-adventure. (Admittedly, the Advance’s graphics left some depth perception to be desired, rendering some dynamic puzzles confusing and leading to some unnecessary deaths.)
The game’s central gimmick – the ability to shrink down to a tiny Link – led to some of its most charming and original moments, showcasing just how delightful the art style was, though unfortunately this was used less frequently toward the end of the game. The Four Sword mechanic (from the multiplayer game packaged with the Advance’s port of Link to the Past) felt at home in a mainline Zelda game, but was criminally underused.
The game, at times, seems to play as though Capcom (who had previously created the series’ Oracle games for the Game Boy Color) had plenty of ideas but were afraid to stray too far from Nintendo’s safe Zelda formula. This is true for the game’s locations as well as mechanics – the eerie Royal Valley and Wind Ruins, and the labyrinthine Cloud Tops, are some of the most original locations seen in the franchise, but players spend much more time wondering around the tried-and-tired plains, forests and mountains than these innovative areas. The game doesn’t lose much for this – at least these new environments are present (which is more than can be said for most Zelda games, including those which came after Minish Cap), but after being teased by new settings in an overly familiar franchise, it would have been nice for these portions of the map to be a bit bigger.
Indeed, one of the most common criticisms fired at Minish Cap is its length. With only six dungeons, this is undoubtedly a short Zelda game, but the story’s tightness means that there is nothing extraneous. While there are tasks to complete between dungeons (the crawl to the Cave of Flames is almost a dungeon in itself), Capcom have learnt from their mistakes with the Oracle games by not dragging out these set pieces.
Instead, players can progress relatively quickly from one story beat to the next, with Ezlo available like a much less annoying Navi to guide less experienced playes should they get lost or simply put the game down for a while. (A much desired feature: honestly, trying to remember what you have to do in a Zelda game after a long break is a dungeon in itself.)
This allows players plenty of free time to explore the many side quests and kooky locations this take on Hyrule has to offer. A lack of dungeons certainly didn’t do Majora’s Mask any harm, and here it seems Capcom have perfected the balance between story content and side material. In sprawling quests such as Ocarina of Time, side quests can be nothing but a chore to more casual players; Minish Cap‘s short length and seamless integration of plot and place leaves players wanting more while encouraging exploration of a world which only gets more charming the more you see.
At once a celebration of everything Zelda and a glimpse into an alternative timeline of what 2D Zelda might had been had the DS’ divisive outings not left fans craving a return to the original formula, Minish Cap is a must-play adventure and one we can only hope Nintendo decides to revisit while planning out a future entry for the franchise (no screen-by-screen ports to Switch a la Link’s Awakening, please!).
Choosing a favourite Zelda is like choosing your favourite child – your partner will inevitably have a different answer – but if Ocarina of Time is the broody teenager who grew up too fast, Minish Cap is the entrepreneurial tween who juggles too many projects but still stays forever young and fun, staring with wide-eyed wonder at the world around them, sure that they can contribute something new to such a vast world. And that, like the franchise itself, is something to celebrate.