Review – The Legend of Zelda: The Minish Cap (GBA) – A Very Good Zelda Game

Yes, it’s an actual real update!  I’m glad to have written a review again.

  • Title: The Legend of Zelda: The Minish Cap (US/EU), Zelda no Densetsu: Fushigi no Boushi (Japan)
  • Developer: Flagship
  • Publisher: Nintendo
  • Platform: Game Boy Advance
  • Released: November 2004 (Japan / Europe), January 2005 (US)
  • Genre: Action-Adventure

Introduction

The Legend of Zelda series is one of my favorites in gaming, but there are some Zelda games I’ve never gotten around to finishing. Until recently, this game was one of those, as I’d started it but stopped early on, but while watching the 2018 Olympics I played through the rest of this game and decided to review it along the way. The Legend of Zelda: The Minish Cap is an overhead action-adventure game for the GBA which released somewhat late in the system’s short life, after the Nintendo DS had already released. This game was the second, or sort of third, game that resulted from a partnership between Capcom and Nintendo to develop some Zelda games at Flagship, a Capcom/Nintendo joint-run studio that Capcom merged into its main company a few years after this game release.  Flagship’s first Zelda games were The Legend of Zelda: Oracle of Ages and Oracle of Seasons, two paired Game Boy Color games that released in mid 2001. I like those games a lot, so I was interested to see what Flagship would do next with Zelda.  Then they worked on the Four Swords part of The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past / Four Swords for the GBA.  That multiplayer-only linear-levels topdown multiplayer action game has some good ideas, but its link-cables-required, local multiplayer-only nature is a big problem which made it very hard to play then, ever mind now.  Several years later, Flagship finally released a second main-series Zelda game, but while it did okay, it didn’t make quite the impression that Nintendo was hoping. The game sold well and got good reviews, but has since been somewhat forgotten. Even at the time reactions were somewhat mixed, though. Indeed, looking back at some old posts I made online back in 2004-05 about this game, I went from initial interest, to not even buying the game until at least five years after its release, and not finishing it until, well, this month. And I was far from the only person who overlooked or passed on this game at the time. Playing it now, though, it’s good! The Minish Cap has issues, but I do think that I, and many other people, under-rated this game.

Story and Controls

The Minish Cap is a traditional overhead 2d-style Zelda game. As with the Oracles games, the controls, interface, and world design of Minish Cap take heavy inspiration from Link’s Awakening, which, in my opinion, is a very good thing even if none of those elements quite match LA’s greatness. The story is as familiar as the gameplay. Unfortunately though, it has none of LA’s genius. You play as Link, and need to save Hyrule from evil Vaati. Your partner character this time is a sentient hat, which talks and can change your size. The terrible-as-usual sexist story has you saving Zelda, who has been turned to stone in what would prove to be the first of two consecutive times in handheld Zelda games. Just because this kind of really bad, sexist storytelling is common doesn’t make it okay, though. This game has plenty of amusing writing in it, but the core story is, yet again, unforgivably awful. All three (two?) Flagship Zelda games have extremely basic “rescue the princess” storylines, which is too bad when they clearly are able to write some decent and often amusing stuff for the many side characters that populate these games. The only “unique” thing in the plot is that the main villain here is Vaati, from the Four Swords games, and not Ganon. This is Vaati’s only appearance in a traditional Zelda game, and it is kind of interesting to see him in a regular Zelda game.

The controls are inspired by Link’s Awakening’s, with a few additions for the GBA’s two additional shoulder buttons. As in that game, you can assign any of your items to the A and B buttons, so once again your sword and shield are not locked to buttons like they are in other Zelda games, you just assign them like any of your other items. The other items include some returning favorites and some new ones. My favorite new item is the air-blast item, which the game uses quite often to good effect. The R button is standardized, though, as it is used for a roll move, and also for grabbing and pulling things. Jumping requires an item you get deep into the game, but rolling is a default move locked to a button? It is a little odd to have this one function locked to a button, and it might have been nice for R to be customizable too. Still, it works this way and the roll is a good move. The L button’s usage is not as successful, however. This button is locked to a function too: this trades Kinstones with the person or object in front of you, if you can do so. I will get into what Kinstones are soon, but in short they are items you collect and trade with characters, in return for unlocking things in the world. I’m not a big fan of this element of the game, and it is a significant part of it. Kinstone trading is a big part of this game, but it’d have been great to have another button for general use, and to put this function somewhere else. For the controls overall though, I have some issues with the functions on both shoulder buttons, but otherwise Minish Cap controls great. As always in Nintendo-published Zelda games the controls are very responsive, and Link moves around and items all work just as they should. I really like how you can assign the A and B buttons freely, as well.

Oh, there is also one other way you interact with the world in this game. As fitting for a game with Four Sword’s villain in it, The Minish Cap has a Four Sword component. This game is single player only, but when you stand on certain floor tiles and hold down the sword button until it fully charges, keep the button held down, and move onto other tiles, you will create clones. You start with only one Link, but as you proceed you will eventually get up to four. It’s kind of annoying that you need to hold down the attack button for so long before you are able to split, but the game makes good use of dividing yourself in many puzzles through the game, both simple and quite tricky.

General Gameplay

In the gameplay, The Minish Cap, again, is a traditonal 2d Zelda game, but with some more modern updates. I won’t describe this in full detail, as most readers are probably familiar with Zelda gameplay. In short though, this means that you explore a sizable world, including a large town full of many people in the center, and various zones surrounding that town. You wander around the world collecting stuff, fighting enemies, talking to people, and solving puzzles. At certain points you’ll go into dungeons in this world, and in dungeons, and sometimes outside of them, you will get new items to add to your inventory. These items include some old ones and some new. You then use your items, and swordfighting skills, to figure out the way forward and kill the monsters barring your way. Combat is central to the game, and again, it’s great! The enemies are varied, and you will need not only your sword and shield but also many items in order to effectively fight all of them. It’s a familiar formula, and The Minish Cap executes on it very well. Flagship’s experience and skill with the franchise shows through in many ways, from the puzzles, to the new items, to the fun dungeons, and more.

The issue of originality is worth discussing, though. Flagship’s Zelda games are very good, but they do not have the same spark of originality that you see in most of Nintendo’s Zelda games. They execute on the standard Zelda formula very well, and have a few new ideas in terms of items and the world, but for the most part this game and the Oracles titles stick to formula. I appreciate innovation, and Nintendo has done some fascinating things as the Zelda seres has evolved. However, traditional 2d and Ocarina of Time-inspired 3d Zelda are some of my favorite kinds of games, so while this is an issue worth mentioning and I have criticized Flagship for this before, I also think that their games are great, because the classic Zelda formula is one of gaming’s best! And on that note, this game keeps the standard Zelda item-collection system, of getting them in dungeons as mentioned, and does not mess with that as Nintendo’s more recent titles have. I, at least, prefer things as Minish Cap does them. I’d rather progressively get items permanently as I go through a game, then have to rent them as you see in A Link Between Worlds, or just be given them all at the start as you see in Breath of the Wild. This game isn’t necesarily better than those are, it has some faults for sure. I’m just saying that in terms of game design for Zelda games, I think the standard item-collection formula is great, and I’ve never been one of those wanting the series to drastically change.

The World of the Minish

And this game does have one significant unique gameplay element to it, beyond a few unique items of course. Now, having two worlds has been a common feature in most Zelda games since A Link to the Past, but The Minish Cap takes a unique take on it, as instead of travelling through time, as previously mentioned you can shrink and see the world from the ant-sized proportions of the tiny, and eponymous, Minish! As in Oracle of Seasons you can only switch sizes at certain, predetermined points here, and this is important for many puzzles in the game, and you will spend most of your time full-sized, but still the size-change mechanic works well and adds to the game. Figuring out how to progress through the world in small form makes for some fun puzzles as you try to figure out how to reach some Minish areas and find out what is there.

However, in addition to playing as a couple of pixels on the regular map, sometimes the game zooms in and you play as regular-sized Link in a tiny world. Unfortunately I have issues with this element of the game, as it badly lacks variety. On the better side, there is one Minish town, near one Minish-scale dungeon that isn’t very different from the other ones, early in the game. There are also some caves to find where you fight bugs and such. However, the rest of the Minish areas come from two often-repeated formulas. First, there are single-room Minish houses, which have a Minish or two in them to talk to. These are usually pointless except for Kinstone fusion, though a few have actual useful hints. And second, there are entirely straight scrolling paths. The visuals here are kind of nice, as you see giant grass leaves and such, but in gameplay terms they are incredibly basic: you either go straight up and down, or straight left and right. None of these have a single bend, which is pretty weird, and most are short and present minimal challenge and have few obstacles in them. I like the size-change concept, and it’s great to have some areas where you see the world from a tiny perspective, but why are these areas so incredibly simplistic?

While the size-change idea was new for a Zelda game, the idea of having two worlds fits to formula. Flagship did try some original things in The Minish Cap, though, both good and bad. On the positive side, the game has some pretty interesting new items to get which the game makes good use of, particularly perhaps the wind-shooting item. For anyone who hasn’t played the game I don’t want to spoil them all, but it’s great that Flagship did not just reuse old items but came up with some good new ideas. Neutrally, the game has collectables — those Kinstones — that actually change the state of the world, And somewhat more questionably, Flagship made a 2d Zelda game with a difficulty level much closer to The Wind Waker than its 2d forbears. On that last note, probably the most common complaints about The Minish Cap are that the game is short, easy, and has a small world. These criticisms are largely accurate, as the game has only six dungeons, is the easiest 2d Zelda game ever made by a good margin, and will not take many hours to finish. Even so, I found the game quite fun while it lasted, playing it this time around at least.

The Overworld

The overworld is a major component of every Zelda game, and this one is no exception. The scale of that world is a definite issue I want to discuss, however. At first, The Minish Cap’s world seems to be shockingly small. You go up just a couple of areas at the start, and you’ve already explored a good chunk of the map! However, while the world feels small, it is not as limited in scope as it may appear. The side areas add some decent size to the game, and the map screen makes things look smaller than they are due to its dual-layer design — there is a single-screen map of all the areas, from which you can enter to view detailed maps of every section of the game. It’s a great, and very detailed, map screen which is incredibly useful throughout the game.

Still, you can get across this world quickly. Why is that, though? Estimating going by the map, I think that the world here is about 16 by 16 screens, so it’s not as small as it seems. There are probably two major reasons for this. First, the game spreads things out, with large buildings and fields that take up lots of space. And second, this game is, again, a lot easier than other 2d Zelda games. Where it’s easy to die a hundred times in the 2d Zelda games before this one, this time dying even ten times in the whole game is unlikely if you’re a moderately skilled gamer. I did die sometimes, and more often than I did through most of The Wind Waker, but this is probably the second-easiest Zelda game after that one. As a result of both of these factors, while there are surely a lot more tiles in this overworld than there are in Link’s Awakening, or even the Oracles games, it probably won’t take as long to explore through. Even so, as in those games this overworld is segmented. As you explore you will see many points where you will need to return later with an item you don’t have yet in order to proceed that way. As you get items you will unlock new areas, shortcuts to get to areas of the map more quickly, and more. All Zelda games do this in some way, but the style here is very reminiscent of LA and the Oracles games, and it’s fun and satisfying to reach new areas and unlock those quicker paths.

That aforementioned more spread-out feel to it that makes this world feel smaller than it is, though. I think that The Minish Cap’s world is in a middle ground between Link to the Past’s very ‘open’-feeling world and Link’s Awakening’s very closed and segmented one. Personally I much prefer the more segemented style of Link’s Awakening over the more open style of A Link to the Past, but I’d imagine fans of either one won’t prefer this over those. I like that the world is more broken up than LttP’s boring grid-of-squares world is, though. However, in my opinion the Kinstone element holds this world back, as I will get to.

So this is definitely not one of the best of the Zelda overworlds, but even so, it is a good one. The central town is large and there is a lot to do in it, first. There are people to talk to, puzzles to solve, some minigames to play, and more. I had fun exploring this version of Hyrule, and the size of the world is just about right for this somewhat short game. Of the side areas, the mountain may have been the most fun to explore, as it has a good balance between exploration, puzzle-solving, and combat. After that, finding out how to reach all of the tiny Minish-world areas in the central town was also a highlight. The world in the sky is interesting as well. Some areas aren’t as well utilized though, such as a graveyard that is oddly large for how little time you spend there. Floating around and finding new areas is fun in that classic Zelda way; there’s nothing like a Zelda game for having some of the best exploration gameplay around!

Kinstones the Overworld’s Collection Quests

I do need to discuss those Kinstones, though. Starting a bit into the game, you will start to collect items called Kinstones. You get piles of these things, and can trade them with people and, in some cases, objects, scattered around the world by pressing L when you are standing next to someone who has a Kinstone thought bubble appear by them when you’re nearby. Each character you can trade with has one half of a kinstone, and you need to match that with one of your own. There are eight or so generic kinstone types you will collect to trade with most characters, plus about ten special one-time-use ones you will use for game-critical puzzles. In total there are about 100 kinstone matches in this game, if you want to find them all. You can only trade with each character once, as once you match kinstones with someone, something will happen in the world. The plot-critical ones open up key paths you will need to go through after matching kinstones.

The other, regular Kinstone matches give you some kind of item reward, but you’ll have to go and get it. Rewards vary from a treasure chest appearing somewhere, to ground appearing that allows you access to a previously inacessible cave, to a small lake draining giving you access to a treasure-filled cave, and more. Helpfully, after matching kinstones the point where this change has appeared is marked on the map, so you won’t forget which kinstone unlocks you haven’t gotten yet. There are no map markers for characters you haven’t matched kinstones with yet, unfortunately, so you’ll just need to wander around a lot or use a guide if you want to completely fill out the map and find all of them. I won’t be trying to do that, though, as a lot of these rewards are not too useful. Sometimes you will get good stuff like shortcuts or heart containers, but other times you get … a kinstone. For your kinstone and time. Great. Rupee rewards lose their value past the mid-game as well, as once you’ve bought the more expensive items there is really nothing else to do with the things. Also, I don’t like the idea of a Zelda game with this amount of fetch-quest backtracking in it, if you want to actually have a complete world map — after all, as since every kinstone match puts something new on the map, even if you’ve explored everything, you need to find all of the things to see the “real” map. That’s a very grindey game element to tack on to this game. On the one hand it’s good that there is something here to keep you playing, as the short and mostly easy main game won’t keep you playing for more than ten-something hours. Trying to find all the kinstones will take a lot longer than that, unless you look up their locations online. However, adding lots of fetch quest grinding to your game isn’t the best way to add replay value to a game, and I just don’t like a Zelda game where so much of the world is hidden unless I do a LOT of fetch quests! Even if most of that stuff isn’t important, I want to know what it is… but don’t really want to spend the time wandering around to find every match. Bah.

Oh, on a final side note in this section, in addition to kinstones, The Minish Cap has one other somewhat grindey collection element. As you play you will get shells. These can be spent at a shop that unlocks in town later in the game which essentially is a gatcha machine. That is, you spend shells, and get a random figurine reward as a result. The more shells you spend, the more likely it is that you get a new figure and not one you have already. There are 120 figures to collect, so while it’s easy to get a bunch of them, collecting them all will be a frustrating, and entirely random, task. It’s easy to get shells, but going through those text boxes at the gatcha shop takes a tediously long amount of time; collecting these figures is a big time-waster even if you have lots of shells, and the more you get the less often you get new ones. Fortunately I don’t care much about collecting all of these things, but people who want them all might be frustrated here. Of all the collection things in Zelda games this is one of the least fun to get.

The Dungeons

In addition to the overworld, the other major component of a Zelda game are the dungeons. There are only six dungeons, but they’re all fun to explore. As in the overworld, dungeons have a mixture of old and new puzzle and combat elements, as the new and old items are both used. Each dungeon heavily uses the item you get in that dungeon, but many items are used in multiple dungeons, which is nice; in some Zelda games you only use an item in its dungeon and then almost never after, but while some items here are like that more are widely used. As for the dungeon designs, they are linear, and don’t match up to the best Zelda dungeons but do have plenty of good moments in them. Jumping around in the sky dungeon’s a fun challenge, for example. Combat scenarios such as facing off against the games’ heavily armored knights is also pretty fun, once you figure out how to fight them. And more.

However, As with everything about The Minish Cap, the dungeons here are relatively few and mostly won’t put up the kind of fight you might expect from a 2d Zelda game. This game is quite fun while it lasts, but it is the easiest 2d Zelda game and that is quite noticeable here. The lack of challenge comes from multiple fronts. You don’t take a lot of damage when you’re hit, it’s easy to get a lot of hearts in this game, and most enemies are much less threatening than they are in earlier 2d Zelda games. However, I did have fun most of the time, and the game does present a challenge sometimes. I did die once in a while, and this game is not nearly as kind as 3d Zelda games from The Wind Waker or beyond when you do, as you get sent back to the beginning of the dungeon. Dungeons do have one, or usually two, warp points in them, so you aren’t stuck redoing dungeons all the way from the beginning every time you die as A Link to the Past annoyingly requires, though, so it’s balanced fairly well. I think the punishment for dying here is just about right. Also, some enemies hit harder, and in dungeons hearts are not always plentiful; there are always certain points that always drop hearts, but you may not be near those areas when you need them, so there are moments of tension. You can get some healing items, but this is limited by the number of bottle items you have collected. I only got two of the possible four that are hidden away in the game, so the final boss fight particularly was nicely challenging due to limited health and enemies which hit somewhat hard.

Even so, with only about six dungeons, four for four elements and a few others at key moments, this game has fewer dungeons than other 2d Zelda games do. Several 3d Zelda games from this era also have six or fewer dungeons, including both Majora’s Mask and The Wind Waker, but it’s just as unfortunate here as it is in The Wind Waker. It doesn’t feel like the game is unfinished as The Wind Waker kind of does, though, particularly with its ‘there should be a dungeon here’ moment; The Minish Cap just feels like it was designed to be a short game, with optional collection elements padding it out for people who want to spend more time with it. That works, and the results are pretty good, but a bit more substance might have been nice. Still, I like what dungeons this game has.

Graphics and Sound

The Minish Cap is, for the most part, a good-looking game. The regular-scale world has a pretty standard cartoony Zelda look. The game has a strong cartoony art style, with a light color palette that fits the GBA’s screen well. Remember, with an original GBA dark palettes can be very hard to see so the lighter palette is appreciated. This games’ look is definitely not my favorite Zelda artstyle, not even close, but it’s a fine looking game with that Zelda style to it. I’ve always had one complaint about The MInish Cap’s visuals, though, and it’s that some of the Minish-scale stuff looks … off, somehow, to me. The giant leaves and such look much more realistic than the rest of the graphics, and the contrast doesn’t work for me. This has always bothered me about The Minish Cap.

Aurally, The Minish Cap has a good soundtrack, but a lot of the tracks are classic Zelda songs reused again. It’s a great soundtrack of course, but is far from original. The limited audio capabilitites of the GBA hold it back as well.

Conclusion

In conclusion, I may have complained about this game a lot in this review, but I really do think that The Legend of Zelda: The Minish Cap is a very good to great game. It may have a lot of little issues, from graphical weirdness to seriously lacking challenge and length, the somewhat small-feeling world, and the annoying collection-quest elements, but it also has fantastic gameplay, just about perfect play control, a solid mix of old and new puzzle and action elements, fun dungeons, a mostly good look, and more. The good and bad are both significant here, but overall the strengths much outweigh the downsides of this game. I think I will give it an A- score, which is good, but not quite on par with the best Zelda games. That is probably about the right place for it. Any classic Zelda fan who hasn’t played The Minish Cap absolutely should! It’s a very fun, ten-ish hour experience you will probably enjoy. If you don’t like Zelda this one won’t change your mind on that, but for most The Minish Cap is well worth a try. Know about its downsides, but don’t let them stop you from playing it.

About Brian

Computer and video game lover
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