Zelda: The Minish Cap
Platform: Gameboy Advance
Year of Release: 2005 (US Version)
I beat The Minish Cap within the span of about six days. I am neither bragging nor being standoffish, I am merely stating a fact.
I felt paralyzed, completely and utterly, after beating the game. I was thinking about bothering with all the sidequests and going for a complete save file: something I haven’t bothered to do in years, but after the credits finished rolling, the feeling just wasn’t there. I felt neither accomplished nor disappointed. I had beaten the game. That was all I really acknowledged.
Clearly, something isn’t quite right. Zelda should never make me feel this way. So then, what went wrong? Why isn’t this game the experience that Zelda is supposed to be? Capcom did it before (and did it well!) with the Oracle of Ages/Seasons games. Why doesn’t this game have that quintessential, emotional feel that the Zelda series has always embodied? Why do I feel so distanced by the game instead of embraced by it?
Where do I begin?
The game certainly tries to capture the quintessential Zelda spirit initially. To its credit, the Minish Cap creates one of the most beautifully crafted and above all, convincing, “fairy tale” worlds ever to grace the Gameboy Advance. The game’s opening especially shows promise in this regard. Link awakens on the day of the Picori festival, as his childhood friend Zelda rouses him in eagerness to go. Upon arriving, the player immediately feels a sense of contact with the world that has been created for him. Hyrule Castle town is loaded with promise and an almost childlike sense of amazement and wonder. I felt every bit as excited as Link and Zelda seemed to be as they rushed off to explore the town on the day of the festival. When the sorcerer, Vatii, turns princess Zelda into stone after one of the festivals ceremonies, I was all too eager to begin my adventure. The object of the game certainly isn’t a new one, but it doesn’t hamper the experience, either: to break Princess Zelda’s curse, link must collect four elements, each one in an elemental shrine, and restore the legendary blade, the Four Sword, to its full power.
The world begins to show not only aesthetic beauty, but personality as well. I was looking forward to exploring every facet of this town, and the world in general: I wanted to know the lay of the land, its inhabitants, and its history. I wanted to get to know the inhabitants of this town, not merely associate with them. For me, the goal of Zelda has always been player integration. The player has to actually be there for this sense of belonging and wanderlust to be inspired. One must feel that he is a part of the world in order to be motivated to traverse every nook and cranny of it.
And there’s really no problem, there. The Minish Cap does an excellent job of achieving its goal of player integration.
Graphically, the game achieves much to this end. Following in the tradition of the Wind Waker, the game’s art style is similar in most respects. Though it would seem impossible to truly recreate the same atmosphere and aesthetic, natural quality on a Game Boy game, it really does look quite natural. The towns, fields, cliffs, and forests all look incredibly lush and in many ways like a storybook or a watercolor painting. The characters are all well animated and are designed very intelligently. Each sprite in the game is unique, with its own sense of purpose and personality which truly adds to the atmosphere the game attempts to create.
But at the same time, this fairytale aspect does not turn the player off to the game nor does it alienate him. In short, the reason the atmosphere works so well is because it manages to provide a fantasy feel to the game without alienating the player too much: it manages to look believable while at the same time not detracting from the virtual world it has established. The player feels like he is there because in many ways, he really is. Player integration is one of the primary goals of the Zelda series. The player does not control Link, rather, the player is Link. And the game does an excellent job with this, to be sure.
If there’s almost nothing for the player to do in the world that has been created for him, then what does it matter?
The gameplay in the Minish Cap essentially revolves around Link’s hat, named Ezlo. Ezlo can give Link advice if he needs it, and is responsible for at least 70% of the dialogue in the game, but his real purpose is primarly to serve a gameplay gimmick: In order to accomplish his goals, Link must traverse both the world of the humans and that of the tiny Minish, mouse-like creatures that are so small that humans do not notice them. By standing on a tree stump or pot, Ezlo chants a spell that enables Link to shrink down to the size of a Minish, and explore towns, crawl through small cracks to reach new areas, and explore nooks and crannies of Hyrule that would not otherwise be possible. While in Minish form, however, he cannot attack in the overworld (though if he is in a house or dungeon, he can), and even small puddles cause him to drown until he finds the flippers.
This in itself is fine, but the game doesn’t really do much with the concept. Other than shrinking to get into a small hole or going to a new area, there isn’t really anything else the player can use this for. I would find it more interesting if there were actually some advantage to being in Minish form instead of it being an arbitrary means to an end. I was hoping the game would borrow some from Majora’s Mask: since Link cannot be seen by the townspeople, why not give him an active role in meddling with their affairs? This would have made the game much more interesting, and would have provided an additional dimension to the characters Link meets in the game. As it is, this feature is interesting in concept, but ultimately ends up underdeveloped and merely serves as a shadow of what its true potential could have been.
Capcom proved that they could make a Zelda game with Oracle of Seasons/Ages. But the fact that Capcom developed this game has a lot to do with the way it plays. Upon the game’s completion, I noticed that Keiji Inafune, the creator of the Mega Man series, was listed as one of the game’s producers. This may seem like merely an interesting bit of trivia, but it actually explains a lot.
When looked at conceptually, The Minish Cap plays a lot like a Mega Man game, which is loosely based off “rock, paper, scissors.” The general idea was that, although you could select the stages in any order you wished, there was a specific order to fighting the bosses, and you needed to get certain weapons to defeat certain enemies. Conceptually, the Minish Cap embodies the same idea: each item performs a specific task, a specific function. However, there’s certainly a major difference between the items you receive in The Minish Cap and the weapons you received in Mega Man games.
What was interesting about the Mega Man series (initially, anyways, before it went downhill) was how flexible the weapons you received were. They head such potential, such energy. The reason you got weapon x was likely so that you could go on to defeat boss Y, but there was much more you could do with them if you so decided. My friend, for example, loves to play through the stages using Metal Blades instead of his normal Mega Buster. Is there anything wrong with this ? Does the game penalize you in any way for attempting to experiment? Not at all. The Metal Blades are used to defeat Woodman with ease, sure, but by experimenting, the player has self-imposed his own meaning and given his own significance to an item that previously was merely a means to an end. It has become special in the player’s eyes, it has become an object which the player now has an affinity for. It has meaning beyond its initial purpose. Perhaps even sentimental value.
But the Minish Cap simply doesn’t allow this, and therein lays its biggest flaw. If the focus of The Minish Cap is on the items that Link receives, then the game's entire goal is tarnished by the fact that none of the items in the game are particularly fun to use.
Essentially, the items in the Minish Cap serve their specific purpose and ONLY that purpose. Other than using them to solve puzzle X or beating boss Y or gaining access to area Z, there’s nothing the player can really do with these. Essentially, they aren’t “items” per se: they’re merely tools. Take an item called the Cane of Pacci, for example. During Link’s quest, the player will occasionally see holes in the ground placed right under high ledges. By using the cane on these holes, Link can then jump in them and he will be rocketed to the cliff above. Additionally, this weapon can be used on large pots that link can turn over and then stand on to turn into Minish form.
And that’s it. That’s all you can do with it. It’s not just that these items aren’t fun to experiment with, because that would imply that you could even experiment with them in the first place. The Cane of Pacci? It doesn’t do anything. There are two objects in the game that it can interact with (holes and large jars), and that’s it. You can’t use it for anything other than its intended purpose. And it doesn’t end there, either. The mole mitts? Essentially a fancy shovel, nothing more. You can also use it to tunnel through passages of dirt in the game, of which there really aren’t all that many. The gust jar? You can only use it for sucking up mushrooms which stretch and allow Link to cross chasms. Additionally, it is required to beat one boss and is involved in a few annoyingly simplistic dungeon puzzles. Since you have no reason to use these items unless you absolutely have to, the focus of the game is lost.
It got to the point where not only did these items discourage experimentation, but I actually groaned every time I had to go the menu, map an item to a button, and use it to get from point A to point B. It’s beyond tedious. Even the bow, A staple of the Zelda universe, has a primary purpose in mind: you get it so that you can defeat Eyegore’s which stand in your way at the wetlands. Once defeated, they quit blocking the path and you can move on. Other than that, the arrows are slow and generally of no use, making even one of the most fun and interesting Zelda items a chore to use.
Perhaps the biggest slap in the face occurs in the Ice dungeon, The Temple of Droplets. I was expecting a firerod or something that I could actually use, but after traversing several dungeon floors, I instead received… a lamp. The main reason this is a slap in the face is because of the way its presented. You can get a lamp in A Link to the Past as well, but there's no pretense behind it. In Link's house, the first room you start in, it's sitting in a small, inconspicuous chest in the corner of the room. You open it, and there it is. It's not a terribly interesting or important item, to be sure, but the game doesn't build you up to think otherwise.
But the items in the dungeons are a different story entirely. Sitting in precarious places, in giant, oranately decorated chests, it does indeed put up a pretense: "Whatever is in here is different. It's special. The item you find in here isn't like the other ones you will find. This... this is important."
So when I go through all that trouble for a goddamn lamp, I'm obviously a little irritated. And it’s a fancy, well-animated lamp, sure, but what can I do with this? What can I possibly use this item for other than lighting torches? I can’t do anything with these items. They mean nothing to me. They have no sentimental value or anything of the sort, nor do they provide me with an opportunity to give them my own meaning. They’re merely a means to an end. They're tools. I don't feel any more strongly about these items than I would a wrench or a screwdriver. As such, I was unable to get emotionally attached to this game the way I wanted to.
And the whole game is based off this premise. As I said, I was looking forward to adventuring in Hyrule, but the whole game is based around this concept of “opening” the world as Link collects more items. You really can’t go much of anywhere at the beginning of the game, and as a result, I’m tempted to say that this is without a doubt the most linear Zelda I have ever played.
Even dungeons follow this rule: there’s never any question about where you’re supposed to go or what you’re supposed to do because until you find the token item in each dungeon, there’s usually only one place you can go. These dungeons are hardly obstacles or puzzles as a result. They’re errands. Obligations. One may feel the same way about having to get the element in the Forest Shrine as they would about having to go grocery shopping. These dungeons offer no challenge. You walk in, find out where you can go and where you can’t go, go wherever you are able to, collect the item, explore the rest of the dungeon, fight a painfully easy boss, and that’s it. It’s… insubstantial, to say the least.
There’s no adventure. There’s no thrill. It’s just something you have to do, like anything else in life.
Considering how much potential and personality the world map and dungeons have, this is especially frustrating. The overworld of Hyrule is truly beautiful, from the swamps, fields, woods, and the breathtaking floating land of the skies. If I was only able to interact with them, if there was only some meaning or history to the world I was traversing, I could have been able to jump right in. But as it is, The Minish Cap offers a large, engrossing world in which the player is unable to do much of anything at all. Fight some enemies, talk to some townspeople, explore some obvious caves right out in the open... there's very little mystery to this world, and most of it is inaccessible until the latter half of the game. And the dungeons are just... there. They have no history or significance, they just happen to be places Link is required to go. The puzzles are painfully easy, the layout is linear to the point of tedium, and as a result each dungeon just seems like a chore. I would love to have really gotten lost in the lush greenery of the Deepwood Shrine, become absorbed in the Beauty of the Palace of Winds, become dwarfed by perplexing puzzles and fearsome enemies. But this is not the case. There's very little actual "exploration" to the dungeons Link roams in. They're much to straightforward to allow that. It's insensitive, to say the least.
The sidequests mostly revolve around Kinstone fusion: during the game you will find pieces of stones called Kinstones, each of which has a specific shape. When you walk up to certain NPCs to talk, a thought balloon will appear above their heads, indicating that you can attempt to fuse kinstones with them. By pressing the L button, you open up a menu in which the process begins. If you have a kinstone shape that matches the NPC’s, you can fuse them and get rewards. Sadly, these are usually quite meager, and don’t offer much incentive for the player to hunt down every single one in the game. A few are mandatory to complete the quest, but ultimately I didn’t find that this gameplay mechanism was anything beyond a mere gimmick. Additionally, there are swordsmen in the game which teach Link new sword techniques, but almost all are worthless. There were only a couple I found myself ever actually using. You can also collect figurines of characters in the game with the seashells you find, but this is hardly incentive to keep playing the game.
So then, it’s obvious why I felt nothing upon completing the game. There wasn’t really much of anything to feel. The game promised an engrossing and engaging world that I am supposed to love exploring, but instead I was held by the hand and was unable to explore the world in a fashion that I wish to. It wasn’t a quest, it was merely a job. As such, I felt no emotional attachment to this game. I completed my mission. Life goes on.
The game isn’t all bad, of course. Obviously, if I played it as furiously as I did for those six days, then I had to have enjoyed it on some level. And I did, believe me.
The Minish Cap offers some interesting things to the handheld Zelda series: an engrossing, believable fantasy world, excellent graphics and atmosphere, and likeable and well-animated characters. It is faulted by poor execution of gameplay mechanisms, poor world layout, and above all, a general lack of freedom. If the items the player had been given had more personality, more life, then perhaps the game would have succeeded in all the areas in which it really counted. The same can be said for the way the dungeons and the overworld were designed. The atmosphere and visuals are compelling, just begging to be explored… if this had actually been fun to do, the Minish Cap could have truly been something special.
It’s not a bad game. It really isn’t. But the problem is that the Minish Cap is just that. It’s a game, not an experience. And that’s something I never thought I’d say about Zelda.