Capcom, it would appear, know this full well.
The fundamentals of the gameplay mechanisms are essentially identical to previous Zelda titles: collect items; combat monsters; navigate puzzle-based dungeons…so Zelda veterans will know how much of the formula works; however there are more than enough moments of genuine inspiration and completely new ideas to warrant that Minish Cap should be played by everyone.
It starts so purely: from the moment the music chimes in you know you have something special cradled in your hands. Link is (unsurprisingly, to series veterans) asleep and is awoken by his uncle accompanied by Princess Zelda who is keen to get to the Picori Festival. A Sword-Fighting Tournament is being held and it is said the winner of this Tournament is granted the unparalleled privilege of touching the sacred blade that rests firmly in stone. A shadowy figure, Vaati, wins though it soon becomes clear his intent isn’t one of peace but rather of greed – to get his hands on the ‘Light Force.’ Not an ounce of remorse flows through his veins, and he zaps Zelda into stone whilst destroying the only known salvation, the Pirori Blade. It is up to Link to discover the four elements to re-forge the sword.
And all of this happens with Link…hatless.
It isn’t until a little later that Link will come across a rather nice-looking green hat which, incidentally, can talk. It also has a name, Ezlo: As hats go, Ezlo is a noisy fellow who seems overly intent on sharing his oddities but, thankfully, also has some useful information (whilst providing some delightful humour) and numerous unique abilities to help Link along his way. Link can, for example[/b] hold him like a parachute and glide to previously unreachable areasand it is also only through Ezlo that Link is able to learn of the Picori.
The thumb-sized Picori are intriguing creatures and it is soon evident that Link will surely need their help as his adventure progresses. They look and sound utterly adorable and are the perfect characters to be next on Nintendo’s ‘cuddly toy’ list. Although thought of only as myths by the humans, the Picori actually live and work amongst them. One particular cobbler is convinced he has a rare habit of being able to make shoes whilst sleeping, and it is left to the player to make the connection. Minish Cap is full of subtle, humorous moments like this, and it helps to expand the game’s already obvious charm.
Hyrule returns with the tightly packed cohesiveness seen in previous Zelda titles, in which every tree and boulder appears to be placed with deliberate intent and purpose. But what really impresses is how every unreachable area tantalises with the prospect of the mysteries within - cracks in walls beg to be bombed, large stones scream to be pushed, and swamps require wading through – it’s classically, emphatically Zelda.
Things really become interesting when Link starts to attain the many items that are available. Gone are tools like the Hookshot, but welcomed instead are a whole host of new and wonderful items, such as the vacuum-like Gust Jar or the wall-devouring Mole Mitts. All have masses of puzzle-solving potential and you can imagine the talents at Capcom chuckling conceitedly at their own brilliant designs. These new items bring an air of freshness to the already established dungeons, which are devastatingly difficult at times (though never unfair), and provide feelings of pride and achievement upon completion. Puzzles that initially seem impossible to crack will have their solutions magically exposed as a moment of inspiration lights up your mind.
The items also serve as the deepest motivation when it comes to exploration. The once-restricted Hyrule slowly opens up and all manner of delightful new areas and sub-quests become accessible. It's possible to simply explore new ways to utilise a freshly acquired item: buying milk for a young Picori, learning another of the nine ‘Tiger Scrolls – Sword Techniques’ or collecting the abundantly cute little figures. But the most significant side-quest is collecting ‘Kinstone Pieces.’
Each Kinstone piece has two halves (naturally) and it’s Link’s job to fuse the right piece with the correct NPC’s portion. Standing next to a Kinstone-worthy individual will kindle a small cloud of thought, displaying a symbol. By simply pressing ‘L’ a menu emerges which allows Link to scan through his Kinstone Pieces to find a match. If the fusion is successful he will be ‘rewarded with happiness’ (as the characters seem so keen to declare). Or rather, more specifically, you will be rewarded with anything from another Kinstone piece, a new area opening up on the map, even prompting a postman, and sometimes… an occurrence very special indeed. There is no denying that collecting and fusing Kinstone pieces will become a desire not easily resisted.
In fact, it is easy to forget the sheer dreaminess of the surroundings when deep in concentration, but take a step back for a moment and all manner of inspiring details emerge: from the subtleness of stylistic puffs of smoke to how fluidly every character or foe is animated.
There is an incredible level of detail to be seen and little things such as Link gently patting Ezlo on the head after they’ve had a nap, or how at the beginning of his adventure, Link has a singular piece of hair sticking up at the back (awww… cuteness!) – it all comes together seamlessly to create a beautiful-looking GBA title with heaps of personality. But the real beauty comes when Link transforms into Picori size. Amazingly an entirely new perspective is introduced to the Zelda series; the tiniest acorn or the smallest droplet is twice the size of our little hero, which pose a new threat. There is a greater emphasis on detail whilst little Link even littler, and there is a certain irresistible charm that begs your attention.
Thankfully, longevity hasn’t been sacrificed for the sake of beauty: the main quest alone will take the average gamer a minimum of fifteen hours and that’s without spending a single moment delving into the fabulous subquests, which will double, even triple that time. Minish Cap is like the most beautiful dream unwrapping in the palms of your hands, but inevitably, like all dreams, it reaches its conclusion, despite how much you wish it did not. And - sadly – so too must this review, with barely time to mention the truly heartwarming music, or the presence of some familiar faces from the series’ past, or even how incredibly challenging the bosses are. Such things await the curious.
Whether Minish Cap will be hailed a classic a decade from now, similarly to A Link to the Past, remains to be seen, but there’s no denying it is a more than worthy successor to the greatest 2D Zelda title, and is a stunning and wondrous game.