The Legend Of Zelda: The Minish Cap (GBA)
Developer: Capcom / Flagship
Published by: Nintendo
Genre: Action RPG
Release: 11/12/04 (Europe), 01/10/05 (USA)
Ah, Nintendo. How, when most games companies would KILL for a distinctive mascot character, does one company come up with an entire stable of them? It defies belief, it really does. And now, one of their oldest heroes is making his return to the GBA. Link is back, and this time, he’s got a hat.
Many, many, many, many (etc, etc) years ago, Hyrule was in a bad way. The land was overrun by monsters, and trouble was afoot everywhere. Then, in humanity’s hour of need, the tiny Picori came, bringing magic to the world, in the form of The Light Force, source of magic, and The Picori Blade, which the Hero Of Men used to drive back the monsters. Once the hordes were defeated, the people enshrined the sword, keeping it as a totem to protect the land from monsters. Flash forward to the present day, and Hyrule is a peaceful, prosperous land, celebrating the annual Picori Festival, when the people of Hyrule commemorate their saviors with a party of epic proportions. Street markets, entertainers, and a famous swordsmanship contest, where the winner earns the right to touch the legendary Picori Blade. This year’s celebration marks an even greater anniversary: For, according to legend, every thousand years the doorway between the Picori and Human worlds opens, and now is that time.
This year, however, events take a sinister turn. A new challenger enters the tournament, defeats everyone with ease, and when he gains his reward, he breaks the mystic blade, destroying the seal, and releasing a Pandora’s Box of monsters upon the world. Thus the first part of the plan of the swordsman, whose name is Vaati, is complete: Now all he needs is The Light Force, and his power will be absolute. Whilst Vaati searches for the Light Force, Link takes up the quest to repair the Picori Sword: This can only be done by finding the Picori themselves, and asking them for a favor.
Thus, Link sets out on his latest quest. En route, he discovers the Minish (aka the Picori – Minish is their own name for their race), and a sentient hat who seems to know much of Minish ways and possesses the ability to shrink Link down into a form in which he can communicate with them.
As stories go, it’s not exactly a multi-layer epic of distrust and betrayal; but this is a Zelda game, it was never going to be. However, the central premise is certainly a variation on the usual “rescue the Princess” formula, and has some nice interweaving of past and future (as well as a few minor plot twists, which serve as a very welcome, if slightly predictable, addition to the game).
On top of the main quest, you also have the vast quantity of side-stories. From finding friends for a lonely Goron who just wants to have a bite to eat, to encouraging the development of Real Estate in Hyrule Town Centre, there’s all sorts to be done, and it’s all achieved by finding Kinstone Pieces. These special talismans are only ever found in halves: As part of your quest, you’ll need to find people who have the matching half of your Kinstone. When you do that, you can fuse the kKinstones together, and make all sorts of magical stuff happen in the land
At first glance, the graphics seem merely functional – clean, uncluttered, but not exactly ground-breaking. However, as one looks closer, one begins to see the complexities, and attention to detail, that Nintendo and Capcom have lavished on the game. The gentle ‘chop’ of the water. The feathers flying off the Cuccos as they flap around in a frenzy. Link’s face turning red as he strains, pulling on a lever. You start to see part the functionality, and realize that the graphics are PERFECT for the game. Not only do they set the tone, but they also pitch it just right in terms of complexity. If you want graphical uber-specialness, play an N64 or GameCube Zelda; Minish Cap follows the Link To The Past tradition of not overreaching, and looking better as a result. The sprites and backgrounds are crisp and clear, never a hint of a problem. No strange graphical oddities (no matter how hard I tired to find them), but there ARE some knowing visual in-jokes for fans of the series. Minish Cap is, quite simply, one of the prettiest GBA games around. Special mention goes to the way the Minish are portrayed: You wouldn’t think a four pixel sprite could be well animated, but somehow the programmers have managed to make it work. It’s deeply impressive.
Ignore what people might say about the GBA’s sound capabilities: In the right hands, it doesn’t matter. Some of the tunes in the game are remixes or reworkings of classic Zelda tunes; most of these are redone enough to have a newness about them, but not too heavily that you miss out on what it’s a remix of. The majority are, of course, entirely new compositions, and each one fits its location to a T. It’s clear that the ‘sound folks’ worked in very close conjunction with the ‘graphics people’, and the resulting synergy between sound and vision is magnificent. The effects, too, are spot-on. From Link’s own shouts in combat, to the squawking of Link’s hat, and the spin attack swoosh, it’s a perfect accompaniment to the soundtrack.
Wow. I love these. You expect a Nintendo game to have pixel-perfect and intuitive controls, and that’s what Minish Cap has. I’s the classic portable Zelda control system, that has existed since the days of Link’s Awakening: two buttons, A and B, to which you can assign to whatever items you want/need at the time. Certain items, when both are selected, will allow you to combine them: for example, if both the Pegasus Boots and the sword are selected, the Dash Attack is possible (but only if you’ve learn the skill). The L button is used for inviting people to fuse Kinstones (you can tell if they want to because of a big thought bubble appearing above their head), and R is your rolling attack (which not only gives you a slight speed boost, but can also be a handy evasive move in the right circumstances). The items themselves are simple enough to use: some may have an extra complexity, but that’s always explained clearly (and even if you ignore the instructions, the game’s intuitive enough for you to be able to figure it out).
On top of all this, you have the Sword powers. I’m not going to say anything about the sword’s main special power (except to say it’s a more-than-slight reference to another Zelda game), but the number of special techniques Link can learn are well worth mentioning. A downward thrust while jumping? Coming out of a defensive roll, straight into a bodyslide stab attack? Unleashing ultimate Whirlwind Doom as Link’s spin attack gets powered up to insane levels? Oh yes indeed. There’s more swordplay skills on offer here than ANY other Zelda game (which is no small feat, given the 2D nature of the game, and the lack of buttons). And the best part is? They’re all incredibly intuitive. Some might be tricky to pull off, but they’re all totally logical in their execution. Really, the only control flaw is the usual SP problem, in that it’s not as comfortable to access the shoulder buttons on an SP as it is on a regular GBA. But that’s a minor quibble, especially since the L and R buttons don’t really see THAT much use, and almost none at all in battle-critical situations (you might need the Roll Attack in battle here and there, but that’s it).
It’s a Zelda game. Tricky, perhaps. Puzzling, yes. Difficult? No. With all the ways to power up Link (potions, faries, extra hearts, and so on), you’re never going to be in any REAL trouble (with the possible exception of the only Time-Critical key section of a Zelda game since Ocarina Of Time, which is just annoying). That’s not to say the game isn’t balanced: The item-gaining curve is just right, and the difficulty increases at an appropriate pace. It’s just that the overall difficulty level of the game is really rather easy, especially for veteran players. Of course, the explorative nature of the game *does* allow players to set their own difficulty: Finding the game too easy? Don’t take the time to search for all those extra heart pieces, or item bag upgrades. Having a bit of trouble? Stop off before the boss fight and capture some fairies to see you through. It’s the age-old RPG tradition of “how much you level up before the next Boss”, but as ever, it’s cunningly concealed beneath the veneer of “not-really-leveling-up-at-all” (which starts to lead to the question of whether Zelda is an RPG or not, but that’s a debate for another time).
The quest will keep you going until the end, no question. But once you’re done… Then what? As usual, with an RPG, it all comes down to how much you can be bothered finding everything. The most obvious aspect in this is the Kinstones: There are secrets to be uncovered, and the only way to find them all is to complete all the Kinstone fusions. However, whilst this may sound like “just another side quest”, it’s more than that. In RPGs, most of these quests revolve around your characters doing stuff in order to get uber-powerful items. Not so here: Sure, the fused Kinstones have a habit of making special things appear, but often, this will be as a result of something nice happening to somebody else, or an NPC being inspired to do something. As an example: Mr Gorman is a property owner in Hyrule Town. Fusing the right Kinstone inspires him to rent out his spare house, at which point, Link is able to let a young lady named Din know that there’s a place she can rent. Din moves in, and is so grateful to Link, she gives out a special magic charm that when used form a bottle that will enhance Link’s combat abilities. This, to me, makes a nice change from the usual “kill these monsters, get this weapon” quests, which are generally selfish. Sure, Link gets rewards from the fusions, but other people get helped out, too. It’s a nice, warm, fuzzy feeling inside, knowing you’ve just helped somebody out. Obviously, there’s the usual side-quests of “finding all the heart pieces” and for Minish Cap, there’s a new spin on Figurine Collection: rather than take photos of things, you find Mysterious Shells, which you can trade in Hyrule Town for a chance to play the Super Smash Bros-esqe gumball machine. It’ll take a while (and LOTS of shells) but there’s a whole collection there for you… If you can be bothered.
As ever, it all comes down to how much you can be bothered to go back and find. For me, the urge to return to this game has been stronger than a lot of RPGs I’ve played recently, so I can only score it from that – Your fondness for the game might be less.
Appeal is one of the categories where Nintendo games for this sort will divide people. Some will take the “it’s a kiddie game” view, and ignore it. Others will look at Zelda and say “It’s too RPG-ish, and I don’t like RPGs, so I won’t even play it”. It’s a known fact that you can’t please everyone.
However, the overall appeal of the game cannot be denied. Not only does it have the backing of TWO of the most respected codehouses in the world, but it’s also the latest title in a series long-known for producing games of the highest caliber. There’s automatic appeal to the millions of gamers who love the Zelda series, as well as appeal to, yes, some slightly younger gamers who aren’t going to be enthralled by San Andreas or Halo 2. There’s appeal to Nintendoholics (paging Mr. Widro), Capcomites, and to anybody who can appreciate a high-quality videogame. It’s immediately accessible, yet contains a depth of gameplay that belies its apparent simplicity. In short, it’s got something for everyone, except for the cynical people who won’t give it a chance. Which is more than can be said for a lot of games.
Appeal Factor: 9/10
Yes, it’s a sequel. Yes, it’s got a borrowed control system. One often comes as a result of the other. So the game’s not going to be getting a 10 here. However, the story is sufficiently differently-paced to the other games in the series to warrant more favorable consideration, and of course, the central premise is a good one. The shifting between full-size and Minish-size really adds a whole new layer of depth to the game: suddenly, the puddle you walked through on your way here has become a colossal lake that you can’t navigate without flippers. The grass you cut down a moment has re-grown, and each blade is 15 times bigger than you. You can now sneak into people’s houses through the mousehole, and speak to the little people under the floorboards It’s a whole new ball game, and one that hasn’t been inadequately explored in video games (It’s had the occasional feature here and there, but it’s never been the focus of a game in the way it is here; at least, as far as I remember… Though if I’m wrong, I’ll no doubt get scathing feedback letters…).
This game has had me hooked. Not in the “Digital Crack” way. Not in the “Must play more… If I cancel mealtimes, that’s an extra hour,” way. But in the “I’ve got some time to spare, and 100 different games to choose from. I think I’ll play Minish Cap” sort of way. I’ve mentioned before that I’m not the sort of person who gets hooked in the Obsessive style any more, so I’ve been having to think hard about how I rate this topic. And I’ve concluded that if a game can keep me coming back, that’s about as good as I can expect it to be in terms of addictiveness. Because that’s what addictiveness is all about.
I’m very tempted to give it points just for being a Zelda game. But I won’t. I *will* give it points for being chock-full of references to other Zelda games, though. Meeting NPCs described as “visitors from Holodrum and Labrynna” makes me smile. Encountering Malon and Talon (Talon being as useless as ever) makes me grin. The return of The Carpenters made me cheer. Wandering through a graveyard with a specific route through made me think of The Egg Of The Wind Fish. The return of the Downstab (not seen since Zelda II) and the music reworkings. All little things that together make the gaming experience so wonderful. This game was written with fans of the series in mind, and should be appreciated from that standpoint. That, and the fact that it takes the franchise in never-before-seen directions. New things from a series so old? Believe it.
The main thing that perhaps needs addressing here, though, is the speculation about a supposedly “Uncompletable Quest” . This is the reports that a certain side-quest, involving finding houses for three laides at the hotel is unfinishable because nobody online seems to have figured how to get the third house built. Some people have tried to claim that this is a bug, or that it shows the game is unfinished. And yes, it *is* theoretically possible that this is true. However, it’s equally likely that (and some people have trouble comprehending this fact) perhaps the quest IS completed as it is. Consider the possibility that THERE IS NO THIRD HOUSE. Minish Cap has, as best anyone can figure, presented the first time in a Zelda game that you can miss the opportunity to get an item, and then NEVER have a chance to obtain it. That’s BIG, for a series known for letting gamers go back and find stuff they’ve missed. If you ask me, it’s yet another sign that the series is growing up, and becoming less lenient on those who don’t take the time to explore.
Oh, and it gets bonus points because it came out in Europe first. BWAHAHAHAHAHAHA!!!!!
Short Attention Span Summary
This is the first Game Of The Year contender for 2005. This will be 2005’s first must-have. Nintendo wants to start the year with a stormer, and that’s what they’ve got right here. I strongly advise you all to forget waiting the extra month, and buy the import copy RIGHT NOW. Believe me, you’ll be glad you did.