January 19, 2018
Welcome back to the Lens of Truth, my favorite objective-ish review series on the site! I set out on the journey to review every Zelda game in order of their release way back in April last year, but apparently I slipped up last month when I skipped a game. Today we will go back and check out the last game to release before Four Swords Adventures, the oft overlooked Gameboy Advance title, Minish Cap. This game feels to me like a cult hit with how few people I actually know who played it outside of the “Zelda is life” demographic, but I consider it an important title in the series as the only full Zelda experience on the system, which fluffed out the handheld sector, bridging the gap while we endlessly anticipated the ever delayed Twilight Princess. Let’s take a look at this semi-forgotten classic, eh?
As the first in-depth 2D Zelda to feature Toon Link, this game had a bit to prove graphically. Coming off the heels of Wind Waker, a game that received much acclaim despite its out-of-left-field cartoon style, it was natural to wonder whether or not the top-down style could deliver as satisfying a game with this newfound form of our protagonist. While the 3D cel-shaded world stood out on the powerful Gamecube, how would a 16-bit knockoff fare?
I’m gonna say “rather well.” While the cel-shading was lost, and with it the bright and airy feel of its predecessor gone, this game’s pixel art still looked very appealing, and the original art that went with it was undoubtedly just as charming. I adore the artwork for Princess Zelda, as her aesthetic came off as far more royal than Tetra in a dress. Don’t get me wrong, Wind Waker’s art direction was wonderful and an important stepping stone to reach this style, but the childish, elegant princess who asked me to the town fair only to find ourselves swept off in a magical adventure caught my heart like nobody else could. Don’t tell my wife.
Beyond our hero and damsel in distress, there was yet a third character who stood out as one of the most memorable from the game; the venerable villain, Vaati. While he had appeared in one game previously, this was where he really came alive as a character. Where Four Swords’ version of Vaati was akin to Ganon from the original Legend of Zelda, Minish Cap reimagined him as a more relatable character as Ocarina of Time did with the introduction of Ganondorf. While his humanoid form felt far from intimidating, he fit the story stupendously and his imagery suited his meager beginnings.
Originating as a Minish under the tutelage of the wise sage Ezlo, Vaati felt betrayed by his master who created a magical, wish-granting cap to give to the Hylians, who had admittedly done basically nothing to deserve such a wicked-sick gift. I’m sure the Minish say “Wicked-sick” all the time. Point of the story is that given his humble backstory as the apprentice to a powerful sage, Vaati’s lust for power and impatience made him feel like a relatable villain, of which the Zelda series is often bereft. This was complemented by his meek aesthetic, and without that the game would have conveyed his character as little more than the big, angry ball of wind he was.
With the perfect trifecta of memorable characters, the ingame graphics and supplemental artwork earn the Minish Cap a solid ten.
With the vividly vibrant visuals popping as incredibly as they did, a great soundtrack should be right in line to compliment them. But was it? This was a bit of an odd egg in the series like the Oracle games, as it was developed by Capcom rather than Nintendo. The company brought on Mitsuhiko Takano, who had already worked with them on a few Mega Man games, among other titles. His composition was great, though in some cases I think the overall production came across strangely.
Many themes were reused and updated from previous titles, often feeling a little too samey for my tastes. While they were generally used in the same context and therefore fit the scene unanimously, many tunes felt like they didn’t bring anything unique to the table. Reusing the “inside of a house” theme worked fairly well in Wind Waker because it was altered to fit the feel of the cartoony, light-hearted style. In Minish Cap, it was more like a direct copy and paste from the theme which originally appeared in Ocarina of Time.
Moreover, the instrumentation felt awkward in many cases. I understand that the handheld was less powerful than the home console, and therefore exceptions could be made, but in many themes it seemed to mix older, blippity-bloop style sound effects with more realistic sounding instruments. In the aforementioned house theme, a very convincing panpipe is paired poorly with an electronic bassline reminiscent of several Link’s Awakening tracks. On the original Gameboy that was about as advanced as music could get, so it didn’t feel out of place because every part integrated into the piece was derived from this sort of electric buzz. On the more powerful Gameboy Advance, I don’t expect huge, live recorded soundtracks or anything, but with how convincing some of the digital instrumentation was, pairing it with outdated and stylistically opposing sound profiles made for a seriously strange choice.
Of all my issues with the Minish Cap soundtrack, though, my biggest is that I don’t remember most of it. I liked several tracks in the game, and got some great nostalgia from the reworked pieces made famous by previous titles, but they had no lasting power. In order to effectively review this title, I had to actually go back and listen to the entire soundtrack to remember what even happened. As soon as I started, the memories came flooding back to me, however one of my favorite things about the Zelda series is that I can vividly remember each track from my favorite games as though I was playing it right now.
My one consolation might be that I have only played the game through twice, which is less than several of my other favorites, however with only one full playthrough of A Link to the Past, and that happening many years previously to the last time I played Minish Cap, I find it odd that I can recall obscure themes from the former (such as entering an underground area) better than I can even more prolific tracks (for example the Hyrule Field theme) from the latter.
Good composition was stifled by strange instrument pairings through the entire game, and the lack of memorability really gets me down when compared to other titles in the series. After giving it a listen again, I can say it was solid enough to earn a six out of ten, but I feel like it could have been much greater.
Let’s address the microscopic elephant in the room, the gimmick! Was it good, bad, meh? The ability to shrink in this game opened so many doors the gameplay could take, and those possibilities were pretty much all utilized. Having areas which seem mundane change drastically when Link is only an inch tall was among the most clever of these. Exploring a house you’ve visited several times in order to further the story would ordinarily be boring. It’s a house, right? There’s four walls, if you’re lucky a basement, and one or two NPCs. If suddenly you have to climb up the bookshelf, dodge the mice in the rafters and exit through the chimney to discover your objective, suddenly it has a totally different feel; a unique experience exploring an ordinary space inhabited of invisible invaders.
In the same vein, the shrinking mechanic was also used to make ordinary combat challenges more interesting. A chuchu has traditionally been a fairly boring, easy to dispatch enemy, but when Link is only one percent the size of it, suddenly you have a clever boss fight. Many great choices were made in the name of exploration and challenge, and it made for some of the most fun world and dungeon design in the series.
One strike against this game is just how much of a railroad it is. I remember this as the first game to frustrate me with such a mechanic. Even as a fairly young gamer, I could tell when the overworld was placing an obstacle in your way that you could easily bypass with an item from a dungeon, and seeing several different instances of this in various parts of the world before you found the one direction you were actually supposed to go was infuriating. Ever since this game, I have been jaded against any kind of railroading, especially when you see it and instantly know that it’s there for the specific purpose of telling you how to play the game. I can see how it helps from a development and storytelling perspective, but when you are actually playing the game, it is incredibly tedious and it kills a large portion of the exploration that would otherwise be there.
Back to the plus side, Minish Cap featured a fondly remembered sidequest string where Link traded broken medallions called Kinstone Pieces. While this was an easy and fairly mindless task if you just did it all in one go, the game kind of encouraged you to trade the ones you’d found along the way as you were playing, so it didn’t end up that bad. The best part about it was that every character you traded with had some small segment of dialogue, which pieced together the world in a way not often found in a handheld title.
This game also expanded upon ideas introduced in Wind Waker by adding a plethora of new sword techniques. As Link explores, he was able to train with the Swiftblade family, a large group of swordsmen who had all mastered secret techniques, and were willing to pass it on to him. While Twilight Princess is often praised for its use of this same mechanic, it was actually introduced shortly before in this game. As I have said before, what started in Wind Waker ended up evolving into the massive combat system we saw in Breath of the Wild, and this was the first stepping stone from the initial foundation.
All in all this was among my favorite titles to play for Gameboy Advance. The incredible puzzles within the dungeons created by exploiting the gimmick made for a fantastic feeling of accomplishment when you solved them, but ultimately the lack of exploration in the overworld dragged the score down to a seven out of ten. Screw railroads.
Remember when I was talking about the epic trio of Link, Zelda, and a surprise new villain, Vaati? Well just as they brought the aesthetic of the game forward in the best possible way, so too did their influence on the story. Vaati was a villain you could sympathize with, Zelda was admittedly a little more damsel-in-distress-y than she had to be, but she was also that childhood friend who you were willing to die for, and Link was… well, he was you, so he was willing to die for Zelda!
While Link has never had substantial dialogue of his own, and this game was no different, it did give him enough backstory to let you get behind him as a compelling protagonist. While he was friends with the princess, he himself was the grandson of a lowly blacksmith, and his parents were inexplicably nowhere to be found (as seems to be the case quite regularly). Despite his simple past, he was willing to risk life and limb helping not just the princess, but everybody else as well. Random townsfolk. Mountain dwarves. Sprites that only kids could see that he was basically the only person who could interact with because of a magic hat that was actually one of those sprites, and basically anybody who wanted or needed help in any way. What a guy!
As for the villain, it was very interesting to see this transformation of the big blob of dark doomy stuff (as was his original form in Four Swords) to a character with backstory, flaws, and charm. Vaati created a new level of relationism for the series; for the first time, I felt like I could understand exactly where his motives came from, and why he decided to make the choices he did. Certainly Ganondorf had a similar appeal in Ocarina and Wind Waker, but even such epic villains as these were overshadowed by this malicious Minish.
So the primary characters were great, but can they effectively represent the story as a whole? Well mostly, but any good story should have a strong lineup of background characters to keep the narrative flowing. In Minish Cap, we had Ezlo and… Uh, Talon? Yeah, even the recurring characters in this game really just felt like they had no purpose to be there. Tingle was annoying as always, Malon and Talon had some forgettable side quest or something, and Ezlo was literally the most annoying companion of all time. Navi I had very little problem with. Midna was cheeky and way too hot-tempered, but I guess you can get that way sometimes when a mad bastard drunk on power usurps your throne. Ezlo’s average dialogue was almost as interesting as Fi telling you that the batteries in your Wii Remote were nearly depleted. Despite how much I like him as a character within the story, I really wish I could have just left him back at his house and kept the shrinking ability without him nagging me constantly.
So a well grounded story with strong characters walks into a bar, but the bartender behind the counter is so lame that they didn’t remember the punchline. That’s about my summary of the story. I liked it overall, but a lack of interesting characters outside the primary three left this game wanting just a little. Eight out of ten.
So again we wrap up a review, and it’s getting more and more difficult to not just use same-sounding segues to fumble my way through the final paragraph. This game brought a ton to the table, and stands out as possibly my favorite game for the console, but in the end it suffered from a few shortcomings that edged it out of the final round of the Lens of Truth. With a final score of thirty-one out of forty, I turn the conversation to you. Did you like the music better than I did? Do you think Ezlo’s advice was the smartest suggestions you’ve ever heard? Let me know in the comments or on the Twitter and we can keep the conversation kayaking!
Oracle of Ages/Oracle of Seasons: 40/40
Ocarina of Time: 40/40
Link’s Awakening: 40/40
A Link to the Past: 39/40
Wind Waker: 39/40
Majora’s Mask: 33/40
Minish Cap: 31/40
The Legend of Zelda: 30/40
Four Swords: 28/40
Four Swords Adventures: 26/40
The Adventure of Link: 19/40