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THE LEGEND OF ZELDA : THE MINISH CAP / Nintendo / GBA
I came in to Minish Cap fully expecting to finally be tired of Zelda. After all, Minish is the sixth iteration of the game engine used in Zelda 3 - in the 15 years since A Link To The Past's release, I've plowed through Link's Awakening, the two Oracle games for the Gameboy Color, and the Four Swords remake on the GBA. If you want to get really fussy and technical, we could even count that Stellaview game that was based on Zelda 3 and say this is the seventh time that this basic gameplay engine has been trotted out. Anyway, it would be understandable if it had become somewhat stale by this point ... but somehow it isn't just quite yet. Flagship, the Capcom subsidiary that also does projects for Nintendo and Sega, does an excellent job in their handling of the franchise. They don't bring a whole lot of original ideas to the table with Minish Cap, but they hew faithfully to what's worked in the past and they execute the Zelda formula better than anyone short of Nintendo themselves could.
Minish follows the usual Zelda pattern of re-imagining Link and Zelda in some parallel universe unconnected to any of the other games. This time out, Zelda and Link have been buds since childhood, and the game opens with Zelda coming to fetch Link for a visit to a village celebration that somewhat recalls the Millenial Fair opening of Chrono Trigger. Link is living with some emotionally distant blacksmith dwarf, who plays no serious role in the story. The art style and character designs are loosely based on Wind Waker, which was the most recent major Zelda release at the time that this one came out, though it doesn't seem to take place in that world and there's definitely no sailing. The actual gameplay is Zelda 3 style to a T, with some enhancements and some of the wrinkles ironed out.
This time out, there's no Ganon action. I'll go ahead and spoil that for you, he's not gonna jump in in some puppetmaster Dr. Wily role suddenly at the end of the game or anything. The villain this time out is Vaati, a sorceror who has a magic cap that basically gives him the ability to do whatever he wants. In spite of this tremendous power, he's after something called the Light Force which will apparently make him even more ridiculously powerful, and in order to find this power he turns Zelda to stone and basically takes control of Hyrule Castle. However, Link runs into a similar magic cap, which is actually a sentient being named Ezlo. Ezlo was formerly of the race of the Minish, tiny people that live in cracks and crevices amongst humans. Vaati stole his uber hat from Ezlo and then turned him into this duck hat thing, which has no real power, but will spend the game riding around humping Link's head and giving unsolicited and blatantly obvious advice. The one thing that Ezlo is able to do is to shrink Link to Minish size, at certain magical portals. Using this power Link must enter several dungeons looking for the Elements, which must be fused with the broken Four Sword to restore it to it's original power, and only then can Vaati be challenged and all of that.
Shrinking to and from the Minish world is one of the game's main "gimmicks", much in the way that teleporting to and from the Dark World was used in Zelda 3. A number of the dungeons are Minish-sized, and this makes for some clever sequences in which formerly non-threatening common enemies become menacing bosses from the perspective of the tiny Link. The game also sports two other central gimmicks - as Link obtains elements and bonds them to the Four Sword he is able to create clones of himself at certain points, and he also collects "Kinstones" along the way which can be fused with various NPCs to open secret areas and unveil hidden treasures.
The game is definitely fun. Capcom makes great use of the conventions of the series, bringing back most of Link's familiar inventory and adding a few new items and techniques. The graphics are very colorful and very detailed; this is quite possibly the best looking game on the GBA. The music is also handled very well. Many of Koji Kondo's classic melodies are brought back from various previous Zelda games, and some have been given some very capable remixes. The new musical content in the game is contributed by composer Mitsuhiko Takano, a Capcom vet who scored Mega Man X4 and the first Marvel v.s. Capcom game amongst others. He does a very solid job, and in certain pieces (like the Mystery Woods theme) I swear he's channeling Kondo. Voice clips from the previous games are also incorporated when talking to NPCs; they merge a bit better into the game here than they did in Four Swords.
The only major complaint that can be leveled against it is that it is a little too short, and a little too easy. The latter is a bit of a surprise, given that Flagship's Oracle games had some of the more difficult and demanding dungeons seen in the Zelda series. But this one features only six major dungeons, which will likely take you no more than 8 to 10 hours to clear out. Additional gameplay time comes from scouring the land for hidden heart peices and other upgrades, and the Kinstone fusions necessary to open the paths to these things. In a system somewhat similar to what was done in Wind Waker, you can also collect up to 136 figurines of various in-game characters by scouring the land for "Secret Shells" which you trade in to a capsule toy machine. The challenge level is pretty low, with the dungeon puzzles not being too complex or demanding, and enemies not putting up much of a fight (nor doing very much damage - most enemies knock off only a quarter of a heart per hit).
Also, I'm all for introduction of new villains and new ideas into the Zelda series, but Vaati is just weak. His story is paper-thin and ridiculous; Ezlo makes some hat containing ultimate power and then just leaves it lying around on his desk with no safeguards whatsoever, Vaati grabs it and becomes evil simply because the game requires an evil megalomaniac for it to function - no reason or explanation for his behavior is ever given. And if he has the power to make his wishes come true, what does he need with the Light Force? Why isn't he more pro-active in disposing of Link? Why does he limit himself to some goofy, easy-to-defeat monster form when he eventually does engage in combat with Link? Who knows, and the designers didn't really seem to care. The story seems half-hearted at best; though it isn't necessary with this type of game, a good story would have gone a long way towards increasing player involvement and helping to overlook the short and easy nature of the game.
As such, though, it's still all good, even if the story and some of the dungeons feel a bit uninspired (the last dungeon in particular is a major anticlimax). It's fun, and very lovely, but I think Capcom and Nintendo have finally spent up the last of the Zelda 3 engine's credit with this one. If they're going to bring us more 2D portable Zelda games, they're going to need to go in an entirely new direction to keep things fresh.
Official Nintendo Site
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