“Our two development themes for a Zelda on the GBA were 1) to do something no one had done before, and 2) to make something that would bring out Capcom’s style.”
Director Hidemaro Fujibayashi on The Minish Cap, Capcom’s final Zelda
The Minish Cap is not a foundational title for The Legend of Zelda. Rather than inspiring a new breed of 2D Zelda, Capcom’s final outing with the franchise was overshadowed both by releasing so late into the Game Boy Advance’s lifespan and the 2D side of the series adopting a new style of gameplay through the Nintendo DS’ Phantom Hourglass. At the same time, The Minish Cap’s lack of legacy far from speaks to the game’s actual quality. While Nintendo would choose to take The Legend of Zelda elsewhere, director Hidemaro Fujibayashi succeeded in delivering a game the franchise had yet to see: a 2D Zelda capable of rivaling its 3D contemporaries in both presentation and scope.
Capcom has a flair for high production value that can be seen in virtually all of their Game Boy titles – from the Mega Man Zero sub-series they commissioned from IntiCreates to their subsidiary Flagship’s work on the Oracle duology. Even at their worst, the average Capcom game has enough polish where high-quality visuals and a dynamic score can carry the experience. Hidemaro Fujibayashi wanted to weaponize this quality to create what he believed could be “the pinnacle of 2D gaming.” The Minish Cap was always meant to compete on 3D Zelda’s level.
Releasing so late into the GBA’s life cycle may have hurt sales, but it at least ensured TMC could make as much use of the handheld’s hardware as possible. It’s no stretch to say The Minish Cap is one of the best looking games on the Game Boy Advance, with expressive sprite work and a detailed overworld that lends Hyrule visual depth even in 2D. Clouds overcast their shadows from up above, swaying with time; lava bubbles in the Cave of Flames while steam fogs the screen; and swamp water boils & ripples at Castor Wilds. It might seem ancillary, but so much attention to detail is what grounds a world in reality.
More impressive than just Capcom’s eye for presentation is their sprite work. The Minish Cap’s character design takes a page from The Wind Waker, resulting in expressive sprites that react can on a moment by moment basis. Link’s cap will sway as he walks, he blinks if left idle, his face will turn red if he pushes or pulls something for too long, he gasps for air when swimming, screams & holds on for dear life while riding minecarts, and he’ll occasionally squint his eyes at Ezlo’s snide remarks. Link’s blade even glistens when he charges the Spin Attack, a bright flash slowly making its way to the tip of the blade. Coupled with all of Ezlo’s throwaway lines about the boy, TMC’s Link is overflowing with life.
NPCs aren’t as expressive as Link, naturally, but most have at least one defining action to make them pop. Carlov, the owner of the Figurine Gallery, jumps with joy every time you get a new figure, and Tingle’s animations outdo even his Majora’s Mask originator. The Hyrule Bar is stuffed with patrons who have glasses in hand, shopkeepers have loud personalities that translate through their gestures, and enemies balance A Link to the Past’s sensibilities with The Wind Waker’s liveliness. The Minish Cap effortlessly immerses players in a livable Hyrule, unburdened by 2D gaming’s restrictions.
While held back by the Game Boy Advance’s weak sound chip, TMC’s composition quality is on par with the 3D games, featuring a score that samples heavily from Zelda history without bogging itself down in references. The Minish Cap’s graphics and music keep Hyrule’s identity familiar, yet fresh. The Legend of Zelda has a bad habit of relying on Hyrule as a setting too often, but it’s fitting Capcom offers their interpretation of the kingdom in their last game. Hyrule takes cues from Labrynna & Holodrum, filling itself with copious secrets all layered in a dynamic gimmick. Labrynna had a world torn between time, Holodrum was rattled by seasons running amok, and TMC’s Hyrule lets Link shrink down to be among the minutiae.
Through Ezlo, Link’s partner and surrogate cap for the game, players can shrink down to the size of insects via Minish Portals. This creates a juxtaposition between Hyrule as it’s traditionally depicted and Link’s shrunken view of the world that fleshes out the setting in a manner most wouldn’t even consider. According to Hyrule Encyclopedia, shrinking Link “challenged players to notice subtle details like mouse holes to find new paths or progress through the story.” (273) While most instances of shrinking down are clearly telegraphed within dungeons, overworld progression consistently requires acute observational skills to recognize when to shrink, where to shrink, & why.
In practice, shrinking’s main benefit comes from Minish Portals providing a better understanding of the series’ architecture while allowing a 2D Zelda to make use of elaborately detailed settings. The Minish Cap’s set pieces are some of the most creative in the franchise, twisting familiar staples by downsizing everything. Deepwood Shrine is forest-themed like most introductory dungeons, but Link being so small offers an entirely new perspective on things. Huge flowers ordain the shrine’s entrance, there’s a giant barrel in the hub that players can rotate, and piles of dust litter the dungeon floor.
TMC can set a scene unlike any other in Zelda. A downpour hits Mt. Crenel just as Link reaches the top, resulting in players having to dodge giant droplets while shrunk. The Temple of Droplets is an ice & water-themed dungeon set entirely in a frozen stump where Link has to create openings in the ceiling to let in sunlight & melt away ice. Halfway through, a Blue Chu-Chu leaks in to serve as a mini-boss, throwing a twist into what players have been doing all dungeon. You can get up close & personal in Hylian homes, look at detailed food up close, marvel at the finer details that are normally only present in 3D. Shrinking down is rooted in A Link to the Past’s dual world mechanic, but Capcom’s take on the concept is as creative as it is practical.
In terms of pacing, The Minish Cap is one of the fastest Zelda games to play through when just following the main story. Ezlo will always point Link in the right direction, but he’s one of the most inoffensive partners in the franchise, rarely interrupting gameplay. Ezlo himself is an element reflective of the 3D games. The Minish Cap is the first 2D Zelda to feature a partner character for Link, one who plays a key role in gameplay and the story. Uniquely, Ezlo and Link have a grandfatherly relationship, far more so than the Hero of Winds had with the King of Red Lions in The Wind Waker.
It may not be a 3D Zelda, but The Minish Cap has just as much heart, soul, & scope…
Ezlo has a shocking amount of unique dialogue by pressing the Select button. More than just give advice, Ezlo will talk to Link – fleshing out both of their personalities. Link is apparently peppy, lazy, and happy-go-lucky, but he grows out of it as he becomes braver throughout his journey. Ezlo has a soft spot for Link from the beginning and sees him as a student (a detail only revealed through Select dialogue,) but there is a bit of generational hostility early on. Ezlo is a crotchety old man who needs time to warm up to Link externally. Considering Ezlo was betrayed by Vaati right before the start of the game, that he opens up to Link at all speaks to the kindness underneath his edge.
Link’s relationship with Ezlo is defined by little moments. Link will nudge Ezlo awake if they ever go to sleep back home or at the Hyrule Inn. Ezlo makes fun of Link in the Cave of Flames for being afraid of the mine carts, and then for hopping off his rise with a huge smile. Out of the blue, he even points out that the cows at Lon Lon Ranch look delicious. Ezlo’s dialogue also changes over the course of the story. By the end of the game, pressing Select can result in Ezlo telling Link just how proud he is, reflecting on how far they’ve both come. Per Ezlo, Link actually freaks out since he’s not used to him being so nice. It’s a beat that sums up their relationship nicely.
Ezlo’s the most dynamic character in The Minish Cap, but NPCs in general play a constant role in player progression – mandatory or otherwise, and more than the average Zelda. Kinstone Fusion was introduced to make exploration a more interactive process. “Players collect Kinstones, which are similar to pieces of a puzzle, and by matching them with pieces from other characters in the game, something new happens.” Alongside shrinking, Aonuma considered Kinstone Fusion one of the most important facets of TMC’s design. This is especially evident in regards to side content. Virtually every single side quest in The Minish Cap is tied to Kinstone Fusion.
Fusing not only keeps NPCs active participants of the gameplay loop (something even later 3D games neglect,) Kinstones open up new areas of the overworld one by one. Fusions can spawn new chests, clear pathways, or simply trigger the next part of a side quest. Heart Pieces, new items, and upgrades are all tied to the Kinstone system. Bombs can be replaced with Remote Bombs that detonate on a player’s command; the Magical Boomerang is the reward for a fairly lengthy Kinstone quest; and the three Oracles trigger Joy Butterflies to appear, each of which permanently speeding up one of Link’s actions when caught – from swimming to digging, to shooting his Bow.
The Minish Cap does, unfortunately, fall short in dungeon count when compared to Capcom’s Oracle duology, featuring only six full-length dungeons, but they’re at least all unique. They also do a good job at replicating the scale of the 3D dungeons by adhering to a strict visual theme with puzzles emphasizing their respective dungeon item. The Palace of Winds is The Minish Cap’s standout dungeon, a five-story castle high above Hyrule that’s been built up to since Link & Ezlo missed the Wind Element in the Fortress of Winds.
The Palace makes great use of the GBA’s hardware, offering the spatial depth of a 3D dungeon in 2D. You can see the clouds moving down below, no land in sight. Link uses Ezlo to fly around via whirlwind, translating The Wind Waker’s Deku Leaf into 2D. The dungeon item, the Roc’s Cape, lets Link double jump & glide, allowing the Palace of Winds to feature a decent bit of platforming – not unlike how Ocarina of Time & Majora’s Mask challenge players’ knack for auto-jumping in select set pieces.
Players need to hover over long gaps and jump up clouds to climb higher into the dungeon. In a few instances, you even have to glide off the top of a cloud ladder to get to the other side of the room. Later, fans blow heavy gusts of wind that Link needs to glide into so he can leap over greater distances. Once actually inside the Palace, you actually have to be aware of which floor you’re on and what’s beneath you to make progress. Crumbled floors pave the dungeon, and some areas are only accessible by dropping through a hole from up above. A mix of strong visuals and clever game design help blur the line between 2D & 3D Zelda for The Minish Cap.
Puzzles are never too demanding, but they’re creative on a whole. The game’s best puzzles tend to revolve around the Four Sword, which functions quite differently than it did in previous games. Rather than splitting Link into four separate entities, Link can charge the Four Sword on certain panels to split himself up. These copies move completely in-sync with Link, disappearing when hit or when their timer runs out. Link’s copies can’t use any items other than the sword, but their main function isn’t in combat. Several puzzles require players to strategically create copies via spread out panels. Using the Four Sword often goes beyond just creating four copies when a large block needs to be moved or multiple switches have to be stepped on.
The Palace of Winds heavily features puzzles based on the Four Sword, from needing to spawn Links in the right pattern to hit switches, to keeping Link’s copies intact on your way to push a giant block. The boss fight against Gyorg is all about positioning Link correctly while you create copies, dodge obstacles, and attack multiple targets at once. Notably, the Four Sword has its own sense of progression, with Link gaining access to more copies every time he gets a new element. You can only spawn one other Link until you get the Water Element, with a full set of four locked out until all four Elements have been collected.
It’s a nice means of easing players into thinking of the Four Sword as a puzzle tool rather than just a weapon, allowing the game to gradually introduce harder & harder set pieces. They’re simple puzzles at the end of the day, but the Four Sword challenges how players go about solving them. This isn’t to say the Four Sword doesn’t see action – The Minish Cap arguably has the best combat in 2D Zelda. Link’s move pool does start out rather limited, with the rest of his skills learned from the Blade Brothers over the course of the game. This does mean the early game can be comparatively stiff to earlier games, but it’s worth it to have the most versatile Link in 2D by the end of TMC.
Learnable skills from the Blade Brothers range from mainstays like the Spin Attack & Sword Beam to brand new techniques like the Rock Breaker. The Roll Attack returns from Four Swords Adventures, now plunging players into a thrust when triggered, only transitioning into a spin attack when making contact with enemies or items. The Down Thrust lets Link stab enemies from up above so long as he jumps with the Roc’s Cape beforehand, bringing back a technique otherwise exclusive to Zelda II. Link’s swordplay is as sophisticated as the average 3D Zelda. Give The Minish Cap a parry button and it could outdo The Wind Waker in terms of swordplay depth.
The Blade Brothers’ skills lend combat progression that’s more or less absent in other Zelda. There are even a few secret Blade Brothers who can only be found via Kinstone Fusion, all of which speed up one of Link’s abilities. Scarblade teaches Link how to charge a faster Spin Attack; Splitblade removes nearly all the downtime from charging up copies with the Four Sword (giving players a massive advantage during the final boss); and Great Blade greatly lengthens how long the Great Spin Attack lasts – a spin attack which whips Link around like a top if you mash the attack button after releasing their charge.
Most enemies are designed around swordplay, but Darknuts consistently offer TMC’s hardest challenges. Darknuts hit hard, hit fast, and hit often. They’ll block most attacks while turning to face Link if he moves. Darknuts can only be struck from behind, requiring players to either move fast, bait out attacks first, or use their sword skills. The Great Spin Attack and the Dash Attack (used by running with the Pegasus Boots while the sword is equipped) allow Link to fight aggressively instead of just staying on the defensive.
Proper boss fights tend to be easier than the mini-bosses, not dissimilar to The Wind Waker, but The Minish Cap opts for a very creative roster. The Green Chuchu sets a precedent by turning a common enemy into a genuine threat who’s liable to crush Link. Mazaal requires Link to take out its hands before shrinking down and attacking from inside the boss. The Big Octorok has been trapped underneath the Temple of Droplets for so long that ivy’s attached itself to the monster’s back. Link fights the Gyorg Pair while they fly around the Hylian sky, the Hero of the Minish jumping from Gyorg to Gyorg to stay alive.
The fight against Vaati is a three-phase showdown with an actual spike in difficulty. There’s as much swordplay involved as there is puzzle-solving, with players needing to dip into their whole tool kit to keep up with Vaati’s forms. Each phase sees Vaati becoming more monstrous as well. By the final battle, Vaati’s morphed into the giant eyeball he was in Four Swords & Four Swords Adventures. While Vaati only appears about as much as Onox and Veran did in the Oracle games, his intimate connection to Ezlo and history in the franchise does give him a presence when he’s off-screen.
Vaati was ostensibly a blander Ganon in his previous appearances, but The Minish Cap makes a genuine effort in grounding him in Zelda’s mythology while eschewing franchise staples. Instead of the Triforce, Vaati is after the Light Force – a mystical power that flows through all life. The game is set in Hyrule, but long before a history of warfare has torn the kingdom apart and obscured its culture. There’s no mention of the Master Sword, but the Four Sword takes its place as Link spends most of the game reforging it to its full potential. Zelda’s role is likewise fairly minimal. She’s established through a childhood friendship with Link early on, but the plot’s focus is mainly on Link & Ezlo and the adventure they share.
The Minish Cap plays out like a fairy tale, with high stakes but a whimsical tone that downplays the series’ traditionally epic storytelling. Which isn’t a bad thing by any means. The script was penned as the earliest entry in the Zelda timeline (a detail that’s since been unceremoniously retconned by Skyward Sword,) but that actually plays to TMC’s narrative scripts. At its core, The Minish Cap is insignificant. It’s an origin story for a villain who isn’t as interesting as Ganon, a sword that doesn’t mean as much as the Master Sword, and set in a Hyrule with no real established history. Ezlo even gifts Link a cap at the end of the game, meant to represent a humble origin for his iconic hat, which Skyward Sword retcons – but it all works.
Not every Zelda needs to be an epic adventure. The Minish Cap reaffirms that The Legend of Zelda is more than just Ganon, the Master Sword, or the Triforce; it’s Marin, Koholint Island, Subrosia & Labrynna – Ezlo, The Four Sword, Kinstones, and Vaati – every little oddity that’s helped redefine the franchise time and time again. Is The Minish Cap the pinnacle of 2D gaming? No, but it’s a title that’s quintessentially Zelda. Capcom’s signature presentation, seasoned direction by Fujibayashi, and creative twists on familiar set pieces make for one of the best games on the Game Boy Advance. The Minish Cap recognizes that it’s the little things that make up The Legend of Zelda. It may not be a 3D Zelda, but The Minish Cap has just as much heart, soul, & scope.