The Legend of Zelda
series is no stranger to Nintendo's portable world, as gamers on the go have been enjoying Link's adventures even before the first Game Boy game, Link's Awakening
, as far back as a basic handheld Game & Watch title released back in the mid-80s. The latest in the series, Flagship-developed The Legend of Zelda: The Minish Cap
, is the first original game in the series for the GBA platformer, and does a wonderful job continuing the legacy of the Legend of Zelda
series in a brand new adventure. Though the game may introduce elements that may feel new to the series, but in reality The Minish Cap
is essentially much of the gameplay of The Four Swords
remixed into a single player experience. But even so, it's a Zelda
adventure done right, and fits like a glove within the long line of successful titles in the series across all of Nintendo's gaming platforms.
Like most games in the Zelda series, The Minish Cap establishes itself as a self-contained adventure that's completely separate from the stories created in all of the other Legend of Zelda games. In this case, the hero -- for continuities' sake we'll call "Link" -- is set on a quest to locate the Picori, a race of tiny, smaller-than-Smurf-sized beings after Princess Zelda has been turned to stone by an evil sorceror. The Picori, who prefer the more politically correct name "Minish", live among the rest of the big Hyrulians but can only be seen by children who are pure of heart, making Link conveniently perfect for the job at hand. Early in the quest Link will befriend an anthropomorphic hat who has the distinct ability to shrink Link to the size of a Minish, but only at specific portals scattered throughout Hyrule.
The overall game design of The Minish Cap never strays far from the familiar formula established in the first Legend of Zelda and embellished in the near-perfect A Link to the Past, rereleased on the Game Boy Advance two years ago. It's action-oriented gameplay has been tailored specifically for the Game Boy Advance's controls and hardware capabilities; Flagship, the team responsible for the past handheld versions of Zelda since the Game Boy Color Oracles series, shows its practiced, expert hand of producing an original game in the series, offering new elements to the design without straying too far from the classic formula. And you can definitely see the influence of past Flagship Zelda games in The Minish Cap and at the very least this new game retains all the fun of past games in a brand new storyline that definitely hints at its position within the very loose and nondescript Legend of Zelda timeline.
Clearly, the main focus of The Minish Cap is the new ability to get small...barely a couple of pixel's tall when the process is complete. Much of the time spent in mouse-sized form happens in the normal camera perspective since players will need to find the special Minish routes laid out in the normal-sized world. It's a revisit to the Gnat Hat ability established in The Four Swords multiplayer mode introduced in the previous GBA Zelda title, but here Flagship's been able to stretch this idea's legs in adventure form for the first time. And the team's been incredibly successful incorporating puzzle elements within this tiny form. There's a ton of challenge finding all the paths available to tiny Link, as players try to wrap their noodle around the concept of traveling from one point to the next, into hidden and not-so-hidden locations throughout Hyrule in order to complete tasks and progress through the game's story. It's an idea that's so well-conceived that I'd love to see worked in the series' 3D designs somewhere down the line.
On occasion the game breaks out of the standard world to zoom into Link's scaled size to make interacting a bit easier, and it's in these close-ups where the game really pushes the Flagship artwork. The familiar tile-work of the Zelda 2D world will bust loose into much more embellished background art to more accurately portray Link's scale in the real world. Players will have to traverse over gigantic leaves, books, and hidden nooks up in housing lofts, and the Flagship artists have designed some great overhead views for these huge "worlds" for shrunken Link to explore. The "shrink" element comes into play a lot during boss battles, where standard forest creatures will become huge bosses, and other enemies require Link to literally crawl inside to do some damage as well.
The other "main" gameplay enhancement in this adventure is the introduction of "kinstones." These half-pieces scattered throughout Hyrule as collectibles can be combined with another person's Kinstone like a jigsaw puzzle, and when successful these whole-piece kinstones will activate something special somewhere on the game's map. It's a clever idea that gives non-player characters more function within the main adventure, and open up a world of supplemental side-quests that sometimes will enhance Link's abilities. Most of the kinstones in The Minish Cap are "extras" -- less than a dozen are actually required to complete the game, dictated by their "golden" color. The rest open up important, but definitely secondary items such as heart pieces to increase Link's health, a collection of shells to win prizes, Rupees to purchase goods and weapons, and other elements that can definitely strengthen the character during this adventure. The kinstone idea is certainly beneficial to the game's design, although it's a bit of a drag that some characters have multiple pieces to connect with Link, so players will have a ton of back-tracking and guesswork throughout the quest in order to unlock all the extras in The Minish Cap.
Flagship has even taken its experience with The Four Swords and has incorporated new puzzle elements that utilize two, three or four Links to accomplish. Many boss battles will utilize this "copy Link" idea as well in many creative ways. This single-player four Link mode isn't just cloning ideas from the GameCube Four Swords Adventure; it's actually new ideas inspired by elements from the previous Four Sword games that add a lot more challenge to the Zelda gameplay. Unfortunately, even with the multiple Link characters running around on the GBA screen, the team didn't put a multiplayer option into The Minish Cap.
The graphics are already among the standards created in The Four Swords portion of A Link to the Past, which was already a night-and-day difference over the SNES classic. And while much of the character art and animation has been lifted out of that game for The Minish Cap, this is clearly not a total engine recycling. The screen can have a huge amount of character sprites filling the playfield, something that would have slowed past 2D Zelda games to a crawl. The graphic designers do tend to keep much of the presentation low-key to keep the game's look and feel as close to past games in the series, but even these guys couldn't resist pulling off some effects just to strut their stuff. Multi-tiered dungeons have multiple scrolling backgrounds, for example, and some locations pull off a cool "sunglare" effect to let the sunbeams shine through the leaves. There's even a clever, subtle-but-effective technique of "blurring" the background when players high up in a structure looking down at the world below.
Two years ago, Flagship "tweaked" A Link to the Past to incorporate a recorded Link "voice" in his motions, from grunts, groans, and battlecries that honestly didn't really fit the SNES-based character sprite design. This same idea has been implemented in The Minish Cap, but here it doesn't seem out of place and actually fits the game's style. The sound effects of all the characters are pulled off well, even though most of the game's inhabitants are vocally mute due to the series' insistence of only going text for the dialog. That doesn't hold back the game designers, who've enhanced the audio with quick, cute "Hey!" vocals for the diminutive Minish creatures that really give these critters personality. The music soundtrack is equally impressive with some really great "orchestrations" of the familiar Zelda tunes...even if the audio engineers incorporate some bland 8-bit NES instruments into their pieces.
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