Ranking the top 101 Nintendo games: No. 39, The Legend of Zelda: The Minish Cap
Zelda, but make it tiny.
I’m ranking the top 101 Nintendo developed/published games of all-time, and you can read about the thought process behind game eligibility and list construction here. You can keep up with the rankings so far through this link.
The Minish Cap is a fascinating cross-section of most of the Zelda universe. While a topdown, two-dimensional Zelda, it shares much in common with some of the 3D games from the franchise. Outside of the Wind Waker-inspired art direction — albeit pixelated instead of cel-shaded — maybe it most notably resembles Skyward Sword, in that it focuses on a central hub (in this case, Hyrule Town) with a small “Hyrule Field” element to the world. Much of the game, like in Skyward Sword, is spent progressing the story in that central hub and then going off to different regions (forest, mountain, swamp, etc.) to solve environmental puzzles and region-specific quests in order to get your Minish-themed MacGuffins.
Minish Cap works much, much better than Skyward Sword does — one of these games is ranked 39th on this top 101, and the other is not ranked at all — but that’s in large part because of what else it brings to the table. For one, the hub also resembles Majora’s Mask, in the sense that you get to know the townspeople well and have to focus on solving many of their issues (or, at least, work around their issues to get what you need) in order to progress and open up more of the world: there are even guards keeping you from accessing other regions until you’ve crossed certain thresholds with skills, or items, or what have you. Obviously, the time mechanic from Majora’s Mask isn’t present, so it’s not exactly the same, but nothing in this game is exactly like in other Zeldas. It’s just reminiscent of, inspired by, and so on.
Dungeons-wise, it’s like a cross between the other 2D entries from the series, with the layout of those dungeons often looking and feeling much more like A Link to the Past, but with more of the kinds of puzzles you’d find in Link’s Awakening or either of the Oracle games. Sometimes it feels like the developers put the kinds of puzzles from the latter on top of the layout of the former, but as awkwardly as that description reads, in practice, it’s seamless.
Minish Cap’s embrace of the entire Zelda oeuvre is so complete, actually, that it also features elements from the Four Swords games: yes, from the multiplayer Zelda titles that feature multiple Links. Considering the primary enemy of the Four Swords titles is the same as the enemy of Link in Minish Cap, all of that checks out, but still. Recognizing it feels weird, considering those games are otherwise kind of siloed.
Making this all feel, as said, seamless, is impressive enough on its own, but Minish Cap is no simple pastiche: it also thrives on its originality. The primary mechanic for Minish Cap, the separator for this from the other Zelda games, is that Link can shrink down to the size of an insect. He doesn’t go to a new world that mirrors his own, like in Link to the Past or Link Between Worlds or even Ocarina of Time: he’s in the same world, but now he’s very, very tiny, and so it is effectively a brand new location to traverse, even if all that’s changed is Link’s perspective and shoe size.
This means dungeons don’t just have floors, but they have layers. Like how, in A Link Between Worlds, traveling on the walls changed your perspective of what could be solved and traversed and how, shrinking to such a miniature state in Minish Cap forces you to think about your surroundings in a different way than you’re used to in Zelda games, or in the various — and I say this with love but for lack of a better word — clones in the genre. It keeps the game fresh, as the world of the Minish (called the Picori by the Hylians) brings new perspectives and challenges to overcome, even if they might look familiar.
As an example, the first boss you face in the game is a lowly green ChuChu. Except they’re a lot less lowly when Link is the size of an ant, as he is while inside of a temple where he must remain miniature the entire time: he can’t even enter it as full-size Link, so he certainly isn’t swapping back and forth between sizes here. You can’t just hack the ChuChu a couple of times like usual, but instead, Link has to vacuum away the ChuChu’s slimy feet-like-protrusions until it topples over and can be attacked the traditional way: in its face, with a sword. Granted, your sword is very tiny, so it’s death by a thousand paper cuts for this ChuChu, but still. Sword to the face, ye olde standby.
That’s another thing about Minish Cap: sometimes you’re switching back-and-forth between standard and Minish sizes in order to solve a puzzle, but sometimes you’re stuck in one shape or the other. When you’re non-shrunk Link, the game world can be pretty standard, but when you’re small, there are so many more obstacles to contend with. Puddles will now drown you. You better hope that walkway is smooth, because if there are crushed rocks or tall grass or whatever in your way, you can’t climb them. On the other hand, it’s a lot easier to find handholds in a wall when your hands are oh-so-tiny, and what would snap or break under Link’s weight if he can even get to it is a pathway across obstacles for a bug-sized Link.
Minish Cap’s music differs from nearly every other game in the series, which is in part because of the way the Game Boy Advance sounds — it’s not quite as severe as, say, the Sega Genesis, but there is absolutely a Game Boy Advance Sound based on the hardware choices made by Nintendo — but also because the developers went in a bit of a different, darker direction here than we’re used to. That shouldn’t be surprising, given that this, like the Oracle games, was developed by Flagship and Capcom, and Capcom is known for having a pretty distinct, recognizable sound themselves. Unlike the Oracle games, the Game Boy Advance wasn’t “limited” to the audio output of the Game Boy Color, so they were able to do a little more and stray a little more from the sound we’re used to. The results are great, and I can prove it to you if you’ve got an hour to kill, but you could also just listen to Vaati’s Theme:
The sound, the art — Minish Cap continued the trend of “like the SNES classics you remember, but even better” as far as how games look was concerned — the original gimmick, the blending of so much of what was great about other Zelda games together into the video game equivalent of [extremely Jack Black voice] a goulash, baby, and it’s no wonder that Minish Cap is beloved. It’s probably the most underrated Zelda game going — there is a part of me questioning my own decision to put it where I did, even, and if you ask me a year from now I might have a different answer for you.
If you haven’t played Minish Cap yet, you should. Fixing that problem might present its own problems: Ebay is not your friend here if you’re looking for a deal (unless you want to buy a reproduction cartridge, which hey, how do you think I have Mother 3 in English on a GBA cart?), and it was only available as a digital download to “ambassador” 3DS owners who were early adopters of the system. It is available for download on the Wii U, which once again manages to be an oasis in a desert never frequented by anyone in need of its water or shade. I agree with Kotaku’s assertion that it (and basically everything else on this list) should be on the Switch, but it’s not, so in the meantime, you have to think outside of what should be and instead consider what you can do instead. Trust me on this, it’ll be worth whatever effort you expend or loophole you fit through.
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