Review by Tom Clark

"Sleepy, Grumpy, Bashful, Dozy, Beaky, Link & Titch"

Being short must be a pain in the arse. Tom Cruise gets away with it because he's a celebrity, but for the vertically challenged folks who don't have a massive bank balance, life must be hell. All the playground taunts. All the jibes from work colleagues. The constant pain of being mistaken for a child and refused entry into drinking establishments. The lack of women willing to accept you as a potential breeding partner. I have to say, it must really hurt. And then, as you get older, you get dealt an even crueller blow and actually start to shrink. It doesn't bear thinking about, really. So it's a good thing that the kind-hearted people at Nintendo Towers decided to throw the little guys a bone (not literally - it'd probably just crush them to death) by highlighting their plight in the latest Zelda adventure, The Minish Cap. God bless you, short people. God bless you all.

The Minish Cap starts with Link and his good friend Princess Zelda heading to Hyrule's annual festival in celebration of the Picori people. Legend has it that the Picori were a race of tiny, tiny elves who came to Hyrule's help in an hour of need by locking away a great evil, and who may well one day return to Hyrule again. During this particular festival, though, a dark cloud is cast by the arrival of Vaati (the Zelda villain famous for being the one who isn't Ganon.....), who takes the sacred Picori Blade - that which keeps the evil at bay - and shatters it, before using his crazy magic skills to turn folks at the castle - including Zelda - into stone. Now it's up to Link to rebuild the Picori Sword and put a stop to Vaati before it's too late for Zelda. Thankfully, though, Link doesn't have to go it alone. It turns out that the Picori never really left Hyrule - they are in fact the Minish race, and they've been there watching over the land all along, just too small to be seen. With the help of a Minish sorcerer who has been turned into a green hat by Vaati (so he is in fact quite literally a Minish Cap – do you see what they did there? It's really quite clever), and of the Minish people themselves, Link sets off on what is literally his shortest quest yet.

The inclusion of the Minish race is an inspired idea, and really makes the plot of the game feel fresh - no mean feat since the general plot-line otherwise seems to be the generic 'Link must rescue Zelda before it's too late' story, with the added bonus of finding out where Link's green hat originated from (it's good they cleared that up, because the gaming world had been wondering). They prove to be something of a charming little race, and it's hard not to take quite a shine to the little fellas. Impressively, the Minish people from different areas actually behave and speak in subtly different ways – those that live in the mines high in the mountains, for example, act differently to the less gruff and manly wee mites who live in the forest, or to the townies that hang out in the various shops and dwellings of Hyrule (including a group who live in the Cobbler's Shop and make all the shoes while he's asleep – ever-so-slightly Disney, but fun nonetheless). Your hat, too, is a cracking character. Although he essentially provides the same advisory role as Navi in Ocarina or the boat in Wind Waker, he is far more bad-tempered and impatient with Link and his sometimes slow pace through the adventure, making for some good humour in the game.

Another welcome aspect of the plot is the way that we are provided with regular cutscenes updating us on Vaati and the goings on at the castle. This really adds a sense of urgency to the proceedings, as unlike many games in the genre it never feels like the villain has holed himself up and is just waiting for a plucky hero to come and kick his evil arse – here Vaati is actually getting on with things, making the threat that he provides appear all the more real. Outside of this, though, there is a disappointing lack of memorable side characters. While Link's Awakening granted even the most minor and downright irrelevant characters like the Chicken Man with oodles of personality, here the focus seems to be solely on the Minish and on the goings on at the castle, with the other people you encounter coming across as far more generic than in previous efforts. It's not a major complaint, but this streamlining of the plot does give the game a slightly less ‘epic' feel than other Zelda games.

Thankfully, the game plays just like its older siblings – at least at first. Taking the classic top-down view, you guide Link as he travels the land of Hyrule, slaying the evil monsters that roam the land, exploring various dungeons and temples, and collecting new items scattered throughout the land to help in his quest. For the first half-hour it all feels incredibly familiar (although seeing Link without his hat on is a bit odd, to be honest). But it is when Link meets Ezlo the hat – by killing the monsters that are attacking him – that this game really comes into it's own and forges it's own identity in the Zelda universe. Once Link puts on the Minish Cap, he gains the ability to shrink to Minish proportions by finding the right magic portals (read: holes in the ground), and the whole feel of the game changes. Now all the little details in the map that you never really paid attention to become important – the tiny trickle of water running down from a puddle becomes a raging river; the tiny holes in the ground become houses for the Minish folk; tiny little Chus (those enemies that look like bogies with smiley faces) become gargantuan behemoths; insignificant little sticks between chimney-tops become bridges allowing you to travel between buildings – even falling raindrops can bring a whole world of pain into Mini-Link's already-troubled life. You'll quickly learn to examine each new area that you visit for all these little things, and you'll soon realize just how much of the gaming world is cleverly designed to work on two levels.

The level of detail is astounding, and the level design is fantastic – one part of the game sees Mini-Link walking around in the rafters of a shop while the full-sized humans can be seen wandering around below, and the sense of vertigo that this brings about is astonishing. All the Zelda staples are visited here – you'll travel from Hyrule Town to the castle and its grounds (with a great scene where you must evade the guards in the hedge maze – lifted straight out of Ocarina of Time, but great fun nevertheless), through to some dense woods and swamps, and through imposing mines high on the mountains and spooky graveyards out in the wilderness – you even wander around in the clouds later on in the game, though that particular area feels disappointingly bland and uninspiring compared to the rest of the adventure. Each area you visit looks and feels different to the last, and though the map is significantly smaller than previous games (though many areas play differently when visited at a different height) the sheer variety of locations still affords this game with an impressive sense of scale – you really feel like you're traveling a whole land on your quest.

At first you'll only be swapping heights once per area – you'll travel part the way at full height, then the next at Minish height and so on – but before too long you'll be swapping back and forth within the same area several times to conquer the various puzzles that the game throws at you – something that works especially well in the later dungeons. What really makes this work is the way in which it plays on your previous Zelda experiences. Remember those statues that come to life when you touch them from the previous games? At one point in The Minish Cap you visit an area filled with these fellas. You find the ones that block your path, bring them to life, slay them and move on. So far, so Zelda. But before long you'll reach a statue that cannot be activated, at which point you need to shrink down, climb inside that statue to turn the power switch on, climb out again and return to normal size before activating it as usual. It still feels like classic Zelda, but it's all done in a way feels fresh and new.

This fresh feeling is extended to the range of items available in the game. Although the Four-Sword (which allows Link to clone himself to be in several places at once) makes another appearance, outside of the standard sword-and-shield weaponry that the Zelda series pretty much demands each item is new to the franchise here and although some perform functions similar to those seen in previous games (the Gust Jar - which is like a Hyrulian version of those little handheld vacuum cleaners you use to get dust, crumbs and hair out of your car seats - for example is used to steer a leaf down a river in a scene blatantly lifted from The Wind Waker), it's nice to see something different to the usual selection on offer, and the way in which some of the items is used is ingenious – you wouldn't expect there to be much use for The Cane of Pacci, a wondrous stick that uses it's magic power to flip small objects over, but it comes in surprisingly useful. The Mole Mitts are a fantastic new addition – Freddy Krueger-inspired hand ornaments that allow Link to burrow through soft soil to find treasure. The top-down view diminishes the effect slightly because you can catch a glimpse of what is around you so you can tell which way to go, but it does lead to some great puzzles. There's even a cape that let's Link fly, Super Mario World stylee - again it must be said that it doesn't work in a fashion too dissimilar to the usual Roc's Feather that allows Link to jump in other Zeldas, but it feels different, which really does make all the difference: even the most jaded Zelda gamers are going to find something fresh and exciting here.

The main sidequest diversion in The Minish Cap comes in the form of Kinstones – it seems that Pokemon Cards haven't been invented in Hyrule yet (or else they've been banned in a fit of pique after the little yellow bastard zapped Zelda one too many times in Super Smash Bros. Melee) because the big craze sweeping the land is Kinstone fusion. Whilst on your travels you will often find and collect what appear to be broken halves of small round stones. If you find whoever has the other half you can stick the two together, and trigger an event somewhere on the world map. Whether it is a chest full of goodies appearing somewhere on the map or a new area opening up, there's usually something worthwhile (though there are only a few that are strictly essential to the gameplay). It's quite an entertaining diversion, and everyone desperate to do absolutely everything in the game will lap it up, but to be honest it never really comes across as being as overwhelming as many characters in the game seem to think. Everywhere you go the randoms want to talk about Kinstones – there's even one child who claims to be studying it at school (you stick two pieces together mate, it's not too complex), but you can't help but feel that the developers were trying to drum up some in game hype for a feature that really doesn't warrant it. Fusing Kinstones can be rewarding, no doubt – it's quite a feeling when you finally track down a vital piece and reap the financial benefits – but to be honest you can get sick of hearing about it as the game goes on.

Most of the time you'll have more on your mind than Kinstones, though, as this is quite a tough little game. The dungeons in particular can be extremely difficult, with some of the puzzles providing a very hefty challenge. The balance is spot on, though – if one dungeon challenges you on a cerebral level (which will usually involve lots of tactical height swapping or using the Four Sword to create clones all of which you must then safely navigate across the room together while battling the clock) then the next dungeon will stretch you more physical skills to the limit – the wind-based dungeon in the clouds is a prime example of this: an extremely taxing journey up a tower where your combat skills will be thoroughly put to the test and your flying skills will need to be pixel-perfect. The bosses, too, are quite a challenge. While it's great fun battling giant versions of regular enemies for bosses as Mini-Link, the boss fights that will be most fondly remembered are those that feel slightly more original – such as a giant statue that attacks you with it's massive hands – first you must beat him until he is stunned, then quickly shrink down to climb inside the boss and use the Mole Mitts to dig away to find weak spot. Very difficult, but different enough to previous Bosses in the series to really stand out. The only real complaint is that when you finally face Vaati, he doesn't seem much more difficult than the boss that had come before, leaving the final battle a little less frantic than it should have been.

With such a fresh feel and with such inspired ideas flying around it's very easy to get enthusiastic about The Minish Cap - indeed, by the halfway point it looks like you are set for what could well be one of the very best games in the series yet, until you realise that what you assume to be the halfway point is in fact nearly the end of the game. In recent years it has been a distressingly common complaint that many of Nintendo's flagship titles haven't lasted long enough and this is sadly the case here. With just six dungeons (including the final battle) instead of the classic eight, and with a much smaller map, this game simply isn't going to last more than three or four days of play, even with the steep difficulty curve. This is a real shame because Zelda games have always been the sort of game that you could count on really lasting you a while. Whether Nintendo were trying to make some sot of ironic statement by making the game so tint I'm not sure, but either way it does cast quite a black cloud over proceedings. There is some longevity added by the inclusion of a Smash Bros. style trophy dispenser, where you use seashells to buy models of all the characters in the game, but only the most dedicated are likely to complete this as it proves to be quite a tedious excursion – particularly when you've only a few trophies left to collect, and the reward – a sound test – doesn't really feel worth the effort to be honest.

While it lasts, though, The Minish Cap is a lovely looking game. The characters are all superbly detailed – from Link's shaggy hair before he meets Ezlo, to the way his cheeks go a deep red if he strains himself it's all superbly rendered, and the animation is fantastically smooth. The environments, too, are fantastic: the swamp looks incredibly damp and uninviting, while the mines look quite imposing and oppressive. The scenery is at it's best, though, when Link is in his Minish state, when the attention to detail that goes in to making it really look like Link has fallen onto the set of Honey, I Shrunk The Kids becomes apparent – the detail on the now huge leaves, for example, is impressive, and little touches such as the way the Minish folks have carved their homes in mushrooms really adds to the character. There are some terrific little graphical special effects, too - in the rafter scenes in particular, the blurring effect used to convey distance on the ground level below is faultless. It really gives the game its own unique look and feel, and with the bright colours and satisfyingly chunky and smooth sprites this is without a shadow of a doubt the finest looking Zelda game to hit the handhelds, and it must rank as a contender for being one of the best looking titles on the GBA.

The music is similarly magnificent - Zelda games have always been known for their epic soundtracks, and this is certainly no exception. The tunes are all instantly catchy, and all seem to cater to their surroundings very well, especially the tense music in the boss fights– there are some random moments towards the end when the music becomes a little messy, but other than that the tunes are first rate. What does start to grate after a while, though, is the limited voice acting that has been employed. Usually this just amounts to something like ‘Hello' when characters start speaking, or startled yelps as Link falls and such, and it is confined only to the most important characters, but to be honest it doesn't really seem to fit in at all, being on occasion unintentionally funny, it can kill the mood somewhat.

The Minish Cap is a great game, and has all the makings of a genuine classic, but the fact that it's so short really counts against it, robbing it of the true epic feel that it deserves. It's still a worthy - and almost essential – purchase for all GBA owners out there, but sadly once the game is over the purveying feeling isn't fond memories of all that it does right (of which there truly are many), but rather a sense of disappointment that it finished so suddenly – it really does put a downer on the whole experience. Like I said – it really is a pain in the arse being short…..

Reviewer's Rating:   4.0 - Great

Originally Posted: 02/13/06

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