An essay on The Legend of Zelda: The Minish Cap
You got to give it to Nintendo: they know how to set their player on an adventure. They understand that it is often as simple as giving you a sword and a purpose. Then you’re up for anything, any obstacle that comes your way. Countless things will happen before you finally complete your objective, and that is exactly where the adventure lies. The journey is important, not the set-up, and thus it does not need more than a simple premise.
Nintendo’s games tend to be trope-heavy. While this may be problematic from time to time, these game tend to rely on well-worn tropes for simplicity’s sake. At the end of the day this explains their omission of a dense narrative throughline. Nintendo leans towards the basics. Looking back at the last generation of consoles, the biggest disappointment I had with many of the some blockbuster franchises’ stories – I am thinking about Mass Effect (2007-), Assassin’s Creed (2007-), Halo (2001-), etc. – was that they all relied on the same trope in the end: the all-story. Ancient civilization plus a hero of time who is there to save the day by harnessing said civilization’s knowledge. These games take hours of dialog and text entries to get where Nintendo’s games tend to go in a single sentence.
In storytelling, tropes are leverage – not an end goal. Small and simple stories have room to open up whereas big and complex ones can end up constricted. That is not my subject though. Merely the introduction.
Take a sword. There is a princess to save. We are just getting started.
We all know the drill and, frankly, I am always giddy to take part in it. I am very fond of The Legend of Zelda series —I suspect I’m not alone here— so I play these games with great expectations. What will be different this time? What will make this particular one so memorable?
Reading reviews from The Minish Cap’s release, you are bound to find a common theme (and an inordinate amount of puns inspired by said theme). It is all about smallness. The game is small and is about small things. Not only it was released on a portable platform, the Game Boy Advance, but its central mechanic involves our hero Link shrinking down to microscopic size passing between cracks and meeting a civilization of tiny people who live in the nooks and crannies of Hyrule: the Minish. It is also worth pointing out that the Hyrule of Minish Cap itself seems diminutive at first glance. By the series’ standards, it appears to have the smallest landmass of The Legend of Zelda’s main titles. But, in the small world of Minish Cap, grand things happen.
Like how a simple story does not equate a simple narrative, a small world does not equate a small scope. Here, Minish Cap is everything but diminutive. As much as its world is small, its intricacies ensure that it never feels limited. It is instead a complex clockwork system that you, as a player, are tasked to slowly put in motion.
This system of stage progress is most apparent in how Minish Cap treats its shortcuts. Similarly to the Souls series, The Minish Cap rewards you with shortcuts as you deal with the game’s challenges, meaning you can make headway in a zone without repeating tasks you have previously dealt with. There is no empty field, no empty terrain in the game, but with each and every little challenge you complete the lay of the land opens up. These shortcuts often come from pushing rocks into empty holes, but also —in typical Zelda series’ fashion— manifest through items that you acquire which allow you to travel faster and more efficiently through previous areas. It is obviously not as demanding as the Souls games, but it similarly imprints every inch of the land on your mind. Thus, The Minish Cap’s world might not be expansive, but it is absolutely complex.
Then there is the central mechanic itself. In gameplay terms, it is not that far-off the parallel worlds’ dynamic of A Link to the Past (2001). The game’s world exists in two states, your perspective as a tiny Minish or as normal sized Link. The actions you take in one state impact the other, creating an interplay between the small and large version of the world.
Whereas A Link to the Past offered both a peaceful and twisted version of the same world, Minish Cap does not change Hyrule, so much as it invites you to examine it further — changing your point of view, and putting everything in a new perspective. The game’s main –and only– town is the perfect example of this. Archetypal locales open up with endless mystery as you unlock more spots to shrink down to microscopic size. What was a small and simple shoe store reveals a more complex story, a small self- contained quest waiting for you journey on. A tiny adventure, hidden in plain sight.
It absolutely does not stop there. By giving players the opportunity to take on diminutive sizes, Minish Cap also gives itself the opportunity to get gigantic. A specific scene has
Minish Cap uses this particular trick quite a few times, and it is always to great effect. In a really cute twist, some of the dungeons’ bosses are simply regular enemies that you have to fight while shrunk down. Merely a trifle in your regular size, these enemies are Minish Cap’s central combat challenges from a different perspective.
One of Minish Cap’s game-long side-quests culminates in Link meeting a giant Goron. The happy looking creature is so massive that it cannot fit on a single screen. It is revealed progressively to the player, with only the tip of its head –already a few times bigger than Link– appearing at first. Not only is it a great way to convey scale, the presence is also meant to add another layer to the game’s use of perspective.
Remember the all-story I talked about at the beginning of this piece. What seems to be so attractive about this particular trope lies in how it paints a world with a history – the idea that people have lived here before. What has been so disappointing about the overuse of this trope, however, is that at their conclusion these games end up numbing that very sentiment. You are part of a chain of life rooted in repetition. The story you lived through will repeat again and again.
Obviously the idea of repetition is echoed through the Zelda franchise, and it is used to make new sequels that are supposed to fit in the same timeline. Minish Cap is part of this timeline, always repeating, but where it differs is that it implies that your actions will have lasting power, like those of the previous heroes of time. If an ancient civilization laid the foundations of what you are living through now, the action of the Hero of Time will be what next civilizations are founded on. You are part of the chain, but not only does the game imply that the world existed before you, but it also implies that it will exist after you finish your adventure.
From humble beginnings to Hero of Time. What the 2004 portable title does prove, however, is that you do not need a big world to be a significant part of it. From the small scope of the beginning to its grandiose finale, Minish Cap has Link go through innumerable hardships, and this is exactly where the adventure lies. There is an almost childlike quality to its design, to the way Minish Cap transforms a small playground into a world with infinite challenges and possibilities. Compared to any other Zelda games, this is what made Minish Cap feels unique and worthwhile. The Minish’s world might be diminutive, but it holds a grand adventure.
Please consider donating to Castle Couch. All of our content is handmade with real love — we couldn't do it without you.