In the world of The Legend of Zelda: The Minish Cap, the people of Hyrule live side by side with a hidden race of miniature beings called the Minish. Although some Hylians have heard tales of these tiny, gnome-like forest dwellers, few have seen them. When asked about his prior knowledge of the Minish, Link admits he’s never heard of them. “That’s so strange,” one Minish muses. “We Minish are all over the place!” Overlooked and forgotten, these little guys reflect the larger place of The Minish Cap itself in the Legend of Zelda pantheon. It’s an overlooked Zelda game bursting with charm, replete with clever puzzles, and a firm grip on excellent pacing. It’s an underrated gem of the Legend of Zelda series.
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Nintendo released The Legend of Zelda: The Minish Cap on Game Boy Advance stateside in 2005. I’ve been replaying it on Switch through the Nintendo Switch Online + Expansion Pack catalog. In this adventure, Link meets the titular talking hat, Ezlo, who grants him the power to shrink down to the size of a pea. As you play, Link can use specially designated objects, like a tree stump, to shrink or grow back to his regular size. Instead of teleporting back and forth between light and dark worlds, the parallel land of Minish Cap is one hidden in plain sight. The Minish community makes its homes among the spines of books, spools of thread, and the diagrams of a shoemaker.
This Alice in Wonderland-esque dichotomy between big and small allowed the developers to conjure up a sensorial and vivid world. The first time Link shrinks down to his miniature size, he walks through a tranquil clearing in the woods. As he takes his first steps as a small creature, he walks amid giant acorns while beams of sunshine peek through the leaves above. You can almost feel the warmth of the sun against his skin, as we take in the splendor of the forest floor. At another point, Link shrinks down during a storm. The raindrops, which beat down furiously at Link at normal size, now pose an even greater threat. Each plop of water lands with an almost thunderous boom and damages Link if he gets too close.
Developer Capcom strikes a cartoony style with its environments and characters. This Link appears to take influence from the hero’s design in The Wind Waker, with a similarly bumbling demeanor. You can almost see him grit his teeth as he cautiously glides through the air; his eyes bulge as he rides a minecart. When he sleeps in a bed, you’re treated to a small animation where he removes Ezlo and tucks the sentient hat into bed next to him. Other NPCs, like the sword master Swiftblade, have the goofiest lines; he fully narrates the sounds of swinging your sword around and instructs Link to shout “Hiyaa!” to successfully pull off an attack.
It also has one of the most specific and strange items I’ve seen in a Zelda game: the Cane of Pacci. Unlike the elemental rods that commonly appear in Zelda games, this rod-like item allows players to simply flip items over. It’s used in one of my favorite boss battles, the Gleerok in the Cave of Flames. In the battle, you evade a rising laval tide in addition to a barrage of fire balls and beat it by simply flipping the monster over with your new item.
Not everything has aged well. The game only allows you to assign items to the A and B buttons. What’s more, your sword and shield are assigned the same designation as the magical items you collect through your journey, so both weapons will take up space on the buttons when you have them equipped. Other features, like the Picori Blade powers, which allow Link to duplicate himself, feel like awkward iterations on similar systems from 2002’s Four Swords. On top of that, the game also features a system where you collect items called Kinstones that you can fuse with other characters. While the game marks new discoveries on your map, actually finding the Kinstones and tracking the characters who need them gets tedious, especially if you’re not using a walkthrough.
Given its quality-of-life limitations (as well as its development under Capcom, which did an incredible job with the Oracle pair of games as well, but could still be considered a “spinoff” Zelda developer), fans often exclude Minish Cap from the list of truly great Zelda games. This is understandable: Ocarina of Time successfully brought Zelda to 3D seven years prior. A Link to the Past also distinguished itself by presenting a sweeping adventure that seamlessly weaved multiple worlds together — seven years before that. But if games like these read as epics, wherein the grand prose feels all-encompassing and the brilliance sent ripple effects outward through the rest of the games industry, then Minish Cap unfolds like a collection of poetry. Short, sharp, but no less enthralling, this game captured vivid, concise moments based around a compelling puzzle conceit. It also vibrated with charm and wonderful dungeon design.
Not every Zelda game needs to do everything, and The Legend of Zelda: The Minish Cap will forever be a game that showed me how to treasure the tiny moments that stick in your mind like great poetry.