The Legend of Zelda: The Minish Cap is the prequel to the Four Swords games on GBA and GC. It was first released on the GBA in November 2004 in Japan and in January 2005 in North America, a couple of months after the North American launch of the Nintendo DS. The Minish Cap was the last Zelda game developed by Capcom, who also made the 2 Oracle games for Game Boy Color. It was directed by Hidemaro Fujibayashi, who also directed the Oracle games and later went on to work at Nintendo and direct Phantom Hourglass, Skyward Sword, and Breath of the Wild.
The Minish Cap carries the spirit of the GBC Oracle games. Like the Oracle games, Minish Cap is packed with references to other Zelda games. The way some enemy sprites are drawn is straight out of Zelda 1, man locations are direct callbacks to A Link to the Past, and many characters from Ocarina of Time, Majora’s Mask, and Wind Waker show up throughout the game. Even the style of the graphics looks like a combination of Wind Waker's and A Link to the Past's styles. Fujibayashi brings a level of reverence for the series that only a long-time fan can.
The story of The Minish Cap takes place in the “Force Era” of Hyrule, a period of time in between Skyward Sword and Ocarina of Time. It tells the origin stories of Vaati and the Four Sword. It also introduces the Minish people, AKA the Picori. The Minish are tiny mousy-like gnome people about the size of mice or maybe insects. The game is very inconsistent when it comes to depicting their size. The Picori made the Picori Blade (Four Sword) and gifted the “Light Force” to the Hylians. The Light Force refers to Zelda’s magical power passed down through her bloodline. In the game's intro, Vaati petrifies Zelda and breaks the Picori Blade into pieces, so Link seeks the help of the Picori to reforge the blade and save Zelda and Hyrule from Vaati.
There was a point before the release of Skyward Sword when Minish Cap was the earliest game in the Zelda timeline and it seemed super important. Now that there's a new first game in the timeline that ties more closely into the rest of the series; though, Minish Cap feels like a non-canonical story. Still, Minish Cap has some great moments, like the intro, which shows Link and Zelda going to a festival together. We don't usually get a lot of interaction between Link and Zelda, and it was very surprising to see them going on this little date. We also see some interesting things referencing past Links and kings of Hyrule, which I would love to know more about. The focus of the series has shifted a lot since then; though, so I doubt they will ever revisit the Force Era.
Even though Minish Cap is part of the Four Swords trilogy, the multi Link mechanic is not the main mechanic in the game. There are some multi Link puzzles, but they are mostly in the latter half of the game. The main mechanic of the game is shrinking with the help of the Minish Cap, Ezlo. There are different platforms around the world which Link can stand on and shrink down to Minish size or grow back to normal. These platforms are usually tree stumps or flipped over pots. Link can do lots of things in Minish size that he can't in regular size, like use lily pads as rafts, talk to animals, go through tiny holes in walls, and climb up small vines. Of course, being so small also has its downsides. Link can’t walk across tall grass, puddles become rivers, and he is unable to use any items while in Minish size. The shrinking mechanic is new and different, but it never becomes very challenging, since it's pretty obvious when you need to shrink or grow to do something, because there's always a shrinking platform nearby.
Aside from the shrinking mechanic, Minish Cap plays like a sequel to the Oracle games. It's a traditional 2D Zelda with a lot of emphasis on overworld exploration, talking to NPCs, and making your way to the dungeons. It's a bit like Skyward Sword in that there's a lot of stuff to do before you can get to the next dungeon. There's usually some kind of quest chain that involves doing things for NPCs, matching Kinstones with them to open paths, or getting an item to get through the path to the dungeon. The NPC quests and Kinstone matching remind me a lot of the trading chains in the GB Zeldas. These in between dungeon segments are what stick out to me the most about The Minish Cap. Running around Hyrule and Hyrule Town and doing quests is a lot fun. The Minish Cap overworld is jam packed with secrets in every area. It reminds me of Link's Awakening's overworld in that way.
Kinstones are half pieces of medallion-like stones you can find all over the world. You match your half with an NPC’s half to open paths in the overworld, spawn chests, and summon golden enemies that drop a lot of rupees. Matching Kinstones is a big part of overworld exploration and side quests, and becomes increasingly important to main quest progression as the game goes on.
The dungeons in Minish Cap are good, but not amazing. They try to do new things, and they always make you use your newest items in clever ways, but none of them felt especially challenging. I felt like the paths to the dungeons kind of overshadowed the dungeons themselves, because they required more critical thinking from me. There's also only 5 dungeons in the game. Which isn't a lot when compared to most Zelda games. That's less than half of LttP's. I reached the final dungeon feeling like the game skipped the middle of the game or something. It really could have used a few more.
I really like the bosses, though. They always made me use my newest items and some even required me to use the shrinking mechanic. Most of these bosses looked very familiar, but their mechanics always felt fresh. I especially liked the final battle against Vaati, which is a multiphase fight that requires you to use a lot of the items and the shrinking mechanic. And yes, there is a phase in which you have to volley balls of magic back at Vaati, but even that wasn't exactly like the Aghnim fight in LttP.
Minish Cap's graphics are basically WW meets LttP. It's Wind Waker's art style from A Link to the Past's overhead perspective. The graphics are more detailed, more colorful, and more cartoon-like than LttP's. Link and Ezlo also have very cute animations for when they talk, wake up in the morning, and use the cap's magic. This is definitely the best looking 2D pixel art Zelda game.
Most of the soundtrack in Minish Cap is made up of tunes from other Zelda games. There's a lot of stuff from LttP, WW, and Ocarina of Time and Majora's Mask. There are a few original tunes, but they're not quite as good as the classics. The Hyrule Town music is really good, though. It sounds like it's trying to evoke Zelda II with some of the notes, too, which I appreciate.
Minish Cap is by far the best thing to come out of the Four Swords trilogy. It's like the 3rd Oracles game we never got. It's not quite on the level of LttP, LBW, or Link's Awakening, but it's a really good Zelda game. I just wish it had more dungeons.