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The Legend of Zelda: The Minish Cap

"The Legend of Zelda: The Minish Cap" for the Gameboy Advance is a good action RPG, though it suffers from a few poor gameplay and level design decisions. I must admit, the only other Zelda games I've played include the first two, and "A Link to the Past", and this game is very reminiscent of that last one in terms of gameplay and world design. The opening sequence itself is a strange mix of "A Link to the Past" and "Chrono Trigger": you are summoned from bed by the princess (this time vocally, not psychically), who wants to invite you to a festival which only occurs once every thousand years. At the festival itself, you get to follow the princess around as she explores each merchant’s booth, while the path up to the north is blocked by an NPC until you've "goofed around enough" to trigger the transition to the next scene, in which disaster throws the kingdom into a state of chaos in which you are the only hope. While there is a giant bell at the fair, "Chrono Trigger" fans will be thankful you won't be on trial for any misdeeds you may have committed.

Like "A Link to the Past", "The Minish Cap" has the main character switching between two alternate views of the same world to save puzzles. The Minish is a race of thumb-sized elf-like creatures which only children can see, but whose existence is accepted by children and adults alike. You transition between the two worlds by finding a Minish sanctuary, and either shrinking yourself to Minish proportions or growing back to normal size. The dual-world related puzzles are generally well designed and logical and are a well incorporated element to the game, though not as complete as "A Link to the Past's" Dark world/Light world duality. Even when shrunk, the majority of the time you'll be walking around the large world, with simply your sprite shrunk down, rather than a completely new world to explore. Only occasionally, will the camera "zoom in" to a scene that was otherwise completely invisible to the big world; for example, inside a mushroom house. So really, rather feeling like you're exploring two different worlds, it's more like you have two modes you can be in, and different locations in the world can only be access in one or the other or both modes.

Also like "A Link to the Past", very early on you'll be given a sword and a shield, and it's up to you to find the ten other items, including a "Flame Lantern" and digging "Mole Mitts". Overall, the variety of items if nice, and are all useful, and most of the "item puzzles" in which you are supposed to use one of your items in a new and creative way were well designed. However, there were one or two puzzles that were very unfair, and which I only solved by searching for the solution online. Unlike "A Link to the Past", there is no magic meter, and so you are free to use these items as often as you wish, except for the bombs and arrows, both of which have an ammunition count. Each enemy is vulnerable to several items, which is a much better design than the obvious "each enemy is vulnerable to one specific item" (the reason for which will be made clear when I talk about the controls for the game). For example the turtles, which can only be damaged when flipped onto their backs, can be flipped either by the blast of a bomb, or by using the cane of Pacci, whose only purpose is to flip things over (and while this may sound useless at first glance, there's a lot of puzzles in this game where the solution is to flip something over).

The final type of puzzle, which is new to the Zelda series as far as I know, is the clone puzzles. There are four elemental crystals in the game: earth, wind, fire and water; and for each crystal above one you have, you can create a clone of yourself which will mimic your every move by standing on special tiles. However, as soon as you, or one of your doppelgangers takes damage, all the clones disappear. And so, the game has puzzles in which, for example you must create four clones, and then navigate to the other side of the room, and flip all four switches simultaneously, all while having all four copies of you dodging cannon ball fired by indestructible turrets. While some of these puzzles require you to plan on where and when you should create your clones, they are mostly straightforward, and, towards the end of the game, become more a boring bother than a fun challenge. With the last boss, in particular, you'll know exactly what you have to do, but the randomly firing turrets means you'll have to rely on luck to hope the patterns of bullets fired will be dodgeable.

Final boss aside, the bosses are well varied, each requiring a very different strategy to defeat. One requires you to use the "Gust Jar" to suck and blow the boss into an adequate position before attacking. Another requires you to shrink and enter inside his body to combat his internal organs. Some of the bosses were very difficult to figure out (again, I eventually caved in and searched online for a solution). However, this is not so as bad as it might sound, as "The Minish Cap" allows you to save your game at any point, and as it's always obvious that you're just about to face a boss, an obvious trick is to save right before attacking the boss, try all your items to see what works best, and then reload from the save game and defeat the boss in earnest.

The overall flavour of the game is fun and light-hearted. Early on in the game, you'll encounter some sort of creature that looks like a cross between a duck and a hat which will perch itself atop your head, and give you advice as you explore the world. This is particularly handy if you've taken a break from the game for a few days, and forgot what you were supposed to do. Consult with your hat, and he'll say something like "You heard the ghost! We're supposed to head to the mountain to search for the final element!" You'll also encounter nine brother sword fighters, all of whom claim to be the best amongst their siblings, and one of whom publishes a newsletter for adventurers which you can subscribe to. Speaking to them allows you to learn (unlock) new attacks with your sword, though none of the attacks save for the first one (charging up your sword) are necessary to beat the game (in fact, I ended up never using any of them). The game also introduces "Kinstones". These are half of a circle, with the middle cut up like a jigsaw. If you find someone with a matching Kinstone half, you can fuse the two pieces, and then both people will gain good luck. This manifests itself in the game as unlocking a random secret (for example, causing a treasure chest to appear in the middle of a forest). There are a few "quest Kinstone fusions", in which you must acquire a specific Kinstone, and then fuse it with a specific NPC's Kinstone in order to progress the storyline, but the vast majority of Kinstones fusions are completely random: You might find a random Kinstone as prize in a croissant, and the NPC which has the matching Kinstone is randomly decided, and the result of the fusion is random as well.

The controls have some design problems. This may be partially the fault of the Gameboy Advance itself, which only has a directional pad and six buttons, but the designers decided to leave one of the buttons (the "L button") completely unused for the main part of the game. The start button pauses the game and accesses the menu, the select button consults your hat, the A button uses your primary item, and the B button uses your secondary item, and the R button is the "action" button to talk, grab, push, open, search, etc. as appropriate for the object you're facing. Switching between the various items can be quite a hassle. You're almost always in a combat situation, so you'll pretty much always want your primary item to be your sword, and so any puzzle solving has to be done by swapping items in and out of your secondary slot. The "L" button could have been used as a tertiary slot, or, if that lead to too complex an interface, it could have been a "switch to last used item" button, which would have made solving some of the multi-item puzzles a lot more pleasant. Also annoying was that the map did not retain its state between accesses. There is a "world map" which is split into 16 sections. Selecting a section goes into a regional map, which actually shows road and key location information. The world map's detail level is so coarse as to be pretty much useless. Ideally, the game should remember that I was in a particular regional map, with the map scrolled into a particular location, rather than defaulting to the world map. If the GBA's memory capacity could not handle storing the map status, then a much better design would have been to defaulting to the regional map, centered on the main character's current location. Also, there's the side objective of unlocking figurines. There are 136 figurines, and you're forced to go through eight dialog windows, and two choices to purchase each one, and then a 12 second animation plays. Assuming it takes you 18 seconds to go through the initial conversation, that's 30 seconds per purchase. And given that the figures get cheaper after you've beaten the game (and some of the figurines can be considered to contain spoiler information), it makes a lot of sense to wait until the very end, and then buy all the figurines in one sitting, which can be incredibly tedious. Seriously Nintendo, why couldn't you have transformed the shop into a vending machine, and have it so that the player could read a sign posted next to the machine if he forgets how this all figurine buying system works, and wants to read the "figurine buying tutorial" again, instead of displaying it every fricking time I want to buy a figurine? And further more, since I have to bid for figurines, instead of asking "Are you sure you want to buy a figurine?", just put me into the bidding screen, and if I make a bid of 0, assume that means I want to cancel buying the figurine. And kill the animation. That would cut the time down to something like four seconds. One final gripe, also relating to the figurines, is that the designers decided that left and right on the directional pad shall be used to scroll the text up and down on the figurine descriptions. That's just not natural to me. I think up and down on the directional pad should scroll the text up and down. Don't get me wrong: I think the figurines collection is an excellent idea, and that all RPGs should have them. It's just that the controls surrounding the figurine collection was poorly implemented for this particular game.

The graphics are on par for a GBA game. Some nice attention to detail was done in some of the animation sequences, including having the main character wake up his hat in the morning after going to sleep, or having his face turn red if he tries pulling on something too long. I didn't like the way the Flame Lantern looked though. They tried to have a "trailing flame" effect, I think, but it just makes it look like the main character is on fire, instead of the lantern. The music was only okay. In fact, I get the feeling that there were only seven or eight songs in the entire game, some of them consisting only of a thirteen second loop. I'm definitely not going to bother to look for the soundtrack for this one. I don't think the music was limited due to the GBA, as they've managed to cram five languages into the version I played. Speaking of which, while I can't comment for Français, Deutsch, Español or Italiano, the English translation was very good, and uses a few slang terms. The only mistake I spotted was in a figurine description, in which they mention "Fire Rod", when they probably meant "Flame Lantern".

There are a good number of unlockables in the game. Finding all the Kinstone fusions will be a chore, as is getting all the figurines. There are a few optional items, including the magic boomerang, the light arrow, and the mirror shield, and generally if you miss something, you're always free to go back to unlock it. In fact, even after you kill the last boss, you're free to keep playing, exploring the world for any secrets you may have missed. The only exceptions are the light arrow, which is gone forever if you miss it, and the Minish village in the library, which will no longer be reachable after a while. The game is relatively short for its genre however, and I managed to finish it and unlock "almost everything" in something like fourteen or sixteen hours, but it was a fun sixteen hours. I give it an 8 out of 10.

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