Hey everyone. Jon here.
Between the release of Wind Waker and Twilight Princess, Nintendo published the sole original full-fledged Zelda game on the Gameboy Advance.
Rather than developing in-house, Nintendo turned again to Capcom and Flagship to take on another handheld Zelda project. Produced by Keiji Inafune of Mage Man fame and planned, written and directed by Hidemaro Fujibayashi - who would later leave Capcom after the closure of Flagship, and go to work for Nintendo, Minish Cap retained the transformation trend set by its predecessor on the N64 (and continued by its successor on the GameCube/Wii) as well as the exploration aspects of all Zelda adventures, but did so on a much smaller scale.
The overworld of Minish Cap is quite small. The physical dimension of Hyrlue are not that much bigger than that of the Oracles games on the Gameboy Color. But what it lacks in scale, it makes up for in depth. One of the ways it does so is through the Minish transformation.
The super-tiny Minish populate all of Hyrule, but their existence is almost unknown to the Hylians. When Link encounters a cursed member of the Minish, he not only gets his iconic hat, but also the ability to shrink down to their size. Flagship uses this mechanic intelligently for both puzzles and exploration. It allowed them to have Link enter areas that would be impossible for him to enter normal-sized, and allowed them to densely pack a relatively small overworld full of places to explore.
Its the way that Flagship constructed the world that fascinates me. The familiar locations are here - a forest, a mountain, Lake Hylia - but also some new places to explore - a bog, the sky. At first glance, there's not much to do in the overworld. What nooks and crannies that are visible are blocked by obstacles that require a new tool to overcome, in typical Zelda fashion. However, the majority of places to explore are not blocked by obstacles, but locked away, only to be unlocked by interacting with NPCs and fusing Kinstone pieces with them.
When a match is successfully made, the Kinstone pieces reveal a new place to explore, a new interaction to have, a new monster to fight, or a new useful item. Not all of Link's tools are acquired from dungeons - in fact, two of the most useful items in the game are completely missable if you're not fusing Kinstones. The non-sequetier nature of what happens after a successful fusion is what makes it so exciting and interesting to do so. Running around and talking to NPCs may not always be the most interesting of mechanics in a Zelda games, but Flagship artfully designed a system that would make it more fun to explore a small world while simultaneously making one of the least interesting parts of a Zelda game the most satisfyingly distracting part of Minish Cap. I would backtrack to entire areas only to talk to everyone again to see if more fusions were available - which is one of the most delightfully sinister parts of the game. Even though you may have already fused pieces with an NPC, they may have another fusion or two available later.
What's truly fascinating is how Flagship was able to construct a world with so much depth yet keep the pace so brisk. A typical run through should probably take 12-15 hours, while a completionist run might take a few hours longer. None of the dungeons are very large (except the last), none overstay their welcome, and there are only 6 of them. They also don't lean on the typical Zelda conventions of progressions. Kill rooms are at a minimum. I can't recall a single "light all the torches" puzzle. The "stand on a switch" puzzle trope is alive and well, but Flagship does a good job of mixing it up with the Link-splitting ability.
Flagship continuously and artfully finds ways to expand the game using tools, Link's transformation and the evolving power of the Four Sword - which allows Link to multiply into more versions of himself with each new dungeon conquered (and/or MacGuffin acquired). The game you finish is much more complex than the game your started. And they find very smart ways of integrating new powers. However, not all of the tools are used from start to finish. There are a couple that are useful during their dungeon only and pop up again maybe once or twice, but that's a non-issue. The apologist in me would say that that's for the best because the limitations of the GBA interface only allows you to equip two weapons at a time.
Minish Cap is often an overlooked Zelda game (if such a thing can exist). In the era of the N64 and GameCube, most handheld Zeldas took a back seat to their grander-scale console counterparts. But Flagship did some excellent work on the Zelda series on the GBC and GBA, and Minish Cap was probably their best.