I have a confession to make: I don't think I "get" The Legend of Zelda anymore. Having played most of the titles in the series through to completion, I feel a little immune to seeing the their immense charms recycled yet again for a new generation of gamers, as they are in The Minish Cap. On the one hand, this makes perfect logical sense, of course—familiarity breeding contempt and so forth. Still, I can't help but wonder why one of the finest series of games ever created has left me, one of its biggest fans, behind? Should The Legend of Zelda have changed more over time, and more extensively progressed its 17-year-old template rather than "merely" refined it? Every other adventure game must go that extra mile to compete with and distinguish itself from the latest Zelda instalment, so why should the Zelda series itself be any different?
Getting bored of Zelda? In the world of videogames that's not so much a question as a libellous accusation, but why ought we spare this particular series in our ritualistic defamation of tired gaming tropes? To me it seems like a prime target. Finding keys to unlock doors, block pushing puzzles, lava levels, ice levels, forest levels, etc. The same old set-up, the same old tutorials, the same old twists. Even The Minish Cap's principal hook of allowing Link to shrink to a miniscule size doesn't feel particularly new or unexpected; being as it is just another predictable riff on the Light World/Dark World, Young Link/Old Link dual mechanics of the series' most lauded high watermarks (A Link to the Past and Ocarina of Time respectively).
That's not to say Zelda has a foolproof blueprint, of course. The Minish Cap still needs to boast a high level of design ingenuity for each series tradition to work as well as it has done in the past, and Capcom developers Flagship have acquitted themselves well in this respect. This is most noticeable in the dungeons, which remain as sumptuous as ever. In them, the Zelda formula is focused, flawless, and untarnished by the legwork and labour that can make the overworld sections seem underwhelming and plain. They are the irresistible self-validating challenges that drive every Zelda game (be it great or not-so-great), and The Minish Cap is worse off for their relative scarcity and smallness. But even so, nearly every dungeon design trick and puzzle that is here has been seen before: from lighting all the lamps in a room to making the room layout symmetrical to falling down a hole to reach a previously inaccessible area below, etc. The only real innovation on display is the ability to control up to four Links at once, which produces the most engaging and satisfying logic problems in the game—yet even this idea has been lifted from the recent Four Swords titles. There are still those moments when you'll nod your head sagely and whisper "genius" to yourself upon completing a particularly good puzzle, but they are few and fleeting, and the lasting sense of déjà vu is hard to ignore.
Needless to say, The Minish Cap will probably seem rather straightforward and simple for Zelda veterans. Puzzles are nearly always obvious to those of us already spoon-fed on finding the bombable wall or the moveable block, and enemy weak points are easy to find and exploit. Despite the newly lean stance on health pickups, it's the second Zelda title after last year's The Wind Waker that I've played through without dying once. (Well… OK, maybe on the final boss. Twice.) My first play through each dungeon felt like more of a speed run than a gradual process of exploration and discovery, and I always felt one step ahead of the game in knowing what was needed of me and what was around the next corner—whereas the best adventure games will always demonstrate the reverse, outsmarting the player as much as possible.
Regardless, Zelda still remains a paradigm—perhaps the paradigm—of great Nintendo game design. Whereas Metroid presents the player with a series of color-coded doors to represent a basic "find the right key" system, and Mario games merely hide their bonus secrets and surplus gameplay in areas that require certain power-ups to access, Zelda demands a high level of topographical awareness for the player to make any progress at all. The Minish Cap's Hyrule is one big multi-tiered maze, in which pockets of land will open up only to then restrict the player's exploration all over again until the right mix of necessary equipment and topographical acumen combines to forge a new path.
The thing is, we know all this. And we've seen it all before. As such, my progress through the game was predictable, mechanical and often plain dull, with a limited sense of adventure that felt rigid and stifling throughout. Admittedly it picked up in the later stages, most notably during a splendidly moody re-imagining of A Link to the Past's classic Hyrule Castle opening. Nevertheless, revisiting former glories was overwhelmingly the cause of, rather than the answer to, this game's lack of appeal.
For anyone simply wondering whether or not this game is good, I ought to affirm that yes, it is good. This is a good 2D Zelda game and Capcom have at least done the series justice with a suitably taut and colourful instalment. (Feel free to check the rating at the bottom of this review for a numerical interpretation of this qualitative concept.) But do we really need another good Zelda game? For me, The Minish Cap has marked a point at which I seem to have become blasé to the brilliance of the series, at least in terms of its largely unchanging design foundations. So save for an invigorating Majora's Mask-style departure, I can only hope that it is the technical expertise and sheer spectacle of future Zelda instalments that will help revitalize the experience for me, blinding me to the self-perpetuating game elements and recycled series tropes whose over-familiarity has, in The Minish Cap, dissipated and dulled their own undeniable excellence.
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