Well this is new site is pretty cool, but now that we’ve messed around with our settings and options a little and made our initial little test posts it’s time to get down to creating some content. For the duration of the beta I’ll put together semi-regular content submissions both to see if we run into any bugs on larger scale posts and also to set a precedent for thoughtful, in depth discussion that hopefully is emulated by others as the user base expands. And if this thread is going to be our TAY, then there is some business that needs be addressed immediately… which is the best Zelda game?
Is it the original? No I say, a game so difficult and directionless that even franchise steward Eiji Aonuma has never completed it has no place in this discussion. The original Zelda may be a revelatory experience for those dedicated enough to master us, but for the common man it holds very little. Could we argue the legendary Ocarina of Time then? There’s an argument to be made here, but again I say no. For all that Ocarina of Time revolutionized, what element of it hasn’t been surpassed by it’s sequels? Majora’s Mask was thematically deeper and narratively more interesting, Wind Waker blew out the audio/visual aspect of design, Twilight Princess was Ocarina of Time with a hundred modern design conveniences added… and Skyward Sword finally evolved the dungeon and level design template beyond what Ocarina pioneered. No, Ocarina is a classic but has at last been outmoded.
I could go down the entire franchise list cancelling each out in turn, but it’s much more efficient to build a positive case rather than 20 some negative cases, no? The best Zelda game is The Minish Cap, originally released for the Gameboy Advance in 2005. Though this game is hardly the most innovative game in the franchise, innovation and quality are distinct from one another and which Zelda game is the most unique is not the question at hand. Minish Cap is a Zelda that succeeds on the structure of The Link to the Past, the aesthetic of The Wind Waker, and a twist on exploration all it’s own. Let’s break it down:
It could be argued that the Zelda formula is not one that scales particularly well. These games are bastions of old school level design, where every ledge and enemy and bug has been placed manually and with intent. Though these games have had open fields and oceans and even rail systems to explore, these large connecting areas have never been what defined the franchise and often are to the detriment of the games they appear in. The puzzles, the pacing, the just-hard-enough-to-keep-you-engaged combat… these are found in the distinct level zones and dungeons. The Minish Cap follows in the footsteps of A Link to the Past by having no empty connecting spaces and precious few distinct regions. This Hyrule is small and as tightly packed with puzzles and secrets as any area I’ve explored in a game. Every screen width of land hides at least one discovery for the player, and usually many. Minish Cap is not a large game, and it is not a long game, but it dispenses with the navigational barriers between the player and the tightly designed levels. Everything is the tightly designed level.
Another tip Minish Cap picked up from Link to the Past is in how it handles the narrative. No, neither of these games stray from the damsel in distress trope recently broken down over at feminist frequency, but they have the good grace not to harp on the matter much either. Neither of these games has a ton of dialogue or exposition justifying the player’s actions which well suits the minimal detail of these plots. Another welcome similarity is the struggle against an unfamiliar villain, as neither of these games (initially) feature any form of Ganondorf. The powerful and mysterious wizards Agahnim and Vaati show that non-traditional villains can carry these games just as well as the classic pig man, and maybe just a little bit better.
But you know what A Link to the Past didn’t have? Style. That’s something the Minish Cap imports directly from The Wind Waker. NPCs, enemies, architecture, even clouds of dust all look uniformly fantastic in this game, transcending hardware and even looking great blown up on a TV screen through the largely forgotten Gameboy Player. The 2D sprites that populate this world easily carry as much personality as their 3D inspirations, and the black outlines necessary in almost all sprite work serve to capture some of the cel-shaded lines that defined Wind Waker concept art but didn’t make it into the final game (with the exception of the scene of Link getting a power from a fairy fountain, which weirdly enough was the one moment in Wind Waker that incorporated that outlined look).
But enough about what the Minish Cap successfully lifts from it’s predecessors, this game is more than a best of highlights reel. Most Zelda games have some new, novel mechanic. You transform into a wolf, you’re a train conductor, you change the seasons, the world is ending in an hour… there’s always something. In Minish Cap, it’s that Link can shrink down to a very small size. On the surface, that may seem like perhaps the least inspired and unoriginal twist on the formula of them all. In practice though, it is the best. No Zelda mechanic before or since has better married to the central franchise staples of exploration and puzzle solving.
Via the shrinking mechanic, almost every element of the game world takes on a second significance. That meaningless grass you cut for rupees? That’s also blocking you from leaving Lon Lon Ranch in tiny form – find another way around. That cat on the bridge? She’s not just scenery, she loves playing with rodent sized little children. Got to avoid her (dogs are all sociable though). It’s raining on the mountain? Better watch your step when small, because those droplets are as big as you! See that little green root sticking out? If you can figure out how to get there while small, you can probably climb it. I imagine these don’t read as revolutionary ideas, and that’s because they’re not. These types of obstacles are exactly the sort that waylay Link in every adventure. What Minish Cap achieves with it’s central shrinking mechanic is finally adding to the Zelda formula in a way that doesn’t distract from it. Sailing, becoming a wolf, hiding from phantoms in the tower of the ocean king… these mechanics were sometimes great and sometimes not, but what they all have in common was they were inserted sections between the well designed levels that define this franchise. In this game, the central mechanic is inextricably part of every location giving every blade of grass (literally) more significance than ever before or since.
The rest of this game is pretty great too. Dungeon design is excellent, Kinstone Fusion provides additional incentive for exploration (as if that were needed), and the soundtrack should be commended for avoiding synth orchestra in favor of some deep woodwind type sounds that actually sound good coming out of a Gameboy Advance speaker. But these other details are not what make The Minish Cap the best Zelda, so they’ll get no more than this passing mention. The Minish Cap is the best Zelda for doubling down on the pillars of the franchise to the exclusion of all else. At the end of the day we are left with a small world, a short game, a simple and forgettable story, a central gimmick that doesn’t expand the horizons of the franchise one whit… and the highest concentration dose of whimsical Zelda fun yet concocted.