A Study in Legends #5 (The Minish Cap by Akira Himekawa)

See all past instances of this column here

With the new release, Breath of the Wild, receiving all manner of accolade from the most unexpected of sources, The Legend of Zelda franchise has been revitalised and has never been more in vogue.

For the few who weren’t fortunate enough to grow up in the 90s saturated in video games, The Legend of Zelda is a franchise that is steeped in complex continuity, interweaving between worlds and throughout time. What remains constant, however, is a protagonist named Link that strives to save the titular heroine, Zelda.

Back in 1998, a staggering 19 years ago for those of you who want a reminder of your age, Nintendo commissioned the legendary manga duo Akira Himekawa (with pen names A. Honda and S. Nagano) to adapt their most popular game to date, Ocarina of Time, into a serialised manga. As is discussed in the afterword to the first collected volume, Akira Himekawa jumped at the chance to work on a game that they themselves were hotly anticipating.

Akira Himekawa would soon go on to adapt eight of the games in turn, putting their own little spin on each independent universe, which were released to wild acclaim in Japan and even found some success overseas. Fortunately for those of us who were unlucky enough not to have access to the material at the time of its initial release, Viz Media have been gradually re-releasing collected versions of the material in so-called “Legendary Editions”.

These editions include a limited portion of coloured pages at the beginning of each volume, while also bundling in supplementary material such as accompanying magazine interviews and bonus stories that hint at a world even broader than that seen in the games themselves. This column will cover each of these five collected “Legendary” volumes, analysing their commitment to the original source material and whether or not they can be judged on their own merits.

NOTE: All images in this article should be read from right to left, in the original manga style

As before, this entry into the "Legendary" series contains two unrelated stories. While they originate from a similar period of the franchise, they are distinct enough to justify their own separate analysis. This review will subsequently be split into two parts; the second half of this review, covering Phantom Hourglass, will be out in two weeks.

One of the qualities that continues to amaze me about Akira Himekawa’s adaptations is how unique they manage to be. It would have been easy to paint each game with the same brush, extract the main story points, and create a Zelda story that follows the exact same formula as the games themselves tend to do. Granted, that would have been more true to the source material, but it’s astoundingly refreshing to see how hard Himekawa are fighting against the flow.
The Minish Cap was released for the Game Boy Advance in 2004 to an acclaim that had become something of a standard for the Zelda franchise. It follows a fresh-faced Link through a far more wholesome version of Hyrule, putting it in stark contrast to the previous manga: A Link to the Past. After serving as direct witness to an attack on the castle, because how else is a Nintendo game to begin, Link is dragged into the legendary world of the Picori, a people that fall somewhere between Smurfs and clandestine shoe-makers.
To align ourselves again with the official Zelda timeline, this game takes place long before the climactic battle at the end of Ocarina of Time. As the alignment of the world is yet to be shifted by that confrontation, the drastically different tone and status quo is understandable. Hyrule is in its heyday and the landscapes that Himekawa draw subsequently feel lush and vibrant, with the entire future of the world full of hope and majesty.
This pairs perfectly with the period of time in which the original game came out. With improved graphics available on the consoles allowing for both richer colours and greater attention to detail, the focus was being shifting towards the spectacle of adventure now that the technology was able to keep up. That spirit has been captured perfectly by Himekawa in this story; what they provide is an unrepentant romp through the world, without much thought for consequence.
As an example, the version of Link that is portrayed in this story is perhaps the most immature so far and reacts to the world accordingly. While the miniaturised model for the character follows that of the The Wind Waker game that was released two years previously, Himekawa take that image and run with it, creating a character that blunders through the world thinking only of how the most immediate leg of his adventure will pan out. Helped along by the fact that only children can see the legendary Picori, this is a narrative built solely for the purpose of innocent pleasure.
However, while the frivolity does sustain a significant portion of the book, that doesn’t imply that the remainder of the story is without substance. Those familiar with the franchise will know that there are many recurring items in the series. The most notable are the Master Sword and the all-powerful Triforce, both of which make an implicit appearance in this story. As previously mentioned, the events of The Minish Cap take place in the distant past in relation to the stories that have previously been covered. However, what Himekawa manage quite masterfully is to imply the presence of, or more specifically the origin of, these items with callbacks to iconic moments in the franchise, without feeling the need to embellish the story and spell it out for the readers. Part of what demonstrates the skill of creators of Himekawa's calibre is knowing when to sit back and allow the audience to make the connections for themselves.
At the top of the article, I applauded the diversity of tone that can be found among the manga adaptations. While many of these adaptations simply identify aspects of the original games that would translate poorly into another medium and subsequently create something entirely new, one property of The Minish Cap that stands out is how accurately it portrays the feeling of playing the original game. Part of that is due to the undercurrent of high adventure in the plot, but the structure of this manga feeds very deliberately into the nostalgic feeling of collecting a new arsenal of weapons and items on your travels. Over the course of the story, Link collects the items unique to this game: the Gust Jar, the Mole Mitts and the Cane of Pacci (an item with a potential mispronunciation that got me in trouble with my parents as a child). Watching Link use items beyond his sword and shield lit a fire under my nostalgia, invoking a perspective on these stories that I’d frankly nearly forgotten.
The story itself is fairly non-descript. It uses the standard formula for many fantasy stories (i.e. save the princess, save the world), but the personality that Himekawa imbue within our protagonist keeps it feeling definitively fresh. As Link is portrayed as being extraordinarily young and undervalued due to his stature, it creates a kinship between him and the literally unseen race of Picori and gives the entire adventure the inspiring message of “power at any size”. However, where this story falls short is in its climax. While there isn't much of an underlying message in the story, which in itself is not a flaw when the aim is simple adventure, but the climactic fight with the villain Vaati makes it appear as though Himekawa have forgotten their own plot. The attempt to condense the story down into one final quip results in a line the stands in opposition to the rest of the story. When the previous 170 pages have all been about the value of accepting help, to have a declamation to the contrary feels false. Fortunately, the ending does not have a chance to leave a sour taste in your mouth. As with many of the previous Legendary editions, there is a collection of bonus material provided after the main adventure that delves very slightly into the history between Link’s companion, the wizard Ezlo, and the villain, Vaati, in the vein of newspaper comic strips. Throughout the main story, it is explicitly stated that the relationship between the two mages was strained at best and adversarial at worst. What these self-contained strips show is some of the lessons that the two undertook that created this rift; more often than not, Ezlo is portrayed as a vindictive and malevolent teacher. While this sounds like it might be heavy, it is instead painted with the “cartoonish awfulness” brush that perks up what might otherwise be hard-to-read material.

While The Minish Cap is not one of the more iconic Zelda games, although the talking hat perhaps pushes it slightly over the boundary, it encapsulates a certain period in the franchise that often goes unremarked upon. It is the period just following the release of The Wind Waker when Nintendo decided that every Zelda game needed to be cell-shaded. More importantly, it also represents a return to the hopeful adventurer that exists apart from the hero mired by legend and prophecy.

Himekawa have hewed closer to the tone and structure of the original game than in previous adaptations and that has kept their work feeling as fresh as ever. The Minish Cap feels the most like playing a game than any of the previous entries; it therefore feels unique in a way that I wouldn't have thought possible given the source material. If you play these games for that sense of youthful exuberance, then the first part of this volume has been created just for you to enjoy.

Come back in two weeks for the second part of this volume: Phantom Hourglass.