The Minish Cap retains the general gameplay features that were present in previous Zelda installments. The main protagonist, Link, must navigate several dungeons to obtain an item or enhancement at the end of each dungeon that is pivotal towards the quest. Each of the game’s “bosses” are defeated using the item acquired in the boss’s dungeon. The game also includes multiple “side quests”—optional tasks that are not part of the main quest but reward of completion are beneficial to the gamer. Recurring characters in the Zelda series make appearances and some form part of side quests; for example, Tingle and his brothers must all be contacted by the player to earn a reward.
The Minish Cap features a number of enhancements that benefit from the more powerful Game Boy Advance platform. The game’s camera angle is much closer to the ground, allowing more detail. In the overworld and in dungeons, the game replaces the traditional item interface of the handheld Zelda games with pictures associating items or actions with buttons, similar to the item interface in 3D titles like Ocarina of Time and The Wind Waker. Enemies include familiar creatures from the Zelda universe, such as the Keatons. Link can also perform special actions present in the 3D Zelda games, such as rolling while running. The game introduces three new items: the Mole Mitts, the Gust Jar, and the Cane of Pacci. The Mole Mitts allow Link to burrow through particular materials that serve as obstacles, the Gust Jar is used to suck in nearby items and substances, and the Cane of Pacci overturns whatever it hits. The game advances the combat system from previous handheld installments by allowing Link to learn new sword techniques throughout the game, some of which are techniques from previous games and some of which are new.
Kinstones are special artifacts which Link can find throughout his quest. Kinstone pieces are fragments of a medallion. In order to successfully form a complete Kinstone, two pieces of the same color and with complementary notches must be used.
Kinstones are ordered by colour to signal their rarity and the type of reward gained by fusing—the rarest kinstones offer the best rewards. All fusions are optional and serve as side quests, except the golden kinstones which are used to advance the story. Link can attempt to fuse Kinstones with any character or object that holds a Kinstone piece, indicated by a thought bubble.
The Minish Cap also features a figurine-based sidequest, similar to that in The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker. The player can collect “Mysterious Shells” like those found in hidden areas in Link’s Awakening, which sometimes appear when defeating enemies and can also be found or bought in different locations throughout the world. These can then be used in a gashapon-like machine in Hyrule Town to obtain figurines of characters, enemies or locations that Link has encountered in the course of the main quest. New figurines only become available once Link has met or killed the subject of that figurine. Each figurine has a short description revealing information about the game, that particular enemy’s weaknesses, or the series in general. The chance of winning a previously uncollected figurine from the machine can be increased by spending more shells at once, with an increase of 1 per cent per shell.
The plot of The Minish Cap focuses on the backstory of Vaati and the Four Sword, which were important elements of Four Swords and Four Swords Adventures. The Picori, also called Minish, are a race of tiny creatures that bestowed a young boy with a green garment, a sword, and a shining golden light many years before the game is set. There are three types of Minish: Town, Forest, and Mountain.
The quests begins when Link is chosen by the king of Hyrule to seek the help of the Picori after Vaati had petrified Princess Zelda. Link was chosen because only children can see the Picori. On the voyage he rescues Ezlo, a strange being resembling a green cap with a bird-like head, who joins him and can make Link shrink to the size of the Minish. Although it is not revealed at first, he and Vaati were once Minish (Picori)—Ezlo a renowned sage and craftsman and Vaati his apprentice. Vaati became corrupted by the madness and hatred of men and took a magic hat Ezlo had made for the humans in Hyrule. The hat grants any wish made by the bearer, and Vaati wished to become a powerful sorcerer. He then turned his old master, who had tried to stop him, into a hat. With the help of Ezlo, Link retrieves the four elemental artifacts and uses them to restore the Picori Blade to the Four Sword, capable of defeating Vaati.
After Link restores the Four Sword, Vaati turns Hyrule Castle into Dark Hyrule Castle—the final dungeon in the game. Link fights Vaati just before he can drain Zelda of all her Light Force. Link defeats Vaati after engaging in a fight that consists of Vaati changing forms. When Link and Zelda flee from the collapsing castle, they meet Vaati as he again changes form for the final battle of the game. After the battle, Ezlo returns to his original form. He finds the cap of wishes he created and gives it to Zelda, granting her a wish. The cursed people are cured and the castle is turned back to normal. The hat overflows with the power of life and disappears. Ezlo gives Link a new hat and tells him that he enjoyed traveling with him, then leaves just as the Minish world closes.