It’s a little-known fact that The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask is my third-favourite Zelda game. Shocking, right? It’s a little divisive, but that’s only because of fools who can’t deal with the time limit. People who dive in headfirst and take the time to truly experience the game generally come out with a great appreciation for it and the living, breathing world that resides inside of it.
Majora’s Mask had it rough from the start; it was released on the same day as the Playstation 2. Whoops. Mega Man Legends 2 suffered from a very similar overshadowing, being released only two days prior. What a “fun” coincidence that two of the best sequels of that generation met with the same terrible fate.
Majora’s Mask wasn’t just a sequel though. It shared so much DNA with The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time that you might think it was the same game. However, Majora took things in a wild and disturbing new direction. Ocarina was a revolution for the series as far as visuals and gameplay went, bringing Zelda into 3D and all that. But it still stuck fairly close to the Zelda formula: go through eight(ish) dungeons and then fight Ganon. Get a Triforce, save the princess.
The thing that many whiny pimple-faced teenagers complained about the loudest is that Majora only has four proper dungeons. Only half of what was expected of it. Regular villain Ganon/dorf was nowhere to be seen, I don’t think he gets as much as a name drop. Even the titular princess Zelda only shows up in a brief flashback. The treasure in each dungeon is a different type of arrow. Things were amiss, and at the time, fans were not happy about it.
But there’s so much more to this game than popping in all the familiar elements, giving them a new coat of paint, and calling it a day. In fact, Majora’s Mask is the exact opposite. It re-uses Ocarina’s assets without shame, and keeps the vast majority of Ocarina’s tool set. The basic gameplay mechanics are the exact same. It’s all very familiar, but the way that all these thing are put together is like nothing before and nothing afterward.
As the story goes, out hero Link stumbles into the bizarre world of Termina, a place that seems familiar at first glace, but if distressingly alien upon closer inspection. Speaking of distress, there’s a gigantic, grinning moon in the sky, and it’s falling. In only three days, that moon will collide with the Earth, eradicating Termina and all of its inhabitants. It’s a tension-filled race against time.
Well, maybe not that tense. You see, you have the power to turn back time whenever you like, and start the three-day cycle anew. This throws a lot of people off. “How am I supposed to win in three days?” they ask, stupidly. You’re not. You’re supposed to accomplish a few little things on each cycle. You’re not expected to be doing something important for entire duration of all three of those days.
This repeating three-day cycle is the other huge point of contention among the haters. “But everything I did is undone when I reset time!” they complained, ignorantly. That’s kind of the whole point.
The overarching theme of Majora’s Mask is despair. It’s oppressive, violent, and bleak. As you play those three dire days over and over again, you’ll get to know the people of the land. You’ll see their excitement for the coming carnival slowly give way to despair for their coming doom. There are very few gaming experiences that are so chilling as running around Clock Town with only a few hours left to impact.
Take the postman for example. He jovially runs around town, picking up and delivering the mail every day. He is shackled to his rigid schedule, but he loves his work. He’s perfectly happy with his daily routine. Until the evening of the third day. If you enter the post office at that point, the postman will be writhing on the floor, unable to run for his life because of his duty to adhere to the schedule. On his bed is an opened letter, written to the postman by himself, urging him to flee even though it’s not on the schedule. But he can’t do it, can’t save his own life. His life is his work. What would he have left if he abandoned his post? It’s dark, it’s haunting, it’s beautiful.
Of course, you can help the postman. There is a way to convince him to run to safety. But then you start the cycle over, and it’s like you never did a thing. The new instance of the poor postman will probably spend his final hours in mental agony, wishing that he could run, but unable to. Because you won’t save him again. Why would you? You already have the Postman’s Hat for doing it once. Every future postman (until you complete the game) will die a horrible death.
That’s just how it is. Many of the people of Termina have problems. Some more dire or elaborate than others, and you’re literally only helping them for the prize. You’ll gain no satisfaction from giving them a hand, because when you turn back time, it’ll be like you never did anything at all. And you’re going to feel bad about it too, because these characters are very well-realized. while the NPCs in Ocarina were just sort of there, these are people with lives and schedules and personalities. You’ll get to know them well, watching them live out their last three days over and over again.
Yeah, it sounds really bleak and depressing. And it is! But think back, and try to imagine any other Zelda game that’s actually evoked an emotional response from you (aside from The Wind Waker). There probably aren’t any. Majora’s Mask is unique in that it’s a game world that makes you want to save it. You’ll feel beaten down and hopeless most of the time, but that just makes it that much more rewarding whenever you make those little bits of permanent progress.
When it first came out, I did feign disinterest in Majora’s Mask while in public, because that was the popular opinion amongst my peers, and high school is the very last place you want to stand out from the crowd. But secretly, I adored it. I was charmed by its offbeat world, I appreciated the three-day cycle, and I loved the grim atmosphere that permeated the entire game. There was a point in time where I would go home after school every day and play it until I fell asleep. Must have beaten it four or five times in a row. Even if it’s not the best video game, it’s absolutely a work of art. I can’t wait to experience the polished-up version on 3DS.