Mjora’s Mask is probably one of those rare pieces of media that have had the dubious misfortune of being an anachronism across two separate releases spaced out by over a decade. Back when the original Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask released in the twilight years of the Nintendo 64, the dark, twisted, surreal game, that took so many liberties with the Zelda formula, was a bit too far ahead of its time in every way- its persistent gameplay and game world, and its unconventional methods of storytelling all immediately snubbed by everyone in dismay at the fact that the game was not, in fact, its illustrious predecessor.
Over the years, Majora’s Mask’s stature has grown. It might in fact have been gaming’s very first cult classic, as those that had ventured into the dark and disturbing depths of Termina grew up, and looked back fondly upon the oddest, saddest, darkest Zelda title. Majora’s Mask began to be seen as a high mark for the series, a reminder of the times it had dared to be different and think outside the box, even as in the present day, it began to grow increasingly more formulaic, and the answer to all those critics who contended Zelda needed to grow darker- here was Majora’s Mask, one of the most legitimately disturbing and moving games ever made, and it was a Zelda title, a game mature far beyond its years, too mature, perhaps, for the gaming industry.
15 years have passed since Majora’s Mask first released- the release of its remake is not a curiosity, like the release of the original game, but a long anticipated event. Majora’s Mask’s 3DS remake has been one of the most anticipated game of all time, and the internet’s collective reaction when it was finally announced was one of unanimous joy. Its release has been marked by fervor and hype, and it has been chosen as the flagship game to lead the launch of Nintendo’s newest contender in the hardware market.
A lot, in other words, has changed, since the release of the original game.
Some things have not. Majora’s Mask was an anachronism then. Majora’s Mask is an anachronism now.
"15 years have passed since Majora's Mask first released- the release of its remake is not a curiosity, like the release of the original game, but a long anticipated event."
Of course, if you are new to Majora’s mask, there is perhaps one question still lingering on in your head- just what is Majora’s Mask?
Majora’s Mask is an action adventure game. The fifth mainline entry in Nintendo’s long running Zelda series, the game was an immediate sequel to Ocarina of Time, but in every way possible, it went the exact opposite direction that Ocarina of Time did. Instead of focusing on a huge, sprawling world filled with secrets, it gave you a compact town and its immediate surroundings to explore. Instead of focusing on a grand and epic quest, the game focused on the small and tender, with the bulk of the game emphasizing the characters built up via sidequests, rather than its four (wildly variable) dungeons. Completing a sidequest netted you an item that would surely aid you as you approached your final task inexorably.
The game was also marked by its persistent world- time was a constant thing in Termina. The game takes place over the course of three days, repeated over and over again, with one real world minute corresponding to one in game hour (you can learn to slow and quicken the pace of time later in the game). Everybody and everything in Majora’s Mask has a schedule- it’s a world that is real, living, breathing, persistent, and dense, and it exists independently of you. To master your way through Termina, you must learn to respect it and its inhabitants as real people.
There is also the fact that people’s responses to you will change based on your appearance. The other central mechanic of Majora’s Mask is the masks themselves- over the course of the game, you gain up to 24 masks, which change your appearance, give you abilities, transform your body entirely. Each mask has special uses (the Goron mask can withstand lava and extreme heat, the Zora mask lets you swim forever), but how people respond to you also changes based on what mask you are wearing. Wear the mask of a Deku scrub, and you will be encountered with racism and persecution in Clock Town.Confront a crying Goron child as yourself, and you get nothing, you just agitate him more; but wear the Goron mask and talk to him, and you calm him down. Wear the mask of a person who has mysteriously gone missing in the town, and speak to the innkeeper, and you learn that he has run off on his engagement with her daughter.
"Termina is full of these situations and moments- and you use your masks to don various personas to resolve them all. More than the dungeons, the people, and their problems, are the crux of the gameplay. "
Termina is full of these situations and moments- and you use your masks to don various personas to resolve them all. More than the dungeons, the people, and their problems, are the crux of the gameplay.
But the dungeons are there, and you can focus on them too. You can choose to ignore the human side of Majora’s Mask entirely. The game will be shorter and poorer for you for it (not to mention significantly more difficult, especially at the end), but it can be done.
And what of the dungeons? On he whole, they represent a mixed bunch. There are only four of them, and only one of them is truly exceptional (the last one). The very first dungeon suffers from serving as a tutorial dungeon, while the second and third dungeon are tedious and just poorly designed respectively. On the whole, the dungeons and the combat play out largely as they did in Ocarina, with the former being worse in Majora, the latter being refined and better. But between the masks, the standard series’ items, the combat, the dungeon, and the navigation, Majora’s Mask is filled with staggering gameplay variety.
The argument of gaming as art has been made multiple times. I won’t revisit it here, but I will state that I believe games can genuinely transcend their medium to become art, and that Majora’s Mask is one of the few games that has legitimately achieved this. The entire game is so surreal and bizarre, so open to interpretation, providing such a concrete framework, but only the vaguest of details to fill it in, that it is entirely open to interpretation. What is Majora’s Mask about? As many theories exist in the fandom as there are fans, and there really seems to be no one correct answer- as a story, Majora’s mask could be about anything. What you take away from it depends entirely on you.
"As a game, Majora's Mask works in such a way as to ensure that its story could only have been told as a game- in any other form or format, Majora's Mask would lose its meaning and motive."
But there is one constant throughout the experience that is immediately evident, one constant that will surely color your reading of the game- Majora’s Mask is about the darker side of human psyche. The game is about loss, separation, anguish, failure, agony, heartbreak, disappointment, fear, envy, jealousy, lust, denial, suspicion, mistrust, abandonment, and yes, it is, most of all, about death. As a story, Majora’s Mask delves into the deeper recesses of the spectrum of human condition and emotion. As a game, Majora’s Mask works in such a way as to ensure that its story could only have been told as a game- in any other form or format, Majora’s Mask would lose its meaning and motive.
The game delightfully constructs and weaves its dark yarn around us. Termina is a world doomed to failure- in three days, the moon will crash into the earth and destroy everything, no matter what. This fact is inescapable, and there is nothing Link can do to stop it. Indeed, he is forced to relive the same three days over and over again, in a futile attempt to try and prevent the calamity, but resetting his progress each time he warps back to the beginning of the cycle, with whatever he accomplished having been erased and forgotten. Link is not a hero- he is a kid desperately struggling to prevent the destruction of this world, even as its inhabitants continue on their merry lives, denying the reality of what is about to happen until it is too late. And as he, and by proxy, you, repeat the same days over and over, you come to be close to the characters. Each character in Termina has a story- as in, they literally have a story. Each character is associated with a quest, a quest that must be completed. Why must it be completed? Because even as Link struggles to save the world, even as he fails to save humanity, he can bring a few precious moments of peace, happiness, and contentment to people. He can have the satisfaction of knowing that on some, small level, he has succeeded, and this knowledge gives him the motivation to push ever on, trying to save the world.
The game is marked in its use of a darker palette as well- colors are more subdued, and everything appears darker than the bright, lush green fields of Hyrule. This is a darker place, and the game makes sure the tone of the story is always known. In contrast, the music weaves a slow, melancholy, soulful, and surreal web and cocoon around you, enclosing you into the game’s dark world, in what has to be one of the most outstanding soundtracks in a series that is full of great soundtracks.
Considering this is a remake, however, what has changed from the original release?
"Amazingly enough, because it is still ahead of its time, even today, even with the new release. "
A lot, actually. Unlike Ocarina of Time 3D, and even Wind Waker HD, which represented relatively modest remastering, Nintendo went all out with Majora’s Mask 3D.The graphical update is stunning, and the game may feature some of the best visual use of 3D I have ever seen in any game yet, on 3DS or otherwise. The quality of life changes they have made, mostly via enabling inventory, menus, and maps on the bottom screen, have a profound effect on one’s enjoyment of the game, and additions like the gyroscope are tactful and unobtrusive.
That said, they have also made a fair few structural and mechanical changes, and not all of them are good.
The biggest issue is in the masks and how they play- Nintendo has, for some unfathomable reason, changed how the Goron and Zora masks control, making Goron and Zora Link harder and a pain to control. coupled with the 3DS’s less accurate analog stick, the masks are hell to handle in some spots- particularly in already poorly designed dungeons like Snowpoint or Great Bay, where both these masks need to be used extensively.
On the other hand, other such changes have been for the better. The most notable one is the Bomber’s Notebook, which now acts as a dynamic quest log, keeping track of rumors and information you have gathered, collating each townsperson’s routine in one place to make it easier for you to track them down when necessary. It even lets you set alarms and reminders.
Meanwhile, there are other changes too, mostly relating to the flow of time- The Song of Double Time, which let you skip ahead 12 hours in the future in the original game, now lets you control time in a more granular manner, choosing a specific hour you want to skip ahead to. Meanwhile, the save system has changed so that you are now allowed to hard save at any time you see an owl statue in the overworld. This means you no longer have to worry about completing an entire three day cycle in one go or risk losing your progress (because of failure or a discharged battery)- your last save counts as a hard save.
So, given all of this, why is Majora’s Mask an anachronism? Amazingly enough, because it is still ahead of its time, even today, even with the new release. In some ways, gaming has caught up to Majora’s mask, and its age shows (such as in the bulk of its dungeon design). But in most other ways – its story, its emergent storytelling, its artistic vision, its persistent world, its quest structure, and the themes that it tackles, and the deft maturity that it tackles them with – Majora’s Mask is, amazingly enough, still unmatched, fifteen years after its release.
Fifteen years have passed, then, and Majora’s Mask is still a highly progressive game. It goes to show you just how far ahead of its time it originally was, and how slow and stagnated game design progress has been since then- both within and outside Nintendo. A game that was misunderstood, but revered, a game that is never of its time, but a game that is a brilliant game regardless: The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask is a work of art, working fundamentally as a game, and achieving what it does because of it, and not in spite of it.
This game was reviewed on Nintendo 3DS.
Deep, dark, melancholy, profound, a true work of art; beautiful graphics with stunning use of 3D; most hcanges, such as the Bomber's Notebook and the new save and time system, are for the better; the sidequests are impeccably designed; amazing soundtrack
Some control and navigation issues; issues made to the masks make no sense, and make poorly designed areas stand out worse; dungeons are showing their age, and are largely poor