With an unparalleled sense of urgency and doom, Majora’s Mask rises once more as the franchise’s darkest and most sinister hour
The years that have passed since the original release of Majora’s Mask have transformed the game from a pleasant little surprise that came a meager two years after the gargantuan Ocarina of Time into a highly beloved classic. Much of that fully justified adoration steams from the fact Link’s second Nintendo 64 quest is a delightful oddity, a point that stands far and away from the general curve that describes the overall progression of the Zelda franchise. Fifteen years later, it arrives in a spectacularly remade format to flaunt its sinister quirks to a whole new generation and remind older gamers of its undeniable greatness.
Saying Majora’s Mask is different from all Zelda titles that both preceded and followed it is a massive understatement. Majora’s Mask is, actually, very different from most adventure games ever put out by the industry. Sure, the core gameplay elements of puzzle-solving, character interactions, and dungeon crawling that are the bastion on which the franchise stands are almost intact, but here those assets are not the game’s gravitational core; they are actually the peripheral bodies that circle around the true lord of Majora’s Mask: time, or better yet, an endless unstoppable countdown to the utter annihilation of the game’s universe.
A Skull Kid, a forest imp of the mischievous kind, goes on a pranking spree after being abandoned by his closest friends. During that reckless outrage, he happens to rob a mask salesman of his most valuable and twisted possession: the titular Majora’s Mask, an item once utilized by an ancient tribe during cursed rituals and that ended up being discarded due to the overpowering evil spirit that resided within the mask. Possessed by its wickedness, the usually harmless attacks of the creature turn darker as he wrecks havoc on the land of Termina; harming people, dooming the land’s four regions to vicious curses, and – ultimately – summoning the moon to come crashing down on the world, an event that will spell the end of everything within seventy-two hours.
The game’s greatest calling card then, and the one that makes it stand out, is its overwhelming urgency. While on most games villains spend their on-screen time planning unspeakable evils that will never come to fruition due to the interference of the player, Majora’s Mask flips the script. The world is already drowned in the gutter, and three days separate it from sinking to irreversible nothingness. As the hours pass (the three in-game days correspond to only fifty-four minutes in real time), the gigantic angry-faced moon comes closer and closer to the ground and earthquakes get more frequent. When Majora’s Mask tells players to “hurry up”, it means it with all its heart; there is no time to fool around in the closest inn or visit the neighborhood’s shop to see what’s new in stock.
Link gets pulled into the mess when, following the events of Ocarina of Time, he calmly wanders through the forest with Epona when, suddenly, he becomes yet another victim of the possessed Skull Kid; losing all his belongings in the process and being nightmarishly turned into a Deku Scrub. Once he rids himself of his curse, the clock begins ticking down on players and they must venture into Termina’s four regions to clear them of their respective calamities and wake up the guardians who can stop the moon from consuming everything.
Thankfully, with his ocarina, Link can revert the three-day cycle to its beginning at will. That relief, however, comes at a cost, and it is from that punishment that players will constantly be running away. Going back in time means that the game will basically reset the world: Link loses all his minor collectibles (bombs, arrows, deku nuts, and even rupees); any progress made in dungeons, unless the boss room is reached, in which case a shortcut will promptly open, is erased; previously restored areas go back to their original state even though their guardian remains awake; and characters with which Link had interactions completely forget about what happened.
There are indeed some punctual annoyances that come with the resetting of the world. For example, the clearing of some sidequests requires that some areas be restored, which consequently entails beating the temple’s boss once more; and a few mundane tasks must be repeated over and over again.
Thankfully, otherwise Majora’s Mask would be completely unplayable, it is not all as bleak as it sounds. For starters, rupees can be conveniently stored in a bank that will keep them safe even when time goes back. Additionally, it is possible, via a famous device, to slow down the passage of time so that the time limit becomes almost negligible, something that is a blessing to those who despise time limits, but a move that takes away the game’s two most memorable, unique, and special qualities: the excitement and nervousness that arise when one has to rush to finish a task so that their efforts are not lost.
Most importantly, though, Majora’s Mask is outstandingly smart when it comes to structuring its adventure in a way that will allow players to progress little by little, hence creating an unbelievably fantastic balance between tension and frustration. It is unquestionable anyone going through the game for the first time will eventually fail to complete a quest before time runs out, consequently forcing them to restart an activity; however, whatever it is that will be lost will never be much.
In order to get into the dungeons, Link will often need both a song and one or more abilities that will be acquired along the way. Since neither tunes nor equipment or learned skills are lost when going back in time, that setup allows players to manage their fifty-four minutes with relative tranquility once they get a hold of the game’s mechanics. One can, for example, use three days to do the tasks required to learn the song; the next three days to find the equipment; and then wrap to the dungeon’s entrance – through an effective web of checkpoints that are nicely placed and are not erased when the days are reset either – so they can enter the puzzle-ridden maze with a full three-day cycle to spare.
Even within that almost perfect balance between forcing players to rush while never allowing them to lose much (the worst-case scenario of progress loss is certainly having to restart a dungeon because one could not get to the boss room on time), does not stop the playing of Majora’s Mask to feel like a constant rush of adrenaline. After all, not only do players know that the moon is falling, time is about to be up, and progress will be lost, but they can visually see and feel that the apocalypse is around the corner, easily making the game the franchise’s darkest and most desperate hour.
In general terms, when compared to Ocarina of Time, the gameplay is pretty much intact. The most considerable difference, and perhaps the greatest and biggest addition ever made to the franchise’s formula, further making Majora’s Mask a very unique game, is spelled right on its title: the masks. As soon as Link is able to escape his Deku form, he will gain the ability to transform back at will. As the adventure goes on, he will also come across masks that will turn him into the other two major races of the Hylian universe: Gorons and Zoras.
Alongside the hero’s traditional equipment, the abilities granted by those three masks are smartly incorporated into puzzles and quests; in fact, out of the four dungeons present in the game, each of the first three is centered around the use of a specific disguise while the last one brings them all together into an all-encompassing test of skill and reasoning.
As a Deku, Link will be able to shoot bubbles and use flowers as trampolines from which he can soar into the air for a limited amount of time; as a Goron, he will become invulnerable to fire and gain the skill to roll around like an unstoppable wrecking ball; and as a Zora he will walk underwater, swim with beautiful fluidity and speed, and shoot fin boomerangs.
In addition to those three core and mandatory masks, there are another twenty-one of them that can be collected via multiple sidequests scattered around Termina. While some of them are one-trick ponies whose only purpose is the solving of other sidequests, hence creating a clever web of dependencies; others give Link very useful skills, such as the Bunny Hood, which increases his running speed; the Blast Mask, which replaces bomb by allowing the character to create explosions at will; or the Stone Mask, which makes him invisible to most enemies.
The whopping number of twenty-four masks also has the indirect benefit of adding numerous extra quests with interesting rewards to the game. The amount of dungeons of Majora’s Mask – four, might seem a tad too little when compared to the eight present on Ocarina of Time even when the collectible fairies hidden inside them are considered, but numbers can be deceiving. First of all, the in-between dungeons segments here are meatier and often feature interesting mini-dungeons packed with their own enemies, puzzles, and equipment.
At the same time, as most Zelda veterans will quickly realize, the fact there are only four dungeons means that out of the twenty possible hearts Link can have by the end of the game, a shocking thirteen of them are assembled via the collection of heart pieces, consequently totaling fifty-four of those extra items that are added to the twenty-one non-mandatory masks as optional content.
In other words, that means Majora’s Mask is absolutely loaded with fun sidequests. Not only are their rewards great, but they also offer a level of character development that is unknown within the franchise. It is not just the main actors of the plot that are fully detailed; the same level of attention is given to many minor folks that inhabit Termina and, especially, its central village: Clock Town.
As a game where the passage of time is so present that the current hour is constantly displayed on the bottom of the screen, pretty much all events are time-oriented and a practical notebook that is automatically filled as players come across new happenings helps them keep track of what is going to happen and when. Characters will follow a scripted routine whenever the seventy-two-hour countdown beings, shops will open and close depending on the hour, and certain occurrences and places can only be accessed if Link is able to correctly interfere with the lives of specific people; qualities that make the world feel specially alive. Some of the quests are so ridiculously detailed that they extend through the entire three-day period.
Although many years have passed, Majora’s Mask remains a very impressive entry on the Zelda franchise. Despite its smart structure that reduces the losing of progress, its time-related quirks might frustrate some players who enjoy to roam aimlessly and explore carefully, but to those who are able to enjoy its general uniqueness, the brilliancy of its masks, and the smartness of its dungeons, this 3DS upgrade ends up being the game’s definitive version for its flooring graphical improvements, which go along with an ominous soundtrack that perfectly conveys the game’s darkness, and other punctual enhancements.
With incredible smoothness, The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask 3D further solidifies the game’s hold on the title of the most sinister Zelda installment up to this day. Never has Nintendo been this overwhelmingly dark, and rarely has it incorporated so many changes on one of its major franchises with so much success.