Majora’s Mask is foreboding in how it turns to the uncomfortable; thrilling in how it dares players to explore; flexible in how it gives them a great variety of tools to use; and suffocating in how it is constantly counting down to the end of the world
Over and over again, regardless of a game’s genre or era of release, players throughout the world have been constantly urged by numerous characters to just hurry up and do whatever it is they seek to achieve. Rescuing the princess, saving the universe, reaching a meeting point, undermining the villain’s devilish next move, tracking down the culprit behind a crime, finding treasure, and many others; all of these tasks have, at some point, been tied up to a sense of urgency, with folks telling the hero that time is of the essence and that any delays will surely spell doom to the good side of the struggle. However, with the exception of instances, which are comparatively rare, when a timer is suddenly presented on the screen, these warnings have been false with astounding frequency; so much, in fact, that dramatic claims of the sort have often been the source of game-related jokes.
Protagonists are always asked to rush, but there is absolutely nothing stopping them from visiting the nearest potion shop, battling hordes of enemies to gain a few levels, partake in random side activities, and just freewheel according to their own whims before they actually get down to business. However long it takes, the princess will still be there, domain over the world will remain up for grabs, the villain will not be done concocting their newest scheme, the clues that lead to the criminal will be timelessly preserved, the treasure will not have been taken by another individual, and all options will stay wide open.
That is, of course, unless the hero in question is Link and he is going through The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask. Following Ocarina of Time, it is the second game of the franchise released for the Nintendo 64, as well as the saga’s sophomore effort in the tridimensional realm; and the quest it boasts is – like that of its predecessor – primarily propelled by time. Yet, the relationship both titles build with that concept could not be any different, for where Ocarina of Time works with it on a large scale, using a surprising seven-year gap as its defining moment, Majora’s Mask not only employs it much more frequently, never detaching itself from the fact that time is passing, but it also does so quite intimately, concerning itself with matters of seconds, minutes, hours, and days.
In an unusual turn for the series, saying that Majora’s Mask follows Ocarina of Time is not solely a question of release date; it can apply to how their storylines are directly connected too. As seen in the closing stages of the latter, having defeated Ganondorf, Link places the Master Sword back in the pedestal within the Temple of Time and returns to being a child. Soon afterwards, he departs from Hyrule. When Majora’s Mask begins, players catch a glimpse of him in the midst of the journey he started upon leaving. The hero rides Epona through an ominous wooded area in search of a long-lost friend – his fairy companion, Navi – when he bumps into danger. Out of the blue, a forest imp accompanied by two fairy pals of his own jump in front of Epona, scare the horse, and cause Link to fall unconscious on the ground.
The mischievous creature – a Skull Kid sporting the sinister-looking titular mask – quickly approaches the inert body and decides to prank the boy by stealing one of his possessions: tragically, he chooses to go for the Ocarina of Time. Link wakes up and gives chase, but in a disturbing turn of events, the imp uses the mask to cast a curse upon him, as the hero is launched into a frightening nightmare out of which he snaps horrified to discover that he has been turned into a Deku Scrub. Desperately seeking help, he encounters an odd mask salesman who tells him one equally weird tale: as it happens, he can restore Link to his old self if the hero recovers his ocarina; however, besides having to do it in less than three days, since the salesman is moving out of the area after that interval passes, he also needs to recover Majora’s Mask, which Skull Kid took away from the poor guy.
As Link discovers, the three-day threshold the mask salesman gives him is not exactly random. Possessed by Majora’s Mask, Skull Kid has climbed to the top of the tower that stands in the middle of Clock Town and commanded the moon to come crashing down, a tragedy that is bound to kill everyone in the world of Termina and that will happen in precisely seventy-two hours. At the end of that initial cycle, Link is unable to handle the might of Skull Kid and recover Majora’s Mask; he is, however, successful in snatching back his ocarina, learning that the only way to stop the moon is by awakening four giants that lie asleep at the edges of the world, and desperately using the Song of Time as a last resort to stop death from striking all and everyone. Transported back to the beginning of the first day without Majora’s Mask in his hands (much to the despair of the salesman), he regains his human shape, and sets out in his journey.
Majora’s Mask, consequently, is not fooling around when it says gamers ought to hurry up. The three days Link has to seal the deal amount to – in real life – approximately one hour; as a good dosage of relief, though, if played backwards, the Song of Time can slow down the ticking of the clock to double that interval. And needless to say, when time is up, players can either watch the moon wipe life out of the land or rely on the classic tune to restart the cycle. However, upon taking that second route, the world will simply reset: obstacles will reform, problems that have been solved will return, keys found in dungeons will go back to their respective chests, puzzles will revert to their original state, and Link will just lose all rupees (unless he makes a time-defying bank deposit) as well as cumulative items such as arrows, bombs, and magic beans.
To a player that is unaware of the inner-workings of Majora’s Mask, the description is absurd. With four giants waiting to be awaken, the journey is not exactly one of the lengthiest entries of the franchise. Still, given it respects the general The Legend of Zelda structure of combining a sequence of exploration that leads to the dungeon with one daunting maze, where a giant rests, and then repeating the process again another three times, it still packs enough mandatory content for at least twenty hours of gameplay. Given its time restriction, then, Majora’s Mask should be impossible if players are forced to reset the whole world for every sixty-minute interval that elapses. That is not, of course, how it all plays out.
Once out of their slumber, giants that have been gently kicked out of sleep will remain active regardless of the time-traveling. Furthermore, since only very fast players that know what to do could possibly get to any dungeon and clear it within one or even two hours, Majora’s Mask is structured in a way that strongly minimizes the chances gamers will lose significant progress if they run out of time.
Firstly, that happens because all of the four regions of Termina have two warp points that, when activated, never regress to being locked; and one of them is, neatly, always located right at the doorway of the local dungeon. Secondly, and most importantly, that is possible because the sequence of actions that must be performed so that Link gains access to the maze invariably involves grabbing hold of one piece of equipment and learning a song; and since key items (such as the bow and the hookshot) as well as tunes are not lost when the hero goes back to the dawn of the first day, any seventy-two-hour cycle will be productive and will not represent a loss of progress if Link puts his hands on one of those goods.
Thankfully, that does not mean Majora’s Mask is devoid of any share of tension; after all, if it were, it would be a far less interesting game. In terms of challenge, it packs a far meaner punch than Ocarina of Time. In relation to time, those that are either tackling the journey for the first time or doing so after a long absence will find out three days can be a tight window to perform some tasks. Moreover, save for perhaps the first dungeon, all mazes are likely to push the clock to its limit. It is a nature that is sure to turn some away in spite of the very smart steps Nintendo takes towards minimizing frustration; yet, it is a thrill in the sense that it embeds the quest with a degree of urgency that is simply not found anywhere else in the adventure genre. And due to it, Majora’s Mask gains a very unique character. Time restrictions, however, are not the only identity-building feature the game holds, as it has traits of the sort to spare.
From a certain perspective, it is even ironic to dub Majora’s Mask as distinctive, because the two-year period that separates its release from that of its predecessor means that the recycling of assets is simply abundant, from characters (which were all present in the Hyrule portrayed by Ocarina of Time) to equipment, as other than an extra powerful bomb the game does not add any tools to Link’s arsenal. Nevertheless, not just does it deserve that qualification thoroughly, but it also earns the title of being the most unique journey that is part of The Legend of Zelda saga. In spite of the visible graphical leap in textures, models, and draw distance the game sports because of its reliance on the Expansion Pack, no entries of the franchise look as alike as Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask; at the same time, the distance between both could not be any greater.
Notable, yet small in comparison to the rest of the shifts it implements, is the expansion Majora’s Mask executes in the scenarios it presents. Like Hyrule Field, Termina Field is one large open area that leads into the distinct regions of the land; despite a somewhat different configuration, the two share the same positive and negative points: with the former being that they hold a good deal of nice little secrets and the latter being that they inevitably pale in comparison to contemporary overworlds. The four cardinal points of Termina, though, which hold a swamp, an ice-covered mountain, a bay, and a canyon, are made up of individual pieces that are wider than those of Ocarina of Time, dialing down on the linearity factor – as they tend to have multiple entrances and exits – and boosting the exploration to new heights. Consequently, the mandatory gameplay between dungeons of Majora’s Mask feels meatier than that of its prequel.
Additionally, Majora’s Mask carries a level of darkness that is frightening. Surely, Ocarina of Time had already treaded into the sinister when it jumped seven years into the future to unveil that Hyrule had been ravaged by its new ruler, Ganondorf; but its follow-up takes it to a new threshold of intensity and constancy. From its opening sequence, it gives players a glimpse into a much somber tone that – through ups and downs in volume – is very much confirmed as the adventure unfolds. The dark forest, the disturbing nightmare, and the cries (part of anguish and part of torture) that Link lets out when he realizes he has been turned into a Deku Scrub could have been extracted out of a horror movie; and the rest of the quest absolutely follows suit.
There is the moon, with its angry blood-shot eyes and zombie-like appearance, that hovers over Termina, actually getting closer to the ground as time passes and announcing impending death as it descends. There are the four regions the hero has to explore, which have all been corrupted into desolate landscapes by deadly events unleashed by Skull Kid, including the overwhelming poison of the swamp and the unbearable endless winter of the mountains.
There is the villain himself, who moves and acts as if possessed by a vicious demon; a fact that gains sad contours because of the gloomy backstory that is hidden behind the mask. There is the soundtrack, which matches the traditional whimsical and adventurous tunes of the franchise with an onslaught of tracks that conjure all that is sinister. And there are the situations Link is pulled into, which reveal horrors – both of the physical and abstract kinds – and showcase that Termina hides dark corners where hopelessness has prevailed over characters that deserved better.
As strong as that darkness may be, for it permeates every segment of the game, it is not the factor responsible for creating the largest portion of the gap that sets Majora’s Mask apart from Ocarina of Time. That award actually goes to the game’s masks. When Link is healed out of his Deku Scrub form, he will be given a mask of the creature, which – in turn – will allow him to transform into the little wooded guy whenever he sees fit. Likewise, further down the line, he will also gain access to artifacts that will let him become a Goron and a Zora. It goes without saying that, with these metamorphoses, Majora’s Mask treads into ground no other The Legend of Zelda quest has ever touched.
When in the guise of a Deku Scrub, the hero will be able to use flowers as catapults to jump high into the air and glide for a considerable amount of time, shoot bubbles, and execute a limited number of hops across bodies of water. As a Goron, he can deliver a strong punch, do a ground pound, carry powder kegs, and trigger a rolling motion whose speed – if built up considerably – can cause him to turn into a mighty spiked ball. Finally, as a Zora, Link has the option to walk underwater, deploy detachable fins like double boomerangs, swim swiftly, trigger an electric attack, and briefly jump out of the water like a dolphin.
Each of the first three regions of Termina that Link visits is respectively constructed around one of these transformations, and so are the dungeons they hold. Moreover, puzzles, platforming segments, mini-games, and obstacles that require these masks are quite abundant everywhere else, which makes the entirety of Majora’s Mask rely more on the completely refreshing mechanics they bring to the table than on the equipment the hero carries in his pocket; a set of items that does have plenty of applications, but that is best – and wisely – left on the background due to how well-explored it had already been in Ocarina of Time. The Deku, Goron, and Zora masks – although certainly the most meaningful of the batch and the only ones that actually cause Link to transform – are just a small part of a larger package.
Majora’s Mask, in fact, has twenty-four of those items for players to collect, with a few of them being mandatory for the clearing of the quest and a much larger number being entirely optional. The degree of their usefulness varies greatly: the Bunny Hood (which makes Link run faster), the Stone Mask (which renders him invisible), and the Bomb Mask (which allows him to explode) have abundant purposes; the Postman’s Hat, the Couple’s Mask, and most of the bundle are each employed to reach one Heart Piece; the Giant’s Mask and the Fierce Deity’s Mask only come into play against the awesome bosses; and the Troupe Leader’s Mask is virtually pointless. Regardless of where they stand in that range, collecting all masks is a blast because they are intimately related to another one of the impressive qualities of Majora’s Mask: its sidequests.
As any The Legend of Zelda fan ought to know, the fact the game only has four dungeons – out of which two easily rank among the best the franchise has ever produced – means that to reach the always coveted number of twenty units of energy Link will have to collect a whole lot of heart pieces; to be precise, fifty-two of them. Joined by the masks, the empty bottles, the extra powerful swords, and the punctual equipment upgrades, they give Majora’s Mask a layer of extra content that – up to its release – was almost unheard of. It is an addition that has multiple benefits: it rewards exploration because almost every corner of the game has something worthy to be found; it compensates for a main quest length that can be a bit on the short side; and it gives life to Termina.
It is not just that the world is overflowing with optional missions, it is also the fact many of them have great depth, easily surpassing the majority of the tasks featured in Ocarina of Time. Obviously, there are some Heart Pieces that can be found if one is willing to look, be it by blowing up a rock or by climbing a suspicious tree; yet, most of them and many of the masks are tied to more complicated ordeals.
Numerous of those cases happen because Majora’s Mask is thoroughly ruled by the clock. Its characters and the events in which they are involved, especially those inside the walls of Clock Town, are entirely scripted across the three-day cycle. The local inn will open early in the morning and receive the visit of a Goron by the afternoon of the first day; the ranch will deal with some trouble during a specific night; the suspicious shop in the western part of town will get interesting goods as the moon is about to fall; and more.
It is by uncovering these routines and interfering with how they play out that Link will succeed in capturing the threads that will lead him to quests, character development, and rewards. And to aid him in that task, he will carry a notebook which will handily mark important events that he has uncovered so that players can easily remember when and where they happen. It is unique; it is enthralling; it quietly drives home the point that Termina is locked into a perpetual cycle of doom; and it gives birth to a certain historic sidequest that unfolds throughout the whole seventy-two-hour interval.
The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask could not possibly have hoped to reproduce the same impact achieved by its predecessor; after all, the opportunity that Ocarina of Time had in its hands was of a magnitude that only comes around, at best, once in a generation. Nonetheless, within the very short two-year period Nintendo had to construct a follow-up, the company did more than anyone else could have expected, because even though it is restricted by a recycled art style and a visibly smaller scope, the game is not great solely for being built over an extremely solid framework; it is excellent for how it uncovers a trove of defining traits that it explores to the maximum extent.
With darkness in its soul, wider environments at its disposal, ability-granting masks in its pocket, and an engaging three-day cycle in its core, Majora’s Mask is foreboding in how it frequently turns to the uncomfortable; thrilling in how it dares players to explore; flexible in how it gives them a great variety of tools to interact with the tense environments that surround them; and suffocating, yet fair, in how it is constantly counting down to the moment when the world will be consumed in the fire produced by the crashing of a possessed moon. The Legend of Zelda has never been stranger; gaming has rarely been better.