The Legend of Zelda is a franchise that needs no introduction. In fact, you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who doesn’t have a favorite of the series. Though there tends to be little overall variety between titles, a lot of people can agree on one thing: Ocarina of Time was one of, if not the, best of the series.
In spite of Ocarina’s success, many tend to forget that there was a second game released on the Nintendo 64. A sequel with a dark, complex story, an entirely different gameplay experience, and one of the most hauntingly evil villains of the series. That game is, as you may have guessed by now, Majora’s Mask.
First, a little background. Majora’s Mask starts off slap-bang at the end of Ocarina of Time. Through a series of events revolving around the mischievous Skull Kid, Link (the Hero of Time) winds up in Termina, a parallel to his own world of Hyrule. As he steps into the world, it becomes immediately apparent that something’s gone wrong – the moon is much larger than it should be, and seems to be getting closer every day. With three days before the world comes to a cataclysmic end, he has to free the four giants of Termina and use them to save the world from utter destruction.
Just from that, you can see why this game is so much darker than its predecessors. If not, let me spell it out – Ocarina of Time’s villain wanted to become ruler of the world. A Link to the Past’s villain wanted ultimate power. Even the later Twilight Princess’s villain wanted the world consumed by the twilight realm, where he had absolute authority. The villain in Majora’s Mask? It just wants the world to burn. There’s no reason behind it, no story of vengeance or some misguided crusade – it just wants to see Termina destroyed. Majora’s Mask went off in a completely different direction than previous games in the series in more than one way, and it worked well.
This huge plot point also lends itself to some great storytelling. Unlike Ocarina, where major characters are few and Link’s quest is solely to stop Ganon, Majora’s Mask has a wide variety of characters with their own problems and views about their impending doom. Some deny that the apocalypse is coming, and try to go on with their daily lives, choosing to ignore it and prepare for the upcoming festival. Others desperately seek shelter, hoping to get as far away as possible before the moon falls and destroys the world. Adding another layer of depth, a popular theory states that each area of the game is a metaphor for a different stage of grief – the people in Clock Town deny the fact that the moon is truly falling; the Woodfall Deku take out their fury on an innocent being; the Goron hero Darmani pleads for a second chance at life after failing in his quest; the Zora singer Lulu has fallen into a deep depression after the loss of her eggs; and in the Stone Tower Temple, Link achieves enlightenment by casting aside the shells of his grief. It’s all explained in detail here.
All in all, it’s an extremely powerful story told subtly – a far cry from Link’s previous tales. But what about the gameplay makes Majora’s Mask so different? Well, for starters, gone are the usual conventions of a Zelda game. Let me explain. Most Zelda titles follow a preset path through the game. Three warm-up dungeons followed by a number of real dungeons, usually between five to eight. As Link, the hero of the story, travels through each dungeon, he gains a single new weapon that allows him to traverse the dungeon further as well as defeat the boss of the dungeon.
Majora’s Mask throws most of that out the window. The three-then-five formula is replaced by a mere four dungeons. That’s right, there are a grand total of four dungeons. The Wooded Temple, the Snowfall Temple, the Great Bay Temple, and the Stone Tower Temple. That’s it. Plus, when adventuring into each dungeon, Link discovers a new type of arrow, rather than a specific item – every other item can be found through puzzles and quests in the overworld.
Why is this so significant? Simply because it’s a complete reversal of the games prior to it. Every other Zelda game has the player following a specific path, going from one dungeon to the next – and that’s how the story unfolds. But with Majora’s Mask, a huge amount of the game’s storytelling is in its sidequests. And it’s all so brilliantly done, too – each dungeon tells the story of one of the four races of the land of Termina (Deku, Goron, Zora and Ikana), while the sidequests tell the story of the people of Clock Town, the game’s central hub. Unlike previous games, including Ocarina, the storytelling is much more open-ended, requiring the player to learn the plight of the world’s people by aiding them in their trials and tribulations.
This brings me to what made the game simultaneously impressive and daunting: the time limit. Yes, that’s right, for the first and only time in the series, the entire game revolves around a single time limit. The events of the world are on an endless three-day loop as Link helps people, defeats dungeons, and then travels back to the day he arrived. Major items and the Bomber’s Notebook, a record of the game’s numerous sidequests, are retained between cycles – but events are never altered from one cycle.
And…well, that’s what makes and breaks the game for people. On the one hand, it’s a very powerful gameplay tool, forcing the player to make decisions about what to do, making plans for doing things over each new cycle, and allowing them to fix their mistakes by erasing them from existence. But on the other hand, it can become incredibly confusing and tedious if you have no idea what you’re doing. The open-ended gameplay is a bit of a double-edge sword in this case, because while the only direction given is where the next dungeon is, a hugely important part of playing the game is doing the sidequests, which aren’t explicitly revealed to the player. Sure, not revealing the sidequest is a given in most games, but in Majora’s Mask, there’s the time element that becomes quite tricky to traverse. Almost every sidequest can only be started, continued, and finished at very specific times on very specific days – and if you don’t know the order, you’ll spend a lot of time running around trying to figure them out.
But still, Majora’s Mask remains one of the strongest games in the entire series. An extremely deep story, a frightening villain whose only goal is destruction, and a wholly new style of storytelling all add up to a phenomenally good game. Is it daunting? Sure, especially to newcomers to the series. But if you’re digging around for a great oldie, you’ll find gold in The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask.