A Second Look: Majora’s Mask

Everyone remembers The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, but how many people remember The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask? Well, a lot of gamers probably do, but not in the fondest of lights. As a game, MM really frustrated many of its players with a non-traditional plot and a tedious time travel mechanic; the latter a feature that was considered so aggravating it caused many people to just turn off their Nintendo 64 and never look that title’s way again.

Recently, I found my N64 along with a copy of Majora’s Mask and Ocarina of Time. Remembering both my intense love for OoT and intense hatred of MM, I let curiosity get the best of me and set out to save Termina–once and for all.

The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask is supposed to be a direct sequel to Ocarina of Time; that is to say, it features the same Link players played in the first game, and was created to serve as a continuation of his unique story. As anyone who knows the Zelda series’ lore can attest, this was a rare move for Nintendo. Link is something of a folk legend in Hyrule; every several hundred years a boy clad in green sprouts up, but he’s rarely the exact same boy.

Yet in the second Zelda for the N64 he was the same boy–and, instead of being met with undying love as par for the course and previous game, he was largely despised this second time around.

Majora’s Mask had a lot of obstacles for player, some very frustrating and some quite ingenious, mostly originating in its unique gameplay design of confining players to a three day cycle. The game looped on in this cycle repeatedly until the player completed their objectives, both small and large, and was able to save the Termina–a sort of dark and dreary mirror to the land of Hyrule. Running around Clock Town, Link had exactly 72 hours that started ticking immediately at the break of dawn to find out why he was in this alternate universe and what was his purpose. At the end of the cycle, the moon would crash into the world and all would be lost.

Of course, 72 hours is nowhere near enough time to save the world, and the game borrowed heavily from the film Groundhog Day in that regard. Link could port back to the beginning with his progress intact after completing a step towards his end quest, but he could never stop the hours from passing and his days repeating. The cycle of days looped endlessly, allowing for them to be repeated as long as it took to piece the puzzles together. This alone led to incredibly detailed day-to-day content and also brought on intense, often harrowing, time limitations.

Quests were often only available for a small slot of time in the three day window, their opportunities forever lost if timing was even an hour off, and each unique NPC had a very specific 3-day schedule; the Postman had a strict route he traveled every day, the two sisters on the Romani farm fended off aliens who attempted to steal their cows only on the first night, and even small things like the Milk Bar opened and closed depending on the date and time. Even the weather changed depending on the date, with the second and third days always cloaked in gloomy showers serving as a depressing contrast to the first day’s sunny and happy afternoon.

This variation and evolution of the world around Link led to a sense of immersion that was rare for a title in the early 2000’s. Players affected the world, and the world affected them. It was something different and intricate. The initial world could be observed at will, but Link could choose to step in at any time and make a difference–both huge and small.

On day one of his new adventure, for example, while exploring the town, Link can choose to go to the local Stock Pot Inn and ask if there are any rooms available. Of course, as luck would have it, all their rooms are full and there are absolutely no vacancies, unless you’ve reserved a room. Link can, at that point, choose to turn around and walk out. Or he can tell a little white lie, choosing to say that he has actually got a reservation under his name. After a brief pause, the innkeeper Anuju will note that there is indeed a Link on the list, and hand Link a key to his new room.

Shortly after, as the sun sinks into the plains of Termina, a Goron also named Link arrives to the inn to get some sleep. If a player steps into the inn during that exact hour window–no earlier and no later, or else the moment has passed–they are treated with a sad scene. Exhausted and disgruntled, the Goron argues with the woman and says he did request a room. She’s apologetic, but nothing can be done, as the hotel is fully booked up now. From that night onward, in that particular 72 hour cycle, Link can see the Goron sleeping out next to the inn in the streets, bemoaning his luck and wondering how his reservations got misplaced; Link can then go inside and finish a side quest in the inn, as well as gather Rupees from the room and talk to the inn’s other inhabitants to gain further information about the world around him.

Of course, if Link simply chose to walk out earlier instead of lying, players can be treated to a scene of watching the Goron come in, unload his heavy pack, and thank the woman heartily for his hospitality. He also can’t enter the inn during night for the rest of the cycle’s duration and, depending on his missions in this 3-day cycle, can’t complete several quests.

With every action Link takes, or doesn’t take, a stone is cast and the ripple is felt universally in Majora’s Mask. That’s what the game is wholly about; being the stone in the pond, and creating various ripples, until the ripples eventually lead you to the right ending. And that’s why it’s revolutionary in its own right. It was playing with a depth most games, let alone console games, had yet to touch for the era. It was looking at a scope as big as Mass Effect’s and a level of depth belonging to Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind in terms of the size of the cast and missions.

It was the antithesis of linear.

It was probably this vague, off the wall–and yet oddly frantic–pacing that is what turned gamers off so much initially. We’d just came from playing The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, which was undoubtedly one of the best games created. But it was linear, for the most part. Players left the Kokiri Forest, they went to Hyrule, and then they saved the world. If someone wanted to, they could spend hours riding around on Epona just taking in the atmosphere. There were seldom time limits and the path was almost always clearly displayed. Dungeons could be done in differing orders, certainly, but weapons given helped make the chain dungeons easier so there was always a logical approach of attack.

In contrast to Ocarina of Time, there was no downtime in The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask. Players seldom got to stop and smell the roses. In the fields, players had to ride from point A to B as quickly as possible while the time ticked away–lest they miss some important event happening at their destination. The game was also accompanied with a tremendous feeling of darkness and isolation; although just a child, Link was shouldering a huge burden and no one was aware of his plight. He was forced to figure it out, through trial and error, in a chaotic mess of events in a foreign land with few friendly faces. And at the end of it all, a sense of dispair followed: so what if the moon devoured the world whole this time around? Link could just warp back to the beginning of the story as that version of Clock Town fell into fiery ruins; there was no punishment for doing a dungeon wrong, just endless repetition. Every day, from start until finish, was an exhausting quest for a solution with the weight of the moon falling down onto Link’s lonesome shoulders, as the clock just went on ticking.

And the clock was always ticking. And the world was always ending.

This complete reset of time and the days prior didn’t always help gameplay, either. It was a nice touch at times, but sometimes it completely erased the effect it was attempting to create. While it was a solid, strong quest line to reunite the town’s prominent fiance and his fiancee after he ran away on the first day after falling victim to the Skull Kid’s prankster ways, resetting the game after saving progress completely ruined it. Link kept the quest reward, but the star-crossed lovers were back to being separated from each other and indifferent to the boy in green. To the player, they’d met several times over and shared important moments, but to the NPCs, Link was just a boy dressed like a fairy who was annoyingly intrusive the next time around.

Essentially, the same sense of immersion that placed a great deal of focus on Link’s actions created a sense of indifference when his actions were erased when the clock’s ticked back.

At the heart of it, The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask is an intensely strange game. It seemed years ahead of its time, but destined to be a blip on the radar of most gamers. It’s worth a second look, however, if only because it was truly one of the better Zelda games the series had to offer. If you liked The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, but found yourself putting down The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask the first time around, maybe it was just too soon. Perhaps the juxtaposition of the message OoT gave compared to MM’s message was too strong and confusing to play them back to back.

Maybe you just needed a few years. After all, I needed a whole decade.