: The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask
: Nintendo EAD
: Nintendo 64
Watch the intro sequence to The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask embedded above
Amongst many things, the Nintendo 64 was the first console from Nintendo to deal exclusively in games made up of polygons, textures, and lots and lots of fog. Sure, that’s kind of a cheap shot at the end there, but hey, Turok won’t mind. Also, he won’t be able to see this through that thick cloud of jungle fog in Turok land. Ahem. The game that launched the console, however, Super Mario 64, is remembered less for fog than it is for defining exactly how to translate a 2D side-scrolling platformer into a 3D game-world. Or any genre for that matter, as it remains one of the first truly great third-person 3D games. 1998’s Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time did a similar thing, but with a top-down action-adventure game as its point of reference. Both titles remain classics to this day and thanks to impeccable design, have aged a lot better than most 3D titles from the mid to late 90s. Fog and all.
They were also huge undertakings for Nintendo, with development on both games taking at least three or four years each with teams larger than those for any game the studio had previously worked on. So this transition to fully-3D games in the tail end of the 90s, resulted not only in development teams growing in size but also the time it took to create them from scratch. In the case of Mario 64 and Ocarina of Time, they both felt new, exciting, and a little bit special because of this. People knew that it at this point a new, big budget game from a studio like Nintendo was a rare thing and that an immediate sequel to one was probably off the table completely.
At the time of Ocarina of Time’s release the company was also investing heavily in an add-on for the Nintendo 64, weirdly called the Nintendo 64DD. As the Nintendo 64 refused to embrace optical-disc technology (CD-ROM) like the rest of the world, it was named that way because it would use a disk drive system and not because Shigeru Miyamoto was a huge fan of Baywatch. The plan was for the 64DD to alleviate some the storage issues of using the cartridge format by implementing a system that was just as dated and only slightly better. So yeah, you can guess how popular it ended up being. The 64DD was unceremoniously released in Japan in 1999 via a mail order only process, and shelved about a year later.
Outside of additional storage, the 64DD did bring with it some interesting additions to the Nintendo 64 hardware, in the form of an internal clock, network capabilities, and additional memory. At the same time as the 64DD was doomed to fail, Nintendo began toying with the idea of a new Zelda game using the same engine, character models, textures, and interface, as Ocarina of Time. This is where development on Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask began, as a Nintendo 64DD title taking the core assets of Ocarina of Time and a new story by Shigeru Miyamoto and Yoshiaki Koizumi that centred around reliving the same three-day period, and trying to put an end to a mysterious evil.
By using the same assets as Ocarina of Time, development on Majora’s Mask would be completed in about a year, with directors Eiji Aonuma and Yoshiaki Koizumi being able to focus their efforts on game design. The result is one of the strangest titles in the franchise, and almost certainly one of its most ambitious. Also, it turned out that the added benefits of the 64DD were easily implemented using a traditional cartridge, which is how Majora’s Mask was released in 2000.
Although it shares a similar look and feel to Ocarina of Time, Majora’s Mask plays almost entirely different to its predecessor. In the intro sequence we see a young Link travelling through the woods, where he gets confronted by a weird Skull Kid who somehow manages to steal his horse, Ocarina and then transform him into a Deku Scrub. It’s weird to say the least, and from there Deku Link then finds himself in the small town of Termina, where a giant moon with a menacing grin is set to crash into the town in three days. And probably destroy it, Michael Bay style. This time limit, which works out to be about an hour of actual game-time, immediately puts pressure on players to rush around and try and figure out what exactly is going on. And once you get a hold of your Ocarina the game opens up into an experience where you need to keep playing through the same three days over and over to stop the evil menace behind Majora’s Mask. So yeah, pretty ambitious.
So how does it stack up today? Apart from the dated visuals, playing Majora’s Mask feels almost identical to how it played when it originally came out in 2000, and that is immediately engaging and completely unforgettable. The premise of exploring the town of Termina and learning its citizen’s routines, seeing them make the same mistakes again and again and going through the same motions brings a weight to the decisions you make rarely seen in any game before or since. The easiest comparison to make when describing the basic structure of the game would be the obvious reference point of Groundhog Day, the classic comedy where Bill Murray relives the same day over and over. Although that led to some timeless comedic moments, it also raised some interesting and thoughtful questions. Dude, like totally deep and stuff.
It’s a similar situation with Majora’s Mask, where even though the dungeon design found in the game is a definite improvement over those seen in Ocarina of Time, the big takeaway is how reliving this three-day cycle fits into Link’s journey. So for example, early on when you find yourself outside the city walls in a swampy area you can find the sister of a potion lady stuck in the woods, helpless and in need of healing. Helping her gets you closer to finding out exactly what the Skull Kid is up to, ultimately leading to the first dungeon where you free the first of four ancient spirits that will help Link in his quest. At this point, using your Ocarina to travel back to the first day you’ll notice that the evil spirit in the swamp is gone for good, the key items you got there are still with you. But, the sister of the potion lady is back in the woods in need of help. Again.
It’s an interesting situation because you’ve already saved her once, got what you were after, and realistically need to press on with your quest. So the sense of guilt isn’t all that great or even presented that way in the first place. But after a few more instances like this, and a large number of side-stories and quests where you can interfere with people’s lives based on an understanding of their schedules, the weight of a simple thing like helping someone begins to feel almost futile. As the game progresses you get a sense that you’re in it just for the reward, which thematically is a very dark place for a Nintendo game. Also the mask system which you accumulate as the game progresses can transform Link into other creatures as well as provide special abilities and attribute boosts. Obviously the different masks are a lot of fun and a great way to mix-up play styles, but when Link seems to scream out in pain during the transformation process, it brings to the fore a sinister undertone that permeates the entire game.
Speaking of which the game also refuses to explain how all the time travel stuff works in any great detail, leaving it up to you to figure it all out. Things like money (Rupees), and other consumable items disappear completely when to go back to the first day. And when certain items cost more money than you could possibly find in the time you have, you work out that you can also deposit all your money into a bank account. And thanks to its vaguely defined receipt system, accumulate large sums of Zelda-cash that technically doesn’t really exist.
Also without any quest markers or many clues nudging players in the right direction, make this both the hardest Zelda game to come to grips with and also one with the most rewarding puzzle design and challenge. It’s this part in particular that stands out today. Here’s the second 3D Zelda game ever made, and it has complete confidence in its audience to not only explore a complicated 3D world, but have the patience to learn its intricacies, spend time to learn the skills you’ll need to proceed, and make profound decisions that just as easily become undone in a matter of minutes.
With the new, updated revisit coming to Nintendo 3DS, anyone who missed this on Nintendo’s revolutionary console could do a lot worse than picking it up now – as the rating below reveals, this is a timeless adventure the likes of which you may never see from The Big N ever again.
Best Forgotten / A Trip Down Memory Lane / Timeless