The first six entries in the Legend of Zelda series followed a peculiar pattern: for every odd numbered genre-defining entry there was a more eccentric, experimental even numbered one. The original Legend of Zelda was followed up by The Adventure of Link, a convoluted attempt at mashing together platformer and RPG mechanics; the rather straightforward A Link To The Past was chased with the Twin Peaks-inspired Link’s Awakening; and Ocarina of Time – the Star Wars of the medium – had as its direct sequel Majora’s Mask, a game so bizarre that it still feels unique some seventeen years later.
For me (and, I suspect, for many) Majora’s Mask was an obnoxious experience. It was a game I had been anticipating since it was announced, and the fact that its release dovetailed with my birthday only increased the hype. But it didn’t take long for the game to drive me up a wall. The game’s strictly enforced time limits felt at odds with Zelda’s exploratory nature, making it turn into a stressful attempt to discover and jump through all the hoops it expected me to. Going partway through the first dungeon and then realizing I’d have to start it all over again because I ran out of time really annoyed me. And even when I was successfully clearing major sections, the game’s merciless erasure of most of my accomplishments at the end of each session robbed me of any satisfaction. I gave up during the second half and sold the thing.
I came to regret that latter decision, especially as the game came to develop the mystique it currently had; I had obviously missed something, or otherwise just lacked the patience to press on through. Sixteen years later I gave it a second chance in its 3DS incarnation.
Majora’s Mask is still very strange.
Not too long after the events of Ocarina of Time, Link heads off on a quest to find an old friend (presumably Navi). While wandering through a forest he gets mugged by a skull kid – a sort of imp-like creature – wearing a weird mask. Pursuit of the thief unexpectedly leads to the alternate reality of Termina. It turns out that the mask the skull kid wears is none other than Majora’s Mask, an ancient relic containing unspeakable powers. He uses those powers to make the moon smash into Termina, a process that takes three days to come to fruition. Which turns out to not be enough time to prevent the disaster. Link, however, can use the previously titular Ocarina of Time to rewind events back to the first day, and so repeat the cycle for as many times as it takes to defeat the skull kid.
This Groundhog Day scenario plays out quite literally for the player. The game contains its own in game clock which relentlessly ticks down. Events in the game unfold according to the clock rather than the player’s own action. The player can at any time press the panic button to reset the world back to its original state.
What’s interesting is how much of this came from necessity. After finishing Ocarina, the Zelda team was tasked with developing Ura Zelda, a sort of remixed version of the game. They quickly got dissatisfied with this and wanted to make a new game. Shigeru Miyamoto greenlit the idea on the condition that it be finished in one year; if they used the assets developed for Ocarina they would be able to cut down on development time and costs by quite a bit. The recycled assets forced a little bit of thinking outside the box to make Zelda Gaiden (as it was then called) not seem like a retread of its predecessor.
The three day cycle was the answer to this, and also another problem: memory. The Nintendo 64 was a rather limited console compared to the competition. The Playstation’s optical technology meant that a company like Squaresoft could simply use as many CD ROMs necessary to fit an entire Final Fantasy on it; Majora’s Mask was confined to a cartridge with a battery save function. The game was one of (if not the most) detailed N64 games made, and this put a serious stress on things. By making the game more or less reset itself regularly, only a few variables needed to be tracked by the game across play sessions. The game didn’t need to be capable of recalling where, say, Anjou was at 5pm on the second day and to what extent the player had interacted with him. The American version added a suspend-save onto this, but it came at the cost of giving the player only two save slots.
The game is still structured like a traditional Zelda. Link must unlock and solve four dungeons (the completion of which carries over between cycles) to awaken the Four Giants who can stop the moon from destroying Termina. But the cycle fundamentally alters it. Majora’s Mask is very forgiving when it comes to death, letting the player get back to business quite quickly; the real danger and the real punishment comes from running out of time. This injects an unusual sense of tension to the proceedings, but it also means that the world isn’t just in a perpetual state of apocalyptic gloom – it’s always hurtling at breakneck speed towards the end. The game drives this home by having the moon, with a rather sinister looking face – almost always be visible in the sky and slowly getting bigger. And its reflected in the denizens of Termina who react to the situation in their own various ways.
Another standard Zelda feature is also given a strange twist. Link collects equipment throughout his adventure, but his most important pieces of equipment are masks. In particular, there are three masks that allow him to physically transform into different species and inhabit a specific persona associated with each one. The game opts to depict these transformations as painful and traumatic.
In spite of all that the game is quite bright and cheerful to look at, being one of the most colourful games ever made. And there’s a healthy dose of absurdist humor to offset the sinister undertones. But as the game goes on the darker and lighter sides of its aesthetic tangle together in increasingly strange ways. If Ocarina is Star Wars, then Majora’s Mask is Pinocchio.
The first question is why this works for me in a manner that Ocarina of Time doesn’t (aside from my taste in gaming tending to lean towards the masochistic side). In my Legend of Zelda/Ocarina post I noted that Link felt unrelatable both as a player avatar and as a character. I hypothesized in my Link’s Awakening post that this was due to the series’ shift away from the abstraction of sprites towards a more realistic, 3D approach. Yet the Link of Majora’s Mask feels relatable, in spite of being Ocarina’s Link in both form and content.
Part of this has to do with scope. Even though it features a world-ending catastrophe, Majora’s Mask follows Link’s Awakening in dispensing with much of the series’ mythos in favor of telling a much more personal story. And it’s a situation where Link’s role as the hero isn’t completely telegraphed and locked in by the game; rather, everything falls to the player’s initiative. You can, if you want, faff around for the three days and allow Termina to be destroyed. Or you can step up to the plate and decide to save it. You get to own this decision. If you mess something up, you can always restart the clock, but this makes your failures and successes feel more weighty than simply being kicked to a game over screen.
But what about that series mythos? How does Majora’s Mask function as a thematic response to Ocarina? What does Majora’s Mask mean? Why does it inspire so many pretentious, long-winded internet analyses like this one?
To Be Continued…