At first glance, Majora’s Mask appears to be an obscure, almost experimental entry in the Zelda franchise. While its graphical style, overall gameplay formula, and control scheme build upon what was introduced in earlier Zelda titles, its time mechanic and focus on masks makes for a different experience from previous games in the series.
The differences are welcome and not easily ignored. For the most part, they enhance the basic elements of the franchise as a whole while forging a unique identity for this game. That said, it is neither as revolutionary, nor as deficient, as its staunch advocates and most vocal detractors say it is. At its heart, Majora’s Mask is simply a Zelda game, with all the gimmicks, frustrations, and exploration fans of the series have come to expect.
In a number of ways, the visual style is ripped straight from Ocarina of Time. That means major characters move with both realism and whimsy and environments are easily differentiated from each other by color scheme and architectural style. Anime stylings are present, but balanced with believable textures. It’s obvious that the game pushes the limits of the Nintendo 64, but Nintendo never oversteps its boundaries; the developers were well-aware of the system’s limitations and structured the game’s visuals around them. The game looks as good as one could imagine it looking.
Some interesting stylistic choices, however, separate the game from all of its predecessors. At times, Termina’s architecture borders on Expressionism, an old technique used in film to make environments seem unusually imposing or unsettling. This means that the game, rather than taking on a definitively medieval flavor like numerous other games, hosts an eclectic mix of cultures that may not even have discernable reference points in our world. Awnings consistently hang at odd angles, while technology swings from primitivist (Woodfall Temple) to unusually advanced (Great Bay Temple). In addition, the contrast between different areas is even more pronounced than one would expect. Environments shift from cold to warm, poisoned to clear, and radically different climates exist alongside each other. Most locations feel larger than they are, with their narrow passageways and unusually tall towers. All of this contributes to an “Alice in Wonderland”-type atmosphere; nothing seems quite right, and the world and its characters are sufficiently bizarre and self-aware that the game’s magical flavor stays at the fore. The style seems designed so that the gamer at no point feels as though the world is conceivably real or conventional.
The music is as eclectic as Termina’s architecture. The Song of Healing is the most memorable, and it sets the tone for much of the game; soothing but bittersweet, the haunting Ocarina melody matches its purpose (which involves, appropriately, “healing” other characters) well. The Gerudo Pirates host a strong, militaristic tune, while the Deku Palace theme is silly and upbeat. It is also worth noting that the original Zelda theme makes a glorious comeback here on Termina Field. As is the case with other Zelda games, the music works well and is rarely out of place. Conversely, throwaway Ocarina songs which you will only be required to play once or twice do not have the emotional force or intoxicating qualities that the themes inherited from Ocarina of Time, or those repeated several times throughout the game, have. In addition, there is an obnoxious motif; each of the four regions riff on a single theme, and since you will be spending a good deal of time in the overworld, you will be hearing a lot of this music. The main theme is short, dry, and thoroughly depressing. The separate areas offer little to alter its mood aside from changes in instrumentation.
Like Link’s Awakening before it, Majora’s Mask deviates from the high fantasy that marks the Zelda series and instead opts for a whimsical fairy tale. As previously stated, the environments make it abundantly obvious that Termina is not a logical or coherent world. Its story is fittingly obscure, deep, and exciting, all at once.
The basic premise is well-known and easily expressed: the Skull Kid, after stealing a cursed mask, has become possessed by the evil spirit of Majora and is bringing down the moon. Link, ever the hero, must stop the moon from colliding with and destroying the world. He has three days to do this but, in a strange twist, the three day-loop in which he finds himself trapped repeats itself as many times as required to topple Majora and save Termina.
The main quest’s prevailing story really is that simple. Twists and surprises are few and far between and generally left to subplots. Why, then, has Majora’s Mask been hailed for its story?
The major reason is that the main quest, though simple, bears a good deal of weight, and the subplots compensate for any lack of substance in the main quest. In a few ways, this is not unique to Majora’s Mask; other Zelda games rely almost entirely on subplots to ferry Link from one temple to another. The difference is the substantial amount of time the player spends in the overworld. He or she is encouraged unlike ever before to explore the world, to talk to characters (all of whom are directly affected by the threat), to entrench him or herself in each of the regions. On top of enhancing the main quest, this also gives Termina surprising depth for a world without logic. The Anju and Kafei quest, for example, is an extensive and difficult mission which involves executing specific actions at specific times. From a technical standpoint, it’s brilliant and challenging, but the real reward is witnessing the twists and turns in the characters’ lives. Subplots have their own beginnings and endings, and are not mere fetch quests.
Which, for perhaps the first time in the Zelda series, relegates the main quest to little more than a framing mechanism for everything else. It works, and by the end of the game, tackling the threat bears more gravity than one would expect. The imposing mood of the game (buttressed by graphics and music), the length and breadth of its subplots and side quests, and the challenge of the whole affair make the story its own reward.
Majora’s Mask defies expectations and doesn’t pull any punches. All of its strengths and weaknesses come from this fundamental gameplay philosophy.
On the surface, it’s not all that different from other Zelda games. Link travels through dungeons and explores the land, gathering items which open up new areas. At the end of each dungeon, he uses the item of choice to fight the main boss. Rinse and repeat. This is a foolproof formula, and simple caricatures don’t do it justice; in pretty much every Zelda game (and even several non-Zelda games), the template makes for varied, epic adventures. Majora’s Mask is no different. Those who want to take the game slowly will be rewarded with an expansive overworld packed with vicious enemies, collectible items, and well-hidden secrets. Speedrunners, on the other hand, will enjoy mastering the challenges presented therein, maximizing efficiency. Like all other Zelda games, Majora’s Mask is infinitely replayable, and its design allows each playthrough to directly reflect the gamer’s input.
Where Majora’s Mask differs most from other Zelda games is in its three-day cycle.
Three-day Cycle / Save Mechanic
The developers artfully handled the three-day cycle where they could have stumbled. While sidequests are dependent on the clock, the main quest can, for the most part, progress at the player’s leisure; this means that the process of entering and exiting dungeons, acquiring the most pivotal items, is streamlined. The important role the clock plays can be dampened by songs that speed up and slow down time, so that there really shouldn’t be too much tension about the falling moon on a regular basis. Manually restarting time (required at some point before the moon falls if the gamer does not want to lose all progress) purges all items from the player’s inventory and restarts all events and locations in Termina, including dungeons and sidequests. While this sounds bad in principle, there are some gameplay additions which soften the blow. Rupees, for example, can be saved at a bank, which offers rewards for doing so, and conveniently-labeled enemies offer specific items right outside Clock Town. The added aspect of time management is therefore welcome and can hardly be considered detrimental.
The save mechanic, which is linked to the three-day cycle, did not fare so well. There are two methods of saving: either the player can restart time, or they can create a temporary save at one of several owl statues, which expires as soon as the file is booted up again. The first option has obvious problems, given the erasure of progress; not so bad by itself, but as a choice for saving it has serious implications. The second option is as bad as it sounds and the only way to cope with the potential danger of using it is to copy the file to the second save slot. Those who own the Gamecube version, which freezes frequently, will always have to resort to this option, as will those of us afraid of power outages (which I have actually encountered when playing Majora’s Mask). If the owl statues created a permanent rather than a temporary save, this problem would have been alleviated; instead, the developers chose to add an unnecessary extra level of challenge, and it bogs down the gameplay.
In addition to the clock, Majora’s Mask has far more of a sidequest/overworld focus than its predecessors. Sidequests, in contrast to the main quest, depend on the clock. Other characters’ schedules are the most important thing to keep track of; at specific times on specific days, players will be required to complete certain tasks to advance each sidequest. Failing to do so will require the gamer to restart the three-day cycle, which leads to frustration, but also makes proper execution a matter of information gathering and memorization. This new twist on sidequests is welcome and actually enhances the adventure element that’s been present in the series.
The focus on sidequests and overworld item/mask acquisition means that there are only four major dungeons. Even the first dungeon requires the gamer to restore a character to good health, infiltrate a palace, learn a song, and climb to the top of a swamp. All of these tasks take up a fair amount of time, and the process of getting to a dungeon only gets more convoluted as the game goes on. A number of items, too, are actually acquired on the way to dungeons.
Items are partly standard fare, partly new. There’s hardly a wasted item in Link’s inventory—all have a definitive function, and Link will be pulling out each one on multiple occasions. This means that with each new item acquired, countless new possibilities for exploration open up, and the game truly feels open-ended as a result. While this is not new for Zelda games, the economical environments, coupled with useful items makes for a streamlined gaming experience. So, as before, you will find a hookshot, an Ocarina, a bow and arrow, etc., and will have a blast using them if you enjoy Zelda games at all.
Masks are new and are integral to the gameplay. Like the clock, this new element is both refreshing and makes for some frustrating moments, suggesting that there could have been some tweaking and refinement. First, the good: the masks unquestionably provide a more exciting motivation for completing sidequests than the standard heart piece/bottle fare. Each one is different, lending Link varying amounts of power and/or reputation with different characters. The bunny hood, for example, speeds Link up when he’s on foot, making some difficult jumps easy and allowing faster travel through the world, while the Postman’s Hat gives Link access to every mailbox in Clock Town. Many of the masks are limited in their usefulness, but they’re nevertheless fun and unobtrusive.
More importantly, there are masks for the three major races—Deku, Goron, and Zora. While they limit Link’s access to items while he’s wearing them, these masks also open up new opportunities, in some cases replacing items. Link does not acquire a Boomerang, but the Zora’s fins function as such. The masks so greatly alter Link’s abilities, in fact, that they actually change how he navigates the world. Deku Link can hop over poisoned water and glide to and from elevated pods; Goron Link can bridge wide gaps by rolling across them; Zora Link can maneuver through clear water with more grace and agility than an iron-booted Link ever could. These masks are essentially basic items, but they feel like something more, imbuing Link with character and playability that, once again, expands the replay value.
Unfortunately, there are some mechanical problems with the masks. Deku Link controls flawlessly, but can be frustrating towards the beginning of the game because players are stuck in the Deku Mask for an entire three-day cycle. Zora Link, while graceful and surprisingly well-executed for a swimming character, can stumble in segments where Link is required to jump over the surface of the water (which are admittedly few and far between). Goron Link is by far the most contentious of all. Rolling requires building up speed, and building up speed, especially in narrow spaces, is unusually difficult. In addition, the 3D camera is all over the place, making some minigames and challenges (such as the Goron Races) matters of luck as much as player skill.
The dungeons themselves are what one would expect from a Zelda game: they’re as devious and difficult as it gets and, in keeping with the tone of Majora’s Mask, offer up unique and unexpected challenges around every corner. The puzzles, traps, and battles within each room will often try both the gamer’s skills and their patience. From the second dungeon onward, dungeons are designed to puzzle and confound, and they do a good job of it. Stray faries are a welcome challenge in principle: the player is rewarded for collecting all of these creatures (actually the “pieces” of a single great fairy) within the dungeons and returning them to the fairy fountains. Unfortunately, since they must all be collected within a single three-day cycle and their rewards are in some cases necessary to ease the difficulty of the game, they will likely be the source of much additional frustration.
Bosses are, like the other basic elements, standard fare. As opposed to always involving the dungeon item, they involve the associated mask and will try the player’s mastery of it. A welcome change to the Ocarina of Time formula is that more often than not this opens up options; there is more than one way to defeat most of the bosses, so, as is the case with the rest of the game, the player is presented with ample choices. Any deficiencies in boss battles stem from problems with controls; the battles themselves are well-executed and fun.
As stated, this is everything one has come to expect from Zelda dungeons, and Nintendo did not hesitate to use the 3D format to create multi-layered puzzles which run throughout several rooms. The trouble is that the dungeons are so difficult to navigate that there seems to have been a lack of consideration on Nintendo’s part for simple convenience. Link’s Awakening featured warps from the front of the dungeon to other areas as landmarks were reached, and Ocarina of Time featured hub areas and a spell that instantly warped to rooms of the player’s choice so that they would not be forced to repeat tasks. But progressing through dungeons in Majora’s Mask is not only a painstaking process, it is a repetitive one, since slip-ups will, all too often, require the player to rehash several minutes of gameplay. This is most pronounced in the Snowhead Temple, which requires Goron Link to roll towards different sections of a central room. This task is not overly difficult, but if mistakes are made, Link has to climb all the way back to the top of the tower to continue to progress.
The save system, frustrating controls of some of the masks, and dungeon design can at times create a perfect storm, moreso if the player wants to collect the stray faries. The challenge is not entirely unwelcome, but repeating simple tasks simply isn’t very much fun. Those who enjoyed A Link to the Past, with its complex, devious dungeons that lacked the element of convenience in games that followed, will probably enjoy the dungeons in Majora’s Mask, or at least be able to stomach the difficult portions. For other gamers, the frustration of repeating tasks may sour an otherwise entertaining experience.
Either way, the dungeons in Majora’s Mask are some of the most difficult and rewarding the Zelda series has to offer, and the larger number of dungeons will not be missed. Both major elements of the game—overworld exploration and dungeon-crawling—are rich and well-developed.
To say Majora’s Mask is compelling is an understatement. The structure of its world and the depth of its gameplay make for a fantastic gaming experience which offers hours of diverse gameplay. While it does have weaknesses and design flaws which weigh down some of the better elements, the time mechanic and mask collection are ultimately solid additions.
Those looking for a challenging 3D Zelda game should look no further. Some of its brand new design elements actually hearken back to the philosophy of earlier games, which did not hold the player’s hand but presented them with a vast, untamed world. It may not be the best in the Zelda series, nor the “definitive” title thanks to its unconventional structure and focus on sidequests, but it is a worthy entry in the franchise.