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Ranking the top 101 Nintendo games: No. 4, The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask
If you like your Zelda darker, creepier, and haunting, Majora's Mask is likely one of your favorites.
I’m ranking the top 101 Nintendo developed/published games of all-time, and you can read about the thought process behind game eligibility and list construction here. You can keep up with the rankings so far through this link.
Time, coincidentally enough, has validated Majora’s Mask. Once thought of more as Ocarina of Time’s weirdo, late-life Nintendo 64 cousin by far too many critics and fans, Majora’s Mask has gained more recognition as a far more complex, far deeper experience, with a much more lived-in world to explore, each non-playable character possessing a full arc of their own. Link, too, once again ends up wise and hardened beyond his years — this time not due to a seven-year time jump that finds a child in a man’s body, but because he’s stuck, Groundhog Day-like, in a loop that repeats and repeats.
Thematically, it is a much darker Zelda. Visually, it is a much darker Zelda. The game, as cartoonish as Zelda’s art can be, was designed to haunt you, and it does. Even musically, themes inevitably take on a certain darkness to them that helps set a mood of and for doom: it truly feels like the world is coming to an end, the urgency of the event pushing you ever-forward in each loop.
Ocarina of Time (number 33) had few faults, but one you could find within it is that the world was mostly pretending to be open and explorable, that it was more veneer than the real thing: it was a mostly linear experience dressed up otherwise. Majora’s Mask, on the other hand, is the opposite despite surface appearances that suggest it would be even more extreme than Ocarina in this regard. Every detail in the game is highly scripted, down to the second. The world itself, geographically speaking, is not massive nor out of the ordinary for Zelda games: you have four different regions with different weather patterns, each locked to progression in the story, a “Hyrule Field” equivalent in Termina Field, and, of course, Clock Town. Within these spaces, though, is where the depth is to be mined, where you learn that there is so much more to this game than what Ocarina was able to produce in terms of explorable space. The highly scripted nature of it all actually enhances the non-linearity, as every inch of the game is different depending on not just which of the three days you are currently on, but also what time it is on those days. And it goes beyond day and night cycles, too: we’re talking events happening all around the clock, sometimes available for hours, sometimes much, much less than that.
You will become intimately familiar with not just the locales, but the people and creatures within them. You will fail in your goals, but trying again is a simple song on the ocarina away: playing the Song of Time will send you back to the beginning of this three-day cycle. This loop, by the way, came about because the Skull Kid stole Link’s horse, Epona, and then attempted to bring the moon crashing down on Clock Town, to end it and, presumably, life itself. The Skull Kid himself is still his little impish, mostly harmless self, but he’s stolen a mask of power from a vendor who dabbles in the kinds of things no one should be. Majora’s Mask houses an ancient evil, one with an irrepressible lust for chaos and destruction. It preyed on the Skull Kid’s feelings of loneliness, taking control from there in order to bring an end to the world. Link enters the fray with three days to go, 72 hours, before said end comes.
Some of Link’s actions carry over to the past. He won’t retain his arrows or bombs, for instance, but he does hang on to the bow and bomb bag each time he goes back through time, so you don’t have to complete the missions that brought you those key items again and again. You also lose your rupees each time you go back to the dawn of the first day, but don’t worry, like any good time traveler, Link quickly figures out how to commit bank fraud: the local banker writes Link’s balance on his hand, meaning Link is constantly withdrawing rupees from the bank that, technically, he had not come into possession of. And yes, of course you can commit lottery fraud, too, as there is a drawing on each of the three days: the result, like with everything else that occurs in Majora’s Mask, is always the same.
While it’s all fun and games to exploit the bank and the lottery, there is a darker side to Link’s traveling back three days and setting into motion events he’s already completed again and again. Link accomplishes his major goal in the end — putting a stop to the Skull Kid and Majora’s Mask’s antics while making sure the moon stays in the sky where it belongs — but… that’s it. Part of the joy in Zelda games, part of what makes Link the hero he is regardless of which iteration of him we’re talking about, is that he always makes time to help people along the way to his larger goal of defeating Ganondorf, or Vaati, or whomever. You can’t actually do that in Majora’s Mask, though. Sure, you helped reunite this couple in one loop, or saved this woman lost and injured in the woods in another loop, but that victory is contained to the loop it occurred in. Once you go back to dawn of the first day, that couple is once again split apart, their world crashing down around them just like that moon plans to, while that woman is back in the woods once again, lost, alone, and in need of healing. That’s pretty bleak, and it will impact you emotionally as, say, you run right on by a mugging you know is about to happen because you’ve got somewhere else you need to be this time.
There simply is not enough time in the three days, even when you play a song that slows time down so a loop takes closer to two hours than one, to help out everyone with their issues. Hell, it’s not even a matter of a shortage of time, necessarily, so much as that many events run concurrently to each other within the three-day loop: Link cannot be everywhere at once, not even with the power of teleportation on his side. Plus, some events can only occur after you’ve completed one of the game’s dungeons and defeated its boss, so there are two versions of the world to fully explore and complete tasks within, all in this limited time frame.
Majora’s Mask design works because you get down in the dirt and help every person with every little problem, learning about them and the world along the way, but in the end, Link hasn’t actually, technically, helped any of them with their individual issues. Just the one big one. This flips the typical Zelda script on its head in so many ways: Majora’s Mask works, in part, because it takes our expectations of what a Zelda is and is supposed to be, and then blows those expectations up. It truly understands what makes Zelda games work, and then does its damnedest to take that from you even as it lets you experience some form of it.
It’s a bit melancholy for Zelda, really, which is so often about hope and what Link accomplishes and brings to the world outside of the big picture win. It also makes Majora’s Mask a true standouts not just among Zelda games, but in games in general: this is the kind of ambitious idea that would be applauded today for its scope, themes, and execution of both, and yet, it’s already 21 years old, produced on the aging N64 hardware.
I mentioned the music becoming increasingly dark, so let’s get some examples. Here’s the Clock Town theme on day one:
So relaxed! You’ve got all the time in the world, according to the pacing of this song, which spends an inordinate amount of time just appreciating the dawn and the songs of birds before all of the instruments kick in. No need to rush around to do anything. The moon almost looks normal in the sky, sort of. Then there’s day two:
Day two is a bit more subdued and deliberate, even as the actual pacing picks up, thanks to the rain — oh yes, the weather patterns also repeat, so be prepared for that each loop — and the feeling that concerns from day one about something in the sky being amiss were spot on. No one is quite panicking yet, though: the moon couldn’t possibly, actually be falling, could it? Here’s day three:
Frantic. The pacing has increased, and there is a dark undercurrent to the theme now, that tells you, from sound alone, that yes, the moon is falling, and it is falling soon. And you best not be here to hear anymore of this song when it does. You feel rushed by this song on day three, but you should feel rushed. The world is ending soon, if you don’t do something to stop it. And even if it isn’t the loop in which you will confront Skull Kid just yet, you certainly have things to do that you don’t have much time left get to: the music is your reminder of that.
It’s just some wonderful design that brings us this kind of musical decision, which in turn informs how you feel while you play. You should feel more nervous on day two; you should feel as if time is running out and something terrible is about to happen on day three. The townsfolk, too, have their confidence and fear on display in accordance with the song in the background: you don’t have much bravado left on day three, just fear and distress.
Visually, too, the game works with these themes. Link must wear different masks throughout the game, in order to have different powers and abilities. Some are simply for story or task progression, like Kafei’s mask being your in to a conversation with his fiance, which gets the ball rolling on a certain three-day-spanning subplot. Others, like the Bunny Hood, are not required, but do increase your run speed: in a game about time, where that very thing is limited, being able to run a whole lot faster is no small thing. There are also the three major masks that do more than just enhance Link’s abilities, though: they completely transform him. There is the Deku mask, the Goron mask, and the Zora mask, and Link does not come by any of them without something horrible having occurred.
The souls of actual people are contained within those transformative masks that Link puts on: he’s not just becoming a random, not-previously-existing person from another race, but is taking on the characteristics of very specific people who had their own lives in this world. So, a Deku scrub had to die for Link to be able to be cursed into becoming a Deku early in Majora’s Mask: you do find out which Deku, too, when the Deku Butler tells you a story about his lost son and you’re able to put 2 + 2 together. The Goron mask is created from the spirit of a fallen Goron hero, once you play the Song of Healing for him upon locating where he is trying to find eternal peace. The Zora, you find dying on a beach, and Link plays the Song of Healing to end the Zora’s suffering, as well as to be able to swim and fight underwater like this Zora hero. Each time Link puts on one of these transformative masks, he screams, and it turns out it’s not just because of the physical pain that would cause. According to a Nintendo rep themselves, the answer is that, “It's very simple! The boundless sorrow surrounding each mask comes rushing inside the wearer when they put it on, so the urge to scream is quite understandable, really.” So that’s fun.
It’s really no wonder that Majora’s Mask became the setting for a fan-led horror experience, BEN Drowned: all of the elements to freak you out already existed within the game, and simply needed to be repurposed.
There are just four dungeons in Majora’s Mask (plus one hallucination/dreamscape with four sub-dungeons), but they are excellent. What makes these dungeons difficult and rewarding isn’t just the design of them, which, as you can imagine from a Zelda game at this point in the franchise’s life, is great. It’s that you only have a limited time to finish them. You can usually progress, over a three-day loop, to the dungeon itself. Then, you secure a teleport point near the dungeon entrance, and go back to the dawn of the first day so that you have a full loop to work with within the dungeon itself. You have to complete the dungeon within a loop, or else, you need to start it over: and you’ll want to save some time, too, so that you can experience what the region looks like once whatever curse it was afflicted with has been lifted with your victory. Another element, too, is that the Great Fairies have all been attacked and broken into 15 smaller faeries, scattered throughout these dungeons. In order to earn some permanent upgrades and powers, you’ll want to find these faeries within a single loop, then bring them to the shattered Great Fairy of the region. Some of them are extremely well hidden, and you will spend time looking for them outside of just trying to solve the mysteries of whatever dungeon you’re in. Keep an eye on the clock.
On top of the usual model of whatever the major item within the dungeon is being key to completing the dungeon and defeating the boss, Majora’s Mask also requires you to spend much of your time within the dungeon playing as whatever character is associated with the region. So, the dungeon in the forest will have you play as the Deku Scrub quite often, for its specific skills, the dungeon in the snowy mountains is the Goron’s arena, and the underwater temple is, you guessed it, the Zora’s domain. There is a fourth region, too, not affiliated with any particular transformative mask, and that dungeon, the Stone Tower, is one of the best in any Zelda game. You slowly ascend the tower, using a variety of transformations and skills to do so — it is the only dungeon where it is required that you use all four forms — and then, you invert the tower itself to complete it, flipping each room of the place on its head. Yes, it’s a dungeon within a dungeon. Hugely ambitious for the N64 era, and it holds up to this day, as good as anything contained within the subsequent Zeldas.
It should be noted that the 3DS version of Majora’s Mask cleaned up some of the more confusing elements, as it made it a bit easier to track who is where and when in your notebook, which is your guide to figuring out what needs to be done and could be done within a loop. It also got some of the same bits of streamlining that Ocarina of Time 3D did — more items equipped at once thanks to the touch screen, and easier access to them thanks to the dual-screen nature of the system — as well as the visual makeover that turned what was clearly an N64-looking game into one of the most beautiful and stunning on the 3DS, especially with that 3D slider cranked up. Majora’s Mask was already running on an optimized and enhanced version of Ocarina of Time’s engine back on the N64, and required the Expansion Pak to be able to play because of it, so it’s never really been true to say that it “just” reused assets from Ocarina to cut down on development time, and it’s certainly aged better, visually, than Ocarina did. If anything, reusing character assets (even if they were all enhanced and not just reused) makes the whole game more surreal, considering how it all goes down and feels to play.
I said that time has validated Majora’s Mask, and the 3DS remaster is part of that, for sure. But the game also got a new life on the Wii and Wii U Virtual Consoles, with those releasing, like the 3DS improvement, at a time when the masses were a bit more prepared to play a game like Majora’s Mask, with its themes and hooks and design. Consider, for a moment, that Majora’s Mask predates the loop-centric Hades by two entire decades, and that there isn’t that much of a time difference between a loop in Hades and a loop in Majora’s Mask, and that they even share the concept of a protagonist (and the player) coming to fully understand the world they reside in only through those repeated loops.
Majora’s Mask is so truly ahead of its time in so many ways: I’ve got multiple decades of experience telling people that it was vastly superior to Ocarina of Time and getting yelled at for it more often than I’d like, so this placement was one of the easier decisions to make on this entire top 101. Nintendo hasn’t made anything quite like it since, not in the Zelda universe or elsewhere, and it’s not like other developers or publishers rushed out to make their own Majora’s Mask games. Which is a shame, on the one hand, that more companies didn’t try to take such big, subversive swings with established series, or create new ones inspired by the risks Majora’s Mask took. But on the other, it means Majora’s Mask still stands as something of a unique triumph all these years later. And having Majora’s Mask is a pretty good result all on its own.
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