I was unsure about taking the playtest job for The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask 3D because it’s a remake of a game many readers have already played. There’s precious little new content (though fishing is nice) and the upgrades to the graphics and interface are largely identical to the those from Ocarina of Time 3D. If the game is unchanged and even the details of the update are familiar, what am I supposed to be writing? Everyone knows exactly what to expect from this release.
Then I played the game and remembered “Oh right, this is Majora’s Mask.” There will never not be things to say about Majora’s Mask. Here are three:
I don’t think that Majora’s Mask is a particularly good “Zelda game”. I don’t think it delivers well the things that Zelda games normally deliver. Zelda games are filled with charming personality. Though the games can be massive they never lose sight of small details that bring a smile to the player. The girls in Castle Town who emote with health restoring hearts, the walls of the robot’s home, Link’s face when sidling along a narrow ledge. The world of Termina is as detailed as other Zelda settings, but the details the player discovers rarely delight. The people of Termina are largely a morose bunch and the time loop means that whatever comfort the player can bring them is fleeting. Once the song of time is played, they’ll face their same problems over again.
Frankly, it can get discouraging. Every character I see walk by me in Clock Town is attending to his or her own grim circumstances and though I’ve helped each of them, they still need me. Every door and cave holds a secret, but often I’m forced to say “I just don’t have time right now” and leave it. The central exploration that drives Zelda games loses a lot of appeal if there’s no guarantee that what’s around the next corner will be pleasant or convenient to interact with.
None of this is to suggest that Majora’s Mask is not an excellent game—it certainly is. However, when a game is attached to a brand, people are going to have certain expectations of the product and Majora’s Mask fails to meet and even actively subverts many of the expectations attached to The Legend of Zelda games. One can interpret this as a betrayal of trust—a game that doesn’t evoke the emotions Zelda evokes and doesn’t reward exploration the way Zelda does should probably not have been marketed as Zelda. One can also see it as a breath of fresh air within the stifling confines of tradition—a rare example of a publisher being brave enough to take a prized property down an unfamiliar road and hoping the fans would follow. I tend towards the latter reaction but both have merit. I think that much of the divided reaction to and discussion of Majora’s Mask would be clarified by a separation between the questions “Is Majora’s Mask a good game” and “Is Majora’s Mask a good Zelda game?”
One of the most influential (and best) games of the past generation was From Software’s Dark Souls. There’s been a lot of discussion of the similarities between Dark Souls and The Legend of Zelda, mostly with an eye on the things Dark Souls does well that haven’t been part of The Legend of Zelda since the NES. I’m not fond of that discussion. The Legend of Zelda evolved into a better, more thematically rich, and more accessible franchise since the days of wandering aimlessly hoping to stumble on progress. There’s a lack of appreciation for the achievements of contemporary Zelda games that just drives me up the wall.
This is all preamble to me saying that Majora’s Mask is remarkably similar to Dark Souls in certain ways. Specifically, the two games share a sense of progression.
Both games make obstacles between the player and the end of the level such that there’s no way a normal player is going to achieve that goal without multiple attempts. Neither game is big on player guidance, generally providing a direction travel in and leaving it up to the player to figure out where they need to be and how to get there. The most meaningful progress in these games is gaining access to a shortcut that will make the next attempt at the level more manageable. In Dark Souls the player unlocks doors and kicks down ladders to slowly connect the world, and in Majora’s Mask the shortcuts come in the form of player upgrades that persist through time.
Zelda games tend to be light on exposition, opting to let their repeating myth of the three Triforce bearers sketch an outline and then letting the player’s interactions with the world provide the color. This doesn’t mean that Zelda games have nothing to say, but the messages conveyed tend to be very straightforward and easily digestible. Probably the most daring traditional Zelda storyline was that of The Wind Waker. The Wind Waker was a game about embracing change—the hero wasn’t destined to become “the hero”. The game completely overhauled Zelda’s aesthetic and setting, and then it all wrapped up by destroying the Hyrule of Zelda past. It’s kind of hard not to get the message, frankly.
By comparison it’s been over ten years since Majora’s Mask first released and people still struggle to interpret it. Termina is definitely a sad world, but why is it sad? Is it meant to illustrate the prosperity and beauty of Hyrule by juxtaposing it against a world without the Triforce? Is it a reflection of the protagonist, a character displaced from his home and his time? Is it sad because the Skull Kid is sad and through the mask he wears his sadness has come to blanket the entire realm?
Perhaps the game meant to comment on the nature of inevitable fate? That’s pretty standard territory for a Japanese videogame. Unlike most stories about characters deciding their own destiny and saving the world Majora’s Mask seems to question whether the world is worth saving at all. In some ways this is the most heroic Link has ever been—this isn’t his home to save, and in no other adventure has he faced opposition quite so draining. Perhaps then the game is meant to be about the nature of a hero.
Majora’s Mask leaves so much unsaid that all of those interpretations are valid, as are hundreds of others. My personal take has always been that it’s a game about growing up. In Majora’s Mask, Link is out of place. That which was once familiar and friendly to him now seems strange, even the grass scuttles away. Link tries on different faces, and takes on the burdens of the dead. Link is forced to change physically to overcome new obstacles The ticking clock is always there. Link can stall and reset all he wants, but eventually he’s going to need to find out what’s on the other side of that third day.