The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask

The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask (Nintendo 64)

***1/2 (out of ****)

When developing The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask, Shigeru Miyamato and his team of developers at Nintendo faced a daunting task: this game’s predecessor, The Ocarina of Time, was widely considered to be one of the greatest games of all time (a reputation it still holds), and expectations were high for its inevitable follow up. Noting that all opinions are subjective, this critic believes that those expectations were sufficiently met. Majora’s Mask was not as innovative as its immediate predecessor, nor does it carry as much epic grandeur or emotional resonance. However, it compensates with a more compelling storyline, interesting new game-play features, and a suitably creepy atmosphere. Majora’s Mask is not quite the equal of Ocarina of Time, but it comes as close as any sequel might hope.

Majora’s Mask is a direct follow-up to Ocarina of Time and features the same incarnation of Link. Having been returned to his child form, the Hero of Time is now on a personal quest. While riding his horse, Epona, through the Lost Woods, he is attacked by the Skull Kid, an impish creature who wears a mask of mysterious powers. Along with two fairy companions, the Skull Kid steals Link’s Ocarina of Time and makes off with his horse. Naturally, the Hero gives chase, but he is ultimately trapped within a dark cave, where the Skull Kid uses his mask’s power to transform Link into a Deku Scrub. Despite his new predicament, Link presses forward, but he is now joined by one of the two fairies—Tatl, the yellow one, who was unwittingly left behind by her companions. Together, they reluctantly join forces to find where the Skull Kid is headed.

Eventually, they arrive in Clock Town, the capital of a parallel land known as Termina. Within Clock Town’s landmark, the Clock Tower, Link and Tatl encounter the Happy Mask Salesman from Ocarina. The Skull Kid’s mask, properly called Majora’s Mask, was stolen from the Salesman, and he now requests that Link retrieve it. For, Majora’s Mask is a dangerous artifact that grants the wearer unlimited power, while slowly corrupting its mind. It soon becomes apparent that this has happened to the Skull Kid: using the mask’s power, he has brought vile creatures to the land of Termina, caused various regions to suffer unnatural plagues, and has drawn the moon out of orbit on a crash course for Clock Town. To stop the impending apocalypse, Link must travel across the four regions of Termina, clear their respective temples of evil, and release four giant guardians that, when united, might be strong enough to stop the moon’s descent. But, trapped in his Deku form, Link is no match for the dangers that await him. And he has only three days (or seventy-two hours) until the moon crashes, destroying the world. If only he had more time…

This brings us to the first of two new game-play features: the three-day cycle, which is perpetually repeated. In order to beat this game, players must play the “Song of Time” on the Ocarina (once it is regained). In doing so, the player’s progress is saved and Link is transported to the start of the first day, thus beginning a new three-day cycle. Each “day” lasts roughly eighteen minutes, for a total of fifty-four minutes of game-play before the reversal is needed. This is required for saving progress: if a player allows the moon to fall, any missions he or she accomplished on that cycle will be erased, and there is no other way to save. There are, however, owl statues located throughout Termina that provide “check points,” should they be necessary. These are not save points, nor do they prevent progress from being lost if the “Song of Time” is not used to end a cycle. However, they can give players a temporary reprieve. When turning back the clock, players lose any smaller items such as rupees or arrows, but their major items (such as masks) are retained. Players also have the option of replaying boss battles or re-opening treasure chests for rupees.

The three-day cycle has two major advantages. First, it invites intellectual participation. With fifty-four minutes to each cycle, players must plan out what they hope to accomplish before returning to the first day. Even experts at Majora’s Mask would have difficulty doing more than a couple of quests-per-cycle. Each of the four temples are preceded by side-quests that can be time-consuming (this becomes more evident during the later stages). There are also numerous side-quests (resulting in heart pieces, masks, etc.) that can only be done at certain points during the cycle. The other major advantage is that it helps build tension. If a player is trying to finish a temple on the evening of the third day, he or she will begin to feel a strong pulse (attempting two entire regions in one cycle is a good way to do this). Otherwise, the knowledge that time is limited always lurks in the back of one’s mind, emphasizing the need to move quickly.

Beyond time-travel, the second major addition is the collection of masks. After being an optional side-quest in Ocarina, masks become integral to the sequel. There are about twenty regular masks that are collected from the completion of side-quests, each of which gives Link a unique ability. The Bunny Hood is particularly useful, allowing Link to run at three times his normal speed. Meanwhile, the Stone Mask renders the Hero invisible to most enemies. A few masks, like the Captain’s Hat, are required items, while others are optional. Additionally, there are three masks that allow Link to transform into members of different races, complete with various abilities. The Deku Mask, which is acquired once Link’s curse is lifted, can do an attack spin, shoot projectile-like bubbles from its snout, and use Deku flowers to glide short distances. As a Goron, Link can roll around at quick speeds and has stronger attacks. The Zora Mask allows Link to swim and use boomerang-like fins in combat. Each of these masks is necessary, as all provide crucial roles in beating the four temples.

The technical improvements of Majora’s Mask are more subtle than the ones in Ocarina of Time, but there are still some impressive touches. In fact, the developers have clearly used this game to experiment with certain visual effects. The opening cut-scene, for example, is brilliant: the gloomy lighting, the mystical background music, the camera’s slow descent towards the hero, and the slightly diluted colors work well in establishing the slightly-warped tone of Majora’s Mask. For the most part, the four regions of Termina have been designed in a similar manner, with the visuals effectively establishing each region’s mood: the Southern Swamp (region #1) features grimy shades of green on the grass and trees, along with brown-hued water, giving the location the impression of muck; the Snowhead Mountain feels cold and bitter, a result of the film of fog that covers the region, along with the quiet howling of the wind. Smaller technical improvements are also in evidence, such as the absence of a fog effect and characters that are more animated. In fact, Majora’s Mask does a better job at evoking the sense of a living, breathing world than its immediate predecessor. No longer do characters remain static for the entirety of game-play: they move around, interact with each other, and perform a variety of activities that depend on which day it is. It rains in Clock Town on the Second Day and, as a cycle progresses, the town becomes less populated as its citizens flee the descending moon.

It is fair to say that Majora’s Mask is darker than Ocarina of Time. The latter was essentially a light adventure with dark elements. The former depicts characters and situations that are a little more demented, from the twisted appearance of the Southern Swamp to the barren wasteland of Ikana Canyon. Around Termina, characters are dying from various causes, races are struggling through traumatic situations, and an entire town has been corrupted by the undead. In Ocarina of Time, Ganondorf’s evil tyranny was heavily alluded to, but rarely shown explicitly. In Majora’s Mask, the Skull Kid’s terror is extremely obvious: the slow descent of the Moon alone suggests a dire situation. The sense of dread is also increased by variations in the background music: as the days progress, the music in Clock Town uses a faster tempo. This aspect is not overplayed, but it gives Majora’s Mask its own sense of identity, while the presence of recurring Zelda staples help maintain this game’s connection to the other members of the long-running franchise.

Many aspects of game-play from Ocarina of Time are used here. In addition to the controls, which are identical, nearly every character model from that game is used in Majora’s Mask. So, we get King Zora playing the manager of a Zora band, the Kakariko Cucco Lady as the owner of a Clock Town inn, and both the child and adult versions of Malon, playing sisters who live on a ranch. Enemies such as the Iron Knuckles and Gerudo guards reappear. And the “Song of Storms” and “Epona’s Song” are both reprised as Ocarina songs, while “Saria’s Song” and “Zelda’s Lullaby” play briefly during important flashbacks. Curiously, the only Ocarina Sage to be given a Termina counterpart is Princess Ruto, who becomes the lead singer of the Zora band (and is notably dressed). The only other Sage to be seen is Zelda herself, appearing for a cameo during an early flashback.

One might argue that reusing the previous game’s controls and design might make Majora’s Mask seem slightly redundant. Indeed, that is occasionally the case—the methods for fighting the Gerudos and Stalfos are essentially the same. Newer enemies, such as the Garo Ninjas, are also fairly easy to defeat. On the other hand, these deficiencies are redeemed by the Temples, all of which are intricately designed, featuring puzzles and battles that feel original. The boss battles are amazing. Two of them—Goht and Gyrog—exceed all of Ocarina’s bosses in terms of providing an adrenaline rush.

If there is a problem with Majora’s Mask, it is the initial three-day cycle. Between the lack of objectives to complete and the fact that Deku Link is not allowed to leave Clock Town, this cycle can seem a little long. The more experienced a player is, the more lifeless this portion seems, as the time it takes to fulfill the requirements would inevitable be shorter. This game takes a little longer to get into than Ocarina of Time. While that game’s early levels might have been simplistic, at least there was the continued sense that progress was being made. There are instances where Majora’s Mask drags, although those are easy to forget once players get into the main action.

The villains of Majora’s Mask are not quite as imposing as Ganondorf, but they provide worthy stand-ins. The Skull Kid is suitable creepy, although there are hints of a poignant backstory. While the threat of the Mask is solidly established, it remains largely in the background until the final twist. That revelation may be the creepiest cut-scene throughout the entire game. However, the most impressive villain of Majora’s Mask is the Moon, and that is because of its omnipresence. It can always be seen hovering somewhere in the distance, and its eerie facial features give it a sense of foreboding.

I have heard many people indicate Tatl as an improvement over Link’s previous fairy companion, Ocarina’s Navi. In all honesty, I do not have a clear preference either way. To her credit, Tatl has a stronger personality than the often-bland Navi, and her role is better integrated into the storyline. She interacts with other characters and her dialogues with Link feel more conversational than merely providing helpful clues. On the other hand, her snide remarks can occasionally become irritating, and her ultimate fate is less satisfying on an emotional level than Navi’s was. The Happy Mask Salesman is given a darker personality this time around, and certain aspects of his character are shrouded in mystery. Additionally, there are a number of secondary characters that Link may help throughout the game. If he acquires the Bomber’s Notebook from a team of justice-seeking children, he can make journal entries regarding some of those characters and their plights. This provides about twenty side-quest that all result in Link obtaining either a mask or a Piece of Heart. None of these characters are crucial to the main plot, although they give Clock Town the further sense of being a community.

Many Zelda fans celebrated the return of the “Hyrule Overture,” which had been absent in Ocarina of Time. While I liked Ocarina’s “Hyrule Field Theme,” I will admit that the “Overture” is more appropriate for Majora’s Mask, simply because it adds a little more edge, with less epic grandeur. The other major overworld theme is played in each of the four regions, although there are differences in tempo and instrumentation. In all cases, this theme sufficiently adds a sense of gloom to Termina, which was certainly absent in Ocarina of Time. The temple themes do not seem as culturally diverse as those in Ocarina, but they are still effective at setting their respective temples’ moods.

Combined, Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask provide some of the best adventure entertainment available. These games share a strong connection, but both are allowed to stand on their own. Over the years, Majora’s Mask has looked more impressive with each new Zelda release, most of which have copied the style of Ocarina. With its intriguing storyline, gloomy atmosphere, and engaging game-play additions, Majora’s Mask makes the point that franchise entries can still make their own unique mark. Majora’s Mask is not as immersive as its predecessor, but it still ranks as an impressive title, if one that does not quite reach the level of a masterpiece.