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SummaryThe pinnacle of pure gaming immersion
The GoodI could start this off any one of a million ways, but I think I'll just get straight to the point and say that this is, in my opinion, not only the greatest Zelda game I have ever played, but the best game Nintendo has ever released, period.
Ocarina of Time was admittedly a tough act to follow, and while it still ranks very high on my list, Majora's Mask just outshines it in nearly every way. I could make countless comparisons as to why it's better than OoT, but instead I think I'll just say what Majora's Mask does right, regardless of how it compares to OoT.
The story is one of the game's strongest points, especially given that it is a Zelda game, and almost every game in the franchise up to this point has had a very similar, predictable, cliche story. Instead of the tired "defeat the evil king/lord/wizard and restore peace to the world" story arc that has plagued past iterations of the series (save Link's Awakening), in Majora's Mask you must save the land of Termina from being crushed by the moon. The catch is, you only have three days before the moon lands...luckily, you have the power to go back in time to the first day over and over as many times as it takes to save the world. This alone sets the game apart from any other in the series, but even this isn't the game's strongest point.
The single best part about this game is that it is a lush, living, breathing world. From the bustling Clock Town to the rustic Ikana Canyon and everything in between, the land of Termina is probably the most tangible world I have ever come across in gaming. Every single NPC in the game has their own schedule, and they follow it to a tee every single time you return to the first day. Every NPC has personality, everyone reacts differently to their impending doom. The swordsman in Clock Town, for example, puts on a brave face until the last minutes before the moon hits, when he is reduced to a frightened, cowering mess. The head carpenter in town, on the other hand, refuses to accept that the moon will actually fall, even when it's two minutes from hitting the ground. These are very real people, by far the most believable, sympathetic characters I've ever met in a video game. They make Termina so rich and full of life - some you only meet in passing, others you get to really know and care about. No game does a better job of making you actually feel something for the people you are trying to save. As you go along, you want to help these people, not because you'll get anything out of it, not even because you'll get satisfaction from beating the game, but because you really, truly don't want them to die. It's something I have yet to come across in any other video game.
As for the mechanics of the game itself, this is where you're going to hear a lot of different opinions. The game has a save system unlike any other Zelda game - in order to save your game, you must return to the first day and essentially "reset" everything. This means you lose all your items (i.e. you start off with zero Deku sticks, arrows, bombs, etc.) and Rupees (thankfully you can store these in a bank, which DOESN'T get reset). In addition to this, the temples are reset as well - fortunately, if you beat the boss once you can return to the temple and warp straight to the boss room and beat him again without having to go through the entire dungeon all over again. It's an odd system and it's likely to frustrate many, but once you get used to it it's really not all that bad. You're never really pressed for time, and either way there is a song that allows you to slow down time to half its speed. This effectively gives you almost three hours in real-time before you absolutely MUST reset the clock, and that should be more than enough time to finish any temple. I personally never found it to be an issue.
The other major addition to this game is the use of masks. This game focuses HEAVILY on collecting masks. There are four transformation masks that turn you into another creature - for example, one mask you find turns you into a Zora, and as a Zora you get new abilities like swimming underwater and using your fins as boomerangs. Each transformation has its place in the game and as you go through it you'll find yourself switching forms quite often to solve puzzles or reach new areas. It's an innovative concept that works *really well* as a gameplay mechanic and makes the game much more fun. These masks also have many practical uses, such as using the Goron mask to roll around Termina field and get places much quicker than you would on foot.
Besides the transformation masks, you'll also find yourself collecting a lot of other masks that have their own uses. For example, the Bunny Hood lets you run faster and the Stone Mask makes you invisible to certain enemies.
This kind of leads to my next point, which is that in order to get these masks, you have to do a lot of sidequests. This game is made up primarily of sidequests and minigames. The bulk of your time will not be spent solving puzzles and fighting enemies in dungeons like in past Zelda games, but instead you'll find yourself helping the citizens of Termina, usually in return for masks or, occasionally, Pieces of Heart. This is usually a lot more fun than it may sound, and there's tons of variety in what you have to do to get these rewards. One or two (maybe more) of the quests even span the entire three-day cycle, where you have to do certain things at specific times during a specific day. A lot of the quests can only be received and/or completed at certain times of day depending on people's schedules, and keeping up with this is made much easier by a notebook you get that will keep track of every important character's schedule, so you know where to find them or what to do.
Graphically, this game is absolutely outstanding. This is the best example of what the N64 was capable of, and to this day it stands as one of the richest visual experiences I've ever experienced in any game, next-gen or not. It rains occasionally, it turns from night to day (obviously), it snows in Snowhead and it's a visual feast at Great Bay. Even though today most people probably wouldn't think much of the graphics, I personally love how well they go with the theme and direction of the game itself. It all blends together so well. Most games today can't match up with this game's graphical/gameplay harmony.
Sound is also top-notch. Familiar tunes along with some new ones abound in the game, and what makes this aspect of the game so fantastic is the subtle ways the music changes as time advances. On the first day, the music is slow, laid-back, and calm - peaceful, almost. But on the third day, the pace has increased noticeably, and there's a twinge in the music, as if whoever's playing it is doing so so fast he's occasionally making mistakes. It's almost creepy, and there's a definite sense of urgency in the air by this point. In the last five minutes of the game, no matter where you are, there's a forlorn, hopeless tune that floats in the background, and you feel the weight of the moon crushing down on you. It's one of the game's most important aspects, and the music honestly contributes a huge amount to the atmosphere this game evokes. It's spectacular.
The BadFinding bad things to say about this game is difficult. Probably the worst thing about it is that a lot of the game comes down to taste. You'll either love it or not care for it at all. The game depends heavily on whether or not you enjoy dungeon-crawling more, or if you enjoy sidequests/minigames more. The bulk of the game is spent outside of temples (there are only four of them in the entire game), and if you think this will be a problem...well, the game may disappoint you.
The temples themselves are also not the high points of the game. Most of them are well-designed, but the puzzles tend to be frustrating, obscure, or just forgettable. I always hated actually doing the temples, because I knew that all the fun was in the rest of Termina. Replaying the bosses can also get to be on the annoying side, though it was an unavoidable consequence of the time system Nintendo decided to integrate into the game.
The time system itself is also a matter of taste. I personally like it because it makes for a really interesting and unique story, and I'm willing to make a small sacrifice for the sake of an awesome story. It does have some downsides though, and you'll find yourself doing the same things over and over so you can get Pieces of Heart or masks.
The Bottom LineIf you're someone who cares less about story and more about actual gameplay, this may not be the game for you. The gameplay isn't bad as a whole, not at all, but there are some aspects about it which will frustrate the less patient gamers to the point where they may just put the game down. If you find yourself fitting that description, all I can say is beware.
For the rest of you, you will find that this game constantly rewards you with its beauty and personality. The NPCs become a part of your life, they're not just a part of the game. You'll want to save them. You'll care about them. You'll love some of them, hate others. But you'll always enjoy the interaction, and watching them live their lives as they go about their schedules. This is a game that's so easy to get lost in, a world that you'll honestly miss during your gaming down-times. This is gaming at its most personal, and if you love gaming at all, you will walk away from this game with different expectations than from when you first fired it up.
And how many games can truly boast that?