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SummaryMy final review on this game
The GoodI know you are probably sick of this, I know that I am most certainly sick of this and yet here we are again. Majora's Mask, one game that people can't stop bothering me about. Whenever I review this game a whole load of friends and people argue that I am wrong and when I replay it again I notice that they are right. It's an endless circle, but finally I believe we have broken free from it. All these years I didn't have the patience for Majora's Mask, playing only a part of it before shutting it off and reviewing it, unprofessional I know, but now that is remedied. I played Majora's Mask completely this time around and I must say that my experiences were much different from any I had in earlier attempts. To keep this final review interesting I'll take Majora as an example to counter some common criticism towards Zelda games as a whole. In the negative part of this review I'll however argue against some of the most common praise that Zelda games receive. Let's do it!
Zelda games are kiddy!
Zelda games tend to be all over the place when it comes to their content, but one thing that is almost always present are horror or mature elements. Majora's Mask may be the only one of these games to truly focus on creating an eerie atmosphere, but it's most certainly not the only one who has them. Even games as "kiddy" as Wind Waker tend to have scenes that genuinely stick out, such as a level set in a tomb or the reversed Triforces (similar to an anti-Christ cross). Majora's Mask really lets itself go though and the result is a game that actually managed to scare me without using jump-scares. The atmosphere can however also be used to support the story, without wishing to spoil anything, just go to Romani Ranch on the last night and speak with the two sisters, put the pieces together afterwards. Just the thought of what is happening over there on the final day is very depressing.
Zelda games have too much reading
If you really like action games, skip all the cut-scenes and are just generally disinterested in the context of what you are doing in a game, then there is little I can do to change that for you. If you are interested in context, but simply think Zelda games have too much of it, then that is also okay, but there are redeeming factors. Much of Majora's Mask is based around going on side-quests and exploring the various areas of the game. Talking with characters is still crucial, but there is also a lot you don't have to do if you don't want to and a lot you will experience without even having to approach characters. The best example is the main mechanic itself, the three-day cycle. As you re-experience the same days over and over again you see characters going through the cycle of their daily lives, this allows you learn about them through repeated observation. One time I was chilling around the Stock Pot Inn when I ran into the owner talking to her elderly grandmother. The grandmother refused to eat the food, making excuses I knew to be false and clearly showing signs of dementia while doing so. Thus I learned that the relation between these two characters is troubled and all I did was stand there.
Zelda games are too long
I know what these people are going through and I myself grow very tired of a game that passed the forty-hour mark too. I have however always found Zelda games in particular to be a very clear exception, as more and more gameplay elements are introduced as you play. Zelda games also generally show that your character grows stronger and stronger as gameplay progresses and sections in-between levels have characters reacting on this or at least show the world or story change due to the actions of the protagonist. It's a case of giving the player the proper incentive to keep playing, the game would indeed be boring if it was just 40-hours of swinging a sword around, but receiving a spell like the "elegy of emptiness" at the very end of the game suddenly opens up a whole lot of puzzle-opportunities and gives the player something new to master, without discarding all the content that came before.
Majora's Mask however succeeds on the other side of the spectrum. The game only features four dungeons and you can literally skip right to the final boss afterwards, no cheating involved. This might change the argument to "this game is too short", but that would be wrong. The game CAN be finished in ten hours, but why would you want to? As stated before there is a lot of content on the side and the game gives you plenty of reasons to see it all. The most prominent features are the masks in the game, you can obtain a total of 24 of them (not counting boss-masks) and only a handful of them are obtained naturally throughout the story. All these masks have special abilities that open up new stories to explore or give you an easier time in certain sections of the game (such as the Stone Mask making enemies ignore you). Since the characters are quite endearing it's also very hard to just leave them to their fate and even if everything has to be reversed again at the end of the day, it's still worth it to at least once fight off the monsters invading the ranch or helping Anju find her missing boyfriend before her wedding. For the explorers among us there is also plenty to see and discover in Termina, including various secrets that may lead to hidden items. All in all, Majora's Mask easily packs up to fifty hours of content and all of it enjoying in one way or another.
Puzzle-games are boring
It's worth remembering that The Legend of Zelda is more of an action/adventure type of game that has plenty of puzzle-elements. If you don't like puzzles, then this series contains plenty of opportunity to battle opponents instead. Fighting enemies, especially in the two Nintendo 64 games, is also made a lot more enjoyable than in most other fantasy games due to the challenge they pose. At the start of the game you only have three lives and enemies are quite weak, but later on enemies and their placement grow more and more challenging. Boss-fights especially require a combination of skill, equipment and attention. Even basic enemies however have at least some strategy to them: one of the first enemies you meet is a Skulltula spider that hangs from the ceiling, if you mindlessly hit it with sticks it will deflect everything and kill your ass in mere seconds. You need to know the enemies, their attacks, their patterns, and strike when they open up for you.
I won't claim puzzles are optional though and you will have to go through them almost as many times as you will have to fight. However, I felt that Majora's Mask was a fairly fair game and if you take your time for it (pro tip: use the song that slows the in-game clock) you can complete the puzzles by merely looking around the environment and using what items you have to solve the puzzle at hand. There are no puzzles that demand knowledge from you outside of what the game teaches you (Notpron...), there are no puzzles that go in against logic (Braid...) and there are no puzzles that ask you to figure out entire mazes worth of areas. The key goes in the door, the crate goes on the switch, the arrow goes into the enemy. That logic will get you very far in Zelda games as a whole.
Zelda games are all the same
At the surface this is a correct statement, but dig slightly deeper and you are already seeing faults in this reasoning. Yes, most Zelda games are about a guy in green clothes and pointy ears going on an adventure to save a princess from some evil entity, but each Zelda game messes around with the formula and mechanics a lot. If you were to show up at my doorstep and argue that A Link to the Past is the same as Twilight Princess, then I'd just shut the door right there and leave you standing in the rain. Zelda games are under constant criticism that they don't change enough, but at the same time change too much, critics simply don't know what to do with a series almost all of them enjoy.
A Link to the past revolutionized how we expect puzzles and action to function in games, Ocarina of Time brought that formula into 3D while Link's Awakening brought it to portable devices. Majora's Mask experiments with the timed narrative, Wind Waker has cell-shaded graphics, Twilight Princess uses cinematic action and other tricks to bring the series to the new youth. The list simply goes on and naming only one innovation per game (like I just did) is only scraping the top of the iceberg. Arguing that Zelda games are all the same or stagnating is a lazy argument, it shows that the reviewer merely looks at the summary featured on the game's box and never delves into the actual mechanics or just sits through the entire game with the sole reason of hating it.
The BadZelda games have very good stories
While Majora's Mask certainly stands out in this regard, due to its focus on atmosphere and characters, most other Zelda games are certainly not the pinnacle of fantasy writing. In fact, the fascinating races that go beyond elves, dwarves and hobbits is perhaps the only amazing part of the story.
Zelda games follow a very basic three-act structure. In the first act we get to know the hero and his surroundings, we experience his daily life and learn who his friends are. Though this is missing in this installment, it follows up from Ocarina of Time, so that game's opening (Kokiri Forest) serves as the first act for this game too. The second act starts directly after the hero's life is thrown into disarray, in this title when he learns that Majora is trying to destroy Termina. In the second act the hero has to obtain the means to fight the enemy, in this case the masks and whatever bonuses the player wants to bring with him. The third act is the finale and what happens with the protagonist after he has overcome his obstacles and reached his goal.
Zelda games follow this formula perfectly and rarely does something to rise above it, they are comfortable in this position and I don't blame them. Zelda games have an amazing atmosphere instead and the characters, while not amazing, are endearing in their simplicity.
The world in Zelda games look amazing
Many argue that Zelda games have brilliant world design and while they certainly have a degree of atmosphere to them, I still prefer individual areas. Locations such as the observatory or Stone Tower Temple simply resonate clever design & atmosphere and there is a huge variety of them. The world as a whole though, no matter what Zelda game we are talking about, is kind of hallow in comparison.
Zelda games always miss in this field in one of two ways, either the world is too small and simplistic or the world is too open and empty. Twilight Princess for example had a very large world, but walking around it was a chore. The world had not much to offer in terms of content: enemies were scattered scarcely around, a handful of collectibles here and there and done. The closest we have ever come to success was Hyrule Field from Ocarina of Time, but only because somebody was smart enough to put a major areas in the middle of it. You need interesting locations or scenery to fill up an open world, if you don't it will just be pointless space taking up room on the disc that could have been used to make a better game.
Termina on the other hand is too small and while it feels more populated and the space we have is well-used, it still makes you wonder why we bothered buying an Expansion Pack for this. The world is also kind of simple, in fact, why don't you just sing along: The beginning area is in a grassy field and from there we explore a forest-area, ice-area, water-area and desert-area. All we need is a volcano and the entire list is complete.
Transformation or dual-world gameplay
Ever since A Link to the Past, Zelda games have been very big on dual-world gameplay and transformations, but frankly I have never been very impressed. Having two worlds, each of which have a different set of rules, is the most simple way to design puzzles. A situation in which a door is locked, but if you press a button and go into a different reality where it isn't, then that is certainly a nice little puzzle, but not worth talking about in great lengths. The only way to make it really work is if the two worlds both have an interesting story behind them, as is the case in Twilight Princess, though that game makes more use of the second mechanic I named.
Transformations also fall in the same category: they both simplify puzzles and they are both more useful to the story than the gameplay. If you can transform into a guy that breaks rocks, then the rock blocking a path is not a puzzle, but just a progression/exploration-halter until you have the right tools. Majora's Mask boasts four transformations, but they aren't really well implemented. If you want to transform, you'll have to equip a mask in an item slot (which mounts it to a C-button). This might not seem like a problem, but for as long as you wear the mask, you'll have to make do with only two item slots. Switching between transformations should have been a button combination or something else that resolved the amount of menu-travelling you'll have to do.
Zelda games have lots of collectibles
Zelda games indeed have plenty of collectibles and I praised this fact earlier in this review. However, unlike Ocarina of Time, I couldn't force myself to get all of them. In almost every Zelda game there are dozens of mini-games that test your accuracy in trade for upgrades and heart pieces. It doesn't sound too bad, but they demand such insane skill that the game becomes frustrating. Majora's Mask has like four or five shooting galleries and it also features everybody's favorite "timed jumping from platform to platform with awkward camera positioning" game, which wins the prize for been the most uninspired "side-quest" ever.
Games likes the "bombchu bowling" may seem like clever novelties, but the stiff turning makes it nearly impossible, as are the shooting galleries that have you using the lacking aiming that came with the Nintendo 64's limitations. Also obnoxious are the fetch-quests where you need to find X-amount of spiders or something along those lines.It only serves to make the games longer and they don't even have the decency to mark objectives you already found.
The Bottom LineI am sure there are some arguments and points of criticism I have not addressed here, but these are the few I wanted to go over. After numerous attempts I have finally formed my opinion on this game and that is... above-average.
The game has amazing atmosphere and story, the 3-day mechanic is well used and to me this game stands out as one of the creepier games out there. However, it also has quite a few flaws to stop it from been truly good. A loyal fan of the Zelda franchise will get the game they want from this and the haters can continue to hate as always.