Even Zelda can be transcended
Only two years after Ocarina of Time
conquered the hearts of players with its lovingly designed, generous gameplay and an awe-inspiring 3D world, Nintendo
released another Zelda game. They didn't have to invest time and energy into designing another engine, and as a result could focus more on refined gameplay touches and artistic aspects of game design. The result was the wonderful Majora's Mask
, a unique experience that combines genuine Zelda spirit with original ideas that go far beyond anything seen in the series so far.Majora's Mask
is as close as it gets to the video game equivalent of Groundhog Day
. That movie will always remain one of my all-time favorites, and while Majora's Mask
naturally doesn't attempt to reach its philosophical and ethical heights, it does convey the incredible atmosphere of the time circle. The game's premise is highly original: in three days, the land of Termina will perish when a giant moon crashes into it. Link is the only person in Termina who can start the three-day cycle from the beginning whenever he wants to. He will retain all his accomplishments, but other people will have no recollection of what has happened. The game has an internal clock that is always ticking, and time plays a crucial role in whatever you do.
Before you begin to express your distaste to time limits, let me assure you that I share them. In fact, time limits is one of the things I really can't stand in video games. However, in Majora's Mask
the time limit is masterfully used to add tension to the gameplay and highlight the importance of your progression. If you don't try to complete the whole game within one in-game cycle, you'll have all the time in the world by tackling one thing at a time. Whenever you solve a puzzle or finish a quest you can simply rewind the clock and start again. You won't need to travel back to the dungeon you didn't want to explore because you were afraid to run out of time: if you activate special owl statues you'll just teleport there. Besides, very early in the game you receive an ocarina melody that slows down time considerably. Within these limitations, nothing stands on your way to explore and do whatever you want.
What the time limit adds, however, is more immersion into the game's world. Characters have their own schedules, and unlike many other games where this is just a cosmetic feature, it actually ties into plot-related and other quests. You'll grow to meticulously study Termina and its inhabitants and observe their routines, feeling like a powerful being entrusted with the most mind-boggling special ability of all. Traveling in time allows you to view the game's world as your own creation, and the feeling of fighting against time, of gradually overcoming its limitations and accomplishing more and more, is unparalleled to any other emotion you would experience in a video game.
They could have just slapped this feature over a modified Ocarina of Time
, but instead they went far, far beyond that. The gameplay is also enriched by the fantastic mask-changing feature. You'll start the game in the state of forced transformation, reduced to a poor little plant-like creature. You'll soon notice, however, that you can do all kinds of cool stuff as that creature which the regular Link would be unable to perform. As the game progresses, you'll revert back to your normal form and acquire other masks that allow you transform into other creatures. The variety is simply astounding: you'll have access to everything Link was able to do in Ocarina of Time
, plus complete sets of abilities for each of the creatures. You will fly over gigantic flowers, swim underwater, crush rocks, and use unique weapons and skills that add more tactical possibilities to combat and more depths to the puzzles. Attention to detail here goes as far as outfitting each of these creatures with their own musical instrument.Majora's Mask
is even richer and more varied in gameplay than the previous Zelda games. It completely eschews filler material, focusing entirely on creative, diverse tasks. It feels and plays like a game of exploration, discovery, and problem-solving more than even Ocarina of Time
. Every location is crammed with objects and places of interest. There is something to find and something to do in every corner. Dungeons are more complex than ever before, and you are encouraged to make the best out of your arsenal and put it to creative uses. At the same time, nothing prevents you from doing most of the exploration and combat as the good old regular Link. You'll be still collecting stuff and fool around with familiar gadgets, with nothing omitted. In essence you have here all the goodness of all the previous Zelda games plus unique gameplay features on top of it.
There is generally more interaction in this game than in earlier Zeldas, largely thanks to the noticeably increased roles of NPCs. In previous Zelda games they offered some clues and could at most supply you with some items you needed. In Majora's Mask
they are fully integrated into the game's world, in a fashion that reminds us of adventure games. You'll be talking to people, participating in their lives, and solving their problems, which can range from item-procuring and rescue missions to much more personal affairs. This contributes even more to the immersion in the world, making it a more lively, coherent, tightly designed place than the worlds of earlier Zeldas.
Perhaps the first thing you notice when you fire up the game is the different tone. Gone is the fairy tale-like, generic land of Hyrule. Gone is the schematic "save the princess" story. Instead, right from the beginning, we are treated to a dark, magical atmosphere that takes us to a bizarre, enchanting world. Termina is much more "edgy", more imaginative than whatever locations we have explored before in a Zelda game. At times it almost borders on surreal with its grotesque characters and features, and the game's unusual premise adds a nearly mystical flavor to it.
The characters are much more developed and are by far more original than the stereotypical good and bad guys we have met before. The enigmatic Skull Kid is much more fascinating than the recurrent Ganon who is evil just because he is. Skull Kid has a more complex background that is actually interesting to discover as we follow his transformation from a careless little boy to a maniacal villain. The supporting cast also doesn't disappoint. Tatl is way cooler than the bland Navi from the previous game. Town inhabitants have much more personality, and you'll meet all sorts of people you'll actually want to spend some time with instead of getting whatever you want out of them and moving on.
In general, Majora's Mask
feels more mature. Sure, it has plenty of bright, innocent fantasy, but as a whole it is to its predecessors what Alice in Wonderland
was to any other children's fairy tale before it. Its unbridled imagination and its hyper-colorful world transcend the boundaries of a regular fantasy story. The dark atmosphere, sustained by detailed, artistic imagery and wistful music, penetrates the whole game from the beginning to the end. The terrifying future hovering over its world, of which only the player and the protagonist are aware, brands it with a particular kind of sadness and vulnerability you'll hardly be able to find in another place. Even without its excellent gameplay, Majora's Mask
would be interesting to check out just for its unique vibe.
The three-day cycle was certainly a risky move. I can imagine conservative fans panicking at the mere mention of that feature. Like I tried to explain in the above section, this cycle adds original touches to the gameplay, but it can't be denied that it also detracts from the familiar Zelda-style progression. When you know you can't keep all your items forever you begin to realize the game has to be tackled in a different fashion. Personally, I welcomed and loved that fashion, but it can be a bit disorienting, especially in the beginning of the game when you are just thrown into the game's strange world with the clock ticking.
Other than that, the only thing I wasn't excited about is the removal of the "save anywhere" feature. Granted, I did fine without it, since the game puts you back in the beginning of an area without penalties if you die, and you technically can
save at any time, but doing that restarts the cycle, meaning that the only time it makes sense is after you have completed a quest and received a plot item.
The Bottom LineMajora's Mask
is a true marvel. The wizards of Nintendo somehow managed to create a game that surpassed the excellence of Ocarina of Time
, simultaneously being a "bigger and badder" version of it and yet offering quite a different gameplay experience in a unique world. Darker atmosphere, richer interaction, and immense variety and depth make this game a gem that shines even compared to its famous predecessors. Of all Zelda games, this one is probably my personal favorite.