Why The Legend Of Zelda: Majora's Mask Still Matters

Why The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask Still Matters

One of the most frequent criticisms lobbed at the Zelda series is that it's always just the same game, over and over again - that people who love it were indoctrinated as children and are incapable of seeing it for what it is. I have heard this not just from people on the Internet, who are always ready with their reductive criticisms, but from friends, family, a couple of lovers (related: heated arguments about Zelda in bed are deeply unsexy). It always makes me ball my fists and breathe deeply.

This post originally appeared on Kotaku UK.

Like most criticism that strikes a nerve, there is an element of truth to it. Zelda is a myth endlessly retold. The same basic story - the pursuit of the Triforce, the vanquishing of evil, the disappearance of a princess - guides them all, shepherding you gently between dungeons, towns and the open road. The same well-worn and well-loved toys are brought out of the attic every time: boomerang, bow, hookshot. The same locations, transformed by time and reinterpretation and technical advancement, keep reappearing. All Zelda games, alongside their many technical and creative innovations (revolutions, even), conform to this template. Except when they don't.

Majora's Mask is the strangest, saddest, most memorable Zelda, the one that strays furthest from the conventions of the series. It did things that no Zelda since has done; actually it did things that no game since has done. Majora's Mask was released at a time when games didn't really do "emotions", and yet it is one of the most evocative and most depressing stories ever told interactively. When I first played it, at the age of twelve, it deeply affected me. Rediscovering it as an adult, ten years later, I expected to find that its brilliance had been exaggerated in my mind by naivety and nostalgia. Instead I discovered that it was much cleverer than I'd thought.

It is an extraordinarily lonely game. At the end of Ocarina of Time, Link is surrounded by the friends he has made across Hyrule, dancing around a fire and celebrating the aversion of the end of the world. Then, he is returned to a time before he met most of them. At the beginning of Majora's Mask, Link is entirely alone, guiding Epona through a forest in search of Navi, who left him in the Temple of Time at the very end of OoT. The opening screens tell of "a boy who, after battling evil and saving Hyrule, crept away from the land that had made him a legend", on a "secret and personal journey… in search of a beloved and valuable friend". He's slumped on the back of the horse, head downcast. It is deeply sad - shockingly so. Zelda games weren't without their darkness before Majora's Mask, but they had never been this… bleak.

His chance meeting with Skull Kid quickly escalates this gloomy opening into a full-on tragedy. Even Epona is taken away from him - "there's no point riding a thing like that, so I got rid of it!" chuckles Skull Kid, as Link looks on in shocked devastation - and he is soon left with a face that ostracises him from everyone else in Termina, the bizarre world he finds himself consumed by. That moment where Link glimpses his reflection as a Deku Scrub is heart-rending. Especially when you learn, right at the end of the game, the implications of that transformation. The concept of identity, I think, is at the core of Majora's Mask, which is why it revolves around masks. It starts as a story about Link trying to regain his identity, or perhaps to build a new one after the events of Ocarina of Time. His transformation into a Deku scrub makes that quest literal: he must regain his own face.

It's a world suffused with sadness, and strangeness. Majora's Mask's artistic style - the strange geometric patterns, the way the cutscenes blur and distort the screen, the strange colours - in combination with the N64's primitive polygonal rendering gave it a surreal, unsettling look. It's weird enough to have spawned one of gaming's greatest, eeriest ghost stories. But it's the people of Termina and their situations that stick in the memory - not just their universal plight of being forced to watch the world end, which is sad enough, but their individual circumstances. There's the desert-dwelling father whose dangerous research into the supernatural hideously disfugures him. There is - of course - the doomed romance of Kafei and Anju. There's the strange and twisted alienation of Skull Kid himself.

Majora's Mask's three-day repeating structure remains - to the best of my knowledge - unique in video games. Most games put something in front of us for 30 minutes and then take it away. Majora's Mask's Termina - and its dungeons, its people - must stand up to theoretically endless examination. In Ocarina of Time, Link has time stolen from him - the ten years between the moment he touches the hilt of the Master Sword and the moment he reawakens in a broken Hyrule. In Majora's Mask he regains that time, albeit as an endless succession of the same three days. In Ocarina of Time he is a child in an adult's body, in Majora's Mask he carries the weight of experience of a grown man, but in a child's body. Time stretches and contorts in Majora's Mask. In game-time, Link spends maybe 30 hours repeating that 72-hour period, but for Link, it would feel like years.

As much as I love Zelda, it is difficult to argue that its story is exactly profound. Majora's Mask is the exception; it is something I can enthuse about without fear of hyperbole. Like Wind Waker, it is a bastion of technical and creative bravery in a series that sometimes doesn't get enough credit for its innovations. We've never had anything like it since, perhaps because Nintendo is not as keen to let its teams go off-piste with its pillar franchises as it was in the N64 era. Its return on 3DS is coming at exactly the right time.


Comments

    Arguing in bed about a video game? Oh you...

    I haven’t gone back to this game since I finished it (unlike my 50 play throughs of OOT) so I’m really keen for this re-release.

    I’m a bit annoyed that it’s going to be a full priced title though.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iO1ckmGe-do&list=UUb_sF2m3-2azOqeNEdMwQPw

    I ran it up on my 64 not long ago. I had no CRT for it. The pixels made me cry. :(

      Shhh, it's ok. Their sharp, angry edges can't hurt you anymore...

    I don't think any game has ever nailed a permeating sense of dread and sadness quite like Majora's Mask. Even if you take away the atmospheric elements, music and world design, the quests are imaginative, the dungeons are immense and twisted, and the game's payoff is perfect. It's got my vote for best game of all time, pretty comfortably.

    Holy crap, I clicked through to that link on the Deku Butler and read that theory on his son... I totally never made that connection before.

    I always thought Majora's Mask was insanely creepy, but it wasn't until I saw that Game Theory video that everything seemed to make sense. MASSIVE SPOILER WARNING.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7S1SVkysIRw
    For those who don't want to watch the video, here's what it's about:
    The theory that the game follows the five stages of grief.
    And that Link is allegedly dead the whole time.

    One of the earliest timeline discussions I came across 2-3 years before the announcement of WW was that every hero was the same one, each an adventure of this one pointy eared Hylian...

    And Majora's Mask was the key to this time traveling nonsense. How many times had he been stuck in his groundhog day series of events? How can we know his time in Termina hadn't affected his link back to Hyrule? What if trying to save that world caused the other worlds to continue moving, Termina stuck in those three days...

    Which, after reading the article, made me wonder: If the Grief theory is correct, how many times had he failed? How many cycles did the Hero of Time do nothing while wracked with grief for the loss of his closest friend?
    As someone who deals with depression on a day-to-day basis, there are days where, even when properly medicated, I can't do anything. No motivation to drive my actions, nothing stops the dreaded question "why bother?" from echoing within the brain without pause.
    I can picture, much like Bill Murray's character just doing nothing repeated days on end in the aforementioned movie, Link just spending several cycles just wandering aimlessly around Clocktown.
    The trailer for the remake reminded me of something I've been unable to see due to my own style of gameplay, the catastrophic bad end that failing to play the Song of Time plays out before resetting to the dawn of the first day. Yes, even when Link does nothing, he's still forced to repeat the three day cycle of Termina's last days. How would you cope with all that sadness, death and stagnation around you?
    Just think about it.

    Majora's Mask had everything that made OoT groundbreaking and then added on top incredible mechanics such as the groundhog-day timetravel and the mask transformation, refined dungeon design and more polished graphics, especially in the way of lightning.

    But yeah, it was incredibly dreadful. So much death and sadness and despair. I don't see this mentioned often, but many random textures in walls and rocks seemed to have tortured faces on them, contorted in silent cries. The Tower of Light, for such a hopeful name was the worst of it all. I remember playing it through for a few hours late and night and finally being unable to cope with the mounting uneasiness and dread. Had to go back and finish it during the day.

    I really wish they made an HD remake rather than a 3DS port.

    I didn't find it sad, just weird and pointy. Ultimately you save the world and everyone is happy.

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