At 25YL, we love gaming, and moreover, we love The Legend of Zelda series. That’s why we’re going to cover the entire Nintendo Franchise, including handheld games, every week. This week, we are taking a look at Majora’s Mask.
Imagine you’re forced to be the headliner at a music festival. Your openers are Led Zeppelin and The Beatles, bands some consider to be the greatest of all time. The only thing is you’ve broken two of your fingers and only brought your kazoo from home. That’s kind of the challenge that the good people at Nintendo were given following the success of the universally acclaimed Ocarina of Time. That game was such a monumental success, both critically and commercially, and for good reason: it’s a damn great game. So, naturally, the team was given a year to make some kind of follow up that could somehow live up to its predecessor, and much like Link’s Awakening following up A Link to the Past, the wonderful Eiji Aonuma and his team kind of threw all that they had at the wall, and out emerged Majora’s Mask.
Majora’s Mask is a true enigma in the gaming industry as a whole. Most series stick to an established formula, only occasionally branching out and trying something new, maybe with a spinoff or two. It’s rare for any popular franchise to make something that feels so different from the rest of its series, and anything in gaming as a whole. Link’s Awakening is a weird little game, but from a gameplay perspective it sticks pretty close to what makes Zelda popular. Not so with Majora’s Mask. Sure, you still hunt for items to progress in your quest and explore perilous dungeons. But that’s where its similarities to other games in the series end. And to me, and many, many other people, that’s what makes it such a masterpiece.
For me as a wee lad, I grabbed Majora’s Mask from a used game store after playing/being blown away by Ocarina of Time. I was very young and my parents didn’t mind the cheap price (the Gamecube had just come out) and I was attracted by the creepy mask on its cartridge art work. I didn’t know what to expect when I popped it in the old N64. But right from the serenely creepy opening, to the hauntingly beautiful Clock Town theme, I was hooked. The game grabbed my attention in a way that nothing else ever has. Ocarina of Time got me into gaming. Majora’s Mask showed me how powerful an entertainment medium gaming could be.
I was always fascinated and enthralled by the dark and weird as a kid. I think I read well over half the Goosebumps books as a kid, I was terrified yet hypnotized by Stephen Gammell’s illustrations in Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, and quite enjoyed telling ghost stories around camp fires. Majora’s Mask has pretty much everything I love in my entertainment. Its atmosphere is second to none, perfectly blending an adventurous, upbeat tone with an underlying darkness and sadness. Its music is more or less perfect for every area (although Wind Waker still has my favorite overall soundtrack in the series). It features unique, compelling stories filled with human emotion. And most of all, its happy ending feels earned.
Majora’s Mask isn’t just a great game. It’s not just a great story. It is, to me, the absolute zenith of gaming as a medium, perfectly weaving together its gameplay mechanics with its storytelling to present to the player a fantastically realized world filled with interesting characters. At its heart it has a tender love for humanity that you rarely ever see in works of such a dark nature. It is my favorite game of all time, and I doubt that will ever change.
Let’s start with the premise. Link, searching for his fairy companion Navi, wanders into an uncharted part of the Lost Woods. There he meets Skull Kid, a mischievous imp who wears the Majora’s Mask, which gives him the power to wreak all the havoc he wants. Skull Kid turns Link into a Deku Scrub, and Link winds up in Termina, a mysterious parallel world to Hyrule. Everyone looks like people Link knows from Hyrule, but have entirely different personalities. He is told to recover Majora’s Mask by the Happy Mask Salesman, but he only has three days to do so. Through a series of shenanigans, Link recovers the Ocarina of Time, travels back to the first day he arrived in Termina, becomes human again, and sets out to liberate the four giants of Termina in an effort to stop the moon from falling.
On paper, it sounds just like every other story in the series, except for Skull Kid. After all, the series is built around retrieving a bunch of magical MacGuffins to stop the big bad. The thing is that the limited development time forced Aonuma and company to get creative fast. There are only four dungeons, one for each sector of Termina. This means that there’s a much larger focus on the side quests and the people who need help.
The introduction brilliantly initiates you into the game’s myriad side stories. It restricts your access to Clock Town, forcing you to explore and talk with the people. Early on you get the Bomber’s Notebook, which is how you keep track of side quests. You’ll likely get a whole bunch of notes your first time through letting you know the beginning to peoples’ troubles. These are all problems you’ll solve over the course of the game. It sets up early on that Skull Kid has negatively impacted this world, and every story is weird and engaging enough to be worthwhile.
This is all to say nothing of the brilliant and wholly unique three day system. You have a limited amount of time to complete as many tasks as you possibly can before resetting the whole cycle. The entire time, no matter where you are, you can see the moon overhead. It serves as a constant reminder of what you’re fighting for. One of the small failings of the brilliant Link’s Awakening is that it didn’t feel like there was a real threat driving the adventure. That’s part of the game’s appeal in some ways, but it still lacks in providing a concrete conflict. That’s not the case here. The moon lends a sense of urgency to everything, making the constantly ticking clock a force you try and fail to fight against. The 3 day system was contentious when it first came out, and was only put in the game as a way to try and pad the game length since the world was relatively small. But like everything else, it coalesced perfectly.
The side quests are the real star of the show. The main dungeon stories are all compelling and weird in their own way (I can’t think of another game that requires me to beat a dungeon to save a monkey from being cooked by a bunch of sentient trees) but the game gets its personality from the many denizens of Termina. From the ever charming Cremia and Romani’s defense of their ranch, to the smaller stuff like parading a bunch of chicks around until they turn into full grown Cuccos, each side quest makes an impact and makes you give a damn about the world and the people in it. And yes, the infinitely complex Anju and Kafei side quest is a shining example of how sometimes, smaller scale, intimate stories can be more impactful than the grandest of epics.
Tied directly into the game’s many quests are the 24 collectible masks. Entirely unique to this game, each mask has some kind of different effect. It’s true that their usefulness can feel unbalanced- there are masks like the Troupe Leader’s that are only used to get a single piece of heart (although there is a bonus side quest for it in the 3DS remake). Others, though, offer extremely useful abilities, such as turning invisible or running faster (indispensable in a game with a timer). Then there are the transformation masks, which physically change Link into a Deku Scrub, Goron, Zora, or Fierce Deity. Each one is an absolute blast to use, and work nicely in environmental/ dungeon puzzles. It’s a feature I am dying to see return in some capacity.
Further helping the game is the variety of locales you explore. From the snowy wastes of Snowhead to the haunted Ikana Canyon, each area feels entirely distinct from the last (and the ending area inside the moon is probably my all-time favorite setting for a video game finale). And just like Clock Town, each location has plenty of people in need of Link’s assistance. This doubles for the transformation masks, as well. Each one is the remnant of someone who was killed because of Skull Kid, and they live vicariously through Link to make up for their regrets and failures. The Goron Mask is the remnant of Darmani, a Goron Hero who froze to death trying to stop the blizzard plaguing the land. The Zora Mask is Mikau, a guitar player who died trying to get his wife’s eggs back from pirates. But the best one is the Deku Mask. In Woodfall, you can race the royal Deku Butler, who later apologizes saying that your Deku form reminded him of his deceased son. During the credits, you see him crying in front of the warped, Deku Scrub type tree from the game’s intro, and there you learn that his son was killed by Skull Kid before the events of the game. It’s a haunting reminder that even though Link has righted everything he can, the events of the game will leave a permanent scar on the land.
And really, that’s what this game is all about. Link is only a hero in this world incidentally. There’s no prophecy, no divine voice guiding him. It’s only his wits and want to see the world be a better place. Skull Kid’s story is ultimately a cautionary tale; we learn early on that he used to be friends with the 4 giants, but they shunned him and when he went to Clock Town, he was shunned there, too. It wasn’t until he found the Happy Mask Salesman that he felt any purpose. Obtaining Majora’s Mask made his negative emotions magnify, and eventually he lost himself in the pure evil housed within the mask. Through the course of the game, Tatl, Link’s sidekick and former friend of Skull Kid, slowly comes to realize that her former friend is no longer there. It’s a brilliant metaphor for letting anger and resentment getting the best of you, and it’s why Skull Kid will always be the series’ best villain to me. It’s so much more compelling and human than a guy who just wants to conquer the world.
I mentioned Cremia and Romani earlier, and I’d like to go back to them for a moment. They own a ranch where they happily raise dairy cows. The thing is that, each year mysterious aliens come from the sky and try to abduct the cows. Cremia, the younger sister, recruits Link to aid in their defense this year. Succeeding prevents Cremia from being abducted herself and being brain washed (and seeing Romani try to reach her unresponsive sister is heart breaking). You can then choose to help them bring their caravan into town. Doing so means they are able to fight off bandits and do business another day. Even after succeeding at that, though, you can still find one more scene with them. If you visit them near the end of the third day, just as the moon will fall, you find Romani allowing Cremia to drink milk intended only for adults. She also lets Cremia sleep with her that night. Cremia doesn’t seem to realize what’s happening, but we do. It’s so Romani can comfort her sister before the world ends.
Unlike other games in the series, which have clear cut save the world stories, Majora’s Mask instead delivers a different theme. It’s one of the human condition. Link tries and solve as many problems as possible before the world ends, and his progress is reset every time he goes back to the first day. It’s this notion that no matter what we do, our time on this Earth is limited. And rather than going all dark side with it and saying that life sucks and there’s no point, Majora’s Mask instead asserts that we should try and help one another and do all the good we can with the time given to us. Link is our guide through a troubled world, and the fact is that for all its fantastical elements, the game roots its characters in humanity that anyone can relate to. The above story about Cremia and Romani is not the only time you will encounter these cartoon characters facing their own impending mortality.
Most of us don’t like to think about things like that because, well, it’s terrifying. Everyone believes different things about what happens when we die, and I’m not here to discuss that. That’s because, regardless of what you believe, there’s always that unknown factor. It’s impossible for anyone to know what really happens when our heart stops beating. It’s a fear that has been on my mind a lot since being diagnosed with type 1 diabetes in my teens. It keeps me up at night. It’ll probably keep me up the night that I write this. And Majora’s Mask knows that we all secretly hold this fear, but react to it differently. Some people in the game try and run away from the moon. Others openly mock it, asserting it won’t fall (which is tragically relevant in today’s world). And still others simply try and take it with grace, as best they can.
All of these heavy themes are why Majora’s Mask is my favorite game of all time. It poses these questions and ideas to the player without ever once breaking its flow as a great game in its own right. It’s filled with unique, original stories that all come together to remind us to be better. Be better to yourself. Be better to others. You won’t be here forever, so you need to make the most of it. I’ve never seen another story drive these points home as effectively as Majora’s Mask does. It doesn’t wallow in its darkness, and isn’t overbearing with its positive message. Instead, it uses darkness to present a love of humanity and great stories to the player.
At the end of the game, the Happy Mask Salesman remarks on how Majora’s Mask is now just that— a mask. The evil has drained from it. Skull Kid realizes his mistake. He let his anger get the better of him. Link agrees to be his friend despite everything that he did while under the influence of its power. The game ends on the image of a carving of Link and Skull Kid holding hands, surrounded by the Giants. But more importantly, before that, the Happy Mask Salesman also tells Link that he’s managed to make a lot of people happy.
I try and do that every day. I don’t always succeed. I haven’t done anything as grand as saving a ranch from aliens. I haven’t reunited a couple and provided them with everything they need to be wed before the world ends. I haven’t saved a whole world. But I try and do little things every day to make even one person happy. I won’t be here forever, but I want my impact on this world to be overall positive.
Majora’s Mask is the most human, most atmospheric, most magnificent game I’ve ever played. Its familiar Zelda mechanics, coupled with its own unique ones, coalesce with its mood and writing to become something more than just a game. It’s art in its purest, most unpretentious form. It makes me yearn for Nintendo to really let their creators go wild again. I would love to see a return to Termina in some form, but it feels like lightning in a bottle. Its overall an insignificant entry into the series’ grander lore, and it’s also the best for that very reason.
Not bad for a team who were given one year to make a follow up to what many consider to be the greatest video game ever made.