Legend of Zelda, The: Majora’s Mask (Review) (2000)
What a magnificent piece of work The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time was: closest to the nigh-perfect A Link to the Past in scope, one of the finest transitions from 2D to 3D that there’s been, and almost as infinitely replayable as its SNES forerunner. It marked the fifth Zelda game, and was a continuation of the high standards the series had set, along with the fantastic Link’s Awakening and the fondly remembered 2 NES originals.
Ocarina of Time was a game that, for the majority of people, lived up to the immense hype borne from agonising delays. The Legend of Zelda had really become a juggernaut series, and the fans clamoured for a sequel – although given Ocarina’s development time it seemed likely that they’d have to wait for the next Nintendo console.
Towards the end of the Nintendo 64’s lifespan, however, screenshots of a game that appeared to be an Ocarina of Time reskin emerged, with a funny sort of sundial at the bottom of the screen. It looked for all the world like an expansion pack of Ocarina of Time – and indeed, that’s what Majora’s Mask was originally conceived as. Fresh from his role as assistant director with Ocarina of Time, Eiji Aonuma was charged with the task of releasing a follow-up game in the same mould in just one year. The result, naturally, would have to be a condensed Zelda adventure, but could at least borrow elements from its older brother. Could Majora’s Mask stand up against Ocarina of Time? Would it take its place proudly alongside the other fine games of the series?
The game picks up quickly after the child era of Ocarina of Time, with Ganondorf sent packing by Link and the King of Hyrule off-screen before he can ever seize control of Hyrule. This makes Majora’s Mask easy enough to fit into the Zelda timeline, if your time was misspent enough to care about all that. With Hyrule now assured of its peaceful future, Link and his faithful companion Navi have become separated for an undisclosed reason.
Link, riding his trusty steed Epona as a foal, travels to the outskirts of Hyrule in search for Navi. In an ominous wood, however, he has a chance run-in with a mischievous Skull Kid wearing the eponymous Majora’s Mask. The Skull Kid gives Link a disorienting fright, allowing him to steal our hero’s items and ride away on Epona. Worse still, when Link catches up to the Skull Kid, the latter harnesses the power of Majora’s Mask to turn Link into a lowly Deku Scrub.
I’ve had worse looks off girlfriends – but to be fair to them, none of them ever tried to crush my entire world to burning pieces… at least not literally
Skull Kid is accompanied by two sibling fairies, Tatl and Tael. However, the two fairies become separated as the Skull Kid makes his getaway, forcing Tatl to join Link as his assistant targeting fairy so that she can find her brother. Link emerges in the heart of a new region named Termina, and the grand plot of the game is revealed: the moon, notable for having a face like a stopped clock (and has the unsettling ability to sometimes speak), is on a crash course with Termina, and it will collide after a 3 day cycle of exactly 72 hours – that’s game time, with each hour in-game corresponding to about 45 seconds in real life.
Making use of the Ocarina of Time’s capacity for time travel, Link must awaken the Four Giants by beating four dungeons, so that the Giants can stop the moon from colliding with Termina and killing all of its inhabitants. For a Nintendo game, where even the word ‘death’ is as rare as hen’s teeth, the sense of impending mass death is very palpable. It captures the hopeless and ominous mood of an apocalypse extremely well, not that I speak from any great experience on the matter.
So. 54 minutes total to avert the apocalypse and beat the game? Quite impossible, yes, which is why Majora’s Mask features its own brand of time travel, courtesy of the Ocarina of Time item. There ain’t no Master Sword around this time, so sending Link back and forth through seven long years is just impossible. But the Ocarina of Time steps up to the plate, even if it can only allow Link to travel back to the very beginning of the 3 day cycle (or, with other songs, to go 12 hours forward, or slow time down). This means that whenever time is beginning to run dangerously low, and moonfall is just about ready to happen, Link can reset it all to the first moment he set foot in Termina, and the 3 day cycle begins anew.
The controls and game engine is almost entirely borrowed from that of Ocarina of Time: the revolutionary Z-targeting, fluid combat system from which future 3D Zelda games have barely diverged. It must be noted that Link’s controls are a little less tight this time round. Really, I find it a little difficult to explain, but his turning circle is a lot wider (I know he’s a human and not a battleship) and the camera can sometimes catch Link out. As for his other forms, Deku and Zora Link tend to be fine enough bar some trickiness in getting his Zora form to dolphin jump from the water. However, Goron Link, especially while rolling, can be hit or miss. I did well in the Goron Rolling Race, one of the supposed trickiest (although mercifully optional) parts of the game, but the compulsory Goron section on the moon at the end of the game is just criminal.
The slightest drop of water defeats him, and he’s a little cumbersome, but Goron Link’s speed when rolling and power when punching makes him the most useful of Link’s transformations
Let’s talk about items, another important thing for Zelda games to get right. And Majora’s Mask doesn’t do a great job here as such: with the severe reduction of dungeons, a dwindling number of items needed to get through the game is an unfortunate consequence. And the variety suffers as well: the items of the four dungeons are, in order, the Bow and Arrows, the Fire Arrows, the Ice Arrows and the Light Arrows. Isn’t that great? Predictable dungeon items, with limited use for the latter two.
Six Bottles instead of four, which tends to be one or two too generous anyway. 3 spaces on the item screen reserved for trading items which serve little purpose to Link beyond satisfying a character’s needs (until you go back in time and erase your gesture from history anyway). Child Link staples like Deku Sticks, Deku Nuts and Magic Beans return and feature in their usual limited capacity – if you can keep your hands on some, as travelling back in time always reduces your item stock to zero and they’ll probably remain at zero for the most part.
Finally, there are at least a few useful implements: there’s the frequently recurring, useful items like the Bombs, the Ocarina of Time and a nifty new golden Hookshot. But, barring some new bottleable items (if I can take a chance with that word), the only new items are the near useless Pictograph Box, which doesn’t even serve the optional purpose that The Wind Waker’s Picto Box did; and the highly situational Powder Keg, a massive barrel of explosives that only Gorons can use. So, a super bomb, basically. And one that you can only carry one of at a time.
But your C-buttons won’t be left barren, as one of Majora’s Mask’s primary gameplay changes comes to the rescue: the masks. 24 in all, with many varying effects. 3 of them are major masks, constantly used in transformation throughout the game: the Deku Mask, the Goron Mask and the Zora Mask primarily (a 4th transformation mask, the Fierce Deity Mask, is available at the eleventh hour). Other masks allow Link to be considered invisible, to speak to Gibdos, and to run faster, all of which have their own good uses. However some masks, like the Circus Leader’s Mask, the All Night Mask and the Couple’s Mask are just about useless, barring heart pieces, of which there are a whopping 52 (still a series record).
Even with time slowed right down, Link simply cannot tend to everyone’s needs until the final boss is defeated and Termina is saved. That means poor Romani here, among others, may suffer badly while you’re off doing other errands
I’ve said it before, and indeed it should go without saying, but a Zelda game lives and dies by its dungeons. And with only four to its name, Majora’s Mask seems doomed from the first tick of the clock. But first, some more insight into the flow of the game: there is one main settlement named Clock Town, where most of the human population live, that is situated in the very centre of Termina. In the four cardinal directions lie the four dungeons and their preambles.
First up is the Woodfall Temple, pre-empted by the Deku Palace. Now, for the first three dungeons, Link must make extensive use of the transformation masks relevant to that area – in this case the Deku Mask, to allow Link to pass himself off as a Deku rather than a human interloper in order to gain access to the temple. That’s a bit of a stinker already: you start the game stuck as a joyless Deku, leaving you relishing the opportunity to turn back into a human capable of using a sword and shield as soon as possible. The last thing you want is a swift return to this kind of restrictive mediocrity.
Eventually, having done your best to stay human as long as possible, you must move about a poisonous swamp as this fragile Deku. A forced stealth section with a wretched camera angle further dooms the swamp portion of the game. The Woodfall Temple itself is decent enough, although being the first dungeon it doesn’t possess many tricks or gimmicks, leaving it very close to generic – a damning word in video gaming. Plus it’s quite short – perhaps to be expected from the first dungeon, but it makes a difference when there aren’t many others to carry it.
Next up is the Goron portion, with the friendly rock eating Gorons residing on the frosty mountain region of Snowhead, to the north of Clock Town. It’s good to have the opportunity to walk about a proper wintery wonderland, with Ocarina of Time lacking this somewhat bar the frozen Zora’s Domain and the all too short Ice Cavern. At Snowhead, Link finds that the area has had its pleasant spring weather vanquished by the Skull Kid, who has turned the home of the Gorons into a bitingly cold frostland. More fool them for living in a place called Snowhead if the cold affects them that much, I say. In any case, they deserve everything they get for inflicting that awful crying Goron baby on us – you’ll see what I mean.
Well, the Goron Elder has been frozen in this bad weather, which is what causes his son to cry incessantly. You’ve got to uncover a hot spring to unfreeze the Goron Elder, who teaches Link a song that he can use to put a giant, invisible Goron on the top of the mountain to sleep, allowing Link access to the Snowhead Temple. Why is there a gigantic, anonymous, invisible Goron perched at the top of Snowhead, blowing so hard down the mountain that nobody can get near to him? I really can’t say.
Even considering the frosty reception that the Water Temple from Ocarina of Time received, there seemed to be absolutely no chance of the developers omitting a water dungeon from Majora’s Mask. The Great Bay Temple that they give us is less of an ordeal to get through, and that’s speaking as someone who didn’t have any hassle at all with the Water Temple (for stories of my personal Ocarina of Time struggles, just ask the Forest Temple). The Great Bay Temple emerges as one of the game’s finer points, but it only comes after a duff section collecting Zora Eggs, which includes another stealth section through the Gerudo Fortress; you can make this a lot easier if you have the Stone Mask, but if you choose not to play with guides then you won’t have even heard of it.
Finally, and saving the best for last, there’s the trip to Ikana Canyon, where Gibdos walk freely. It’s the spookiest part of the game, with Link paying visits to the Ikana Castle and the bottom of another creepy well. It culminates in the fourth and final dungeon, the Stone Tower Temple – notable in the series for being, in Friends terms, ‘The One Where Link Turns the Dungeon Upside-Down’. It’s a terrific dungeon with two fabulous themes, and leaves the player clamouring for more dungeon action like it – after all, the dungeons of the game go on an upward trend in terms of fun. But no, the Stone Tower Temple is the last leg – after that, you’re off to the Moon itself to fight the final boss.
As you might have gathered, there is quite a bit of emphasis on the build-up to dungeons in this game. This is the same angle they later tried in Skyward Sword, and it didn’t work well there either. It becomes the kind of stuff that simply obstructs the player. I suppose it’s a decent way of integrating Link into the starkly different areas of Majora’s Mask, by having him interact with the population there and exploring every part of the areas before finishing the job alone inside a dungeon. Almost everyone in the game has a problem, or has some disaster waiting to happen, quite apart from the fact that a furious moon is coming to claim them. Invariably, it’s up to Link to help them out. But the problems that the people need help with prior to the dungeons becoming accessible are all obviously compulsory, which hinders their character development.
The biggest hindrance of any character development in Majora’s Mask, of course, is that every action of Link’s is erased once he goes back to the beginning of the 3 day cycle. I can certainly see the understated tragedy of this situation, where nobody will ever remember what you did for them, and thus all of their problems will never be solved properly unless you can grant them more time. If you make the decision to help one or a few people around Termina in the time allotted, almost everyone else is left to die in despair. And since everyone in the region will have their lives extinguished anyway, there is a depressing futility about it all. The game is certainly unique in this respect, and I do appreciate that – it contributes to the game’s feel and atmosphere, which makes it like no other game I have played. I must give Majora’s Mask some merit for that.
The Stone Tower Temple is probably the closest any of the dungeons get to being a Zelda classic. Turning it upside-down and going through it again seems simple, but it was a terrifically executed concept
Really, that’s where the bulk of the game lies. Potential players of the game will have to concede early doors that the game is not focused around the dungeons, but places far more stock in the interactions of the characters. With so many sidequests propping up the game, if one simply rated the game’s length as being how quickly they could get to the End Credits then they’d find Majora’s Mask a terribly short game indeed – but don’t worry, even I realise that that’s a silly attitude. You will get some meat out of this game, but part of it is due to the cryptic and obscure nature of some of the necessities for the side quests, or even the pre-dungeon areas. It’s horrible to advocate one, especially with the Internet usually at our fingertips, but I wouldn’t rule out use of a walkthrough for this game, game length concerns be damned.
We need to talk about the save system of the game. Firstly, you needn’t expect the convenience of being able to simply press pause and quickly save your game, anywhere you like. That luxury is gone, and you will miss it. You’ve got two ways to save, and they each have their own drawbacks: firstly, you can play the Song of Time, erasing all of your progress over the 3-day cycle (but through warp statues and keeping your key items, not all of your work is undone). Any quests to help people that you have started or completed, every part of a dungeon or preamble to a dungeon goes back to being unsolved, and you even lose every limited item you have – all of your bombs, arrows, even Rupees if you don’t deposit them in the bank first. So if you gotta do a proper save, you gotta make sure you’re fully prepared. Run out of time before the end of a dungeon? Too bad, play the Song of Time, lose your progress and other items and start again. To be fair, time doesn’t end up a concern to players who know of the Inverted Song of Time, and having the dungeon item saves you much of the work. But it’s something to be aware of.
The second saving method, and one that Japanese players don’t even have the option to use, is by saving at Owl Statues. This allows you to make an interrupt save – a chance to turn off the game and go about your slightly less menial life tasks. The Owl Statue saving saves every part of your progress: your items, your location, your current quests, and the minute of the day. It’s a pretty useful addition, but you’ll need to prepare to play the Song of Time eventually. And if you’re not fully prepared when that time of apocalypse comes (even though, as I’ve mentioned in the interests of fairness, you really should be), then that’s tough luck. Players of Majora’s Mask on The Legend of Zelda: Collector’s Edition beware: in addition to the numerous other emulation problems plaguing that port of Majora’s Mask, freezing can occur unpleasantly often, instantly destroying your progress since you last played the Song of Time – an obvious problem with this game’s obtuse saving system. Hours of work can be lost at the whim of the disc.
First off, you won’t even be able to start up the game unless you’ve got the Nintendo Expansion Pak, capable of providing the machine with an astounding 4 extra Megabytes of RAM. This wouldn’t be so bad, but just remember that only this game and Donkey Kong 64 absolutely required the Expansion Pak in order to function (to be fair, Perfect Dark’s game modes become severely restricted without it). So the Expansion Pak may have been one of the more essential accessories of the Nintendo 64, but it wasn’t exactly necessary for most games – and we now know that Donkey Kong 64 required the Expansion Pak only to stem the flow of a killer glitch. As such, I wouldn’t think it too much to expect great things from Majora’s Mask graphically.
As it is, the game is a clear step up from Ocarina of Time; this is most palpable inside the buildings of Clock Town, which are now fully rendered as opposed to the pre-rendered backgrounds of its predecessor. Draw distances and pop-up are much less evident thanks to the Expansion Pak as well.
Has the Expansion Pak started to glitch out? That mess of polygons is Gyorg, the much-hated boss of the Great Bay Temple
The four Temple bosses of the game do look a bit of a state though, Gyorg and Goht in particular. I couldn’t say Volvagia and Barinade looked much better but with only four bosses, it was important to not leave them looking like clag. The characters are varied in appearance, distinctive and quite expressive, and the areas tend to look well. The game does try to do a little bit too much at times, particularly around the Swamp, but at least they’re ambitious. If the much desired 3DS remake does come about, then it’ll really look impressive.
MUSIC AND SOUND
Many tracks and sound effects from Ocarina of Time are reused. Perhaps some could consider this lazy, but I see it as generally a good thing: hearing tracks like Lon Lon Ranch returning for Romani Ranch and the Lakeside Laboratory/Potion Shop coming back for the Marine Research Lab/Curiosity Shop is nice. Majora’s Mask is notable for being still the only 3D Zelda that makes use of the Zelda Overworld theme in its own overworld, Termina Field. Here, it’s a slightly eerie rendition that really grew on me. It was later used as one of the many songs of Super Smash Bros. Brawl.
The four temples and other side areas such as Ikana Castle and the Deku Palace all have their own themes, and are mostly strong – especially the two themes used for the Stone Tower Temple. Majora’s Mask has its own haunting theme, with a variation of this theme used for all four pre-dungeon areas before you rescue them from their turmoil.
Most sound effects that you’d expect from Ocarina of Time, like the sword, the items and ambience, remain the same. Link has a couple of new voice samples, and so too do all of his alternate forms. Many characters also have small, previously unheard voice samples when Link talks to them, and the bosses and mini-bosses do sound impressive. There’s quite a few new Ocarina songs as well. And yes, the Song of Storms is among the returning numbers.
PLUSES AND MINUSES
+ The foreboding atmosphere of the game is still worth talking about, in particular when the moon has nearly arrived and the colours of the world become surreal.
+ At least the transformation masks offer an interesting variety. You won’t want to divert from human Link very much, but the different transformations each have their own fleshed-out traits.
– The introduction 3 day cycle is just godawful. You play as Link in his human form for 20 seconds, before getting turned into Deku Link. From there, you’ve got to bring the Fairy back to the Great Fairy’s Fountain, find the 5 Bombers, get the Moon’s Tear and wait until the 3 day cycle is nearly over. Mercifully, it need only be done once.
– Both saving systems have their own potential drawbacks, with the Song of Time stripping you of your items and bringing you back to square one, and the Owl Statues being preciously temporary and not available everywhere.
– That Deku in Clock Town that stops you dead in your tracks if you so much as look at his Deku Bud. Hrrnngh!
The best thing I can say about Majora’s Mask is that there’s a whole host of things just waiting to annoy you, but at least many of them are optional. Half of the game’s required dungeons are non-offensive at best anyway, which is a further shame; at least stellar dungeons could have saved a lacklustre overworld and rescued the game, as some perceive to be the case with Twilight Princess.
As a black sheep of a series that’s been looked down upon for rehashing the same old story and gameplay, Majora’s Mask fares a little better. But when it tries to drag itself away from a formula that had already thrown up two of the most critically acclaimed games of all time, one could certainly observe that Majora’s Mask made things difficult for itself from the outset. It speaks volumes when a creepypasta about Majora’s Mask arguably garnered more fame and notability (and, unfortunately, regurgitated memes) than the game itself has done.
What Majora’s Mask tries to do new never really comes off: an interesting mask system, but more than half are consigned to be used for one Heart Piece or in order to receive a different mask. The transformation masks are interesting, but have enough drawbacks to make you want to stay human for the most part. A sidequest system that relies on character interaction unfortunately becomes untenable when such interactions are constantly being erased after a three day period. Despite the beauty of the tragedy, something I can genuinely appreciate, it’s something that simply holds the game back and hinders proper character development, strong as many characters are.
Only two dungeons of note, a disjointed story, an obnoxious saving system, the cryptic nature of discovering how characters need to be helped… I’m certainly not opposed to The Legend of Zelda trying new things, even if its best games follow a distinct pattern. And I did appreciate the game a little more when I allowed myself to relax and appreciated that my time wasn’t limited at all, that the game could be played with far more leisure than the impending apocalypse would seem to allow. But Majora’s Mask is simply a diversion too far. It’s fitting really: a journey into an almost ethereal, parallel world of Zelda, where things look and sound the same but are just that frustrating little bit off key.