Retro Review: The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask

Majora’s Mask is the followup to The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, which is considered by many to be the greatest game ever made. The sequel came out only about a year and a half later, and if you passed it off as a quick cash-in on the success of its predecessor your cynicism has cost you an experience that rivals any in the series. Aside from using the same basic engine, the two games are very different, and in several ways, Majora’s Mask is totally superior.

The Basics

Majora’s Mask was released towards the end of the life cycle of the Nintendo 64, in 2000. Despite this, and the fact that it required an Expansion Pak slotted into the controller, the game sold very well. On the other hand, I’m not exactly sure Nintendo could do anything to make a Zelda title sell poorly.

There is really not a whole lot different between Majora’s Mask and Ocarina of Time on a technical level, though Majora’s Mask does have an increased memory capacity and a slightly improved engine. I say “slightly” because this is something I’ve heard, but I honestly don’t see any improvement while playing the game.

It was a huge critical success even at the time, praised for being much moodier than past games in the series, and a brave direction for Nintendo to take a Zelda game. It isn’t very common at all that a company would be so willing to experiment with a very profitable franchise, but it was a successful experiment, and the game still sees almost universal acclaim.

Despite all of this, it is not nearly as popular, or as played, as Ocarina of Time.

So I went for a walk in the Lost Woods one day, and wouldn’t you know it…

The story begins innocuously enough. After the events of Ocarina of Time went all paradoxical and sent Link back to his childhood, his fairy companion, Navi (“Hey! Listen!”), buggered off into the woods for no apparent reason. Well, all right.

While players probably thought losing Navi was a great idea, Link decided that his top priority should be to find the fairy, so he set off into the woods and discovered a hidden land rife with mystery.

It seems more than a little contrived, taking the cheapest path to a save-the-princess (or fairy) storyline possible. If this was the story of Majora’s Mask I would be all riled up and bitter about it — but it’s not.

The aptly named land of Termina is three days away from its end, and there appears to be nothing you can do to stop it. A huge, very angry moon is careening towards the world, and everyone you come across is very much doomed to die.

Immediately, the idea that we’re here to find Navi is pretty much abandoned, and Link’s quest becomes one of staving off the seemingly inevitable apocalypse for as long as possible.

The story plays out on several different levels, and I think it’s told really well. The greater adventure gets lost sometimes to make room for smaller storylines specific to areas or characters, but this is very welcome. In Majora’s Mask these small stories are surprisingly mature and poignant themselves, and serve as more than the simple diversions they would be in other games.

The main storyline is wisely told without telling much at all.

Once more, with feeling

With the moon bearing down upon you, everything in Termina is on borrowed time. You are given just three days to save the world, and those days are less than 20 minutes apiece, so you’ve really got no chance at all. You can slow time considerably, but you will still have nowhere near the time needed to beat the entire game.

You will have to travel back to the first day repeatedly, resetting any impact you’ve had on the game world, while allowing you to keep most of your items.

I am not personally a big fan of the three-day cycle in how it affects gameplay, but I appreciate that it adds such a sense of urgency and despair to the experience. Without it, the game would have an entirely different vibe.

Majora’s Mask is clearly a great deal darker than Ocarina of Time, or any other Zelda title. It’s still full of humor, and far from realistic, but kids should be thoroughly spooked by the atmosphere and some of the enemies, or when they look up and notice the scowl on the moon’s face for the first time.

Adults are more likely to be disturbed by characters like Tingle or the Happy Mask Salesman, among a myriad creepy vibes to encounter. It’s nice (Tingle excepted) that Nintendo wasn’t afraid to add that kind of flavor to the game.

But I actually liked The Legend of Zelda

Aside from the atmosphere, Termina is only a little different from Hyrule. The same races, and many of the same characters and enemies, populate the world, which is itself roughly equivalent to Hyrule. There is a typical forest area for the Deku scrubs, a coastal region for the Zora, and so on.

Some diehard neeeeerrrds speculate that Termina is an alternate universe parallel to Hyrule, and I’ll argue with them for hours when I’m not pretending to be way too cool for it, but the truth is that nobody really knows what or where Termina is and it doesn’t affect the game anyway.

Masks play a huge role, as you may have guessed, and they add a lot to the flavor of the world. More importantly, they add a depth and richness to the gameplay, as Link’s skill set changes completely depending on which mask he has equipped.

Most of the time it’s very obvious which mask you need to use at any given moment, but it’s not really about the strategy of it at all. The masks just allow the game to feature a much wider array of mechanics, and they’re used well without being overused.

On the whole the game is a bit more complex, and a bit more difficult than Ocarina of Time. It can be very unforgiving, with the assumption being that players have already beaten the first game, and some of the side objectives demand nothing short of perfection (those goddamn beavers).

It’s not a great starting point for a player new to the Zelda franchise, though they should still be able to beat it, given that they don’t mind being a little lost at times.

Getting lost sounds fun! Let’s lose ourselves in ADVENTURE!

When I say you might get a little lost, I don’t mean that Termina is a more expansive world than Hyrule, primed for exhaustive exploration, because it’s not.

Majora’s Mask is perhaps actually a bit more linear than Ocarina of Time, with a very steady progression from one activity hub to the next. This can be a good or a bad thing by your preference. I can tell you that while I’m usually one for a massive game world I will never be able to explore fully, I actually loved the very directed pacing of this game.

Where players tend to get lost is not so much wondering which area they should be heading for, but when they are right on top of whatever it is they’re supposed to be doing, since the game won’t hold your hand much at all. Again, this can be good or bad, but moments of triumphant success should be enough to forgive any time you spend struggling.

As a result of the three day time limit, you will find yourself doing some things more than once, and this is where things can be repetitive and frustrating. It’s not a whole lot of fun when you realize you can’t finish a task yet, and will have to return later to start from the beginning of the sequence when you have the necessary equipment.

The game does give you some shortcuts to set the world as you’d like it a little more quickly the next time around, but it can no less be tedious.

Sounds hard

This is definitely a little more challenging than Ocarina of Time, but it’s the good kind of challenge. The game will test your intelligence far more often than your reflexes.

Enemies aren’t really all that tough. There are some fun boss battles, but nothing a skilled player should die to more than once, and nothing really any more challenging than in Ocarina of Time. Combat is fun, and deeper than in other games of the era, but not especially hard.

The temples, too, are pretty much standard fare for a Zelda game, full of puzzles and memory exercises, with a bit of violence now and then to keep things from getting monotonous.

I should point out that there are fewer dungeons here, though, with only four main temples in the game. However, you will spend an equal amount of time dealing with challenges out in the world or in mini-dungeons, which give you an experience much the same.

Look how short this section is. This section is for negative comments.

My only real gripe with the game is its graphics, which are about the same quality as in Ocarina of Time but with a darker palette. On the whole, I actually think it looks a bit worse. It just hasn’t aged well at all, and the generally murky colors don’t help with that. Background textures are very ugly, and character models aren’t much better. There are brighter, happier areas here and there, which tend to look better.

Icons and the like are all sharp enough that it’s not really a hindrance in any way but the aesthetic, but still, it feels extremely muddy and dull, and the game would probably be a better one with a facelift.

The Verdict

I’ve basically spent this entire review comparing Majora’s Mask to Ocarina of Time, and the two really are just as similar as they are different. What you may wish to take away from that is that Majora’s Mask does, in fact, compare to Ocarina of Time, and is itself one of the greatest adventure games ever made.

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