This. Fucking. Game. Yes, Breath of the Wild has somehow exceeded our expectations and is undoubtedly one of the greatest gaming achievements in some time. Yes, Ocarina of Time introduced Zelda in to the 3D landscape with never before seen graphics and cinematic game-play, making it one of the most influential video games ever. Yes, A Link to the Past is as close to a perfect gaming experience imaginable. Yes, Wind Waker, Twilight Princess, and The Legend of Zelda (NES) can all warrant compelling arguments for their place amongst the top of the franchise catalog. But ever since replaying Majora’s Mask ten years ago, I’ve been unable to keep replaying. No game has had such a lasting impact on my gaming sensibilities. It affirmed what qualities I’m most drawn to in video games (and Zelda as a whole) and introduced me to some new ones that I didn’t know I loved. It’s twisted, it’s depressing, it’s complex, and it’s unyielding. It’s the Empire Strikes Back to Ocarina of Time’s A New Hope. And like Empire, Majora’s Mask is my favorite entry in its series. Here’s why.
Majora’s Mask is immediately disarming. You are dropped in some fucked, alternative sort of Hyrule known as Termina. Your horse is taken by the Skull Kid (who had a minor role in OoT) along with two other dicks, his fairies Tatl and Tael. He also takes your Ocarina and turns you in to a goddamn wooden tumor or some shit (also known as a Deku Scrub) while demonstrating his strength and power with a mask that looks like it was designed to haunt the dreams your dreams have.
You run in to the Happy Masked Salesman (also a minor character from OoT) and he drops one of the most fitting, simple lines of dialogue in any game:
He promises he can return you to your former self once you return the mask to him, and tells you that you have three days to find the mask. On the third night you retrieve your ocarina from the possessed Skull Kid by relearning the Song of Time, but you don’t recover the mask. The Happy Mask Salesman teaches you a song you need to use throughout the game, The Song of Healing. It’s also one of my favorite video game tracks.
He then asks for the mask. You don’t have it. He loses his shit and tells you to find the mask or else. And the game begins. You’ve been taught in an elongated intro that there is an entirely new dynamic to your Zelda gaming experience, and that’s navigating a constant time restraint, and I fucking LOVE that. I love that you have three days before all is lost and that pressure is placed on you to make shit happen. You can travel throughout and manipulate the flow of time (speed it up or slow it down) but you can’t escape it. That feeling of helplessness and urgency compliments the somberness of the game. Characters, music, landscapes are simultaneously dower and colorful. And doomed. That’s the point.
As you can tell from the above, Link takes on multiple forms in this game; a Deku Scrub that can spin, shoot bubbles, and momentarily fly using strategically located flower patches across Termina, a Goron that can aggressively roll, punch, and stomp heavy objects, and a Zora who can swim and dive with mastery and shoot his fins like boomerangs. Each form has his own ocarina substitute; brass horns for Deku Link, drums for Goron Link, and a fish skeleton guitar for Zora Link. All these transformations occur using the power of masks, which are perhaps the most important components of the game.
Only the Deku, Goron, and Zora masks are necessary for beating the game, but all the others help out as well, some more than others. The Bunny Ears make you run faster, which is almost as invaluable as it is hysterical to look at. The Great Fairy mask attracts stray fairies in temples which supply you with upgrades on life and magic. The Blast Mask turns you in to a walking bomb for whenever you’re out and can spare some life damage. The Stone Mask…well you get the idea. They all offer something unique in what I would call, the most unique game in the series. It’s certainly the most disturbing.
Majora’s Mask is not some typical heroic tale. It’s not some ‘save the world from an oppressive bad guy’ story. Sure, you’re saving the world from impending doom, but the bad guy? The Skull Kid? His backstory is that he was some lonely, pathetic being that no one understood and was one day befriended by two fairies whom he developed a friendship with. They steal the mask from the Salesman and the mask corrupts him. It’s about loneliness! It’s about isolation and the importance of tolerance! It’s about how a lack of communication and understanding creates monsters, not that a monster is born and must be stopped at all costs. This game revolves around reflection more so than reaction. Link is not being put through any motions here. He’s just discovering a sad world, with a bunch of sad people, who are reflecting on themselves as they see their lives coming to an end. That’s ballsy for a game to do. Especially when you consider that Majora’s predecessor, Ocarina of Time, follows the typical hero’s journey to a fucking T (and OoT does this quite well in its own right) and the safest bet would have been just to make another OoT. Fuck that. I mean, Majora’s Mask did take OoT’s engine but it did something completely different with it. Story and tone became something entirely separate, while combat and mechanics were improved upon, particularly z-targeting.
This game had every fucking reason to do a straight up, safe sequel. OoT was universally hailed as perhaps the greatest game ever made and sold like mad. Instead of just staying in Hyrule, getting the tri-force, saving a princess, Majora’s Mask stood the fuck up to its bigger, stronger brother and did its own thing; a fucked, sad, perfect story with engaging game-play and a solid challenge. And despite its moroseness, all ends well.