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Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask (Nintendo 64 & 3DS)

Only months after liberating the Kingdom of Hyrule from the evil clutches of Ganondorf, Link, the Hero of Time sets off on another journey. He travels deep into the Lost Woods on his trusty steed, Epona, in search of a dear friend. Link is suddenly caught off guard by a Skull Kid (imp of the Lost Woods) wearing a mask and two young fairies, Tatl and Tael. The Skull kid takes Link's magic Ocarina and horse before riding off into the woods. Link gives chase and follows the Skull kid into a strange new land. But not before the Skull Kid uses powerful magic to transform the young hero into a Deku. With the reluctant help of the fairy Tatl and the mysterious words of a traveling mask salesman, Link sets out to explore the land of Termina to find the Skull Kid and put an end to his malicious mischief.

But...an even greater threat is looming on the horizon. In the form of a menacing moon that threatens to annihilate the land in three days time. Will the Hero of Time be able to restore what was lost or will time run out?

Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask is the sixth installment of Nintendo's Legend of Zelda franchise. The second of which that was originally released for the Nintendo 64 in the year 2000. The game was co-directed by Eiji Aonuma and Yoshiaki Koizumi, with Shigeru Miyamoto acting as the game's producer. Koji Kondo also returned to arrange/compose the game's musical score.

 Still hot off the success of Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (which had taken 4 years to make) Shigeru Miyamoto expressed an interested in creating a Zelda spin-off title that could be made in a single year. While Miyamoto wanted to create a remastered version of Ocarina of Time (which would later be released under the name Master Quest) that would rearrange the dungeon design to give players a new experience. Eiji Aonuma, on the other hand, wanted to create something new. Aonuma worked on this new idea in secret until he worked up the courage to ask Miyamoto. Miyamoto agreed on the condition that Aonuma would make sure the game was finished within a year's time. Considering it had taken 4 years to complete Ocarina of Time and the fact he had never directed a Zelda game before, Aonuma was daunted by the proposition but accepted it regardless.

Aonuma was allowed to utilize all the same character models and art assets from Ocarina of Time to complete the game. In addition, Yoshiaki Koizumi came on to the project while working on a game of his own. A game that would involve players interacting with a much smaller game world but could be explored over and over again as time passes (a sort of Groundhog Day inspired mechanic). Koizumi agreed to help Aonuma with his Zelda project on the condition that this mechanic would be used in the game. In spite of the stressful schedule to finish the game in a year (including some very vivid dreams), Aonuma was able to successfully finish Majora's Mask in a year. It has since gone on to receive critical acclaim as one of the darkest games in the history of the franchise and is well loved by fans.

So much so that years later, after the successful 3DS remake of Ocarina of Time, a petition was put out to Nintendo to remake Majora's Mask in a similar fashion. The petition got 10,000 signatures in 5 days. Though it took a few years, Majora's Mask was re-released for the Nintendo 3DS using the new upgraded character models of the 3DS titles.

Though Ocarina of Time took the Legend of Zelda community by storm in how well it brought the land of Hyrule into the 3rd dimension, many fans would argue that Majora's Mask is the superior of the two Nintendo 64 games. Not because it captured something iconic from the original games but because it was allowed to be different while still keeping the core mechanics fans had become familiar with. That difference being the darker tone, the Three-Days time traveling mechanic, and a story that was as unsettling as it was personal.

I admit, for a good while, I was not overly fond of Majora's Mask. I didn't hate it, but the freedom of limitless exploration I had found in Ocarina of Time had appealed to me more. I enjoyed riding in the fields of Hyrule and fishing for an explicable number of in-game days. So the idea of limiting my time to do specific side quests before time ran out clashed with what I thought was enjoyable. Though as I grew older, I would come to appreciate the story and chances the developers were taking with a sequel that could have potentially divided fans.

Which begs the question. What is it about Majora's Mask that makes it such a beloved title, in spite of the limitations put on its development? How is it that a game that by all circumstances should have been a flop ( a single year development time, reused assets) succeed to the point that it potentially surpassed its predecessor?

Let's put on our transformation masks and find out!

How does the gameplay tell the story?

Traditional Zelda gameplay gives the players control of the central hero Link (though you can give him any name you like) guided by the narrative to explore the land. Finding useful tools in order to solve puzzles both in and out of dungeons. Culminating into one final challenge that will require all the player's tools and skills in order to overcome. Though Majora's Mask is still a Zelda game at its core (utilizing all the same core gameplay mechanics as Ocarina of Time) there are several unique flourishes that give the game its identity. Primarily the collection/use of masks and the above mentioned time manipulation mechanic. The latter of which plays a big role in achieving the former.

The world of Termina is large, full of unique characters with their own stories and problems. The game rewards you by going out of your way to talk with them, follow their day to day routine and find out the best way to resolve whatever situation they face. Succeeding gives the player access to new tools and masks which can be used in a dungeon or to just simply help another character. The game even assists players in keeping track of the characters encountered by providing a journal that records important events of each character in the story. So that you can return to it later even if you may not have everything you need to accomplish your mission just yet.

Part of what makes Majora's Mask so special is how all these short stories build on the main narrative, reinforcing the overall theme.

What is that theme you may ask?

To put it simply, it's loss.

Or more specifically, how different people can react to loss.

Whether it's losing a close friend or grappling with the fact that the world is ending, almost every character you encounter is going through a difficult situation (or will be if you don't stop the moon).

The variety of solid character moments found in Majora's Mask is staggering and will definitely pull at the heartstrings. Moments such as: reuniting a couple who choose to face the end of the world together or a loving older sister accepting her younger sister as an adult. Sharing an implied alcoholic beverage with her (knowing full well that they will not survive the night).

A loss is also the core motivation behind both the games' protagonist and antagonist. But like any good protagonist/antagonist conflict even though their motivations are similar, their actions resulting from their loss is what defines them. The Skull Kid, confused and enraged by the loss of his friends, lashes out at others. Pulling malicious pranks for the sake of justifying his feelings. Link on the other hand, goes out of his way to help people that are, in a way, going through similar hardships. His own sense of loss fueling his desire to help others and giving them hope. The message communicated through the story and gameplay is a powerful one and I imagine is one of the many reasons this game is regarded as a classic. Whether the fan theories hold up of each section of the game representing the five stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance) is unclear but it is not hard to see why people would believe that.

What makes the animation unique?

Since there are two versions of this game, I will cover both in terms of animation.

Nintendo 64

 There isn't' too much to say in the animation department for this version of the game since a lot of the models come directly from the original Ocarina of Time. Having been the very first Zelda game to be in a fully 3-dimensional environment, some of it was good, other parts not so much (character expressions, in particular, could be hard to read). I also imagine that the impending release deadline didn't leave a lot of room for too many additions to the game's animations (outside of what was absolutely necessary). That being said, having gone back and played the game again, I'm personally shocked at just how much the animation team was able to do. From the first 10 minutes of the game, you know your in for a different experience just from the animation alone. The dynamic chase scene in the Lost Woods, Links' new jumping animations (which throw in a few creative flips) and even the fairies who, despite not having faces, are leagues more expressive with just how they move. Between the Nintendo 64 version of Ocarina of Time and Majora's Mask, the latter's animation has a lot more personality to it. Once again, tying into the personal theme of the story.

It may not have aged well, but for anyone interested in early 3D game animation the N64 version of Majora's Mask is a good example of what the Nintendo 64 was capable of at its peak.

Nintendo 3DS

Once again, the models used here are distinctly similar to the reworked models for the 3DS re-released Ocarina of Time. The charming animations from the first game are still present but given a considerable amount of polish. Even some new animations were added, such as charming idle animations for Link in his various forms (Normal, Deku, Goron, and Zora). Facial animations are considerably better, with Link coming off as less creepily stoic but more as a quiet yet charming youth. Animation cycles, particularly character walk cycles have a lot more bounce to them. Looking like they are actually walking on solid ground than a series of flat polygons.

If you're looking for the definitive visual interpretation of Majora's Mask, the 3DS version has got you covered.

What are the games flaws/problems?

One of the biggest ones, in regards to both versions of the game, can be the dungeon design. Legend of Zelda dungeons are typically very straightforward, but there can be the occasional hard ball puzzle that may take a little while to figure out. Any dungeon typically involving altering water levels can potentially lead to a few headaches.

Having to go back and forth between different side missions can also be frustrating since you can have so many going on at once. The 3DS version fixes this issue, however, giving players an easy way to keep track of missions, schedules, rumors, and even leave alarms for important sidequests. The added option to pick the specific hour you can skip forward in time also keeps the action going so your not waiting several in-game hours for something to happen.

Visually for the N64 version, there can be a problem with lighting. The emphasis on heavy shadows does build for good atmosphere but can be problematic when navigating a dark corner of a dungeon. This is also fixed in the 3DS version.

Final Thoughts

Despite its hectic development history, Majora's Mask is regarded as one of the best in the franchise and rightly so. It managed to build on what was already established but provided a mature narrative and theme for fans to explore. Crafting a world that, in its own weird way, felt authentic and personal. It wasn't dark for the sake of being dark, it was depicting very real fears and ideas that its audience (no matter how old) could relate to. Add in the spooky imagery of that haunting moon, the creative mask mechanic, and you have a game that is perfect for the Halloween season (or really, any season you feel like playing it).

FORMATSNintendo 64, Nintendo 3DS
FROM Nintendo

IN A NUTSHELL: Embracing courage & kindness is the sure fire way to avoid a terrible fate.

For the Fans

Creative Adaptations

  1. Majora's Mask: Terrible Fate Animated Short (Released in November 2016) - created by Emberlab.
  2. M. Bulteau's "Majora" Opera. Fan project - (Still In Development). An adaptation of Majora's Mask from the perspective of Kafei as he looks to find his promised wedding mask.
  3. Theophany "Times End" Majora's Mask Remixed. Two albums of movie quality re-orchestrations of musical tracks from the game.
  4. "Ke$ha Plays Majora's Mask" -  A parody of Kesha's Tik Tok. Lyrics by brentalfloss, and performed by Madeline "Madinthemoon" Olsen.
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