The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask was easily the most difficult game in the series to play so far. Not that it is a hard game, in fact most of it is quite easy. Rather than the moment to moment being hard, the difficulty is found in the overarching meta-game. In many ways, Majora’s Mask is a fascinating and unique game. Its Groundhog’s Day-esque 3 day cycle and darkly bleak tone is unlike anything else in the series, if not video games in general. Unfortunately, while those things make the game unforgettable and one of a kind, it also sometimes makes it no damn fun to play. Majora’s Mask is an excellent game, maybe the best in the series, but I’m not sure I’d ever want to play it again.
It is strange that unique is one of the first words that come to mind when thinking about Majora’s Mask, considering that the bulk of the assets used to create the game are recycled from Ocarina of Time. Characters, weapons and enemies are just lifted from that previous game and repurposed in this one. There are some new things, but for the most part it is made out of Ocarina’s leftovers. This isn’t a complaint; it is no different from the similarities among the Gameboy games or the two DS games. It does, however, add to the weird, dark tone of the game. Everything is familiar, yet slightly different. It is unsettling, disturbing even. Far from being a problem, the recycled content just adds the nightmare feeling the game has going on.
Depending on how you count it, Majora’s Mask either has the smallest set of items or the biggest. Link doesn’t get all that much to work with in this game, outside of series mainstays like the bow, bombs and hookshot. It is simple, vanilla. But the game also has the masks. There was a mask or two in Ocarina of time, mostly as window dressing for a sidequest. As the title would suggest, the Masks are a bigger deal in Majora’s Mask. Most are again sidequest material. They grant small powers or abilities and have only a few uses over the course of the game. Then there are the transforming masks. There few masks let Link change from into one of the other races that populate Hyrule. (I know this game isn’t technically in Hyrule, but the point is the same) Being a Deku Scrub or Zora significantly changes everything about how Link moves and fights and just how the game plays. The only thing close to in the rest of the series is the Wolf form in Twilight Princess. The masks have to be included when thinking about the game’s layout of tools. And despite only having a handful of dungeons, it makes good use of the limited toolset. The dungeons, though, are almost an afterthought in Majora’s Mask. They all really well designed, but the player spends such a small amount of time in them that they are probably the least memorable part of the game.
I guess that brings me to the game’s most prominent feature, the three day cycle. In Majora’s Mask, the Mask-addled Skull Kid is crashing the moon into the city of Termina in three days. Once you get to the end of the three days, or anytime you feel like it, you have to play the Song of Time to rewind things back to the start. Unfortunately, all the characters reset to where they were at the start. Link loses all ammo and rupees, though he keeps key items like weapons and masks. This is the aspect of the game that is most often singled out for praise, and it is pretty great. It really makes the game stand out and play different than any other Zelda. It really let Nintendo make a living world for this game. In other games, NPCs wait around for the player to activate them. Sure, modern games may give them a routine to go through, but Majora’s Mask gives them three days’ worth of life. They have goals and stories. They’re stories even change, usually slightly, based on what the player does even if it doesn’t directly affect them. The three day cycle gives the world life. Clock Town, even though it is getting ready for a big celebration, slowly empties as that grimacing moon bears down on the town. There is a palpable feeling of desperation and terror as the days go by.
The tone of the game is unlike anything else. I’ve already mentioned that several times, but it is so very true. There is a darkness to Majora’s Mask. You don’t just get a mask that lets you turn into a Zora, you watch a Zora die in your arms on the beach having failed in his attempt to save his people’s eggs. You don’t just help them out, you take his face, become him, and try to right things. Even if you are successful, he’s still dead. If you don’t make it to the Ranch by the end of the first night, then all of its inhabitants are so traumatized by its … ghost attack that they are unable to speak or interact. Everywhere you look there is a dark and tragic story happening that unless the player intervenes to stop it. This where the extra level of darkness comes in, because every time you reset the clock, all the work you did is undone. Like Sisyphus, everything repeats, but there is not enough time to save everybody. When you save one person or group of people, you condemn another to some hellish tragedy. There is no winning, there is no real progress. You mist simply use the people you need to use to achieve your goals, which incidentally end up saving everybody.
While the repetitive nature of the game set up works for world building and story and tone, I find it intensely annoying to actually play. Sure, a player that truly knows the game can beat it with only the smallest amount of redoing things, but a player less familiar might have to do some things over and over again. Like beating the boss of a temple. Once a temple is beaten, the area of the map where it’s located is changed dramatically. The swamp is freed from its poison; spring finally comes to the mountain, etc. There are treasures that can only be found or sidequests that can only be done once the boss is beaten. Which means that unless you clear the area completely after beating it, you’ll have to beat the boss again to right things, then go looking. It cries out for the use of a guide. That is how I find a lot of Majora’s Mask; great from a conceptually stance but somewhat tedious to actually play.
I can say that The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask is an unreservedly a great game. Everyone should play it at least once. But now having beaten it for the second time, I would be fine with never playing it again. There is a barrier between the player and enjoying Majora’s Mask, a barrier of effort. It is a game that takes real effort to make any progress in, not really a game made for relaxing play. It is definitely not my favorite Zelda, but it is so unique and creative that it is impossible to dismiss the people who call it theirs.