The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask Review
The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask is most likely the best Zelda game ever made. In fact, Majora’s Mask may even be one of the best games ever made period, yet it lingers in relative obscurity, hidden in Ocarina of Time’s shadow. This is a very, very sad thing, because it’s easily the better game of the two; for every heartfelt moment, clever gameplay mechanic, and memorable song in Ocarina of Time, Majora’s Mask has an equivalent that makes Ocarina look bad by way of comparison. In addition, the number of dungeons has been scaled back to four (and they’ve been designed to be more unique and involved), with the rest of the gameplay taking place in towns and around the world. This keeps the game from feeling claustrophobic and dungeon-centric like Ocarina tended to be at times, all while allowing it to retain the positives that those dungeons contributed. As a result, the game world in Majora’s Mask feels much more alive and personal than in most Zelda games, more “Lost Woods and Saria” than it is “Water Temple and tedium.”
The most obvious place to start a review is the new time mechanic: Rather than having all the time in the world to do whatever you want, there’s a period of three in-game days that you’re given to save the world. You can rewind this to the beginning whenever you want (though at the cost of giving up your money and spare bombs/arrows/other consumable stuff like that in the process), and you’re also given the power to slow time down to the point where it doesn’t feel like a timer at all; you have more than enough time to clear dungeons and follow characters around to your heart’s content, so the time mechanic never becomes a hassle that keeps you constantly on your toes. Rather, it becomes something to plan around, especially since many of the characters in Majora’s Mask have their own schedules. Certain buildings are only open during certain times of the day, and certain events and items and characters are similarly time-bound, so you quickly learn to jump forward (in half-day increments) and back in time to complete sidequests. Many of these sidequests are actually quite personal, with the characters all having their own issues in a way that’s usually unheard of in Zelda games. The random characters you find littered around the world don’t feel like throwaway NPCs added in simply to further the plot, but actual, interesting characters who have their own stuff going on apart from you.
Solving people’s problems will often net you a mask, and masks are one of the more intriguing aspects of the game; each has its own unique properties, from causing enemies to ignore you to allowing you to run faster and a variety of other properties. There are even masks that allow you to change into a Deku scrub, Goron, and Zora, each form possessing unique skills that are used creatively in the game’s puzzles. The masks themselves are non-necessary (though the form-changing ones are acquired throughout the course of the story), and as such can be completely neglected. Collecting all of them is half of the fun, though, because it’s in the middle of chasing masks that you stumble on a number of the game’s better moments, moments where you’ll discover back story on the various NPCs. This never comes across as forced thanks to the three-day time period that you’re given; that time period is on account of the fact that in three days, the moon will crash into the world and destroy everything. People obviously suspect as much, so the people you’ll meet range from defiant to terrified, leading to the kind of atmosphere where these complete strangers can end up sharing personal details at the slightest provocation without it coming across as random or forced.
It’s pretty much common knowledge that Zelda games don’t exist for the sake of their stories, the majority of releases consisting of people telling you that you’re the fated hero and stuff, then sending you off to kill things in fancy dungeons. Link’s Awakening was the first to break out of that, creating characters that you grew to like and using them as emotional leverage in the overarching story, and Majora’s Mask goes back to that in a lot of ways; you aren’t some fated hero destined to save everyone, but more of a John McClane character who just happens to be in the right place at the wrong time, fighting to save the numerous people you meet. The story itself is well-written and far more character-involved than Ocarina of Time, and the main story has an overarching theme of friendship that works without becoming too sappy or obvious (I seriously hate that mushy friendship garbage when it’s pushed too hard in games/movies/whatever).
In Ocarina of Time, you were joined on your journey by Navi the fairy-slash-attention-whore, who constantly yelled “listen!” at you until you complied. Of course, when you finally did listen to her, she rarely had anything to say that you didn’t already know. In Majora’s Mask you wind up with another fairy companion, but this one is cynical and resents you at first (which is actually amusing). She’s much more restrained than Navi, and her insights are helpful more often than not. Additionally, she actually plays a part in the story, meaning she’s not just some random fairy helper who’s handed to you, but actually one of the main characters with a plausible reason for helping you out.
It’s easy to talk about the time system and the characters and all of that, but make no mistake—this is a Zelda game at its core. Once you’re in a dungeon, things become very familiar, with small keys and switches and doors with “boss key” locks on them. Ocarina of Time may have more dungeons, but the dungeons in Majora’s Mask are infinitely better. In fact, Snowhead Temple, the second dungeon in Majora’s Mask, is quite possibly my favorite dungeon in any Zelda game, ever, and the others aren’t far behind. The reason why the dungeons in this game are better is something that’s difficult to explain, but suffice it to say that the dungeons “flow” better than in Ocarina of Time in terms of pacing; you’re being rewarded with items and access to visually distinct areas often enough that they don’t become tiresome like the later dungeons in Ocarina (don’t lie—no one likes the Shadow Temple).
The graphics in Majora’s Mask are a small step up from Ocarina, with more effects and plenty of ambient lighting that helps to set the mood in several scenes. This makes sense, since this game is one of the few that require an N64 “expansion pack” in order to play. The models are pretty similar to the previous game, all things considered, but there are many more unique characters than in Ocarina, so you’ll see fewer identical twins running around. The lighting is a huge step up from the previous game, casting scenes in all kinds of colors that contribute heavily to the game’s overall (excellent) atmosphere, and there are plenty of colors otherwise. This is the opposite of realistic “brown” games that make everything look that one shade, instead throwing around an insane number of colors and that somehow work in the context of the world. The whole world is pretty and memorable and will leave a serious mark on you.
Music is one of the things that Zelda games are primarily known for, with musical themes like Zelda’s Lullaby and the Gerudo Valley capturing gamers even today (subsequent games even reuse many of the themes from previous games to capitalize on this). Majora’s Mask doesn’t disappoint on this front, either; though there are a few returning songs from the previous game, most of the music is entirely original and even better than in Ocarina. The Song of Healing and Oath to Order in particular are both haunting and beautiful, and a perfect complement to the darker tone of the game. There are even subtle little details in the music, such as the upbeat music in Clock Town (the central town you’ll be in) having minor chords added on the third and final day to reflect the impending castastrophe.
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