Over the past couple months, I've been giving some much deserved attention to a series I've brushed off for years. It's not that I dislike Legend of Zelda games, it's just that I could never find the drive to actually play one long enough to get into it. After conquering Link's Awakening in anticipation of the 3DS remake of Ocarina of Time, I finally realized that once you get past the boring stuff at the beginning and get all kinds of cool gadgets, the game gets a lot more fun.
Well, Link's Awakening did, anyway. I still hate Ocarina of Time.
When I said earlier that I don't dislike the series, I mean just that; I have found what little I've played of most of the Zelda games to be solid experiences. I do, however, dislike Ocarina of Time. I didn't like it when I was a kid and I haven't liked it any the numerous times I tried to drudge through it over the years. I've always felt my hatred was a little unjust, considering the most time I had actually spent playing the game was at the fishing hole (the princess can wait, I have fucking fish to catch) and never even finishing the third dungeon as child Link.
Now, more than a month after I shelled out $40 for a prettier version of a game I hate, I can finally tell the world that I have completed Ocarina of Time. I dragged my feet through the first two dungeons, told the fishing hole we should see other people, made my way into adulthood, and defeated Ganon.
Did it get better after I broke new ground? Yes.
Is it the best Zelda like everyone says it is? Hell no.
I know "everyone" is a broad term and there will probably be a number of you (especially on a gaming site) will tell me that I'm preaching the the choir and it's not your favorite either. Good for you. There will also probably be a number of you that will tell me that Ocarina of Time was your first truly epic 3D experience when it came out in 1998 and that I should have my gaming privileges revoked for thinking it's anything short of a masterpiece. Good for you, too. I'm not trying to tell you your opinion is wrong. An opinion is an opinion. What I do hope to accomplish with this post, however, is to bring to light a somewhat less revered title in the series that has very recently become my favorite Zelda (one of my favorite games, even).
I want you to play Majora's Mask.
Ocarina is what I consider the baseline of what Zelda is. The environments are kind of bland (seriously, walking across an empty Hyrule sucks), the story is overdone (you are hero, go defeat great evil, save princess), and the gameplay is solid (but nothing special). Now, this is speaking in today's terms. In 1998, Ocarina was probably pretty justified in the praise it received. The environments were huge, the story was epic, and the gameplay was surprisingly competent in 3D during a time where a lot of other games were not so lucky. Toss in the fact that it's a game in an already beloved series and it's impossible for it not to print money.
Majora's Mask, on the other hand, is different. It's not the same quest to defeat Ganon that Link takes on in most of his other games. It's not trying to push the Zelda series onto an unknown territory (as A Link to the Past, Ocarina of Time, and Wind Waker did). It's a unique story paired an improved version of an already solid engine. It's what I would call a masterpiece.
In Majora's Mask, young Link leaves Hyrule in search of a friend (assumedly Navi) and runs into a Skull Kid wearing a strange mask and two fairies. The Skull Kid steals the Ocarina of Time, Link's trusty horse Epona, and turns Link into a Deku Scrub. Tatl, one of the fairies hanging out with the Skull Kid, gets separated from her brother, Tael, and reluctantly becomes Link's companion for the quest in hopes that she can reunite with her brother.
Right away, it becomes pretty obvious that there's a lot more going on here than in Ocarina. The opening cutscene instantly sucked me in and had me playing for 12 solid hours my first night, with the rest of my free time following suit until yesterday when I finally finished the game.
Once Deku Link and Tatl make their way out of the cave the Skull Kid leaves them in, they find themselves inside a clock tower in the middle of Clock Town, which is the centerpiece of the parallel world of Termina. The Happy Mask Salesman from Ocarina is the first familiar face to greet you and certainly not the last. It's obvious that a lot of elements from Ocarina return for the sake of cutting development costs, but it's forgivable with how cleverly they write the characters into the story.
You see, Termina is filled with people that resemble the citizens of Hyrule, but with a lot more depth to their characters. Remember that lady in Ocarina who was allergic to her own runaway chickens, forcing you to retrieve them for her? In Majora's Mask, her name is Anju and she runs the town Inn. She's a troubled woman who is engaged to a man named Kafei, who is nowhere to be found. Anju's grandmother won't eat anything she cooks because she's a terrible cook and her mother suspects Kafei ran away with Cremia, the adult counterpart to Ocarina's Malon who also works on a ranch.
Are you lost yet? I hope not, because that was only a brief summary of one character and there are a lot more. Most of them are alternate universe Hylians and they vary depth-wise, but they all have their time to shine. There's a lot of subtle nods to Ocarina that fans especially will like, such as the minor event that involves Link getting a room key thanks to a reservation he didn't make. If you hang around for a couple minutes after receiving the key, you can catch a confused conversation that a Goron named Link (sort of like the son Daruna named after you in Ocarina?) and Anju have about the status of his room.
The game is ripe with these moments, both subtle and important, but many still pass it off as too hard or frustrating. Why? Well, the biggest threat that the Majora's Mask-wearing Skull Kid imposes on the land of Termina is the angry moon falling from the sky and Link has only three days until it hits.
Only three days? How could anyone enjoy all the intricacies of this world if you have to beat it in three in-game days?
I think this is a pretty common misconception about Majora's Mask (or at least, one that I had before I started it). Once Link confronts the Skull Kid as the moon is about to fall on the third day, he retrieves the Ocarina of Time and gains the ability to speed up, slow down, and restart the three day cycle. The only catch to this is that restarting a three day cycle will send Link back to the Clock Tower with the world mostly as if he had never touched it. The townspeople no longer remember him and any story arcs are reset.
It's not as though you can't make progress, however. All of your key items (such as weapons and gadgets acquired from temples), heart pieces, masks, and songs you've learned persist through each restart, making it easy to blow through parts you've already done in a different cycle. Also, once you beat a temple in one cycle, you're never required to go back unless you want to for sidequest reasons. Really, all that's lost in restarts are rupees (which can be placed in a bank), ammo for your weapons, and stuff you have in bottles.
Another complaint that seems common is about the save system, which is also unfounded. Every cycle restart saves your game and a number of owl statues spread equally around Termina will offer a quick suspend save if you just want to give it a rest without halting your cycle completely. Hell, after I got the Song of Soaring (which allows you to teleport to any visited owl statue), I thought the save system was even more intuitive than Ocarina's (which usually dumps you in one of two predetermined locations, often forcing you to make a long trek back to where you need to be).
Finally on the list of excuses I usually hear from my friends is that the game is simply too difficult. Well, if you were expecting another cakewalk like Ocarina, then yes, it is too difficult. Majora's Mask does a perfect job of picking up right where Ocarina left off in terms of challenge. Link's grown up a bit since his last adventure, which is pretty evident when he holds his Hylian Shield like a man rather than strapping it to his back like a toddler. If you want any more proof of Link's maturity as a warrior, just watch him jump a big gap. Link has some sweet moves now. Moves that seem much cooler than anything adult Link can do, because he developed them himself (rather than timeskipping his way to badassness).
The game really just continues the difficulty curve expecting you just beat Ocarina (which I did) and doesn't waste time teaching you the basics. Some of the crazy mask abilities you gain as you change into the other races may take a little getting used to, but the basic dungeon crawling and boss fighting is about where it should be at this point.
There's a whole second layer to the game that was also derided as being impossible to manage without a guide by a few of my friends, but I think a lot of that thinking can be chalked up to age. You see, the people you're trying to save are troubled. Not solely by the moon's decent, but also by their own personal problems that Link has to fix. Ocarina's main goal was pretty straightforward and simple, but Majora's is quite a bit more convoluted.
This is made easier thanks to the Bomber's Notebook, which records key interactions with the people of Termina and helps you figure out when and where you need to talk to them in order to help them out. This, I think, is the main reason I love this game so much. Termina is not a static world like Hyrule was. It's people move and interact with each other on a schedule that repeats every three days. Old ladies are mugged. Concerts are cancelled. Toilet paper is needed. Townspeople argue. Mail is delivered. Fiancees go missing. Shit happens. A lot of shit happens.
Helping the people with their problems using various masks rewards you with even more masks, heart pieces, and sometimes just simple character development. No matter what the prize is, I found all these sidequests more rewarding than anything I did in Ocarina. More heart pieces and more item collection didn't really matter outside of completion percentage in that game, but in Majora's Mask, every thing I do is emotionally rewarding. I found the characters interesting and healing their wounds was always worth the effort.
From a more gameplay-oriented standpoint, I was also always excited to get new masks. Some of them serve no other purpose than to communicate a point to the characters (an interesting way to bypass Link's muteness), but a lot of them to fun little things that have varying usefulness. Obviously, all the different race masks were fun to fool around with (Deku Mask allows flying from predetermined locations, Goron Mask allows high speed rolling, and Zora Mask allows some really fluid swimming), but some less important masks got a lot of use as well. The Bomb Mask lets Link explode at the push of a button, which was nice when I had more health than bombs. The Bunny Hood let me move double speed though areas I had already visited. There were even a few masks that would make a specific group of Redeads dance, which was pretty funny (these masks have other uses, obviously, but that was a fun little bonus).
I won't spoil all of them for you, but there are 24 total masks and a lot of them are really neat. I managed to finish the game with all of them (though the final mask you receive for obtaining every other mask disappointingly makes the final boss a huge pushover) with minimal use of guides. There were four at the end that I didn't have (excluding the final one) and once I looked them up, I found that I was on the right track for two of them (had I wracked my brain for another hour, I probably would have figured them out) and the other two were a little out there (both were from characters outside of town, one literally invisible and the other a little hard to see with the N64's limited draw distance).
Majora's Mask is easily one of the best games I played this year and probably would have been the best I played in 2000 had I been a bit older. I think it's a lot harder as a kid to wrap your head around some of the interactions in a living, breathing world like Termina and the relationships therein (I think the description for the Pendant of Memories described it best, saying something like "As a child, you don't really understand these adult matters, but you had better give this to Anju anyway"). Today, however, being able to take something away from all the hints the characters give me in their dialog and understanding that I can follow them to key events if need be, my experience was nothing short of magical.
There's a lot of humor, sadness, even life lessons to be taken away from Majora's Mask, making it a much more engaging experience than Ocarina. Even in the main quest to the four temples, there's a lot of fantastically emotional stuff going on with the different races (especially during the events that grant you the Goron and Zora masks, I was close to tears for both of them). I do feel sort of like the ending message they were going for (at least the one I took away) was kind of lost in it being a family-friendly Nintendo game, but Majora's Mask certainly makes you think about what you're doing. Are you accomplishing anything by helping these people? Especially when your good deeds are reset every three days? There are also instances where you need to let misfortune befall others if you want to see one person's happy ending, so there really isn't a way to save everyone in some masterful three-day speed run.
In the end, Majora's Mask isn't really about Link, but about the people that he helps. Honestly, I think it's one of the best uses of a silent protagonist in a game I've ever seen. The journey isn't quite as epic as Ocarina, but it plays up everything else a lot more. Fantastic plot, fantastic characters, fantastic challenges....really, everything you could want from a video game. It's not anywhere near as accessible as Ocarina, but if you stick with it, I think you'll find it's one of the best Zelda experiences around.
If Nintendo decides to go through with a Majora's Mask remake on the 3DS, I'll buy it on day one without regret. Ocarina of Time 3D was a solid game, but no more so than it was in 1998. The game is still a landmark title in the series, but I don't think it's aged well. Don't get me wrong, fans of the game who played it when it came out can praise it all they want. I think it's fine to relive fond memories of a good game. But I also hope those same people will give Majora's Mask the attention it deserves now that they've grown up and can appreciate all it has to offer. It's a solid sequel, one that I personally think outdoes its predecessor in every way, but maybe it was just released a little too soon after Ocarina to avoid being overshadowed.
Majora's Mask is nothing short of fantastic. If you like Zelda, you owe it to yourself to play it. Even if you don't like Zelda, there's a lot to love here (just take me for example, this was the first Zelda title to break into my very exclusive favorites list). Dig up a copy for your N64 or wait for the 3DS remake. Either way, make it happen. You won't regret it.