Only two years after the incredibly successful release of The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time along came it's sequel: Majora's Mask. Taking over the role of Chief Director from series creator Shigero Miyamoto, Eiji Aonuma crafted a drastically different Zelda game using the same engine as OoT. Though previous games had slightly diverged from the Zelda formula, Majora's Mask is still the game that feels the most unique in the series. Is this download worth your time and 1000 Wii Points or will it's age, peculiarities and lesser focus on dungeon crawling prove to be too off putting?
The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask picks up the story soon after it's predecessor ends. Link has left the Kingdom of Hyrule in search of an unnamed old friend and finds himself robbed in his sleep by a mischievous imp, Skullkid. He awakens to find the legendary Ocarina of Time taken, and it's pilferer riding off on his horse, Epona, to make his escape. Link makes chase on foot, but finds himself transformed into a Deku Scrub (a small wooden creature) by the imp. He's wearing the stolen Majora's Mask, which gives him the powers of a god. Link eventually finds himself alone and disfigured in the foreign town of Termina, forced to embark on his darkest adventure yet.
As the town is setting for the annual Carnival of Time, it's residents are growing alarmed. An evil-looking moon overhead is coming ever closer to the town (talked into this murderous collision course by your friend, Skullkid) and threatens to destroy the village in 72 hours. The three day period lasts for roughly an hour of play time, but can be extended to almost three hours with the learning of an ocarina song. This gives Link precious little time to retrieve his lost belongings, transform himself back to his human form, and save the town from an imminent disaster.
This is where the games sharp turn to previous games occurs. There is no Ganon here, and no quest for the Triforce. Instead the focus is on time puzzles. At the end of the three day period, the moon crashes into the Earth, destroying the town and it's inhabitants. But recovering Link's Ocarina allows you to return to the very beginning for another attempt. During this travel back through time you'll keep your most of your weapons and items, but you'll lose replenishable items like arrows, bombs and any cash you have on you at the time. You'll spend as much time helping the townsfolk as you will in the game's four dungeons. Aiding the townies will net you new masks that grant different abilities when worn, like super-quick running or the ability to talk to animals. Bringing happiness to the citizens of Termina, however, is not always an easy task. Oftentimes, it takes learning the routines of the various characters or being in the right place at the right time with the right solution.
There are definite upgrades to the Ocarina engine on display. While so much looks identical, there is a much greater draw distance making the world seem fuller with less polygon drop-in. There are also far less of the low quality textures than were seen in the previous game. Many more special effects are here to impress, like some fantastic N64-era motion blur. It's the lighting, though, that is the most striking upgrade. As the time of day changes from dawn to day to dusk, or when it rains on the morning of the second day, the color of the environments change along with it. The sun makes everything appear more warm as it hangs closer to the horizon at the beginning and end of each day. And when the moon is out, the world is bathed in the blue of night. The sunlight is muted and murky when the sky is overcast, and gives the town a beautiful glow when it peaks out after the storm. It's such a subtle effect, but when you've got this game hooked into your HDTV with component cables and are viewing it in progressive scan, you'll be blown away by some vivid, old-school beauty.
If the lighting is the graphical cake, then the cherry on top is the moon itself. As the dementedly grinning satellite slowly gets closer and closer to the Earth, you will actually see it change from a small ball in the sky to an object so large that you won't be able to see more than half of it on the screen at a time. I found myself at points looking straight up into the sky and literally watching it grow. It's very subtle, but just like the minute hand on a clock, it's in constant movement.
And then there's the music. Oh heavens, is there the music. Koji Kondo outdoes himself with music that is every bit as much of a character in this game as Link himself. The highlight is the town's theme. It's a tune that changes in tone and intensity as the time moves forward. Starting out cheerful at the beginning, the tune becomes more hurried as time moves on to match the hurrying intensity of the worried citizens. In the final hours the music becomes a haunting mix of despair and terror as the moon completes it's descent into the town square. The dungeons and surrounding towns all have catchy themes of their own. And after being sadly missed in Ocarina of Time, the classic Zelda Overworld Theme makes it's return.
Sound design in this game is also incredible by N64 standards. Throughout the town you can hear the ambient noises of the citizens readying for the big carnival. Hammering and sawing can be heard in the town's square as set-pieces are being erected. Outside the town you'll hear the faint sounds of objects (for instance, a waterfall) grow louder as you approach, long before you even see them. This is old hat in this day of 5.1 surround sound. But this was quite a feat 10 years ago, when this game first debuted. It does play a key role, as certain characters have different footsteps, and you can be clued into where they are around you (and if they're entering doors nearby) just by keeping an ear out.
And this becomes important in the beginning, because the townspeople move in a set routine. And it's your job to help them achieve happiness to collect masks and progress through the game. These are various sidequests that are more fulfilling than in most any game I've ever encountered. This is because of the game's incredible personality. The residents of Termina all have their own backstories that you'll discover in different ways. It's very easy to become emotionally involved. When you hear the guilt-ridden confession of one of the characters, it actually feels good to have taken that weight off of that person's mind. Or in the most convoluted side-quest that involves tracking down a lost groom and ensuring a coming marriage ceremony, the sadness and urgency of the characters is incredibly touching. Playing through the game, I always felt a tinge of guilt each time I went back in time without stopping the moon from falling. I knew what dire fate I was abandoning these poor people to.
As with all Zelda games there is a system of advancement, where you'll need to acquire certain weapons and items to unlock specific areas. And this is managed all the more cleverly in how it effects not just dungeon advancement, but also how it relates to the interweaving storylines. A prime example is the massive boulder that blocks the way to a cattle ranch outside of town. A worker with a pick-ax diligently cracks away at it over time, but is unable to clear a path until the final day. When you finally arrive, you find the two sisters who run the ranch too distraught to speak. In order to find out what happened and, hopefully, prevent that fate, you've got to find a way through much earlier.
What Zelda game would be complete without dungeons to explore and bosses to conquer? Certainly not this one. While there are only four major dungeons, there is a lot of preparation that is involved before reaching them. They are located outside of Termina in each compass direction. Each is off of another village of creatures, such as the the Deku, the Goron and the Zora people. There are mysteries that must be solved before being able to enter the dungeons themselves. In these locations, you'll find yourself putting the spirits of the dead to rest which will grant you special masks which allow you to actually transform into these creatures at will. Each creature has it's own special powers, like the Goron rolling attack, or speeding through the water as a Zora. These are a lot of fun to play around with, and are necessary for advancing through certain areas and the dungeons themselves.
This is where time really becomes important. Because if you don't complete a dungeon before the time runs out, you'll have to start it all over again. This usually isn't a problem. But you may find yourself returning to a dungeon again just to unlock all of it's hidden secrets.
Controls contain the only tiny dent in the game's otherwise solid armor. They're not terrible by any means, but just a few tweaks could have helped this game achieve absolute perfection. With so many masks and items to sort through, selecting items often takes a bit longer than you wish it would. Having access to only three items and/or masks at a time, you'll be spending a lot of time in the start menu. Movement and combat are pretty tight for the most part. One exception would be the Goron's rolling ability, which often requires more precision than the game allows. There's also an issue that's carried over from the previous game when riding Link's horse, Epona. When jumping onto him, I often hit the gallop button for an immediate burst of speed. The problem is that the button is shared with the dismount button, so unless you've taken a step or two forward, you'll immediately jump off again. Conversely, you must wait for Epona to come to a complete stop before you're able to get on your feet again. As he doesn't stop on a dime, this feels like it takes longer than it should. These are minor gripes that don't affect the overall enjoyment of the game, but do add a noticeable level of frustration at times.
The boss battles vary between average and incredible. Some are basic Zelda fare, but some are even impressive by today's standards. One such boss is a 6 story tall beast named Goht. He runs circles around a giant arena, leaving you to try to chace after him with your rolling Goron form. It's a huge, epic battle that still stands up ten years later.
I first played Majora's Mask over three years ago on my N64. I honestly didn't know what to expect. What I found was an amazing game that immediately jumped into my top 10. It had some classic Zelda elements, but it's focus on a darker story and solid characterization really made it a richer experience. They could have removed all references to the franchise entirely, and it would have been every bit as good. Still, I'm very glad that the franchise turned out to be the Trojan Horse to get an amazing game into my system. The time puzzles are totally satisfying, the characters and storylines are so absorbing, and the presentation is so far above anything of it's time that I give this game my highest recommendation. Add to that the addition of crisper graphics and richer colors through the Wii's component cables and progressive scan, and an amazing game just got better.
My score (using the Destructoid Scale): 9.5/10
(Tomorrow or Saturday, I'll be posting a companion piece to the review as a Monthly Musing article. That will be spoiler-filled affair and offer more of an analysis of the characters and storylines. If you have played and enjoyed this game and would like to see it looked at in more detail, keep an eye out!)