Taking Off the Mask

As much as I was looking forward to the release of The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask 3D, there was a little piece of me that was terrified. This was the game I’d held up as literally the best game ever made for years– how much of that was nostalgia? In the decade since I’d last played it, I’ve grown a lot, as has my understanding of games. What if I’ve been selling a false bill of goods all this time? So I fired up this remade classic with no shortage of anxiety, wondering if perhaps I was going to have to make some apologies for my recommendations.

Turns out Majora’s Mask is still the best game ever made, and by such a wide margin it’s almost hilarious.

Majora’s doesn’t need threats to scare you. It doesn’t need gore and mutilation to horrify you, and it doesn’t need to be hard to pressure you incessantly. It is a master class in atmosphere, a deep dive into the consequences of one of gaming’s greatest series, and is partially responsible for our modern vision of an open world game. It is the only Zelda game built with a message, and the only one to date brave enough to break the mold. If you thought Wind Waker was an unconventional Zelda, Majora’s will stagger you. Truth be told, its daring originality will catch you off guard even if you think you’re prepared for it.

So enough with the energetic declarations of superiority. What is The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask, and how does it play with series tradition? Majora’s is a direct sequel to Ocarina of Time- the only direct sequel in the Zelda series- and sees a disenfranchised Link journeying away from Hyrule to Termina, a strange place that feels like a distorted mirror of his homeland. Familiar faces are everywhere, but none of them mean what he’s used to. He’s once again tasked with saving the world from disaster, but it’s a world unknown and uncomfortable, with little sympathy for the green-clad stranger. And when the job’s done, he simply walks away, and Termina forgets he was ever there.

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A big part of what makes Termina so unsettling is how many character models are reused from Ocarina as completely new characters. Both lands have identical redheaded farm girls- Malon from Hyrule, and Romani from Termina. But while Malon is innocently delighted at the odd “fairy boy” that visits her farm, Romani’s interest is far more pragmatic. When not even her big sister Cremia will believe that their farm is hours away from disaster, a well-armed stranger is her only hope to protect her home and family from the otherworldly creatures preparing to assault it. Should Link fail through absence or inadequacy, the beings will abscond with the farm’s cows and Romani herself. After a day they will return her to her home, safe but not sound. Whatever was done to Romani during her captivity has damaged her mind, and she’s barely coherent when you speak to her. Her older sister can do naught but regret disbelieving her sibling.

It’s a particularly disturbing example, but it’s representative of the dramatic differences in how characters are used. The Zora princess Ruto from Ocarina is reused as Majora’s Lulu, a Zora songstress who has lost her voice. Instead of a lady in a tower waiting to be saved, Lulu seeks the rescue of her eggs- her unborn children. In a particularly bizarre example, the maliciously lazy farmhand Ingo of Hyrule is three characters in Termina, all brothers- two are conmen who moonlight as out-and-out bandits, while the third is an overwhelmingly depressed leader of a circus troupe trying to drink away his problems.

Skull Kid, wearer of Majora’s Mask and the game’s main villain, is a particularly odd case. Like other characters, Skull Kid was present in Ocarina, but dialogue makes it clear that he is unique. He isn’t a distorted mirror of Skull Kid from Ocarina, he is literally the same character, and has been freely roaming between the two worlds for some time. His constant loneliness finally turned to resentment, and that resentment was transformed into burning hatred by the power of the titular mask. A character that was mere window dressing in Ocarina is the crux of the crisis in its sequel.

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Though Skull Kid is the only character who recognizes Link for who he is, he’s not the only one who recognizes him for who he… isn’t. Though no one in Termina knows Link, they are intimately familiar with some of the identities he takes on over the course of the game. As you might imagine, masks play a major role in the gameplay of Majora’s Mask. Most of the masks simply add a minor ability or trigger a special reaction in others, but there are a few core transformation masks that  turn you into a different race. Two can only be used in specific boss fights, but three are usable anywhere- the Deku, Goron, and Zora masks. These don’t just transform you into a random member of that race, however- they are made from the souls of the dead, and Link appears specifically as the deceased that his mask was made from.

As a Deku, this is disconcerting- you run into a withered husk of a Deku boy that your mask was likely made from, and several other Dekus comment that you remind them of a specific boy who’s gone missing. As a Zora, it’s distressing- you encounter Zora guitarist Mikau as he is dying, and promise to fulfill his last wish, soothing his tortured soul before burying him with his instrument. Thereafter you meet numerous Zora either oblivious to what happened to you, or expressing relief that you’re okay… when of course Mikau is quite dead. These two masks are uncomfortable to use, with constant reminders that someone died to give you this power.

However, the other two masks have nothing on the tragedy of the Goron mask. Forged of Darmani, a Goron hero who is dead and buried, speaking with any other Gorons while transformed elicits shock and bewilderment. Everyone knows Darmani. Everyone knows that he died trying to save their mountain village from an endless winter. He walks again?! Of course! We should have known that this disaster wouldn’t stop the great Darmani! He’ll always be there when his people need him! As Link works, he further cements Darmani’s legacy in the minds of the Gorons. He ends the winter, rescues trapped Gorons, and prevails at the Raceway as their champion racer. He plays hero, leader, and peacemaker, and the Goron chief openly offers him the throne any time he feels ready.

All of this, despite the inevitable ending- as soon as Link’s quest is done, he will leave, and Darmani will once again vanish from their lives, this time for good. It’s a hard lesson that the game keeps driving home- the groundhog’s day time loop means that you can’t fix everything every time. For every time you save Romani from her otherworldly attackers on the first night, there are a dozen time loops where you were busy doing something else. A dozen times the Bomb Shop lady got robbed, a hundred times the tricky Kafei and Anju quest line went unfinished, and the two never got married. In the ending, if you’ve done all the sidequests in previous time loops, you see the world continue as if you’d done them all in one loop. It’s akin to the ending of the movie that coined the time loop concept, where Bill Murray’s character finally achieves the perfect day, and thus is allowed to proceed. Unlike the movie, though, Link has no happy ending. He doesn’t walk away with the girl, he doesn’t earn the adoration of a town. He simply leaves the world better for his actions, but unaware of his existence. Those few that will remember him will remember him as that Deku boy, or Mikau the guitarist, or Darmani the hero, and will mourn his disappearance.

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While Link will be treated with respect by members of whatever race he’s currently transformed into, racism repeatedly rears its ugly head in the land of Termina. The common Deku enemies from Ocarina are now a peaceful minority race beset by discrimination- put on your Deku mask to transform into one of the treefolk, and watch the prices in store magically rise to meet your new form. The Bombers challenge you to a game of hide-and-seek to test your worthiness for membership- but if transformed into any of the three other races, they’ll simply comment it’s a shame that they can’t make a non-human a member.

Most strikingly, the little dog in the area you’re teleported to every time you reset the timeline is quite expressive about his opinion of each race. He more or less ignores normal Link, attacks him as a Deku, is frightened of him as a Goron, and adores him as a Zora. Majora’s isn’t interested in using the races iconic to Zelda as window dressing, it takes a serious look at how they interact and treat each other.

A crux of the game is the reuse of assets from Ocarina of Time, recontextualized in this strange new world. It’s obvious why so many assets were reused from Ocarina to Majora’s: given that they only had a year to make the game, any art they could recycle instead of building fresh was time saved. However, it’s careless to assume that this reuse indicates a lack of care or creativity. Limitations can often inspire, and the time constraints drove the team to look at Zelda in an unprecedented way. Majora’s Mask was Eiji Aonuma’s first time as project lead for a Zelda game, and though he’s made many excellent Zelda titles since, he’s never recaptured the genius of Majora’s. Why is that? Simple- too much money, too much time. Without constraints putting pressure on him to innovate, he simply puts his own spin on the classic formula. He’s made wonderful games, but they’re games without the courage forged of desperation. Games too comfortable with themselves to set the world on fire.

But what is the end result when all of these pieces are brought together? Taken as a whole, Majora’s Mask is about guilt and a loss of childhood innocence. Ocarina treats its time travel as little more than a dramatic moment in Link’s life, but Majora’s paints a very different image- being accelerated through seven years of teenage life in an instant through magic has scarred him. Though he returns to being a kid once his quest is completed, and also returns to the world of his youth, it doesn’t change what he’s seen. He’s seen villages burnt down and their residents turned into undead monstrosities. He’s seen seemingly harmless people become corrupt menaces, and he’s seen his homeland burning under the oppression of a ruthless warlock. It’s all way too much for him to handle.

It’s these realizations that make you wonder about the nature of Termina. The reuse of familiar characters in a new context, the groundhog’s day loop, the disturbing imagery everywhere… it’s all very dream-like. Is it all a dream? Is it real, but interpreted through the lens of a very damaged young mind? Is it in fact all quite literal, and quite screwed up? There are myriad theories about the game, and what it means, but few would argue that Majora’s isn’t fundamentally a deeply sad game. It’s about a boy in a menacing foreign land, trying to save it because that’s just what he does, with people abusing him all the while. He meets some friendly faces, to be sure, but there’s a weariness about the whole affair. This land is nothing to him, and he saves it because he’s Link. That’s what Link does, and this land doesn’t seem to have a hero of its own to take on the task.

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It would sell the game short to say the game’s only strengths are thematic, however: Majora’s Mask is also mechanically transcendent. The Elder Scrolls games owe the idea of an open world with NPCs that stick to a specific schedule for their lives to this game. Similarly, Dead Rising owes its time-sensitive open world events to this strange experiment. It could even be argued that this was the first proper open world game. Certainly, you could roam freely in Ocarina, and it had some side quests, but the sheer density of optional content in Majora’s gave it a very different feel. In Ocarina, they were little side activities. In Majora, they are most of what you do in the game. Majora’s made transformation a more deep and intricate system than any game before, and it taught us the difference between dread and horror. For all the clear and obvious influence Ocarina had on the future of games, our industry owes a lot to Majora’s ideas as well.

How is it, then, that no one has done it as well since? It’s been a decade and a half- how has no one done oppressive atmosphere with such a deft touch, been so subtle and careful about its themes while simultaneously making them so clear, been so completely visionary and brave as to make its contemporaries hide their faces in shame? It had the production quality of a triple A game, the full might of the Nintendo and Zelda names, the audacity of an indie art game, and the brilliance to bring it all together. It is the best goddamn game ever made, and I find myself wondering if it will ever be topped. I certainly hope so, but I wouldn’t be that mad if it wasn’t, either- how do you top that?

Thus we come to The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask 3D. There’s not too much to say about it: it’s Majora’s, but portable and more convenient. It has more systems to help you figure out what to do (without being pushy or annoying), it looks a lot better, and it irons out some areas of irritating design in the original (while sadly adding one or two new ones). Perhaps most strikingly, it takes a game that is begging for a portable version to capitalize on its strengths, and shows you it works even better than you’d hoped. There are some missteps- the new save system undermines some of the tension, and there’s a new swimming segment near the end of the game that just had me shaking my head in bewilderment- but it’s Majora’s fucking Mask, and it looks beautiful.

What’s more, our expectations for player guidance have changed in the last fifteen years, and this rerelease does a wonderful job of smoothing out the bumps without holding your hand too much. Is it a perfect remaster? No, it isn’t. It does get in its own way a tiny bit, and there are some minor annoyances in dungeon design from the original that it doesn’t address either. But for its superior playability, and vibrant realization of what Majora’s art always wanted to look like, I can’t imagine telling a person to ever dig out the Nintendo 64 version ever again. This is an incredible version of an unbelievable game, and I’m delighted that people are playing it now and realizing I’ve been right all along.