Majora’s Mask: Beautiful and Strange

Score: 9.5

Personal Score: 9.5

In a world still reeling from the shockwaves of Ocarina of Time, Nintendo had the attention of all the gaming community in their attempt to create a worthy follow-up to a masterpiece.  How does a company top a game that was being hailed as the greatest of all time?  Nintendo decided that in order to capitalize on the success of OoT, they ought to develop a game that followed very closely in it’s footsteps (both in terms of gameplay/design and in the literal sense that it should be done as quickly as possible).  The hype and expectation surrounding the next installment of Zelda was understandably high.  After an odd development cycle that occurred when the future of the N64 was somewhat uncertain, Majora’s Mask emerged from the wreckage of ‘Ura Zelda’ and ‘Zelda: Gaiden’ and released in the year 2000.  Majora’s Mask was not only a tour de force of technical power (requiring the oft forgotten N64 expansion pack), it challenged players to look beyond the standard definitions of what makes a Zelda game with its unique 3-Day cycle and a focus on atmosphere.  Majora’s Mask is often vaunted for its departure from the series’ usual narrative fare and a more somber presentation.  Additionally, MM featured a large cast of supporting characters with detailed backstories that complimented the main narrative in fine fashion.  Upon it’s release, MM afforded the Zelda franchise endless praise from critics once again.  However, MM didn’t quite measure up to it’s predecessor in terms of sales or fan reception.  Some felt that MM was a bit too complicated and bloated when compared to OoT, and others found the 3-Day cycle restrictive and somewhat of a hinderance.  Misunderstood, MM was largely overlooked and dismissed by many.  Many years later, MM experienced a resurgence in popularity, eclipsing even OoT and ALtTP in popularity polls across the web.

Strange is the perfect adjective to describe MM. It’s an atmospheric adventure rife with symbolism and melancholy themes, and its promotional/booklet art reflect a darker, mature tone.  My first playthrough of MM was marked with frustration and some bitterness, much like my first playthrough of Twilight Princess.  I found the 3-day cycle quite irritating and found myself wishing I wasn’t at the mercy of a time limit when I wanted to explore the land of Termina in a more leisurely manner while ignoring most of the plot altogether, madly rushing to beat the ominous clock.   Upon my return to the game for a second and third playthrough, I found myself mesmerized by the game, entranced by how unique it was in comparison to the rest of the franchise.  MM is one of only a few games that conjured feelings of melancholy in me while playing, as I guided Link to the end of his adventure while the rest of Termina repeated the sad patterns of their lives in blissful ignorance.  The narrative, the characters (friend and foe alike), and the haunting score combine to make MM the most atmospheric and unique Zelda title.  While my own feelings regarding MM are almost exclusively positive, there are some aspects of the game that don’t sit well with me, most notably an underwhelming final battle and the occasional struggle with attrition.  Additionally (those of you  who’ve spoken to me will remember me saying this), because of the myriad themes present in MM, a very rabid and annoying fanbase has established that insists on analyzing the game to death and engages in the asinine theorizing to no end (see Game Theory’s Link is Dead).

The Pros:

Since the story and characters are among the first things that come to mind when discussing MM, we’ll start there.  Like Link’s Awakening and the Oracle games, MM follows Link into a land beyond the realm of Hyrule.  The titular heroine is largely absent, and Link is accompanied by no more than his horse Epona when the story begins.  MM is the first game canonically in the Child Link timeline following OoT, and begins with our young hero attempting to locate his fairy companion Navi, who has inexplicably left Link’s side.  While in pursuit of the Skull Kid, who has lighted away with Link’s precious Ocarina of Time, Link stumbles into the realm of Termina, a mirror world to Hyrule with many familiar faces.  Following an unfortunate transformation, Link meets the Happy Mask Salesman, who promises to help Link if he’s able to retrieve Majora’s Mask from the Skull Kid and prevent a sinister-looking moon from crashing into the busy streets of Clock Town.  In the interest of succinctness, I’ll conclude this section by saying that Link spends the rest of the game traversing dungeons, collecting masks, and eventually confronting the Skull Kid, who has been possessed by the malevolent spirit inside Majora’s Mask.  Within the narrative, MM contains stories of loneliness, isolation, kidnapping, love transcendent, and forgiveness (amongst a multitude of others).  With so many somber subplots interwoven into the main narrative (itself quite somber), MM crafts a melancholy tapestry of gloomy brilliance.  It’s all very Burton-esque, and in the best possible ways.

“DO YOU HAVE A MOMENT TO TALK ABOUT OUR LORD AND SAVIOR, SELENE?!”

The land of Termina is as much a joy to explore as Hyrule was in OoT.  Termina is separated into four main sections that serve as the Link’s stomping grounds.  In standard Zelda fare, you’ve got a forested area, a frozen area, a water-logged area, and a desert area.  The dungeons are great, offering players some of the most challenging puzzles in the franchise.  Where OoT’s dungeons occasionally felt difficult due to confusing dungeon layouts, MM’s puzzles challenge players to think critically and employ a wide variety of in-game mechanics to complete.  Ikana Castle and Stone Temple Tower stand out as two of the most brilliantly constructed dungeons in the series.

From beginning to end, MM features one of the most colorful and developed cast of characters in the franchise.  Link himself is the same steadfast hero seen in OoT (which might have something to do with the fact that he IS the same hero).  While MM Link remains silent and largely free of personality, hints of maturity bleed through in his reactions to other character’s situations and in the way he carries himself.  Tatl, Link’s fairy companion, is essentially Navi with an attitude problem.  Where Navi was largely Link’s cheerleader in OoT, Tatl begins the game as Link’s unwilling and grudging companion, very often berating Link for dilly-dallying or asking for help.  As the narrative progresses, Tatl of course warms up to Link and becomes a pleasant companion with more snark than hostility.  In retrospect it’s possible to consider Tatl a precursor to Midna in Twilight Princess, as the sidekick that isn’t simply a talking parrot, complete with originally selfish motives that transform into shared noble intentions.

In order to collect most of the masks in the game, players must interact with NPCs with various problems to solve.  It would take far too much space to delve into the many intricate backstories of most of the characters, so I’m disinclined to touch on them in too much depth.  The three primary masks that Link obtains are done so in brief story arcs that are all heart-breaking to behold.  Darmani III, Mikau, and the Deku Scrub that provide Link with the Goron, Zora and Deku Masks all perish in tragic circumstances, leaving behind piteous legacies.  Anju and Kafei are a betrothed couple torn apart after the Skull Kid turns Kafei into a child, leaving Anju to put on a brave face and wonder where her fiance has disappeared to.  Pamela is a young girl forced to shut herself off from the outside world in an attempt to keep her father safe, a man turned into a Human-Gibdo mutant.  Majora’s Mask is Nintendo’s crowning achievement in character writing and development, and one that has yet to be surpassed in the franchise.

In a mere 5 seconds, Nintendo squeezes more heartbreak into a scene than Hollywood can in 2 hours.

The enemies of MM fit the gloomy mood of the game perfectly.  In OoT, we could see hints of Nintendo’s desire to make enemies frightening/intimidating.  Many of the enemies in MM are taken from OoT in the same way that NPCs have been, but it’s the original enemy designs that really stand out.  We see villains that are downright disturbing to behold, in the way that one might find the cast of The Nightmare Before Christmas unsettling (do I even need to mention the moon?).  Enemies cry out at Link with disjointed, haunting shrieks while their eyes protrude from their skulls in maniacal fashion.  While the Takkuri Bird is a mostly innocuous enemy, it’s unsettling appearance made me dread wandering into it’s territory.  Boss characters are similarly creepy and memorable.  Odolwa in particular burns himself into memory with bizarre body language and unholy chanting.  In my list of great boss and mini-boss battles, MM rivals The Wind Waker and Twilight Princess for exciting and memorable moments.

Aaaaaaaaand cue nightmares…

Gameplay remains near-perfect in MM, using the same engine as OoT to great effect.  Everything that was sublime in OoT is just as excellent in MM.  Traversing Termina is even more enjoyable in MM as Link not only has Epona at his disposal, but a plethora of travel techniques on land, water and air.  While wearing the Goron Mask, Link can cover great distances in no time at all, rolling at break-neck speeds (one of the most enjoyable mechanics in the entire game).  The masks of MM afford Link with an unparalleled amount of combat options; not only do Deku, Goron and Zora Link have unique combat techniques, some masks allow Link to become a walking bomb or pass by enemies untouched.  Most everybody is familiar with the infamous Fierce Deity Mask, which allows Link to become an unstoppable killing machine when confronting bosses (in addition to making Link look like a complete badass).  While the 3-day cycle of MM can feel repetitive at times, the multitude of masks allow for different approaches each time you’re required to repeat certain events, which alleviates some of the redundancies present.

The Cons:

While the story of MM is certainly a departure from the usual Zelda formula, it’s not perfect or immune to certain criticisms.  The narrative can occasionally feel bloated throughout, especially when players are forced to repeat certain story arcs following poor time management.  While the subplots throughout the main narrative are generally a joy to experience, even the best songs become tiresome with repeated listenings.  This can make repeated playthroughs a chore rather than something to look forward to.  Even if you were to strip away the subplots, the main narrative focuses on a spoiled child throwing a tantrum after his friends move away.  Granted, that temper tantrum results in the complete destruction of an entire realm…

I mentioned in The Pros how memorable some of the boss encounters in MM are.  Unfortunately, there are also more than a few duds thrown into the mix.  The encounter with Twinmold in Stone Tower Temple concludes one of the best dungeons in Zelda history with an unbelievably anti-climactic battle.  Link simply dons the Giant Mask and swings his sword at the flying worm until it’s dead. Blah.  The other disappointing boss encounter is unfortunately the encounter with Majora himself.  Ignoring the battle itself, fighting Majora feels quite silly when you consider his design.  Majora does not fall in line with the rest of the enemies in MM; he appears goofy and nonchalant in his approach to battle, certainly not in a manner befitting an end-game boss.  Additionally, this final encounter becomes a merciless slaughter if players have obtained the Fierce Deity Mask, which allows Link to dispatch Majora with very little effort.  In a series known for great final encounters, the dialogue between Link and Majora/the Moon Children prior to the final battle is inevitably more significant/memorable than the poor excuse for a fight.

Go back to Fraggle Rock, Majora.

Now I’d like to address MM’s fan base.  No game in the Zelda series has the cult following that MM does.  While this shouldn’t be a bad thing, one trip to a MM forum or Zelda fan site should convince other fans of the horror that is the MM fanbase.  They’ve drawn parallels between The Stone Tower Temple and the biblical Tower of Babel.  They’ve concocted theories that Link is actually dead in MM and the entire story is an allegory for the five stages of grief.  They’ve started a campaign to bring the game to the 3DS and called it Operation: Moonfall (barf).  They’ve claimed that Easter Eggs referencing MM in A Link Between Worlds confirm a link between both game’s narratives and that a MM sequel/3D remake is guaranteed because of it.  There have been articles written with the title “Aonuma Laughed When Asked About Majora’s Mask 3D.”  It’s maddening.  It’s asinine.  It’s the Majora’s Mask fanbase, everybody!  I keep having to pull the hipster card, but MM’s fans make it very difficult to really appreciate what the game has to offer.

Majora’s Mask is a beautiful masterpiece, demonstrating that The Legend of Zelda does not need to focus on Link rescuing Zelda from Ganondorf in order to be successful.  Indeed, The Legend of Zelda doesn’t even need to make you feel particularly fuzzy inside to be a grand experience if MM is any indication.  Majora’s Mask will always be compared to Ocarina of Time because of how close together the games were released/how similar they are on the surface.  In reality, Majora’s Mask is it’s own unique animal and should be appreciated as such.  A strange odyssey for players to enjoy, Majora’s Mask has cemented itself into gaming immortality as the oddest, most atmospheric, and perhaps most tumescent of the Zelda games.  The moments I treasure with Majora’s Mask stand side by side with some of the best I’ve experienced in the franchise, and those moments aren’t likely to be eclipsed any time soon.

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