Wednesday, November 12, 2014

\\ Half Moon - Majora's Mask Review //

This article contains spoilers of gameplay scenarios and plot points in The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask for the Nintendo 64.

Travel back in time with me to the mid 1990’s.

This seemed obvious...

I was preciously young, and not too aware of a life beyond the confines of my room, but I surely knew video games. I was introduced to the original PlayStation around that time by my mother’s now ex-boyfriend, and became enamored by the foreign yet somehow familiar worlds of Crash Bandicoot, Spyro the Dragon, Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater, and Croc. I’d heard rumblings of a fabled maker of magic from across the pond. People my age knew them by many different names, but you might recall the name Nintendo. As a youngling, I always saw the house that Miyamoto built as an enemy of the state, a force which was to be ignored so as to preserve my rather insular notions of what a video game was and could be (one shouldn’t be surprised to hear that I was also extremely shy and socially awkward, literally afraid of social contact with anybody beyond the scope of my immediate group of friends, even at that sacred age where nothing you say is of any consequence).

But by 1998, it became impossible not to pay attention to these tremors emanating from the fields of Hyrule. Nintendo had just released The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time on their struggling Nintendo 64 console to massive amounts of critical acclaim from video game publications everywhere. Former senior editor of Gamespot and current editor-in-chief of Giant Bomb Jeff Gerstmann at the time wrote of the game as being, "a game that can't be called anything other than flawless. IGN writer Peer Schneider echoed this sentiment, declaring, "The new benchmark for interactive entertainment has arrived." (Indeed, I ripped these quotes from Wikipedia.)

Though I wasn’t cognizant of Ocarina of Time’s release at the time, nor did I know much about the Zelda franchise in general, it was hard not to feel the aftershocks of its arrival. You saw it in stores, in magazines, on TV; you heard about it at your pre-kindergarten daycare, you heard about it, bored at the DMV, pouring over whatever reading material was available on the shelf. You wondered what the big deal was; how could a game that had just come out already have declared itself a legend?

Bear with me here, I’m getting to the main course. Two video game-related events in my younger life would transpire to open my eyes to the wonder of the Zelda franchise, and why it was important. Both of these stories were related to friends of mine having things that I didn’t have, which led to jealousy, which led to much pestering of my single mother to get me said things, which were of course directly related to my growing (read: unhealthy, debilitating) obsession with video games.  The first was from a friend of mine, we’ll call him Gerald. Gerald kind of got everything he wanted as a young boy, which was good because since we shared an obsession of video games, his house became an oasis of the best new releases in video games.

But Gerald had a bit of a different video game upbringing, one that would profoundly change the course of my video game playing “career” for several years to come. Gerald was all about Nintendo games and consoles. He had some miscellaneous other things around, but his core love of Nintendo was displayed prominently in his grandmother’s house where he predominantly lived, in the wake of a divorced mother and father. He had the original Nintendo Entertainment System, the Super Nintendo, a Game Boy, and the most advanced piece of technology a now six-or-so year old boy living in the suburbs could ever hope to lay eyes on, the Nintendo 64.  

I still remember the first time he showed it to me; it also happened to be the first time I had ever really met Gerald. My mother and his grandparents had networked as a result of what my fuzzy memory recalls being in the same Cub Scout pack, and my mother, busy as ever, probably saw a potential day-care opportunity in bringing me to their house, as well as an opportunity to build a friendship which would prove to last for years far into the future. Gerald was wise enough to break the ice between us with Kirby 64: The Crystal Shards, not a great game these days, not even one of the better Kirby games, but certainly a game which demanded smiles and joy out of anyone who sat in front of the television to play it, a game I now have a weird nostalgia and love for.

And so our journey together began. We played quite an array of N64 games together, namely Super Smash Bros., Mario Tennis, Super Mario 64, Mario Party, F-Zero X, as well as the aforementioned Kirby 64, and yes, I was privy to a good deal of Ocarina of Time, but merely from afar. I was curious about the game, but never really followed through on those adventurous desires of exploring Hyrule for myself, because after all, we still had to figure out how to unlock Ness in Smash!

Gerald would eventually move on to the Gamecube one Christmas morning in 2001, with a handful of excellent launch titles in tow like Pikmin, Luigi’s Mansion, and Super Smash Bros. Melee, but my brush-ins with Ocarina of Time were far from over. The other chance encounter I had with the fabled land of the Triforce came during my once-frequent visits to the home of another friend who was something of a neighbor to my family. My mother had somehow become friends with a woman and her husband from a few streets away, and I had to come along to her visits over there, as the only child of a single mother does.

It was here that I would meet a twin brother and sister I, sadly, would eventually lose contact with; we’ll call them Jonathan and Mariah. I looked at Jonathan and Mariah like they were the older siblings I never had, though I’m sure the feeling wasn’t amicable; Mariah, sweet, comforting and thoughtful; Jonathan, tough, stern, yet strangely compelling. Eventually during these visits, it would come time for the adults to talk in the patio, chugging down beer after beer, laughing and hollering about adult matters I could only dream of partaking in myself. This was my cue to have to awkwardly join Jonathan or Mariah in their rooms, interrupting whatever it was they did with their private time. Here I was, essentially forcing two strangers to hang out with some fat kid from a few blocks away who wouldn’t shut up about how hard King Bob-Omb from the first level in Super Mario 64 was.

When it came time to join Jonathan in his room, Ocarina of Time was always the immediate matter at hand. I still shiver thinking of the stern talking-to’s I’d receive every time I dared to call Lon Lon Ranch or the Great Deku Tree or the Spirit Temple a “level”; my understanding of the nuances of progression in video games had yet to expand beyond Crash Bandicoot 2: Cortex Strikes Back’s warp room.

Brave, yet bare

This time around, I wasn’t so passive about my interest in Ocarina of Time. As I watched Jonathan explore the vast expanses of Hyrule Field, with Koji Kondo’s triumphant, confident melodies blaring through the dilapidated speakers of an old CRT set, entering my ears and picking at my innards, I couldn’t help but to backseat game a bit. Well, a lot actually, much to the chagrin of Jonathan. Ocarina of Time’s worlds seemed just too incredible, too rich and full of details and secrets, and I had to get a slice of the pie. I chuckle a bit writing that in retrospect; these days, the game is often criticized for feeling too empty, too devoid of meaningful endeavors away from the beaten path of dungeon-spelunking that A Link to the Past had previously established.

Still, it was hard to deny the game’s appeal and achievement at the time; just as they had already done with Super Mario 64, Nintendo had again been successful in translating a franchise consisting of a pedigree of well-regarded “classics” (The Legend of Zelda, (my personal favorite) Zelda II: The Adventure of Link, A Link to the Past) to 3D.

I wouldn’t get the chance to play Ocarina of Time for myself until the Gamecube re-release of the game, but by that time I had already had a brief run-in with Ocarina of Time’s rather daunting sequel, Majora’s Mask. There was a now likely closed independent movie rental store near the apartment I was living in at the time. It was a rather strange place, where one could (and I certainly did, complete with a weird version of Rayman 2) rent an entire PlayStation 2 console for a couple days, find some obscure, terrible old sci-fi flick in one aisle, and the latest Hollywood blockbusters in the next. It was, of course, here that I would rent Majora’s Mask.

To new, yet familiar territory

I had heard rumblings of this weird pseudo-sequel to Ocarina of Time before, but this time around, I felt as if in the presence of a true legend, a game that one read about in magazines and would see candid screenshots of but was only to be experienced by the initiated. I didn’t really know anything about the game except that it felt foreboding and exclusionary. Even the act of bringing it home from the rental store seemed alien to me, with its differently-colored cartridge (I hadn’t at the time seen the golden Ocarina one), a printed, stapled, and folded-up black and white instruction booklet, and an expansion pack, its necessity to play the game feeling like a doubly-locked front door. Several “scary” fan fiction stories about the game’s characters and narrative arc would get written in the years to come, yet nothing came close to the terror of actually playing the game itself for me.

This wasn’t a terror bathed in typical schmaltzy horror tropes, more a deeply existential dread of playing the game itself. Majora’s Mask is largely devoid of terrifying monsters or shocking jump scares. What the game lacks in horror conventions, it more than makes up for with its core mechanic based around the passage of time.

The setup here is that at the onset of the game, the very same Hero of Time from Ocarina prior meets the Skull Kid, who appears uncannily similar to the few found in Ocarina’s Lost Woods (a theme which pervades the entirety of the game, to questionable effect). This time, however, he is outfitted with the titular Majora’s Mask, and has a posse of fairies to boot (one a light green, known as Tatl, the other a dark purple, named Tael; it is only now that I am understanding the pun in their collective names). After being knocked off of his horse by the duo, we are privy to a good deal of exposition by the Skull Kid and his friends, and Link gets transformed into a Deku (it’s a weird game). We run through a short tutorial section and meet the Happy Mask Salesman, who delivers more exposition on the history of Majora’s Mask and explains that we must return it to him, lest it be used for more evil by the Skull Kid. Finally, it’s time to step foot into Clock Town.

As a young boy, I didn’t have much trouble getting to this part in the game. After all, it was pretty early on, and I was good at the early platforming puzzles associated with flinging Link out of the Deku Flowers. But then the player is introduced to the game’s central idea that primarily differentiates it from Ocarina, the passage of time.

The player has three in-game days (each being 18 minutes of real-life time, but this can be extended with a familiar melody played backwards later on) to cease the lingering, eerily-faced moon from striking the earth. Since stopping the moon is the end-game, one could ascertain that doing this in 54 minutes would be impossible to do, unless Majora’s Mask were extremely short; I promise you, it is not.

To circumvent this dilemma, Link can use the Song of Time to go back to the dawn of the first day, effectively putting the moon back where it was when Link first arrived at Clock Town, and reverting the folk of Termina back to their previous positions. He first recalls being taught it from Princess Zelda after a second encounter with the Skull Kid atop the clock tower, with less than six hours to spare before the moon destroys all civilization. Link shoots a bubble at the Skull Kid, retrieving his stolen ocarina from him in the process, plays the song, and time begins anew. Link shows his ocarina to the creepy Mask Salesman, who teaches him the Song of Healing, which will cure him of his Deku ailment, and then we’re on our way to meet the four giants who can quite literally catch the moon as it descends.

Even as a 20 year-old with half a college education and a job who has now finished tons of video games, reaching Majora’s Mask end seemed just as daunting a task as it did when I first put the rental store’s copy into my Nintendo 64, so you’ll have to excuse me for indulging at length about my childhood memories; it should be painfully clear by now that finally finishing the thing was damn near euphoric for me. I truly never considered completing the game (all masks in tow) an accomplishable task, instead a melancholic thought which peered into the precipices of my subconscious like the moon of Termina’s iconic visage.

To that end, I can definitively conclude that Majora’s Mask as a game was a colossal disappointment, an uneven mishmash of ideas that alone are compelling, but together converge like oil and water.

Majora’s Mask consists of four core dungeons: Woodfall Temple, Snowhead Temple, the Great Bay Temple, and the Stone Tower Temple. It’s quite a measly amount compared to Ocarina’s nine, and it’s not like Ocarina didn’t have any side quests to do either (though, and I’m just guessing here, but Majora probably has more, and we’ll get to those soon). To put that into perspective, after finishing the Great Bay Temple, the game’s third dungeon, the player is three-quarters of their way to completing the core game. Comparatively, if one were just completing Ocarina of Time’s third dungeon, Jabu Jabu’s Belly, they’d only be about one-third of the way through the core game, and they’d just be reaching a critical point in the game’s narrative where you are bestowed the Master Sword of fate, and are turned into an adult.

Of course, the mere length of a game is not directly correlated to its quality, but most of the dungeons here, save for the Stone Tower Temple, aren’t really anything to write home about. It’s worth highlighting the previously hinted at masks, though for now I’ll only talk about three of them: the Deku, Goron, and Zora masks. These specifically are transformation masks, allowing Link to meld his body into the mask’s respective Hylian race, all the while closely resembling characters who previously existed in Termina, but have since passed away. This can lead to several exchanges with characters who either notice your uncanny resemblance to these characters, or are outright tricked into thinking that Link is those characters reborn (Link, being a mute, can’t exactly interject with the contrary truth!).


I bring these masks up in relation to the dungeons because, of course, the first three dungeons are primarily based on the transformation masks associated with their area; Woodfall Temple the Deku Mask, Snowfall Temple the Goron Mask, and Great Bay Temple the Zora Mask. It’s not until the fourth, final, and I will declare best dungeon that the game attempts to meaningfully mix these three masks to create a wealth of interesting gameplay opportunities, but by that point, one gets the sense that it’s already too late.

The Woodfall Temple is a pretty decent introductory dungeon, but never did it feel as cool, unique or urgent as the Great Deku Tree, Ocarina of Time’s first dungeon, where you had to work to save the wise old tree from its imminent demise, which sadly comes anyway (its death was permanent, a truer reality than anything I can recall from Majora’s Mask). Here, we’re trying to purify the poisoned swamp of the Dekus, but why should I care about the Dekus? After all, in the previous game they were entirely positioned as enemies and businessmen (so, just enemies then!). Majora’s Mask positions the Dekus in a similar fashion, except now there are these asshole guard Dekus that throw you out of the Deku Palace if you get caught in the garden sections, regardless of if you’re found wearing a Deku Mask or not, even though they let you into the palace if you’re wearing a mask, which makes no sense at all. As well, their king is an absolute moron, wrongly imprisoning a monkey for the capture of his daughter, who was actually kidnapped by Odolwa, the boss of the Woodfall Temple. Maybe I should feel bad for the Dekus for being led by a complete incompetent, who reveals later that he is indeed a bit of a fuck-up, but alas.

Here we receive one of the few traditional Zelda items, the bow, which is ironic, as it renders one of the Deku Mask’s functions useless, that being the ability to shoot bubbles. Beyond that, our Deku Mask allows us to hop five times over water before sinking if we haven’t yet reached land, and as previously mentioned, fly out of Deku Flowers where other Deku Scrubs routinely live. As its offensive capabilities are practically nonexistent, the player will likely find themselves only switching to it out of necessity, whenever there is a need to fly somewhere and a hole which allows us to do so. It’s a shame, since I can appreciate the aesthetic appeal of being a Deku Scrub, but there just isn’t much practical incentive to wear this mask. The player just ends up playing as human Link for the duration of this dungeon due to his ability to weird a sword and shield, as well as the bow we find.

To that end, we meet the boss of this joint, Odolwa. He’s really not that interesting, you can just use the bow to stun him, and then unleash attacks with your sword. He’s also vulnerable by popping up from beneath him with the Deku Flower in the middle of the room. Still, the viability of the bow here makes the Deku option feel ancillary at best, a second option one chooses if they run out of arrows, further contributing to the feeling that the Deku Mask’s viability is limited.

Moving on, we reach the Snowhead Temple. The primary mask used here is the Goron Mask. It’s a nice mask due to its versatility, but it’s a shame that the Goron Mask isn’t very useful in combat scenarios due to the slowness of your punches, which is critical when several enemies in this game, like the wolves found in this dungeon, are quick to dodge and require fast reactions within tight intervals of vulnerability to damage. We receive the fire arrows here, useful for burning stuff in this frozen wasteland. But what really stands out about the Snowhead Temple is its reliance on the abundance of abilities the Goron Mask affords us. We can stomp on switches with the ground pound, punch frozen blocks out from a pillar structure found in one of the dungeons main rooms, roll quickly along the edges of walls and over ramps, and walk over lava. These are all satisfying features (though the roll can get a bit frustrating, particularly during the run-up to the dungeon where you must roll for quite a lengthy while), but these core functions aren’t utilized by the level designers to make for very interesting puzzles. Once in a while you’ll have to think about how many ice structures you want to punch out from the central pillar in order to successfully progress elsewhere in the room, which can lead to some interesting Metroid-style mental mapping of the entirety of the dungeon, requiring that you pay attention to Snowhead Temple’s verticality and the way rooms are connected together. It’s cool and exciting when one considers how extremely simplistic these games can often be, but for the most part these utilities are straightforward affairs, which feels like a wasted opportunity to me.

The boss here is Goht, an encounter which is actually pretty interesting in the way that it utilizes the Goron Mask’s roll ability to good effect. You must roll into Goht, who runs away in a circular chamber on all fours whilst breaking open jars to receive extra magic to fuel your rolling ability, all while avoiding falling rocks and Goht’s electric shock waves along the way. These randomly generated roadblocks can get tedious to deal with, as you don’t have much of a reaction window at the speed you’re going with which to avoid them. This fight also feels like it takes a little too long to finish, with no meaningful variation to the general formula found here. Still, it’s a challenging but enjoyable endeavor that just could use a bit more tightening up.

Next on our itinerary is the Great Bay Temple, which utilizes the Zora Mask. Apparently Nintendo learned nothing from the backlash to Ocarina of Time’s Water Temple, which featured lots of changing water levels, Hookshot targets, and tons of navigating in and out of menus to switch on and off the iron boots, which in that game were relegated to a clothing inventory item, instead of being equippable. The Zora Mask essentially consolidates the Zora Tunic and Iron Boots from Ocarina of Time into one item, while also affording us a great deal more mobility when swimming, which, just like first-person jumping puzzles, is generally accepted to be a really fun thing to do, and you should totally design entire dungeons around it (too heavy on the sarcasm here?).

The Water Temple’s water level-changing has been replaced in the Great Bay Temple with the ability to change the direction which water flows in. The dungeon features a core central room with a large pool containing flowing water, and holes in the walls with which to exit this pool from. The holes are placed such that one may or may not be able to enter, depending on which way the centrifugal force displaces the player. This is a lot less interesting to me than the Water Temple’s differing water levels, because the choices of which rooms one can enter becomes much more binary in the Great Bay Temple. For example, in the Water Temple, if one reached the top of the core room, but the water level was lowered to the floor, they could still reach floors that were below them but not all the way on the ground floor, and so they had to plan ahead regarding how appropriately to change the water level (I am explaining entirely in terms of the domain of potential for interesting navigation here, not citing specific examples one must use to complete the actual Water Temple). The Water Temple was bad in that it could be extremely tedious for the player if they messed up and didn’t go the correct route, and would have to change the water level back, and so forth, but the Great Bay Temple is bad in that it is so streamlined.

Beyond that, there’s really not a whole lot to say about this dungeon. You swim around with the Zora Mask, which is of questionable controllability (diving out of water to do a parabolic leap can be frustrating, as often you just end up running into a wall, though perhaps that’s just my lack of skill). When you find a switch, you can activate it to gain the ability to switch the flow of water in other rooms. You eventually get the ice arrows (starting to see a pattern here?) and can use them to temporarily create frozen platforms on the water, as well as freezing enemies to make higher platforms. This combination of changing the flow and using the ice water to freeze water/enemies make up the majority of the progression beats in the Great Bay Temple.

Unfortunately, the repetitive nature of the dungeon climaxes in undoubtedly the game’s worst boss, and one of the worst bosses in all of Zelda’s history. Gyorg is a boss encounter design mess, and clearly a section of the game which was rushed out the door. For the duration of this fight, you stand on a platform in the center of the room, while this giant fish monster swims around it, periodically jumping across the diameter of the platform in an attempt to attack you, or head-butting against the platform to try and make you fall off if you’re standing too close to the edge. Your best course of action is to shoot an arrow at Gyorg to stun it. Simple so far, but here’s where the fight becomes borderline unbearable: while it’s stunned, you have a very short period of time with which to put on the Zora Mask, dive to the pool of water’s floor, and attack it once, then move away extremely fast before Gyorg changes state and the player gets damaged by proximity. Now you must struggle with the game’s dilapidated camera system in an attempt to speedily return to the central platform; fail to do this quickly, and Gyorg will eat you up, taking away two whole hearts, and wasting precious time (this becomes an actual problem the player has to deal with, because remember, the moon is falling, and it’s falling fast!). Worse still, after taking some damage, Gyorg will send out miniature versions of itself to try and stop you from attacking it, even while it’s stunned, making this process even more maddening. They can be killed with your electrical barrier attack, but this can be difficult while you stumble about with the game’s z-targeting system, never mind the amount of magic this ability uses up. This fight took me quite a few tries, which on one hand I can appreciate, but it also brought me maddeningly close to the end of the time limit on the final day. This fight is not even remotely satisfying; it serves more to me as a highlight of some of the game’s worst elements, all thrown together into one room.

Finally, we reach what I believe to be the cream of the crop here, the Stone Tower Temple. Immediately, I find the aesthetic of this location to be the most varied and interesting of the bunch, which definitely makes being in the dungeon feel more engaging. The gameplay beats match; as I’ve said before, the Stone Tower Temple is the first (and I suppose last) dungeon in the game to meaningfully mix together the three transformation masks to make for interesting gameplay scenarios.

Stone Tower Temple is lengthy, in a way that, for the most part, feels earned. Immediately, the player will probably notice the ceiling appears to be a bit unusual, what with the seemingly unreachable doors and switches. There’s not much we can do about these anomalies for now, but the dungeon has other obstacles for the player to overcome in the meantime. Before ascending Stone Tower to reach the temple, we acquired the Mirror Shield while traversing Ikana Castle, and used it to slay the king and his comedic minions. Here, our shiny new defense mechanism is put to good use, to reflect light in any desired direction. We can use this to rid of certain blocks and focus light toward other mirrors, which, if maintained for long enough, will temporarily direct light reflecting off of that surface, which with our shield we can use to bounce light toward other previously impossible locations. This will also sometimes require us to secure a source of concentrated light, via the burning of curtains, or breaking open a rock on one floor and then descending to the floor below to utilize the new-found light sources, etc. We soon get the Light Arrows which render the Mirror Shield’s ability all but useless, which is a shame, as I would’ve liked to have seen more complex light reflection puzzles here (the franchise’s next 3D outing, the Wind Waker on the Gamecube, would later rectify this its Earth Temple).

We also came prepared with the Elegy of Emptiness, a tune taught to us by the Ikana King which can be used to create up to four statues with which to keep switches pressed down (one for each of Link’s four transformation mask forms). We used it quite a bit to climb the Stone Tower and enter the dungeon, but once inside it really is only utilized for one room, which involved bombing a cracked wall to find crates with which to leave on switches, in conjunction with our statues (the largest switch in the room can only be pressed with the Goron statue, and the Deku statue can’t press down any switches; I liked this logical application of the relative weights of each form, it felt natural to me). I don’t like how these crates can be smashed, as that causes the puzzle to be unsolvable. This knowledge is really only clear to the player in hindsight, possibly after much dallying about (which, again, is problematic when the game is on a timer); that they are forced to leave and reenter the room seems silly, forced, and unintuitive. I recall Jabu Jabu’s Belly in Ocarina of Time having the same issue; it’s a design problem I’m a bit stunned hadn’t been solved during the interim between the two game’s releases, though maybe back then this was never viewed as a real issue.

The Light Arrows use up more of our magic meter than either the Fire or Ice Arrows did, but even with my non-upgraded bar, I didn’t find this to be much of a problem; I was still able to fire off quite a few of them without worry. This makes what little is left of the game’s combat scenarios a breeze, as the Light Arrows, due to their speed and ease of use when combined with z-targeting make for one of the most powerful weapons in the game (though I never managed to obtain the Great Fairy’s Sword). I suppose it’s not much of a problem as we are so close to completion, but even Wind Waker, notorisouly a pretty easy game, managed to relegate obtaining the light arrows to the very end so that the player couldn’t abuse them.

With the Light Arrows in hand, we can now tackle the dungeon’s previously inscrutable ceiling dilemma. A Garo Master (the land of Ikana’s wandering spirits) tells us upon defeating him that, “If you shoot that which releases the sacred golden light into the blood-stained, red emblem outside the temple... it shall rearrange things, in which the earth is born in the heavens and the heavens are born on the earth.” This is flavor text for, “Go outside, shoot that weird-looking circle you saw upon entering the dungeon, and it’ll flip everything on the inside for you.” Immediately upon hearing that the upside-down doors, entranceways, treasure chests, and switches could be flipped right-side up with a binary on-off switch, I was disappointed. When I first laid eyes on these objects, my mind pictured dynamic problem-solving scenarios which involved changing the force of gravity on the fly, using the Elegy of Emptiness to remotely activate switches using our petrified doppelgangers, changing the way I think about navigating the dungeon’s seemingly simple rooms, and so forth. Still, I enjoyed revisiting rooms I’d already previously been through; though familiar, it never really felt like I was retreading old stomping grounds. One moment in particular that stood out to me was discovering that the room containing the boss door was one I’d already been through pre-dungeon flip, and I was too busy to notice.

As well, I was overjoyed to see how much of the dungeon involves mixing and matching our transformation masks. The Deku Mask is still good for flinging out of Deku Flowers, the Goron Mask is still good for walking over lava (though some rolling scenarios would have been enjoyable), and the Zora Mask is still good for swimming and walking along the floor of a pool of water. Constantly throwing combinations of old ideas together along with new ones is what makes this dungeon tick. One of the principal problems the Zelda franchise constantly has in regards to dungeon design is giving the player an item but then all but restricting the usage of that item to the dungeon the player receives it in (Ocarina of Time’s slingshot and bombchus; Majora’s Mask’s Mirror Shield and powder keg; the Spinner, Ball and Chain, slingshot (did they learn nothing from before?), Dominion Rod, and Coral Earrings in Twilight Princess; the slingshot in Skyward Sword (sigh)). It’s weird that Zelda continues to have this problem, when dungeons like Stone Tower Temple have already been successful in solving the issue here. It’s on the dungeon designers to build scenarios that put the multitude of items in our inventory to work; it’s also on the item designs to make items which have a variety of potential applications.

Just before finishing up here, we’re given the Giant’s Mask. I previously said that there were three transformation masks, but was bending the truth a little; there are actually five, the last of which is given to us upon receiving every other mask in the game and entering the moon.

The Twinmold boss fight is a cool idea that ends up being a bit of a clusterfuck. You are tasked with taking down two giant snake-like sand creatures, individually known as Moldorms. As a measly young swordsman, this seems to be quite the daunting task. Luckily, we have the Giant’s Mask, which drastically increases Link’s size, and brings him more to par with the pair of Moldorms. The fight takes place in what seems to be a vast desert, but quickly proves to be more miniscule than previously assumed when we don the Giant’s Mask. For the most part, wearing the mask proves to be beneficial, but has trade-offs. You take less damage, and subsequently deal more, but are constantly losing precious magic power; when your meter has fully depleted, you revert to your regular form. One can break open ruins scattered about the arena to find extra magic, but I wasn’t able to find a way to do this while small, which leads me to believe that you have to be searching for magic as a giant, or be out of luck, though I may be wrong in thinking this. You can move much quicker as a giant, as your legs obviously are longer (the desert sands make normal Link move much slower as well, but this can be subverted a bit with the Bunny Hood), but this can also make the fight feel extremely congested. For example, if the Moldorms decide to come up from beneath the sand and surround you, you pretty much have to just wait it out, as walking into them will deal a bit of damage to you. The toughest enemy here that the player faces, though, is not Twinmold themselves, but the camera. For some reason, you’re not able to z-target the boss, which becomes extremely problematic, since neither of the Nintendo 64 Zelda games allow for much in the way of manual camera control. You can hit the L button to force the camera to face the direction that Link is looking, but this doesn’t help much given that our vision is easily obstructed by one of the snakes travelling between where the camera and Link are located. Coupled with the fact that the means of dealing damage to the Moldorm is exclusively at its head or tail, the encounter ends up feeling like searching for a needle in a haystack.

Before moving on to the game’s finale, it’s worth talking a bit about the run-ups to each of the game’s four dungeons. These sections of the game mostly become tedious fetch quests, especially in the case of the Great Bay Coast, where we have to infiltrate a drab copy of Ocarina of Time’s Gerudo Fortress in search of Zora Eggs and a picture of one of the Gerudo women patrolling there, which is as gross to do as it sounds. This area comes complete with awful stealth maneuvering through areas which makes no sense just as before, as we still have our sword and shield and could easily just fight them off. This area becomes particularly egregious if we don’t have at least four bottles, because each egg we find takes up one bottle. There are four eggs, and so if you don’t have four bottles, you would have to leave, bring the eggs you have to the Marine Research Lab, and then come back; at least now you’ll have the Hookshot which is found here to make the process a little bit quicker. Still, this is far and away one of the game’s worst sections.

Another location worth bringing up, which unfortunately takes place in Ikana Canyon, which to me was the most interesting of the four areas, is the well. The well is the fetch quest to end all fetch quests. After a fantastic and emotional sequence where we save Ikana resident Pamela’s scientist father, who has been turned into a Gibdo (basically a mummy) as a result of ill-advised research, we can use this mask to converse with the Gibdos living in a nearby empty well. The Gibdos stand in front of locked doors, and will attack you if you’re not wearing the mask. If you do wear the mask, however, they will ask you to bring them certain items they desire, and upon doing so will open the door behind for you. I, luckily, used a guide before I entered this section, so I came prepared with everything I was going to need, which include the following: five magic beans, ten Deku nuts, ten bombs, a fish, a bottle of milk, a bottle of blue potion, and a partridge in a pear tree (kidding). Imagine if I had not known about this nonsense beforehand; the game asks you to leave the area, get the stuff which requires a good deal of grinding, especially in the case of the magic beans, come back, give that one item, go through the door, fight a couple enemies and avoid some fire, or whatever it is, meet a Gibdo, leave to get him what he wants, and repeat until we reach the Mirror Shield. The team even had the audacity to include rooms which aren’t necessary to go through, further extending the amount of time spent around this one god-forsaken area. It’s just awful. Thank Christ the items the Gibdos desire aren’t randomly generated.

Thankfully, this section precedes one of the game’s most fun non-dungeon sections, the Ikana Castle. It’s a section that’s not as long as I would have hoped, but it’s got some enjoyable platforming with the Deku Mask, and light shining puzzles, as well as some Redeads which we can make dance by wearing the Gibdo’s Mask (like I said, weird game) which kept me entertained for long enough. It does have one fetch quest part that requires us to leave the mini dungeon if you didn’t know to come prepared with a Powder Keg but why would you? I really think these games need to just do away with fetch quests; they’re nothing but padding which contribute nothing of merit to the overall design. The Powder Keg quest doesn’t detract from the rest of this section, but it breaks up the pacing and flow, which is critical in maintaining player interest. I did enjoy fighting the King of Ikana and his humorous henchmen though, which puts the Mirror Shield to good use. I think sections like the Ikana Castle, or even the Deku and Great Bay Skulltula Houses can really only make being outside of dungeons, the meat of most Zelda games, much better, and I think that having these in all future Zeldas can probably only be a good thing, assuming they fit the narrative.

Also, a quick aside: the game contains a mini boss called a Wizzrobe. Basically this fight consists of a spinning humanoid figure standing on a specific-looking tile who shoots spells at you as you attempt to make your way toward him, striking it in the process. He’ll teleport to other tiles whether or not you hit him, twisting around and around, goading the player to try and hit him while he fires off blast after blast. After a while, he’ll start to make illusionary versions of himself appear in the other titles, and you’re tasked with trying to attack the correct one, a difference which is visually quite clear. This fight’s not that interesting, and it’s not something I’d usually dedicate an entire paragraph to, except that it appears five fucking times throughout the game. It’s bafflingly lazy and unacceptable. I would almost rather whatever reward is given for killing had just been given to me outright for doing nothing then have had to fight again and again.

Read: huge asshole (image credits: Zeldapedia)

But let’s take it back to Clock Town. We’ve now received the remains of Odolwa, Goht, Gyorg, and Twinmold, and lassoed the four giants together, so it’s time to move on to the game’s conclusion. Fast forward to the final day, with six hours remaining on the clock. Link can reenter the door leading to the peak of the titular clock tower, and stop the Skull Kid from dropping the moon onto Termina once and for all. The same encounter from the start of the game between Link and the Skull Kid begins anew, except now we have the Oath to Order, a melody taught to us by the giants beforehand, as well as the strength of the giants. Upon playing it, the four giants catch the moon, stopping it from falling. Majora, no longer having a use for the Skull Kid, retreats into the moon via a portal emanating through its mouth (the moon’s saliva, perhaps?), and Link and Tatl follow suit.

The inside of the moon is one of the game’s most memorable sequences. We find ourselves in a quaint, grassy field, which seems to extend for miles in all directions. For once, clear skies hover above us. A large, magnificent tree off in the distance immediately catches our eye. The walk toward it feels uncomfortably long. I start to think about the time that’s passed since I first played Majora’s Mask, wonder what’s changed in my life; what’s stayed the same? Was returning to the world of Termina worth it?

I equip the Bunny Hood to pick up the pace.

Finally, at peace (image credits: Zelda Universe forum posting)

I ascend to the top of the hill, where the great tree rests. Five children await my arrival. Four of them wear masks resembling the four boss creatures I slayed to reach this point. The last sits at the foot of the tree staring ominously forward, with Majora’s Mask resting on his visage. One at a time, I speak to each. They echo to me strange, vaguely philosophical sentiments, but not before asking that I hand over my hard-earned masks. I feel robbed, as if the last several hours I’ve toiled away in this forsaken game meant nothing (as if I wasn’t already feeling that way before).

After reaching a certain quota of masks given to each child, they teleport me to stranger places elsewhere.  The first I spoke to wore a mask resembling Twinmold. Its section was one of the most enjoyable in the game, albeit short lived. A few simple combat scenarios awaited me, each opening a door to the next room upon completion. Sometimes progression requires searching for a hidden switch; bombing a wall; equipping the Lens of Truth. It was simple fun, and I wished it had gone on longer. The boy and a Piece of Heart greet me at the end, asking for more masks and replenishing my health, respectively. I’m teleported back to the bottom of the gorgeous plains, and my uphill climb begins anew.

The child of Odolwa takes me to a simple Deku Flower challenge of flight (I still enjoy the simple act of being a Deku child and almost wish for a spinoff where one plays as a Deku). The child of Goht takes me to a rather frustrating series of ramps to be navigated with the Goron mask (I find after much failed experimentation that the first half of this section plays itself, as I bounce off of open treasure chests, finally reaching the actual challenge part, dying, rinse, repeat). The child of Gyorg takes me to a trial-and-error based series of binary decisions where one must choose the correct path to reach either the Piece of Heart or the child (this one just sucks). Each begins and concludes with a tribute to a pondering young boy, and I feel my home built on a solid foundation of masks crumbling, room by room.

I’ve now lost all my masks, and most of my will to press on. The simple act of getting rid of it all is probably the most haunting moment in the game for me; was it all for not? It’s quite an effective metaphor, one that is unfortunately undone by the game’s own ending.

But we’re not there quite yet, as we still have one foe to defeat. At the peak of our final ascension, a shattered visage lays. I see in the boy’s imitation of Majora’s Mask a muted expression. He speaks to me, saying, “…Everyone has gone away, haven’t they?” It’s such a naïve, brilliant climax; I almost wish the credits had rolled there, no final boss necessary. If one wishes, they can skip the four challenges which come prior and keep their spoils, but they don’t get access to the game’s final reward.

The boy notices you’ve lost everything, and decides to throw you a bone, brute strength in the form of the Fierce Diety’s Mask. We’ve not much time for celebration, as we are quickly teleported to Majora’s lair.

As I step forward in the room to trigger a cutscene, it’s hard to imagine going in what a duel with Majora might be. The first thing I picture is a duel with a literal floating mask, and that’s what you get for the initial phase. The mask strikes at you on its side, like a Super Meat Boy-style saw blade; it also has a basic laser attack that can easily be reflected off with your shield. The main strategy here is just to keep striking it. It’s simple, only obfuscated halfway through by the remains of the previous bosses lifting off of the walls and attempting to attack you, but they’re cannon fodder in comparison.

The next phase of the fight is weirdly titled “Majora’s Incarnation.” It’s basically got a colorful humanoid body type, with Majora’s Mask serving as its chest and abdomen. It goofily runs around the room, taunting you to try slicing into it (I oblige); you can speed up the process by shooting at it with your bow to stun him.

The final phase is “Majora’s Wrath.” He has some whips and tries to attack you from afar with them, usually successfully. It’s a bit of a war of attrition, where you’re just trying to make it to him as quick as possible and strike, while shielding against the whipping attacks. After a good few hits, Majora is finished, and the game is over.

If I sounded bored explaining all that, it’s because I was. The fight with all of Majora’s forms was anti-climactic; just not that interesting of an encounter. Even with three forms to progress through, it doesn’t end up amounting to much. It felt like such a sour note to send the game home on, and I wish they had managed to come up with something more compelling. I loved the idea behind the inside of the moon being a tranquil place (which is pretty direct symbolism at work), but the final fight doesn’t feel tonally or narratively consistent with what leads up to it. The space you fight Majora in is some arbitrary other dimension or something, and inconsistent in a game that puts so many of its chips into the locations significant events happen in.

I’m going to temporarily shelf discussion about the game’s ending for much later, as I don’t think it’s appropriate to talk about it in depth until I loop back around and talk about the Bomber’s Notebook, and the rest of the game’s masks.

When Link first steps foot in Clock Town as a Deku, he needs to make a few things happen before he can reach the top of the clock tower. Only one of these is worth mentioning: to gain access to the Astral Observatory, in order to the Moon Tear, we need to meet with the Bombers and play their hide-and-seek game. The Bombers, members of the “Bombers Secret Society of Justice,” are a group of rascals that live in Clock Town who secretly have a society of justice. The townsfolk find them annoying, but they don’t know any better! After finding all 5 of them about the town and gaining access to the observatory, they tell you that if you were a human, they would have given you their notebook. Do the mini game again, and you’ll get it.

The Bomber’s Notebook was something I initially didn’t care much about. Hell, initially, I didn’t even bother to get it, simply heading toward the Southern Swamp to get my dungeon spelunking on. After being stuck on a particularly nasty section of the game in the Great Bay, I decided to try and do some of the game’s fabled side quests, just to have something else to focus on. What I didn’t know was that I was stumbling into what is undoubtedly the most compelling part of the game, but perhaps not for the reasons one might expect, nor the ones Nintendo wanted.

I have to admit, I’m a sucker for new ideas, especially in games, an industry which is notable for often being so stagnant in this area. The Bomber’s Notebook is unique. It’s an idea that attempts to integrate the social aspects of Ocarina of Time into Majora’s Mask, like meeting non-playable characters, performing side quests for them, and learning about them in the process, but expanding upon those ideas, and combining them with the passage of time, and Termina’s inevitable demise. For example, in a small town, it’s obvious to think that people will know each other, and have differing feelings about other characters. What kinds of relationships do they have with each other? How will they react to that moon looming above? Will they leave? Will they care at all?

The notebook itself serves as a blueprint of sorts. Upon meeting particular characters throughout the game’s world, they will be added to your notebook. The notebook tells you who they are, what they look like, and most importantly, when interacting with them in a certain way will cause something of significance to happen. It’s up to you to figure out what that interaction is, and also where that character will be at the specified time.

Here’s two examples, both of which are linked in a meaningful way: one of the game’s most prominent and often-cited side quests is about a couple who are engaged to marry, but something goes awry. Kafei, a man living in Clock Town, has been turned into a small boy, due to the Skull Kid and Majora’s Mask’s dark powers. Anju, the inn-keeper of the Stock Pot Inn, is his bride-to-be. Upon meeting Kafei’s mother, Madame Aroma, whose husband is the mayor of Clock Town, we’re given Kafei’s Mask, in an attempt to help find Kafei. It’s important to note that the town doesn’t know his age has been reversed. The idea here is if you wear his mask and talk to townsfolk, in hopes that you’ll be able to scrounge some details about his whereabouts. Most characters say they remember him, or point out that he’s been missing for some time, but nobody says much of value. That is, until we wear it in front of Anju. She too is looking for her missing fiancé, and upon meeting you at 11:30 at night in the inn’s kitchen, gives you a letter for Kafei to put into the mailbox as soon as possible (I don’t know why she couldn’t just do it herself; it’s actually a bit grating how little sense it makes, but alas).

Astute players probably noticed that during the day there is a postman who walks from mailbox to mailbox, picking up mail, as postmen do. If we try and go to the post office, and it’s open, we can go inside and figure out the postman’s general daily schedule. He starts his day by picking up mail, then later delivers it. Thus, it’s not too much of a stretch to think that if we were to follow him as he collects mail, and subsequently delivers it, he should take us right to where Kafei is located. In truth, this actually makes no sense either, as the postman delivers the letter to the curiosity shop owner’s house, and Kafei himself leaves the house to get the letter, which gives us a short interval of time to enter his house. This would imply that either the postman knew that Kafei was hiding out in the curiosity shop owner’s house, which there is really no reason to believe, or that Anju knew to deliver it to the curiosity shop owner’s house, which would mean that she actually knew where he was all along, which would mean there was no point to the side quest in the first place. One could surmise that Kafei was simply picking up some other letter directed at the curiosity shop owner for him, but when we talk to Kafei inside the house, he tells us that he received Anju’s letter and that, upon her recommendation, he trusts us to deliver the Pendant of Memories to Anju. One could also stipulate that Kafei is also hanging out at his regular address, which we don’t know of, when he receives Anju’s letter, but that’s stretching the plot way thin, and I think that this is simply a case of the writers not having much forethought.

Regardless, upon delivering the pendant to Anju, I returned to the curiosity shop owner’s house to find the owner, who gave me the Keaton Mask and a special delivery for Kafei’s mother. He also explained to me that he went after Sakon, a thief from Ikana Canyon who steals things and sells them to the curiosity shop owner (he buys and sells stolen goods). After delivering the letter to Kafei’s mother and getting a bottle, I didn’t know what to do next for that side quest, and it was already the third day, but I now understood more about certain characters’ relationships. Do keep in mind that I’m managing the multitude of character timelines involved with this particularly lengthy side quest with the Bomber’s Notebook, but I’m not relying on it as a crutch or guide book; I still have to be astute, take time to understand relationships, be observant of character patterns, and so forth.

Time is ticking...

The other side quest I wanted to tackle for now involves the bomb shop in West Clock Town. It’s operated by an older couple, but if you visit on the first day, the man there will tell you that he’s expecting a shipment of a larger bomb bag pretty soon, noting that it’s peculiar that it hasn’t arrived yet. We don’t have much to work with here, but if we return to the shop on the second day or later, we’ll find that his wife has returned, and is quite distressed. We learn from them that a thief mugged her at the North Gate of Clock Town at night, and stole her goods that were to be sold, namely the larger bomb bag. Perhaps you’re beginning to see the connection between this quest and the Anju/Kafei one? In any case, she is added to our Bomber’s Notebook, which gives us a specific timeline of when this event might happen, namely midnight on the first day. If we go back to the first day and wait for midnight to strike at North Clock Town, we can find Sakon waiting for the old bomb lady to appear. When she does, we are privy to a cutscene where Sakon robs the woman of her bomb bag, but now we’re around to take it back, using good old-fashioned brute force. The woman will give us the Blast Mask in return, but the potential to nab some goodies doesn’t end there; this also opens up the possibility to be able to buy the All-Night Mask for 500 Rupees from the curiosity shop, since Sakon had to sell something else to the shop owner since he no longer had the bomb bag.

Now to that connection I was talking about: saving the old lady has direct connotations in regards to the Anju and Kafei quest. Since Sakon no longer ends up stealing the larger bomb bag, this means that he can’t sell it to the curiosity shop owner, which means that Kafei will not see him through the hole in the wall in the shop owner’s house, which means Kafei will never get the sun mask needed to complete the couple’s mask, the other half of which Anju has. Thus, this renders the Anju/Kafei side quest impossible to complete without returning to the first day and starting the entire process over, this time refraining from stopping Sakon’s bomb bag theft. I can still choose to deliver the letter directed at Kafei’s mother to the postman, who will give us the Postman’s Hat for disrupting his rigid schedule (he tries to keep to it even when the moon is about to destroy all of Termina!). I don’t like this particular kind of determent in the game’s side quest design, because you end up having to redo an entire (and lengthy) side quest over again just for one mask, which one wants if they want the best ending. It’s one thing to mess up a sequence out of carelessness and being forced to do it again, but it’s another to be punished for doing the right thing in the first place.

It’s hard not to see the appeal of the notebook system; planning out all of your potential courses of action and observing character movement patterns feels like piecing together all the different elements of a grand design, and it really gives Clock Town a sense of place. I wish there had been way more of these larger, more intricate questlines to navigate through. These are far more involved and interesting than anything to be found in the core dungeons, with their mind-numbingly simple lock-and-key mechanisms (though I still find the act of navigating a Zelda dungeon to be compelling at some core level). Far too many of the notebook errands to be ran are simple one-offs. An example of this comes as sort of a weak climax of the bomb shop sidequest. The curiosity shop will sell the All-Night Mask if you save the woman operating the bomb shop from Sakon’s theft. This 500 rupee-costing mask has literally one application in the entire game: if you wear it while talking to Anju’s grandmother, who can put Link to sleep with her stories of Termina’s past, Link can stay awake for the whole spiel, hence the name.

There are more examples of characters that have only one task in the notebook: the old lady from the bomb shop, the mayor of clock town, Toto, Gorman, the Rosa Sisters, the hand living in the Stock Pot Inn toilet (this one hurts me so much, such a bizarrely unique idea that only gets utilized for a one-off toilet humor joke), Kamaro, Grog, the Gorman Brothers (though you do protect Cremia from them at one point), Shiro (an invisible soldier who must have an interesting story to tell), and Guru-Guru. One of the really neat things about Majora’s Mask is that certain characters have entire schedules that they operate on, like Anju, Kafei, Dampé the gravekeeper, the postman, and Gorman, but that’s really only a few. It would have been nice if this idea had been applied at a macro level to all the citizens of Clock Town; as it stands, many characters just do one thing and say a couple different things depending on what day it is.

I’m intentionally omitted pointing out that there are characters, of course, beyond Clock Town’s limits. Most of them are found in or around the Deku Palace, Goron Village, the Zora Cape, and Ikana Canyon, though of course once in a while you’ll find others hanging out and about. The issue here is that too few of these characters end up being as interesting as the ones found in Clock Town, which feels much more “alive,” due to previously mentioned character scheduling, greater diversity, and just the fact that you end up spending a lot of time there. A couple notable exceptions that come to mind are Romani and Cremia, at the Romani Ranch. If we visit Romani on the first day, she’ll tell us that creatures from space known only as “Them” have been taking the ranch’s cows at night, and Cremia does not believe her. Somehow Romani is not making this up, and if we agree to meet her at 2 a.m., we get to fight “Them”, who are, you probably guessed it, literally fucking aliens who can be taken care off with some careful bow shooting. I liked that they can be slowed down using the Inverted Song of Time, which will of course also make the fight take longer; it’s a nice application of the time mechanic, and I would have liked to see more ventures which use the idea of time as a tangible property of space. Failure to fight off the aliens with our bow will cause the cows and Romani to be abducted (the creepiest part here is she’ll be returned the next day with no memory of the bizarre event ever having happened). I didn’t like this particular side quest; it’s fun to do since I just really enjoy all the arrow-shooting mini games, regardless of how janky aiming the bow can be. However, in my opinion this side quest tonally is just way too out there, even for a game which contains a moon with a face threatening to destroy the world. There’s also the fun and not tonally out-of-place arrow-shooting side quest with Cremia, where we have to defend against the Gorman Brothers while Cremia attempts to deliver milk to Clock Town.

An invaluable friend amongst the despair (image credits: Zelda Dungeon)

Some of the stronger character moments occur toward the end of the game’s timeline. For example, if one visits Romani Ranch on the night of the last day, they can pay witness to a poignant scene where Cremia gives her sister a bottle of Chateau Romani, implied to be Termina’s version of alcohol, to numb the pain of the world’s impending destruction. Another one that comes to mind is Anju’s grandmother, who feigns insanity, as evidenced by the journal right next to her, which is a little dumb, but whatever. She retreats to Romani Ranch on the last day to escape the moon’s wrath, and if you follow here there she’ll keep up her senile old lady persona. There are other moments like this throughout the spectrum of the game’s characters, and I like these a lot on their own. But when considering that I can just reverse time (and also the game’s ending, covered later), it becomes hard to care in retrospect. It would have been more affecting if the game had a deeper sense of permanence.

I also wish that Nintendo had centralized the “social” aspects of the game to Clock Town, and also made Clock Town bigger, with more things to do, more people to meet and care for, more characters with entire schedules stretched across the game’s three days, etc. Readers who’ve played Majora’s Mask might think that that would make the areas outside of Clock Town seem rather pointless, and I would have to agree. That’s why I’m going to make a rather bold claim: Majora’s Mask would have been better off served not as a Zelda game, but as something else entirely.

You might notice how in-depth I went in describing the game’s four dungeons earlier; that wasn’t without reason. It was to illustrate how standard Majora’s Mask’s dungeons really are. If you’ve played a Zelda game before, then the Woodfall Temple, Snowfall Temple, Great Bay Temple, and Stone Tower Temple should all sound like a pretty familiar setup: each dungeon is a set of rooms involving rather elementary puzzles, some fun (but often tiresome) combat scenarios, and a core gimmick exclusive to that dungeon which ties the usual Zelda mechanics together in an attempt to make the dungeon feel unique. That’s not to say that this is a bad formula to follow (though I do hope Nintendo attempts to branch the franchise into new territory in the future), but at no point does this formula intersect at all with what makes Majora’s Mask unique, what makes it special in a lot of people’s hearts, the time mechanic.

The only thing marrying the dungeons and the passage of time together is the fact that you are timed to finish these dungeons, which is just more frustrating than anything. In fact, I would say that element of Majora’s Mask is probably the core reason that people quit the game without finishing. Putting a time limit on the dungeons stifles exploration; it forces you to play in a way that is counter-intuitive to the nature of analyzing a new area, solving puzzles, and trying to figure out what to do next in order to progress. Astute game designers know that different players move at all sorts of different paces, and Majora’s Mask ends up rewarding only a certain demographic of players. It’s trial-and-error in the most egregious possible way, as failure can rob the player of tons of progress (you have to do everything over that you accomplished in the dungeons if you fail to complete them on time, though at least by then you’ll have opened up a shortcut back to the dungeon). One of the most common criticisms of this argument is, oh, you could just play the Inverted Song of Time and it won’t be a problem! This argument is bothersome to me; not everybody is going to find out about that (some things are only obvious in hindsight!), some players might read about this from the scarecrow but forget, and some might need even more time than the inverted song allows for. I know I personally got really close to having to start over in the Great Bay Temple, and the punishment for failure here is just too great. I can’t say I wouldn’t have quit upon failure, just as I did as a young boy all those years ago.

Paradoxically, the Bomber’s Notebook (particularly its applications in Clock Town) has everything to do with the time mechanic. The two are so greatly entwined that they can’t exist without each other. At some point the fact that the game contains both typical Zelda dungeons and the unique social elements can’t be ignored; the dungeons and the social aspects of the game mix together like oil and water, so much so that I am willing to put forth the idea that they should not even have been mixed in the first place. Together, they put Majora’s Mask in such a weird position, driving home the game’s often-regarded title as the “dark horse” of the Zelda franchise. These two divergent elements wearing at each other makes the game feel loose, thrown-together, a couple of good ideas (making another great Zelda game wouldn’t hurt anybody vs. making a game about how townsfolk interact with each other over the course of a few specific days, neither of which are built upon as they deserve to be (Majora’s Mask only has four dungeons and I’ve already made my case about the notebook being a good start significantly marred by untapped potential).

Let’s backtrack a bit and talk about some of the game’s other masks. Perhaps you’ll recall Anju’s grandmother, the woman who could put Link to sleep with her stories if we don’t equip the All-Night Mask. She’ll reward Link with up to two Pieces of Heart, depending on what you choose throughout her story. It’s very anti-climactic, and feels like a missed opportunity for a mechanic that could have been very interesting (does Link ever get sleepy? What if we need to take at least four hours out of each day to sleep? If we wear the All-Night Mask to not have to sleep, are there any side effects such as fatigue, weaker attacks, difficulty of aiming?).

So too are there are other masks which suffer from the familiar Zelda problem of items having a very limited application. The Postman’s Hat is used essentially to obtain a Piece of Heart from the town mailboxes (after that you can get some rupees); Don Gero’s Mask is used to talk to five frogs in one side quest (which, by the way, is obnoxiously lengthy, involving visiting two dungeons you’ve probably already been through to kill the frog mini boss, and requires you to finish the entirety of the side quest in one go) to get one Piece of Heart; the Keaton’s Mask, given during the Anju and Kafei quest, lets us talk to one of three Keatons located elsewhere in the game, each attempting to quiz us on facts about certain characters, and each awarding us with a Piece of Heart; the Bremen Mask makes animals follow us when we walk by them, which is cute, but is only applicable to obtaining the Bunny Hood (a much more useful mask, it lets us run faster) from Grog at Romani Ranch for somehow turning his chicks into chickens (I still don’t really get how solving this “puzzle” was supposed to be at all intuitive); the Mask of Scents lets us find Magic Mushrooms in one of two locations in the entire game, which can be used at the Magic Hags’ Potion Shop to make Blue Potion; the Romani’s Mask is used to get into the Milk Bar (though this one bothers me less since there are a few things which end up happening there); the Circus Leader’s Mask just makes people react emotionally to you (though these can be pretty humorous) and has no practical application; all the Couple’s Mask (our momentous reward for completing the Anju and Kafei quest, mind you) does is stop the arguing between the soldiers and the townsfolk going on in the mayor’s office, netting you a Piece of Heart; Kamaro’s Mask lets Link dance, and we can use it in front of the Rosa Sisters to join them in their dance, who will in turn give us a Piece of Heart. I don’t necessarily mind having these one-off masks around, it’s just a shame that so many of the game’s masks fit that bill. I’d much rather have masks which are complex, have multiple uses, and all garner different reactions from people like Kafei’s Mask and the Circus Leader’s Mask do. Most of the “practical” masks don’t garner much of a reaction from citizens (why don’t people find it peculiar when an elfin-looking boy wears bunny ears over his Phrygian cap or a bomb on his face? What about when he turns into a Zora right in front of their eyes?).

Having seen all there is to the game, I get the sense that the project was very thrown together from shambles of past work. Doing a bit of research into the game’s development helps to shed light on this feeling. Following the release of Ocarina of Time, Eiji Aonuma, who had previously worked on dungeon design for Ocarina, was tasked with development on an upcoming project internally known as Ura Zelda, which would essentially be an expanded version of Ocarina of Time for the Nintendo 64DD, a disk drive peripheral for the Nintendo 64 which would only be released in Japan due to poor marketplace performance (it’s worth noting that Ura Zelda would eventually get released as pre-order incentive for 2003’s The Wind Waker as The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time Master Quest). Feeling bored by the idea of exerting effort into what would essentially be the same game as before, Aonuma went to Shigeru Miyamoto, creator of the Zelda franchise and director of Ocarina of Time (which it’s worth noting took roughly four years to develop alongside a brand new engine). Miyamoto would challenge Aonuma to put together a smaller team and make a sequel to Ocarina of Time in a year. He accepted Miyamoto’s offer, beginning work in his first directorial role on Zelda: Gaiden, which would eventually be retitled Majora’s Mask. According to a translated interview with the development team, five other individuals were brought on to serve as directors of different aspects of the game’s overall design: Yoshiaki Koizumi worked on the game’s sub-events as well as aspects of the game related to the player; Mitsuhiro Takano worked on the game’s script; Kenta Usui directed the design of the game’s four dungeons; Yoichi Yamada served as head of system management; Takumi Kawagoe served as the game’s cutscene director.

The game’s relatively quick and scattered development period certainly shows. Most of the game’s characters are made up of models and animations from Ocarina of Time. This is pretty jarring at first, as you’re introduced to a ton of different characters that all look like people you probably have seen before in Ocarina (not to mention you’ve already just met the antagonist and another main character, both ripped straight out of the previous game). Personally, this started to get irritating after a while. When I think back to the characters I appreciated most in the game, most end up being ones who have no Ocarina of Time analog, like Pamela and her scientist father, the children from inside the moon, the moon itself, Majora, the Deku Butler, and the hand in the toilet. Meeting this rather eccentric bunch of folks made me wish there were more originals to further Majora’s Mask’s identity as being separate from its predecessor.

A ton of the game’s music is comprised of recycled tracks from Ocarina, with virtually no editing done to any of them. The original material that’s here is good, but consists of a lot of one-off songs, i.e. only heard once throughout the game. One of the standouts here is the theme of Clock Town. Each day, the theme gets a little bit darker and more depressing-sounding, yet consistently unified by a core, rather catchy melody. There’s a strange and rather terrifying dissonance in hearing the minor chords of the third day’s version, juxtaposed against that same upbeat melody heard in prior day’s themes. It would have been nice to hear the themes of the game’s other locations evolve over time, Pikmin-style. It also would have been appreciated if the same core melody hadn’t been reused across Southern Swamp, Mountain Village, Great Bay Coast, and Ikana Canyon. It’s bad enough that the game feels quite lacking in original aesthetic content, but to introduce a theme in one area and then reuse it with subtle differences in other locations just feels kind of lazy, and in a small way robs the already miniscule amount of locations in the game of their unique identities. The last six hours of the final day also throw in a beautiful-sounding track that simply oozes melancholy, especially when heard alongside the heavily shaking earth as the moon nears its destination, while the clock’s gongs strikes harder and harder, signaling imminent apocalypse. Every time I hear it, it still seems just as poignant as before, and it can only be found in Majora’s Mask; it locks that moment securely to this particular game. It’s one of the very few “atmospheric” moments in the game that’s constantly successful in striking a hard-hitting chord with me.

There are a few other relics of the past (or should I say, links to the past) that have stuck around. As I’ve said before, there really aren’t a ton of new items to be found here, which is a shame, as it’s always fun to have a new toy to play with. The graphics are overall pretty similar to the last game, with no significant change in art style to be found (this would happen a few times on the next console alone, starting off strong with the Wind Waker’s cartoonish cel-shading, to Four Swords Adventures’s mix of the previous Four Swords game with nicer special effects and higher fidelity visuals, to Twilight Princess’s grim realism, so I feel that there’s really no excuse for it here). The visuals are a tad better than before in terms of number of characters that can be displayed on-screen at once, the draw distance, and some finer details that one can really only gauge up-close, but overall it looks pretty much exactly like Ocarina of Time.

Ocarina of Time’s camera kind of sucked, but Nintendo were trying so many new things out technologically that it’s not worth holding over their heads. It’s a shame then that Majora’s Mask offers no improvement in this area whatsoever. I know not much could really be done about this as they probably wanted to keep to Ocarina of Time’s original control scheme, but z-targeting still has weird inconsistencies and can often get in the player’s way. I also have to wonder if they could have added manual camera controls by relegating immediate inventory switching to the directional pad and allowing for camera control with the C buttons, though perhaps this is more of a technical rendering problem than anything (Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask only keep data in memory relevant to objects that are currently being rendered on-screen (nothing that isn’t being shown on-screen is being rendered, of course), so I can see being able to dynamically control the camera interfering with this data management system, possibly making it slow and interrupting an already not perfect frame rate).

As I’ve sort of alluded to, the quality of side quests overall hasn’t improved much from Ocarina. There’s still a good deal of wide-scale fetch questing, and many in Majora’s Mask end up being even more tedious due to the time limit; having to complete a dungeon you’ve already finished all over again just because you missed doing a side quest in that area that requires that area’s dungeon be complete is a huge game design sin (this happened to be more than once).

With so much of the game’s content being pulled right from its predecessor, one would hope that the new aspects of Majora’s Mask would be refined to a T. Yet even the time travel element, as compelling as it is, introduces a ton of consistency issues, including a particularly large one I’ll talk about later which has to do with the game’s ending. When Link travels back in time, everyone is reverted back to their former schedules. Makes sense so far, but sometimes this tends to tear apart at the seams. For example, when you talk to Kafei’s mother for the first time and accept her quest, she’ll give you Kafei’s Mask. If however you now reverse time and talk to her again while wearing the mask, instead of acting surprised that you have that mask, she’ll act as if she in this timeline has already given you the mask, and will remind you about her plea that you help to find Kafei.  Obviously this doesn’t make sense because she hasn’t yet given you the mask in this timeline, nor have you spoken to her at all up to that point. This same issue extends to other situations where one completes a side quest they’ve previously already done, and are either given rupees or nothing in place of the original reward. This doesn’t make sense; shouldn’t you just receive the item again, and discard the new copy? Why doesn’t the old lady notice that she no longer has the large bomb bag she’s supposed to be delivering to her shop for the next day after you purchase it? It’s not on sale afterwards, which means that that bomb bag is literally the only version of that bomb bag which exists across multiple timelines. One can of course extrapolate that this means on repeat go’s at this quest, Sakon is literally attempting to rob the woman of nothing (you also get nothing from the woman for saving her again, whereas the first time she gives you the Blast Mask). This is because in Majora’s Mask’s world, things Link takes from others are his forever. Except if they’re letters, the Pendant of Memories, title deeds, the Moon Tear; these all disappear upon playing the Song of Time. This is beginning to get a little confusing, isn’t it?

In fact, if we wanted to remain consistent with how time travel works properly, it’s clear that the game should take away everything you’ve attained in that timeline when we go back, right? Well, the problem is Majora’s Mask operates on a sort of half-assed logical sensibility about how its time travel should work; it doesn’t work like real time travel, nor does it have its own consistent system. For example, I’ve already described how Link gets to keep his masks, but he also gets to keep all his items (to be specific, the bow, Hookshot, Lens of Truth, and all the other ones found on that particular screen), heart containers, songs learned, and his sword and shield. Yet you don’t get to keep the arrows, bombs, rupees, Deku nuts, sticks, magic beans, and other expendable items that you’ve accrued throughout the course of the current timeline. Everything is reverted back to zero (or in the case of the Razor Sword, you just go back to having the Kokiri Sword), aside from the rupees you’ve deposited to a vendor in West Clock Town, who along with being able to keep your deposited rupees along timelines, will also remember who you are.

Okay, we’re starting to wind this adventure down a bit, so let’s finally talk about the ending. After slaying Majora once and for all, the moon evaporates, and ceases to threaten Termina once and for all. Tatl and Tael find Link out in Termina Field unconscious, somehow having survived all that. Nearby, we see the Skull Kid. It’s a little jarring, as the physical host of the antagonist of the game is just standing there, right in front of our eyes. He seems a bit pre-occupied though, as he watches the looming giants. You see, it turns out that the Skull Kid actually knew the giants prior to the events of the game (this is possibly hinted at a bit when Tatl talks to the giant in the third dungeon, who says, “Help our friend,” but Tatl believes, and not without reason, that he is referring to the fourth and final giant), and that they were indeed good friends. For some reason, he thought that they didn’t want to be his friend, and so decides to steal Majora’s Mask from the Mask Salesman, and the rest is history. They, however, did in fact want to be his friend, and he was just mistaken. It’s a rather silly motivation that just feels like the game trying to pull one last “Gotcha!” on the player.

The giants leave, and the Skull Kid cries a little, but quickly turns around and becomes the more playful child which Tatl recounted to us that he used to be. He asks to be our friend whilst sniffing Link ad giggling. He’s instantly likeable, and so it’s heartbreaking we didn’t get to spend more time with the little fellow. The Happy Mask Salesman appears seemingly out of nowhere, so as to receive his payment from us. Majora’s Mask in hand, he leaves us with a vague philosophical musing about goodbyes never being truly permanent. I liked that the writers kept this character pretty bizarre and mysterious, and unaffected by time travel. It leaves the true nature of his intentions and history up in the air, leaving us with something to think about as the game comes to a close.

We’re left with one final scene before the credits roll, and it’s a nice one. Tatl basically tells us to scram, in an attempt to play it cool in front of her brother. Link obliges, as he still hasn’t found Navi, which was the reason for riding Epona through that introductory forest in the first place. In a whisper, though, she utters a thank you to Link, and starts to shake, before being embraced by her brother. The Skull Kid did this as well a couple times before; I guess shaking is the Ocarina of Time engine’s version of crying.

As the credits began to roll, I have to admit, I had a bit of a moment. I truly could not believe that I’d finally finished the game. I felt as if an immense weight had been lifted off of my back, as silly as that may sound. I started to reflect back on those childhood moments of wonder, discovery, and fear which I described in the beginning of this review (or non-fictional novella? informal dissertation?). I’d finally put that all behind me. I started to ponder what I could add to the discussion on such a beloved game as this one, a discussion which would reopen soon after I started writing, when Nintendo announced the 3DS remake of the game. I realized, though, as I was doing a bit of soul-searching that there were more things happening on-screen as the credits faded in and out.

It turns out that this part of the ending depends on who you helped throughout the course of the game. As the Happy Mask Salesman recounted to us in his closing speech, “…my, you sure have managed to make quite a number of people happy.” The game will show you people that Link managed to help out on his way to saving the world. It will also not show you people that you didn’t help, choosing to black out the screen and show you what mask is needed to reveal that character’s respective scene. I’ve already talked before about the time mechanic’s inconsistencies, but this is far and away the greatest one. In the timeline which we complete the game in, it’s quite possible that we raced to the finish, skipping time ahead until the final day when we could save the world for good. This would mean that Link never helped anybody in that timeline. But, assuming we’ve gotten all the masks, we see several people we’ve interacted with throughout all the game’s timelines, but acting as if we’d helped them within that timeline, even if we haven’t. The Zora band plays, complete with Zora Link somehow there too; the severed skulls of the Ikana King’s henchmen bicker endlessly; the Deku Princess and her monkey friend enjoy the company of her father and soldiers; the Postman runs along the fields of Termina, as we were successful in helping him to escape the dull statutes of his usual routine; Grog hangs out with his chickens; Gorman proudly watches as the band he wanted so badly to play at the Milk Bar perform to a sizeable crowd; Pamela’s father, no longer a cursed member of the Gibdos, lovingly embraces with his daughter; and most egregiously, Anju gets married to Kafei, who is constantly (intentionally) out of the frame, implying that he never was able to revert back to his former self. It makes what came before it feel of little actual consequence; even if the screen is blacked out for we didn’t help, that’s more like locking away a video of something happening instead of keeping it from actually happening. Imagine if instead the game had only showed the people we helped in that timeline having actually been helped, the rest having to live out with their sorrows. It could have been an interesting final set of choices to have to make; when it finally comes time to leave, who do we choose to be worthy of our attention? Do we save Romani and Cremia’s cows? Or do we purify the Southern Swamp? Perhaps we choose to reunite Pamela with her cursed father. Maybe if we’re quick enough, we do all three, and try as hard we can to do as much good. Maybe we just want to leave as soon as possible.

Nevertheless, we’re also treated to a scene of the Deku Butler, crying on all fours in front of the statue which is heavily implied to be his deceased son. We switch over to Link, perched on Epona, who slowly walks through that same dark forest, eventually galloping toward some beams of light brilliantly radiating through the branches. For the game’s final shot, we pan through some trees toward a well-lit open space, as one final melody plays, that familiar tune taught to us by Saria long ago. The camera closes in on its subject, and we see a lone stump, on its surface a drawing of Link and the Skull Kid hanging out together, smiling. I think we both know the artist who put it here.

It’s a cute ending, but Majora’s Mask is not a cute game. At least, it claims to not want to be. Throughout the game’s running time we’re constantly bombarded with themes of death, dying, and that sour way in which life happens, that way which we can never predict or assume, only try to survive, to withstand. Endings exist not just as formal conclusions, but also to frame the story told. Majora’s Mask’s ending tells me that if one is approached with loss, sadness, destruction, rage, and existential pain, it’s okay; just play your magic song and start over, and over, and over, until things eventually work themselves out. It truly believes that time has the potential to heal all wounds, no matter how deep into our soul they cut. The ideologies one must buy into to devise such a cruel ending are born of a fantasy world not unlike that of Termina.

It’s a shame, because for all the many misgivings I have toward the game, for the great disappointment I felt upon completion, when I look to the current climate of shitty, uninspired sequel after shitty, uninspired sequel, I still look to Majora’s Mask as a strange monolith, a daring, sort of brave thing. It’s not ambitious in the way that Ocarina of Time was before it, nor does it match the sheer scope and breadth of that game. I certainly believe Ocarina had issues of its own, but I have to commend it for the sheer technical wonder of the day. Majora’s Mask is a disappointing sequel, one that bites off far more than it could ever hope to chew. It wants to be many things, yet works to be none of them. It’s a smorgasbord of ideas that were never meant to exist together, yet with much patchwork somehow do. I’m not grateful for this. I yearn for the game Majora’s Mask could have been. I can’t help but wish the game had been delayed, expanded upon, made better-looking and sounding, given its own identity, its own soul, its own space to breathe on the Gamecube which would come just over a year later (what a launch that could have been).

The cycle begins anew (image credits: Kotaku)

As my thoughts shift to other games, other affairs, other pressing stresses, I feel my childhood dissipate more and more, as if losing the keys to locked away youth. I’m sad about this, but I should know better, because whenever there is a meeting, a parting is sure to follow. However, that parting need not last forever.

- @dtraposo

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