The following article comes from personal opinion. If dissatisfied, consider playing your Ocarina and traveling back to before it was posted.
The introduction to The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask is strikingly different from other Zelda games. After being forcibly turned into a treelike, child Deku Scrub, Link winds up in the odd burg of Clock Town. The people look similar to those he met in The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, but they’re dismissive of him now that he’s a non-human child. Getting around is difficult, as the town’s architecture isn’t suited to Dekus. Most notable, in lieu of enemies the only danger comes from a time limit; you have three days (with each in-game “hour” translating into about a minute) to find the Skull Kid, a trickster under the thrall of a frightening mask who transformed Link and stole his Ocarina of Time. Trapped in the city, you play with some schoolboys – who, even when you win their game, still refuse a Deku in their ranks – and after three arduous days finally gain access to the town’s dominating clock tower. You have a fight with Skull Kid, get back your Ocarina, and just before the three seventy-two hours are up and the moon crashes into and destroys the world, play the “Song of Time” to…go back to 6:00 AM on the first day. You transform back to a human with a sword, a magic ocarina, and a mask allowing you access to the Deku form, but the world’s just as imperiled as it was when you first stepped into town.
And so it goes. Majora’s Mask was born from, and is a testament to, the benefits of limitations. Nintendo invested heavily in the groundbreaking 1998 classic Ocarina of Time, and wanted a sequel that could get further use out of the assets created for it. As the Ocarina team initially planned a creatively bankrupt “Master Quest” re-release, series creator and producer Shigeru Miyamoto allowed them only a year’s development time to make a real sequel. This was far from the four years needed to create Ocarina and not nearly enough time to create new art assets. Co-directors Eiji Aonuma (who after this would become the creative director for the series) and Yoshiaki Koizumi instead decided to use the restrictions in their favor, slightly editing some of the character models from the previous game and making the setting a bizarro wonderland to Hyrule. Termina is full of characters who look like the cast of Ocarina but are mostly not, and along with the chunky Nintendo 64 graphics and time-bending plot it gives the game a delightfully creepy surreality. It’s a perfect kind of side story, one which could only exist as a creative offshoot to a beloved work.
There are three main motifs in Majora’s Mask, though I’ll be primarily focusing on the third. The first is what you get from the title: masks. Aside from the Skull Kid’s demonic Majora’s Mask, Link uses masks to take on different identities, literally in three cases. The transformation masks allow Link the forms of three “people” who died from the Skull Kid’s actions: the aforementioned Deku Scrub, a Goron warrior, and a Zora musician. These forms grant him different powers (the Zora, for instance, can swim and use his fins to replace the series’ staple boomerang), but they – along with some of the twenty “Collectible masks” which are used for various puzzles – also let him speak with lost souls, enter closed off communities, and even disguise himself as people to take on their duties. Link as himself has access to a number of weapons, but our hero functions more like an unseen interloper, far from the gods’ chosen avatar of other Zelda titles.
The second motif is a Zelda staple, music. This one is less noteworthy, if only because it’s been central to the franchise from the very first game. Link uses his ocarina – or, depending on his form, pipes, drums, or a guitar – to heal those in pain, open access to the four main dungeons, and control the flow of time. Music carries a great deal of power in Zelda; it’s empowering in a way that’s less tangible than the bows and bombs the games normally bestow upon you. Because of that, it’s perfect for this game, which is less invested in those normal tools and weapons. But it’s dwarfed in importance by the last motif on which we’ll be focusing, as time is the element most unique and memorable about Majora’s Mask.
The plot and premise – inspired by the 1998 German thriller Run Lola Run, in which a woman relives an event multiple times to save her boyfriend’s life – is one almost perfectly catered to video games, many of which are literally about the creation, execution, and repetition of environments. You have 72 hours segmented into six half-day segments, and every single character has an exact schedule they follow to the letter. It’s not quite as complex as it sounds – most characters have a very basic schedule, and only a few choice events affect others later in the cycle – but it does allow the game to develop this world as almost a puzzle box of a kind similar to the series’ various and iconic dungeons.
Here’s an example: if you go to the bomb salesman on the second or final day, his mother mentions how unsafe the north section of town is. You can travel back in time, wait out part of Night One, and stop her from being mugged by the town thief. You score the goofy-ass Blast Mask which turns your head into a bomb, and her being safe allows her son to sell the larger bomb bag, while inadvertently causing the town’s sleazy merchant to sell another rare mask instead of the woman’s stolen goods. Or after going to Romani Ranch on the final day, you realize that “something” bad happens on the first day and have to warp back, find a way to open the path that blocks it off for the first two days, learn a song necessary to continue your quest, and discover a whole new side quest connected to several others still. The game makes you a detective, even giving you a notebook to help you track down leads and figure out who needs help.
Because of this, time is in a mechanically interesting place: it’s both a burden and the most purely renewable resource in the game. Unlike the masks (which are rewards) or weapons (which are often not as important as transforming), going back to the Dawn of the First Day is the one trick you always have, at least after the initial three day cycle. As you progress through the game, resetting the world feels less like a strain and more like a way for you to control the world to an extent that’s never been found in a Zelda game. You become a bizarre agent of heroism, dispensing justice destined to be instantly forgotten with the next Quantum Leap warp.
So while the time mechanic is the most important and central part of Majora’s Mask, it’s also a system and motif benefitting from everything else. The idea of Link assuming these identities with these masks while his own goes unnoticed works with the constant temporal resets; all of his efforts may go forever unnoticed, but how disappointing is that when all those efforts will be lost the moment he warps back anyway? Oddly enough, living through the same problems over and over again lends itself to both empathy and cynicism, powered by the dark, often contemplative score. NPCs and their problems are far more compelling than in other games, both in and out of the series, but it’s easy to take a less moralist view of them when you’re always operating on the outside. That monkey in Woodfall Swamp, for example, will be tortured for all three days for a crime he didn’t commit, but you’ve also got to stop the endless winter in Snowhead Peak, and do you need to save Woodfall’s waters from being poisoned again?
Altogether, these different motifs and the story itself create something closer to a deconstruction of fantasy stories, as well as the Zelda franchise as a whole. Link’s a stranger in a strange land who must infiltrate closed societies by assuming the identities of the dead. It’s noticeable that alongside the friendly Gorons and Zoras, you also spend time with Stalchildren and Dekus, who were almost uniformly villainous in Ocarina. Or how the many in-game musical productions mimics how you fall into these performative roles. While the ending implies Link’s actions do somehow last beyond the cycle in which he did them, he’s still destined to be forgotten in this offbeat world. Tropes of the series are played with and presented oddly, like how Link suffers intense physical trauma to use those empowering masks. The fantastical storytelling of the previous games – the exception being the parodic, pleasingly goofy Link’s Awakening – is replaced with dark surrealism and slow mysteries and this bizarre, unknowable “thing” at the center of it all. It even featured the debut of Tingle, a controversial character whose man-child disposition and silly green suit almost read like a criticism of Link, or at least of the narrow minded fantasy hero archetype.
This is purely anecdotal, but I’ve found Majora’s Mask to be a popular choice for people’s personal favorite Zelda game, and while they may point to the darker tone of the interesting mechanic, I believe that interest runs deeper than that. Zelda is a franchise built on classic legends and grand, mythical motifs, and Majora’s Mask excises or twists a fair amount of them. It’s no less fantastical than other installments, but it’s within a unique framework, one a little more distrustful of the heroic tales on which the series is built. That’s a compelling idea on its own, and one that would not be nearly as strong or effective without a central system that drove its story and gameplay. That system would never be used by Zelda again, but it remains striking and memorable.