Written and Uploaded by Drew Beyer // Edited by Andrew Busch // Header image courtesy of Nintendo Everything
(This is an extension of my section from the “meet the team” feature.)
Nothing excites me more about the prospect of impending doom than seeing “dawn of the first day. 72 hours remain.” pop up on a television screen. I hope you know I’m quoting my favorite game of all time, The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask. If you didn’t, listen up because there’s a game you need to play. While I might have spent more time with other games, few linger in my mind like Majora’s Mask. In fact, I just bought another Majora’s Mask shirt despite already owning more than I probably should. My favorite necklace is the titular mask, and my computer background as I type this is Majora’s Mask fan art. Why am I so smitten? It’s pretty simple, actually— Majora’s Mask encapsulates everything I love about the potential of games as a medium.
Contrary to what you might expect, the beginning of my relationship with Majora’s Mask is not particularly great. I owned the Mask cartridge, but Ocarina of Time spent far more time in the N64. My squishy child brain never quite got the hang of the three day cycle and the myriad of side quests. If memory serves, I never got past the Pirate’s Fortress, though I have intense nostalgia for the parts of the game I did beat. Especially the bosses. I think I’ve vanquished Goht and Odolwa a hundred times each by this point.
It wasn’t until Majora’s Mask hit the virtual console in 2009 that I came to fully appreciate the game for precisely the same reasons I found it so daunting as a child. I think Majora’s Mask stands out as a masterclass in game storytelling and world building, and it’s one of the few games that makes me feel legitimately heroic every time I play it — which is about once a year. While OoT won the N64 cartridge war, MM wins the 3DS cartridge war by such a huge margin it’s probably better called a massacre.
The paradox of the three day cycle achieves something no other open world game has, in my opinion. It manages to imbue the narrative with stakes, while still giving the player a strong sense of agency. While some people might object to calling Majora’s Mask open world, I think it qualifies more than any other Zelda game pre-Breath of the Wild. While Termina’s temples might have a linear order to them, the sheer volume of side quests and optional content definitely feels more open than Hyrule.
Yet the threat of the moon remains constant—and, more importantly, real. At the end of seventy-two game hours, the moon falls, Termina lives up to it’s name, and Link suffers the dreaded game over. None of this is implied, either. There’s a fully rendered cutscene that shows Link’s death every time you allow the moon to fall. And it’s no secret that three days is hardly enough time to prevent this calamity—it’s barely enough time to clear one temple. Luckily for the you, “Hero of Time” is more than an honorary title for Link, as he possess the power to restart the three day loop at any time by playing the Song of Time. But the Song of Time hard resets the cycle —temple progress is undone, areas freed from the influence of darkness fall back under it, and most consumable items you had are lost.
Majora’s Mask revolves around this fundamental paradox. As a player, you always feel like you’re running out of time although you have an infinite amount of it. Even otherwise outstanding open world games prioritize player agency over story structure, and their narratives fall apart because of it. Take Fallout 4, for instance. The game tries to engage the player through this grand story hook in the form of your missing child, but this ultimately proves optional. The game constantly tells you your child is in mortal peril, but it’s all bark and no bite. The same proves true for Skyrim, Red Dead Redemption, Grand Theft Auto, and so many others.
Technically, these games suffer from “ludonarrative dissonance.” Basically, the ambitions of the game and narrative designers are at cross-purposes. The ludic aspects—the interactive part—want the player to feel powerful and in control of their own experience, but this conflicts with narrative elements designed to weave a coherent, satisfying story. It’s why public response to a sandbox game’s story frequently reflects how well the main character is written. The Witcher 3 and Horizon: Zero Dawn both struggle with ludonarrative dissonance, but they compensate by having vibrant, immaculately voiced characters.
By contrast, Majora’s Mask maintains a consistent ludonarrative throughout, which is especially impressive considering it predates the term by seven years. There’s nothing theoretical about the moon falling. The game constantly reminds you that time is running out through the transitional texts, but you can physically see the moon inch closer and closer with the passage of time.
In addition to resolving ludonarrative dissonance years before most people understood the problem, Majora’s Mask provides a nice counterpoint to the usual state of Zelda stories as well. The people of Hyrule might as well retitle Ganon “the king of hypothetical evil” at this point, considering how lenient the timelines for his evil plans tend to be. Sometimes it seems like he must be in cahoots with Link, since the player always arrives just in time to save the day… whether it takes seven hours or seven days to get there. Not so with the Skill Kid, who is evil and more terrifyingly efficacious.
Speaking of things that are terrifying, Termina succeeds as a region by maintaining a consistently unsettling atmosphere. The game thrives on a sense of general wrongness, running on a bizarre sort of nightmare logic. Just look at the moon, with its uncanny valley teeth, massive lidless eyes, and the completely unexplained capacity to produce massive blue stones which the game calls “tears.”
The connections to Ocarina only compound this pervasive unease, as Termina appears to the player like Hyrule as seen through a carnival mirror—things are reflected and distorted. The two games share a multiplicity of models, but Majora’s Mask does strange things with the familiar faces of Ocarina. Anju goes from a clumsy, well meaning chicken lady in OoT to a heartbroken young woman in Termina. Koume and Kotake go from dungeon bosses in OoT to kindly potion sellers in Mask. One of the most innocuous shopkeepers in OoT, the Happy Mask Salesman, utters his iconic and utterly chilling “you’ve met with a terrible fate, haven’t you?” as his very first line in Majora’s Mask.
The Happy Mask Salesman and the Skull Kid set the tone for Majora’s Mask right from the opening. The game starts with the Skull Kid stealing your horse and Ocarina, forcibly transmogrifying you into a deck scrub, and cruelly abandoning one of his fairy companions, a harsh contrast to the pastoral beginning to OoT. You then chase him unsuccessfully through the heart of a great tree—only to come out in the base of a clock tower. It makes even less sense in context. Then you’re immediately accosted by the Happy Mask Salesman, who presses you into service, requesting that you reclaim his stolen property—an artifact of great evil, the thing which is currently corrupting the Skull Kid, Majora’s Mask itself. It raises serious questions about the morality, as the Happy Mask Salesman comes across as highly dubious. He never explains why he has such an evil item to begin with, only that it was stolen. He also turns violent at the drop of a hat. While the Skull Kid is more overtly evil, the Happy Mask Salesmen is definitely not good.
The entire mask conceit plays up this ambiguity, as the Happy Mask Salesman teaches you the haunting song of healing, which allows Link to soothe souls and somehow transmute their suffering into masks. These masks allow Link to assume numerous personas in his adventure through Termina, but he only can take the shape of the dead. Even the deku form the Skull Kid forces upon you eventually is revealed to be the dead son of the deku king.
The masks! How have I gotten so deep into what I love about this game without even touching on the masks? Like the three day cycles, the masks help alleviate an issue I commonly have with video game stories—the surprising charisma of the silent protagonist. Many video game heroes command a enormous respect and admiration despite never speaking, which always strikes me as odd. I understand that most games seek to empower their players, but I still find the silent protagonist a typically unsatisfying trope. Majora’s Mask rectifies this issue by rendering Link an utter non-entity. Everyone treats him as if he legitimately doesn’t speak. They barely register his presence, and when they do they’re usually mistaking him for someone else. Wear a mask, and everyone assumes they’re speaking to whoever’s face you’ve borrowed. Link wanders through Termina as a ghost, switching masks as needed.
There’s also a clear instance of “it’s not a bug, it’s a feature” in terms of technical limitations. Due to the limited space on a N64 cart, none of the NPCs register when you change masks. They react only when spoken to. It contributes to the sense of Link as a void that walks, since he can change from boy to goron to zora in the span of a few seconds and nobody bats an eye.
Back at the beginning of this piece, I mentioned how Majora’s Mask is one of the few games to make me feel legitimately heroic, and this ambivalence is why. Nobody showers Link with praise and adoration. He’s not the people’s champion, anointed by the gods. He’s a lost boy, commissioned by what might be a malevolent force wearing human skin like a dinner jacket to recover an artifact of tremendous power. When anybody notices his good deeds, they assume they’re the work of someone else.
All of this makes Link, and by extension me, incredibly heroic. He saves Termina out of commitment to doing the right thing rather than because of fate, destiny, or personal gain. Nobody in Termina promises a reward or even asks to be saved—in fact, multiple subplots imply that many people willfully ignore the falling of the moon entirely. The three day cycle enforces a sense of failure and futility to nearly everything Link does, as each restart undoes his own good deeds. When you step out into Termina field on the dawn of the first day, everything is where it started—in turmoil. No matter how fast and far you spread your light, the darkness always gets there first. Yet playing through the game means staying resolute and persevering in the face of inevitable defeat, in the hope of eventually breaking the cycle.
And once you manage to, you feel accomplished. I know many people, myself included, who always went through and defeated every boss, purging their corruption from the lands, as ritual preparation for the final showdown with the Skull Kid. There’s no reason to go add this extra step before the boss other than a personal immersion in the world of Termina and a vested interesting in setting right what has been wrong for far too long.
You’ll probably be surprised to learn that what I find most impressive about the storytelling of Majora’s Mask is that it’s utterly optional to engage with at this level. Majora’s Mask tells an impressive story, but tells it slant—you’re fully capable of playing and enjoying the game without buying into the story. The gameplay supports itself—the puzzles are imaginative, the world huge and full of secrets, the bosses tense and satisfying (except Gyorg, who is easily my least favorite video game fish boss, to use an overly narrow superlative). In my opinion, this is the best way to tell a video game story. Giving players agency over their own engagement in the story is the best way to ensure that some of them don’t angrily mash the “a” button to get through cutscenes as quickly as possible.
As a kid, all of this complex philosophy and world building went completely over my head. And that’s completely fine. In fact, it’s encouraging to be able to go back to the game and appreciate it for entirely different reasons. Being able to enjoy the game without understanding it is a testament to the strength of the ludo side of the ludonarrative. While the gameplay is fun and satisfying, I admit it does have its share of frustrations. One is that it’s practically masochistic to play the first time through without abusing the song of inverted time to extend the three day cycle. This would be fine if the song of inverted time were taught to new players, but it’s only obliquely hinted at, never given.
Speaking of music, Koji Kondo’s score for Majora’s Mask is one of the best in all of gaming. I still find myself humming some of the more memorable tunes now and again, especially the driving Deku Palace theme. The music always reflects the dark, nightmarish world, and even evolves over time. Hearing the bright and upbeat Clock Town theme distort and decay as the moon draws ever closer blew my feeble child mind, and it’s still an excellent example of how to seamlessly integrate music into the greater game narrative. I also highly recommend checking out Theophany’s re-orchestrations of the original music- the remixes really capture the spirit and feel of the original game. If you like Theophany’s tracks, I guarantee you’ll like the game.
On the less gushing side of things, objectively speaking the game occasionally buckles beneath its own ambition. The sheer volume of side quests and the precise timing required to complete them is awesome in terms of building a facsimile of a living world, but it again renders the game very difficult to play without a guide. The bomber’s notebook certainly helps, but even referencing the notebook will occasionally leave you scratching your head in terms of how to accomplish things. And there’s a particularly egregious side quest that takes the full three days to complete and must be completed twice in order to get all the heart containers and masks.
I also admit that the things I admire about the narrative are highly subjective, as many of the things I think are awesome might frustrate or discourage you. This is a frightening, somewhat depressing game, and that’s not everyone’s cup of tea. If you play games strictly for fun, Majora’s Mask might not resonate with you. While I very much enjoy Majora’s Mask’s gameplay, I’d categorize it as the kind of game you play for the sense of accomplishment that comes from completing a task that initially seems impossible. Think of Majora’s Mask like a proto-From Software title—it’s not nearly as punishing, but the three day cycle makes the game quite a bit more difficult than other games in the series. Plus you’re going to have to pay very close attention and deliberately dig if you want to get to the heart of the story.
Even with these minor flaws, I still love Majora’s Mask and hope we haven’t seen the last of this dark, eerie side of Nintendo. One of the best things about Majora’s Mask is how different it is both mechanically and tonally from the rest of the Nintendo canon.This is why it continues to haunt my imagination, even after all this time. While Majora’s Mask might mask (I’m over 2,400 words in, I’ve earned one pun) its own complexity, I definitely think you should visit Termina if you haven’t before. And if you have, I hope my love and appreciation for the game encourages you to pick it up again and look for things you might’ve missed.
….Now where’d I put my MM 3DS cartridge?