Few games have taken me longer to complete than The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask. When it was originally released on the Nintendo 64 in 2000, I did not own a Nintendo 64. I experienced the game in fits and starts at the homes of friends, but never really was I able to sit down and play it by myself. When the game was released on the Nintendo Virtual console in 2009, I bought it and installed it on my Wii, but never finished it. When the Nintendo 3DS came out one of the big titles announced for it was a remake of The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, which I bought on the day of release. It was all but assumed a remake of Majora’s Mask would follow, but it took Nintendo a few years to make that a reality saving the title until 2015. And at the time of release, I was not in need of a new game so I passed o it initially and I ended up waiting a few years to purchase Majora’s Mask 3D when it was discounted in the summer of 2017 or ’18. And it has taken me since then to finally beat it. I never beat it on the Wii, and I played it irregularly on the 3DS. Sure, I’ve physically spent more hours with games than I have Majora’s Mask, but in terms of the passage of time from the first time I played it to my finishing it I’m not sure anything compares.
Majora’s Mask is in many ways the first true sequel for a game in The Legend of Zelda series. Canonically, the second game in the series is a sequel to the original as Zelda II: The Adventure of Link takes place after the events of the original The Legend of Zelda. However, it’s an entirely different game as Nintendo opted to switch to a side-scrolling perspective and add RPG mechanics to the character progression. About the only thing linking the two was the catchy soundtrack. On the Game Boy, The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening was a sequel to the Super Nintendo title A Link to the Past, but obviously going from the Super Nintendo to the Game Boy necessitated quite a drastic change in playing style. Link’s Awakening ended up being one of the most offbeat Zelda titles, and it also introduced a jump mechanic to the top-down Zelda gameplay popularized by the very first game in the series.
Majora’s Mask though, being a 2000 release, is very much the sequel to Ocarina of Time. The Link character present in both games is the same, and the gameplay engine was recycled. Previously, every Zelda game was constructed from the ground up, but likely lengthy development cycles arising from the technological advances in gaming and simply the cost in crafting a gameplay engine meant Nintendo had a lot of reasons to do a more traditional sequel. It’s something Nintendo really has resisted with Zelda as since Majora’s Mask the only games that qualify as traditional sequels are the DS titles. Because of that reality, some questioned whether or not Majora’s Mask should even be considered a full-fledged Zelda title upon release, which was a bit absurd. It’s an entirely stand-alone game with as much content as basically any other Zelda title up to that point. And since it was built on the back of one of the most popular and critically acclaimed games of all-time it seemed doubly crazy to criticize Nintendo for essentially fast-tracking a Zelda game. If anything, content-starved owners of the Nintendo 64 should have been doing backflips to receive another Zelda game a mere 2 years after the previous one.
Majora’s Mask would not be as well received as Ocarina of Time, but you would be hard pressed to find a negative review of the game from 2000. And the same is true of the remake for the 3DS, so why did it take me so damn long to actually finish it? Well, Majora’s Mask is constructed around a time travel gimmick. Ocarina of Time was as well, but Majora’s Mask takes it in a different direction. This game is basically the equivalent of Groundhog Day for video games, only the events of the game unfold over the course of 3 days instead of 1. In it, you once again play as a child version of Link, the Hero of Time. He has ventured away from the kingdom of Hyrule and arrived in the region of Termina when the game begins. Unfortunately, he quickly loses his horse and comes to find out that the town is doomed. The Skull Kid, whom players should remember from Ocarina of Time, has stolen the cursed Majora’s Mask and has used its power to summon the moon to crush Termina. It’s a slow moving moon though, with a creepy visage upon it, that won’t actually strike for 3 days. Link is expected to unseal the power of four lost deities which should stop the moon from crashing into the planet. Unfortunately, there just isn’t enough time to accomplish that goal so Link will need to turn to his trusty ocarina to constantly rewind time to the start of the first day in order to acquire all of the items needed to foil the Skull Kid.
What this means from a gameplay standpoint is that you’re constantly managing an in-game clock. If left to its own devices, the three days unfold at an equivalent of one gameplay hour equaling one real world minute. If you let the clock run down, you lose and everyone gets destroyed. This means you’re always running around and trying to accomplish as many tasks as possible as going back to the dawn of the first day means the entire world gets reset. Any consumable items you may have acquired like bombs and arrows are lost, as are the contents of any bottles and such. If you had to undertake certain tasks in order to gain access to a dungeon or similar area, you may have to redo them in order to pick up where you left off. The only things you’re allowed to keep when traveling back in time are key items like the bow and hookshot as well as heart containers and masks. This all results in a gameplay experience that is best described as tedious. Just like any other media centered on time travel, there’s always going to be repetition in the plot and it’s a pretty subjective take on how much is too much. Some people consider Back to the Future Part Two the worst film in the trilogy because so much of it is a rehash of the first film, even though it’s by design. And others love it for that very reason.
Because of its gameplay style, Majora’s Mask may be one of the most controversial Zelda titles ever released. I know people who can barely tolerate it, and I also know others who think its the best Zelda title ever released. Because the game is a constant loop of three days, every non-player character in the game has a schedule. You know where they will be on any given day at any given time. For some people, I think such a concept is very rewarding. It’s certainly a tad gimmicky, but it’s a gimmick that definitely wasn’t common on consoles in the year 2000. I personally don’t recall encountering such patterns in NPCs until I played an Elder Scrolls game, though in those games it wasn’t a loop of three days, but still characters could be trusted to be in certain places, on certain days, at certain times. And the ability to play with and manipulate time certainly has some charm. Not only can Link rewind time when needed, he can also slow down the passage of time essentially doubling the amount of time available, or he can move forward in time. Being able to do so plays a role in many side quests as they’re dependent on encountering characters at certain times of day, and rather than waiting around, you can simply move forward in time to wherever, and whenever, you need to be.
All that said, I am not one of those people. While I found a certain thrill in playing with time each time I started up a game of Majora’s Mask, it was something that wore off. Around the time I got to the second, main, dungeon of the game in the mountains I hit a wall. That’s where I left off for years on my Wii version, and it was the first time I put the 3DS version down for an extended length of time. I came and went over the years though and at long last I can finally say I have beaten Majora’s Mask, the 3D version anyway. Which is fine for me as we’ll get into it soon, but this is the superior version of the game. And while I did beat it, I did not accomplish every little thing in this title which is unusual for me when it comes to a Zelda game. Typically I get every item and find every heart piece, but I was content with this one to just get all of the masks. It’s not a hard game so the heart containers really just start to feel like filler at some point, the last few are also incredibly annoying, but that’s another thing we’ll get to in time.
Being that Majora’s Mask is built on the same engine as Ocarina of Time it should come as no surprise that the two games look pretty similar. That’s true of the original build, as well as the 3D remake. I played this on an original model 3DS and rarely touched the 3D setting. When it occurred to me to do so, I would, but only for cinematics. The remake is largely a cosmetic improvement over the original as all of the polygons have been smoothed over and rounded off better while the muddy textures of the N64 have largely been removed. The original looked okay in 2000, but the remake is pleasant to look at now and likely will remain that way for a lot longer than the 2000 release did. The upgrades are not just cosmetic though as Nintendo implemented a number of quality of life improvements, as it did with the Ocarina of Time remake. The bottom screen serves as your inventory and the ocarina itself is easily accessible now. Better, you can also see all of your songs displayed as you play so you don’t need to memorize anything. Link can equip four items at a time making it less cumbersome to swap things in and out and the Song of Double Time now allows you to select an hour in the future rather than just move time forward in preset intervals. All of the transformation masks have also received tweaks, some more severe than others. The most notable is Zora Link now swims a lot slower, but he can speed-up by consuming magic which feels like more of a downgrade than an improvement, but it is helpful when swimming in tight confines. There are also far more save points now, which is something that’s appreciated for any game.
The main game asks the player to explore the world of Termina and acquire masks, which serve as the main feature of the gameplay gimmick. The masks largely replace the specialized items we’re used to finding in past Zelda games. The Goron mask, for example, basically gives Link the same “powers” as the hammer from Ocarina of Time while the Zora form has a boomerang attack and gives Link the ability to swim. The other mask, and the first one you get, is the Deku Scrub mask which gives Link the ability to hop across water and utilize the Deku flowers to basically hover a short distance in the air. There are still items to be found in dungeons, but far fewer than the typical Zelda experience. The masks themselves though are visually interesting and thematically as well as each mask is actually inhabited by the spirit of a deceased individual. It’s a bit sad that when Link is wearing one friends of the dead fellow mistake him for their dead friend or relative, which adds a tragic element to the story.
There are four main dungeons in the game that have to be completed in a specific order. If that makes the game sound short, it’s a bit longer than you think as each dungeon has basically another dungeon that has to be completed first. The first dungeon usually contains an item needed to progress the story or is necessary in opening the location of the dungeon you need to access most. Those four main dungeons each contain the mask of a deity, and assembling all four is needed to stop the moon. Those four masks are unwearable, but that doesn’t mean there is any shortage of masks in the game. There are 20 total masks, the majority of which do very little and are relegated to a specific purpose that once taken advantage of is no longer needed again. Some are neat though, like the one that turns Link’s head into a bomb and allows him to self-destruct thereby giving you infinite bombs. My favorite is probably still the Bunny Hood, a holdover from Ocarina of Time, which just makes Link run much faster. It’s annoying to get, but definitely worth it once acquired. The last mask you can get is basically a bonus item. Dubbed the Fierce Deity mask, it turns Link into an adult version of himself that’s over-powered that turns all boss battles into a mere formality. It’s the type of mask you should probably go after once you’ve beaten the game once, unless you prefer the final boss be a pushover.
Which is something that isn’t needed anyway as the game is pretty easy. Even the puzzle elements aren’t particularly tricky and the ones that stumped me the most were usually the ones that required the least amount of thought. I got stuck for a bit in the last dungeon because I simply didn’t kill every enemy in a specific room, but the enemy was a statue that only comes to life if you touch it, which is the type of enemy where the purpose seems to be to avoid touching them! And these two were even situated in lava, so go figure. Combat is by far the most dated aspect of this game as it’s very simplistic and really not a whole lot of fun. Only one enemy will attack Link at a time if you’re locked onto them and the vast majority can be defeated just by smacking them. Others require the player to either deflect or parry a strike, then counter. Most of the bosses have been tweaked from the original release as well to add a weak point that you need to strike in a fairly obvious manner, then smack them around with your sword. Only the underwater boss gave me any trouble, and the final boss was a bit disappointing in how easy it was to fell. I suppose it was better than a boss fight that required a bunch of switching of masks or something, but lackluster combat isn’t a new problem for Zelda and it was even my biggest criticism of Breath of the Wild.
I can live with the simple nature of the battle system in this game, but what drove me nuts was just the little things. The camera isn’t great, even when playing with the Circle Pad Pro which allows for manual manipulation of the camera, and it’s something I found myself fighting with more than expected. The targeting system can be finicky, but at least there’s no shortage of health available so that didn’t bother me too much. What would bother me the most are the alternate forms of Link, specifically Goron and Zora Link, as controlling them was such a chore. Goron Link has a rolling ability and there are moments in the game where you have to roll on a track while Zora Link has to swim and swimming is just never any fun in video games. The end of the game features some optional dungeons that drove me insane as it puts the lackluster camera and controls for those two forms in the spotlight and if you want every heart container you just have to soldier through it. The penultimate dungeon also introduced a mechanic where you flip the dungeon upside down which proved incredibly tedious. The last song you learn for Link’s ocarina, The Elegy of Emptiness, also allows Link to make a duplicate of himself for the purpose of standing on a switch. And you can duplicate Link as many times as transformations you have! The problem is you’ll end up doing this over and over as you leave and re-enter the dungeon, which is required to flip it and complete it, and watching those mask transformations and songs over and over is maddening. Nintendo apparently either loves its cinematics too much to make them skippable, or it hates its fans. I don’t know if it rises to the level of the infamous Water Temple, but the overwhelming tedium of this game just wore me down by the time the end arrived.
I have a lot of complaints and mixed feelings when it comes to Majora’s Mask 3D, but in the end I do think it’s a good game and worth playing, I just think reactions to it will be volatile from person to person. It’s a game you can’t be in a hurry to play or else it will frustrate you, but sometimes you’re staring at a red battery light on a handheld and time becomes precious. When I ranked the Zelda games almost five years ago, I called this the seventh best game in the series. When ranking them then, even though I had never finished the game, I was reminded of how a lot of games in this series feature some degree of tedium and gimmicks that overstay their welcome. What distinguishes this game above some of the others is that the gimmick at least feels clever, and that’s a feeling that doesn’t really ware off. Sure, the combat doesn’t impress and the end game starts to feel a bit “samey” when most enemies just require the bow and sword, but there is a charm to the game’s structure and some of the characters are actually memorable, when Zelda plots are often just “meh.” And if you are going to play just one version, the 3D remake is definitely the superior one. While the changes to Zora Link make that last, optional, dungeon super annoying, that’s not enough to outweigh the other quality of life improvements and increased visuals. The only thing that stinks about playing the 3DS version is that you’re confined to a portable. You can certainly do better than the old model 3DS I have, but Nintendo has yet to make 3DS games available on Switch or introduced a 3DS player (there are third party hacks that can accomplish this, but nothing official) so that’s unfortunate, especially because the game contains a fantastic soundtrack. It’s a shame it’s trapped on those tiny speakers, but I suppose you could hook up some nice headphones. It was nice to get a Zelda fix though, especially with Breath of the Wild 2 still without a release date, and at least I can finally say I have beaten Majora’s Mask.