Majora’s Mask did not define the era in which it was made. It didn’t implement any revolutionary ideas. It didn’t have a large influence on the future development of video games. It should have been an afterthought; a soon-to-be-forgotten sequel to the most critically acclaimed game of all-time. Its initially mixed reception, its fairly moderate sales success, and its release between console generations all could be used as evidence that Majora’s Mask was destined to be neglected.
But something happened: the game lived. Today, many praise it as one of the greatest games ever made. Its monthly Google searches, while still paling in comparison to its predecessor, are rising each month. Editorials, fan-art, and diegetic theories have are often seen on the front pages of Reddit, fan sites, and Stumble Upon. As more time passes, people are becoming interested in understanding Majora’s Mask’s complexities.
The game leaves players with thousands of questions, and most have remained unanswered. But the answers themselves isn’t the source of intrigue. It’s the mystery. Such a curiosity with Majora’s Mask is rooted in the individual psyche of each gamer. It’s a game that refuses to be ignored or let go. Ten years after I first played it, Majora’s Mask stays with me during every video game experience. No RPG can escape being compared to it. No so-called sandbox world can top it. Never have I built such a strong relationship with a game.
Majora’s Mask is a video game experience like none other; a completely alien and exotic ride cloaking one of gaming’s most influential and cherished formulas. It is one of gaming’s most unique and artistic achievements. It may not top any greatest games list, but no one can deny Majora’s Mask stands all by itself.
You’ve met with a terrible fate, haven’t you?
Majora’s Mask does not open up with major exposition. Link, a character that is more a silhouette of the player than a character himself, is riding and searching for a friend. As the game progresses, this frame for the game’s story showcases its true poetic genius. It goes from being a simple effect to begin the story, to an all-encompassing analogy of the game’s meaning. Cyclical writing like this is hard to find not only in video gaming, but in all of narrative storytelling.
But this is merely the first example of how Majora’s Mask transcends the standards of video games.
In gaming, we’re often told what is good and evil in simplistic terms. You, the player, are good. Them, the enemies, are evil. They stand in your way. They took your bananas. They are the Nazis. You don’t need to think much more than that. Other times, enemies might not even be evil. The entire universal “morality” of video gaming can be defined as “conquer whatever is in your path.” In most video games, defeating evil can be considered an objective, rather than a moral triumph.
Majora’s Mask digs deeper. Instead, it looks to analyze what exactly is the root of human love and hate, and it does so through gorgeous imagery and heartfelt symbolism.
On one side you’re presented Majora, a force that chooses to divide and conquer. Majora has wreaked havoc across Termina, a twisted and technologically advanced realm that shares much more in common with our world than it does Hyrule. Majora has destroyed families, murdered leaders, and has created an impending doom that will kill all of the world’s inhabitants. The gamer is left in a state of mystery as to what it actually even is. This is done purposefully: what Majora is has no importance.
On the other side is Link: a boy searching for a friend.
By the end of the game, we see the effects both forces have on characters. One restores family bonds, saves cities, and offers love to those in need, while the other tries to strip away everything and leave nothinngess. The game’s physical incarnation of the apocalypse, the falling grim moon, says to Link right before his confrontation with Majora, “I shall consume …. consume everything.” The two forces are juxtaposed. A force that seeks to unite (the good), with a force that seeks to destroy (the evil). Thus, Majora gives a strong depiction of morality, something that few games have done.
But Majora’s Mask digs even deeper.
With the game’s final sequence, we are given a symbolic representation of the root of evil: the human mind. When we enter the moon to confront Majora, we are not greeted by some dungeon or some rocky terrain. No, instead we are greeted by beautiful landscape: a lush green field with a gorgeous tree on a bright sunny day. Standing around the tree are four children, playing with the masks of the bosses you have conquered. These children are not hostile or primal. They’re children: they want to play and make friends. They want to find something in common with you and fool around. Once you play games with them, they begin to ask questions.
“What makes you happy?”
“Is that your true face?”
“You want to play with me?”
These are the curious, yet fearful questions every person yearns to find answers for. We want to communicate with others, learn about them, and try to befriend them. As social mammals, this pursuit and desire is the core of our perceived happiness. When we’re rejected of this, the force to divide overtakes us. After playing with all four children and using all our masks, one more child appears sitting down. He is lonely. Rejected of the playful adventures the others had just received, the child proposes a new idea: “Let’s play good guys and bad guys.” Now that he finally has someone to bond with, he is too fractured, too hurt, just to play a harmless game. A force has built in him; one that so casually decides what’s good and bad. A force in which violence, hate, and destruction spawns from. A force that divides.
“You’re the bad guy, and when you’re the bad guy, you just run. That’s fine right?”
It is a line so deep and rich in meaning that it causes one to forget that an epic boss battle awaits you. This is when the line between game and art blurs to the point that they are indiscernible from each other. Majora’s Mask portrays so beautifully the stem from which evil grows: the lonely, exiled boy within us all. Majora is less a physical villain and more so a symbolic representation of the greatest flaw of our species: our inclination to hate when in the state of isolation.
After we face evil and defeat it, we restore the world in momentous celebration. People dance, sing, and love. However, no one is aware of the gamer’s actions. There will be no “Legend” that Terminians will tell their children for ages. We are given no gratitude, but that wasn’t the goal of the adventure.
We leave in the same way we entered: riding a horse, searching for a friend.
You want to play … with me?
The philosophical depth of Majora’s Mask is magnified by ways in which only a video game can do. Majora’s Mask does not merely reveal to you the actions of another, leaving them for you to interpret. Instead, you are in full control of the world’s future. This is achieved through one of the most expertly crafted examples of video game design: the three day apocalyptic cycle.
The Zelda formula is the most critically acclaimed structure in all of video games. The original Legend of Zelda, an open sandbox game built around exploration and item collecting, is the main inspiration for every adventure game in the industry. Without it, video games would have evolved in an entirely different manner. Zelda is the standard by which games are compared, and Zelda games are supposed to feel familiar.
The three day cycle completely obliterates this sense of familiarity. With this three day chain of events in place, the world of Majora’s Mask will change completely to your will. Book a room at the local inn on the first day of the cycle? A Goron will be left stranded and tired a day later. Do not inquire about the visitors a local ranch has been receiving? You’ve just allowed a little girl to be abducted. Choose to let the three-day cycle end? Watch the apocalypse unfold and lose all of your saved data. The ability to casually explore the world freely is gone, and all sense of comfort is gone with it. Instead, fear and haste enhance the experience. We are left yearning for the Zelda formula we have grown accustomed to and to be ridden of the limiting and intoxicating three-day demand.
We are given no such reprieve.
But this three day cycle isn’t limited to inducing emotions and creating an alien and uncomfortable setting. It’s a sandbox where you control the box. Every action you make has an effect on the world around you. Most sandbox games strive for having such a ripple effect in their worlds. The only problem is the limitlessness of time. In the Elder Scrolls or Fable, eventually there comes a point where there is simply nothing left to do in the world around you. It may take 100s of hours to reach, but eventually you do.
Eventually, you can also reach that point in Termina. However, the world will never become sterile. The three day cycle won’t allow that to happen. The world will repeat, and repeat. Each character has a set of actions you can affect. There is a course of dialogue in which you can unlock hidden quests. There are numerous easter eggs, secrets, and little hidden gems that the cycle will allow you to discover. It is a world that can be explored and played within itself, yet it will never feel complete. There are no ways to properly quantify satisfaction outside of the masks and abilities you collect.
To replace quantifiable rewards, the game responds to your actions with some of the most beautiful cutscenes and character dialogue in gaming history. You get to witness a crowd of Gorons cheer on their leader to his death. You get to watch as family members embrace and hold each other. You get to reunite lovers and watch them wait to perish. Death. The main source of human fear plays a major role in Majora’s Mask. In most games, death is a consequence of failure. In Majora’s Mask, death is a consequence on not only failure, but inaction. If you don’t spread love, you and the others you meet will perish.
The manner in which you heal is not limited to a sword. Instead it’s through compassion, as notated by the Song of Healing. The way the game portrays emotions through song and visuals is hauntingly beautiful. To create a further sense of isolation and darkness, the game does not mute colors or remove character. Instead, it peaks its exoticism. Flashes of purples, reds, and greens fill the screen constantly, creating an unsettling and disturbing effect. Majora’s Mask itself is the quintessential example of this design: a biting and powerful image that pierces the viewer.
The music, in typical Zelda tradition, follows the same path of excellence as its predecessors. However, the brief moments of Zelda classicism are rarely seen outside of a quick jaunt through a field. Instead, the unsettling and eerie design lingers into the game’s soundtrack. The Clock Town theme changes as the days go on, starting off as a breezy and relaxing folk piece, and changing into a chaotic and dysfunctional ballad. The “Oath to Order,” a call to world’s guardian’s to prevent the impending destruction, blasts throughout the game as if to call for a sense of community to save ourselves from destruction. All one has to do is listen to “Last Day” and be inundated by the spacial doom the melody invokes.
And finally, there’s the Song of Healing. Words cannot describe it, so why try when you can experience it yourself:
The game’s design is all unified through one goal: to divide us from itself. The game’s harsh world and strange environments create a response that calls us to neglect it while we try to fix it. It’s a world that looks so familiar, yet it so twisted at the same time. We want it to go back to the way we remember it to be: filled with Water Temples and princesses kidnapped in their ivory towers. We don’t get the familiar game we want to play with.
The same way Majora does not get the friend he wants to play with.
The Initial Response
Majora’s Mask was made within a year. By comparison, gamers waited five years for Ocarina of Time. According to director Eiji Aonuma, Nintendo was faced with the very difficult question of just what kind of game could follow Ocarina of Time and its worldwide sales of seven million units. Out of time constraints and graphical restriction, the idea of an alternate reality and a three-day cycle came in place (from Shigeru Miyamoto no less).
Restrictions can often lead to creativity and ingenuity.
Ocarina of Time was the most critically acclaimed game of all-time. It was a game on a scale like nothing before it. It was the industry’s apex in standard video game design. Majora’s Mask had the largest shadow a game has ever had casted on it. However, the curtains were already being closed. The next generation of consoles was already announced before Majora’s Mask made its release. The game was caught in a state of limbo. With 3 million copies sold, the game performed well.Yet that was less than half of Ocarina of Time’s total.
The critics were also fairly mixed. While IGN proclaimed it as the Empire Strikes Back of video games, Jeff Gerstmann of GameStop criticized the game for not being made for everyone, and Famitsu referenced its inaccessibility. Within a year, a new Zelda game demo had been unveiled for the GameCube, and it looked like Nintendo’s fluke with Majora’s Mask would be forgotten.
Over the past few weeks, I have conducted a survey around my campus, asking college students who grew up with the Nintendo 64 and Zelda games whether they preferred Majora’s Mask or Ocarina of Time? To my deep surprise, out of the 34 students I asked that played both games, 15 preferred Majora’s Mask over the “Greatest Game Ever Made.” This is a very small, and admittedly inaccurate, sample of the game’s growing adoration. But it’s a part of a growing trend: Majora’s Mask has been appearing on best lists, pirated download charts, and social media websites.
Majora’s Mask is being remembered and praised for so many reasons that cannot be listed. The connection lies between the individual and the game itself. I can only show you my relationship with the game. It was the Zelda game that went horribly, horribly wrong. Nintendo had made something completely different, completely radical, yet entirely beautiful with Majora’s Mask. While both Majora’s Mask‘s and Ocarina of Time will age, the former’s message, beauty, and art will remain relevant and universal. But I’m digressing. My goal is not to compare the two and decide which one is “the best Zelda game of all-time”. One is a game that is widely considered the zenith of video game design, and the other creates art by twisting that design. Instead, a comparative look gives us a better understanding of both games, and seeing how each holds up in a modern context.
After years of my nagging, fellow DamnLag columnist Jaleel Boone recently played Majora’s Mask for the first time. When I asked him how he felt the game played in a modern context, he replied “it’s unlike anything out there,” adding that “most games progress in either a linear event to event fashion or an open world with an invisible linearity. I have a hard time playing it because it’s the kind of thing that needs to be experienced in isolation. It’s really confusing if you’re playing through while playing other games because when you apply traditional mechanics it doesn’t make sense.” After talking with Jaleel, it became quickly apparent that the mystery and connection still existed just as strong as it did ten years ago. Perhaps today it is even stronger.
After we first run into the Skull Kid, a lonely imp possessed by Majora’s lust for evil, we are transformed into a Deku Scrub. Soon after this, our Deku self runs into a tree that looks quite like Link. Initially, it means little. We pass it and go on with our adventure, and let it dip deep into our memory bank. But the next time we see it our perspective changes.
During the game’s penultimate post-credits scene, a weeping Deku butler kneels before the tree. The Deku body which you borrowed was the body of a young Deku child. You’re left in a state of no control over the situation: you cannot reverse the three-day cycle and prevent the boy’s death. It is a new day, and you can no longer play God. The game is over.
In life, you can’t always be the hero. Ten years ago, this made me sad. Today, it hurts. It’s a limitation of life that is hard to accept. It’s one of those things won’t remove itself from my thoughts, just like Majora’s Mask.
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