While writing about Ocarina of Time, I noted that the biggest sticking point for that game holding up despite its aged controls is the way each location feels intricately detailed. Instead of throwing in a new location every time the story needed to progress, Ocarina of Time would bring the player back to somewhere familiar under a new light.
In many ways, Majora’s Mask is the black sheep of the 3D Zelda games. Where Nintendo’s major franchises traditionally aim toward simplicity, Majora’s Mask is an intricately woven time puzzle spread across an entire game. This game was daring in a way Nintendo rarely attempts, and I found the experience surprisingly inaccessible in my younger days. The three day cycle at the heart of Majora’s Mask creates an overwhelmingly oppressive atmosphere like few others. As a follow-up to the epic adventure of Ocarina of Time, it feels jarring to have so much of this game cycle around a few days in a seemingly contained environment.
While Majora’s Mask can feel like an inexplicable sequel, it actually takes Ocarina of Time’s best feature and builds an entire game around this one aspect. Instead of manually jumping between a seven year period, Termina slowly changes over the three-day structure. Locations become accessible, people disappear – the game challenges the player to learn when to go where. The only other game I know which captures this same experience is 2019’s Outer Wilds, but that doesn’t get the benefit of also being a Zelda game.
Part of the success is that Nintendo fully embraces the inherent stress of a repeating cycle. This game is darkly apocalyptic, with an angry moon getting closer as the days pass. There’s enough mysteries around this town that something always feels a bit off. The majority of darker sequels go for the obvious, but Majora’s Mask slips under the skin.
This is also the rare Zelda game to drop both Ganon and Zelda, surprisingly to its benefit. Skull Kid is the best sort of one-time villain, a largely sympathetic character who has clearly been corrupted. The mask itself has a suitably ominous design.
Speaking of masks, there are still several joyous moments to make up for the dread. One of my favorites is the various masks which allow Link to turn into other races. Playing as a Deku, Goron, or Zora open up new methods of navigation and attacking which change up the core Zelda gameplay just enough to be both fresh and familiar.
But again, the main draw here is seeing how this world slowly changes over the course of each cycle and learning how to overcome the many obstacles. The fun is that doing everything in one go is impossible, but there are certain points which remain forever changed. Gaining an item or a certain piece of information might permanently open a path, and the experience gets less and less oppressive the more you conquer these obstacles.
The magic of this experience is that, when you begin, you might reasonably convince yourself that this game is asking too much. But the further you get, the more manageable this journey begins to feel. In most games, completing a boss or dungeon feels like simple progress. For whatever reason, the added stress in Majora’s Mask makes every success feel like conquering something much bigger. And while Majora’s Mask has less dungeons than the average Zelda game, the world itself feels like one big dungeon waiting to be conquered.
The final of the four main temples is one of the greatest dungeons the Zelda series has ever produced. Stone Tower Temple requires using everything you have learned in the game so far, including the four forms Link can take. The aesthetic is suitably oppressive, while the central mechanic of flipping the temple adds some extra navigational depth.
Every Zelda game since Ocarina of Time has attempted to differentiate itself by including some sort of gimmick, but most are still straightforward adventures across a large world – that world being flooded or Link being able to change into a Wolf does not actually change much. Majora’s Mask, on the other hand, has stood as its own unique entity while still incorporating most core features. While not the most accessible game, actually managing to see this journey through to the end gave me a feeling of victory which is difficult to describe. In a medium which revolves around endless sequels, Majora’s Mask is one of the finest examples of pushing beyond these firmly established expectations to create something singular in a familiar form.