The Greatest Games: The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask (2000)

The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask (2000)
Developed by Nintendo EAD

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.

The Greatest Games: The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past (1991)

The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past (1991)
Developed by Nintendo EAD

Part of the reason Ocarina of Time was a perfect conversion into 3D was due to being built upon a solid foundation. Some have even flatly stated that Ocarina of Time is just a variant on the A Link to the Past formula. With Ocarina of Time being an imitation of that and the following 3D games until Breath of the Wild an imitation of Ocarina, it’s easy to view A Link to the Past as the first ‘true’ Zelda experience – the original game holds up well enough, but A Link to the Past is where we see the familiar structure take over. Being the only 2D console Zelda game in this style puts A Link to the Past on a special pedestal.

There’s something about the top-down gameplay of the classic Zelda games that will always speak to me. Sword and shield battles with the option of strafing are fun, but the simple act of positioning Link just close enough to hit without being hit carries a unique and quick charm that few modern games capture. Options like tossing out a boomerang to freeze an enemy and then following up with a quick slash make battles short and sweet.

A Link to the Past may not be as long as those which followed, but it still feels loaded with content. A lot of this difference has less to do with there being fewer places to explore and more with a sense of scale. From Ocarina of Time on, The Legend of Zelda series captures a sense of exploring a huge world. A lot of this scale comes about simply by making it take longer to get between points of interest. That’s not to say that scale is bad – I do love the 3D Zelda games – but A Link to the Past offers a sense of immediacy between destinations. It’s like comparing Chrono Trigger to future JRPG games. This experience feels tightly woven, where every inch of the journey has been planned and fully realized.

The dungeons in A Link to the Past may not be as iconic, but this again has to do with a sense of scale. Few great experiences in gaming fall apart faster than getting stuck in a modern Zelda dungeon. This can become a mad race of retracing your footsteps to see what corner you missed. With some of the trickier dungeons, this can become a nuisance. A Link to the Past has the same experience, but the simple navigation makes it much easier to get a sense of where the right path forward could be. This tight design even carries into the outside world – there is some reason for each section to exist, whether it be a path to the next dungeon, a special item, or a piece of heart. Taking the time to check never feels like too much of an investment, even if it turns out you’re missing a necessary item to proceed.

A Link to the Past established a lot of the Legend of Zelda staples, and this is a clear example where the initial development was handled perfectly. In fact, I’d argue A Link to the Past, like most SNES games, aged better than its sequels during the Nintendo 64 era. This is where we get heart pieces scattered across the world, the hookshot, the Master Sword. The Dark World is an obvious precursor to Ocarina of Time’s two ages. This is where the series solidified the idea of taking the dungeons in a certain order due to the items contained within. This was even the first to really capture a sense of Hyrule and its lore. While I never want to credit something purely for innovation, that is only in the case where those innovations have been outright improved upon. A Link to the Past both evolved and excelled.

A Link to the Past is the Zelda series at its most focused. This set the foundation for so many action games which followed while being one of the earliest games to truly capture a sense of going on an epic adventure in a defined world. It’s the same Zelda everyone has known and loved through its many iterations, so it easily deserves praise for both setting the scene and doing it well.

The Greatest Games: The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (1998)

The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (1998)
Developed by Nintendo EAD

Ocarina of Time is essentially the Holy Grail of video games, and it’s easy to understand why. If Super Mario 64 was the first grand leap into 3D gaming, then Ocarina of Time was the solid landing. It’s not that it manages to outright avoid the clunkiness of other early 3D games, but it does enough to mitigate those issues to still hold up well enough mechanically for a new player to enjoy the places where it truly excels.

The key feature of OoT’s mechanical design is the lock-on camera. Instead of constantly having to wrangle with camera controls, a simple button press allows the player to keep a single enemy in focus. But I’m not one to overemphasize revolutionary features – this idea has been replicated hundreds of times over, and the feature has been improved. If simple technological leaps were the only element Ocarina of Time had going for it, then there would be no reason for a modern player to favor it over the sequels.

The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time captures a sense of scale like few other games. It all starts with a humble beginning, young Link exploring Kokiri Forest to gather his sword and shield before assisting the nearby Great Deku Tree with a curse eating away at his insides. This tree sends the young boy on a quest to protect Princess Zelda from the nefarious Ganondorf.

Our perception of size is not necessarily proportional to the actual size of a game’s map. Part of the magic of a game like Ocarina of Time is how it captures the imagination in getting from one point to another. So many of its best surprises are from the realization that some important location or item has been just out of the way the entire time. An area turning out to feature more content than expected does just as much to impress as a wide open map where everything is scattered about.

Kakariko Village is the perfect embodiment of this detailed design. On first visit, it feels like a nice breather zone before continuing up to the Gorons. But a bit of exploration reveals a few mysterious locations, such as a graveyard or a windmill. The narrative eventually necessitates a return to this quaint village to discover the dark secrets hidden beneath. No area in Ocarina of Time’s version of Hyrule feels like a simple stop along the way. All of these places are hiding some secret, whether it be a heart piece or two or an entire central dungeon tucked away.

All of this is centered on Ocarina of Time’s turning point, when young Link grabs the Master Sword and wakes up seven years later. In this time, the world has fallen into ruin. Like Final Fantasy VI and Castlevania: Symphony of the Night before it, this moment creates the sense of a completely new world to explore. That opening trip out of Hyrule Castle and through the town is especially effective, with the town in shambles and swarming with ReDead.

This transition causes a few neat elements to pop up. Most importantly, with the world changed, many of these mysterious areas become accessible. But what makes this especially interesting is that Link can also jump back in time, with some locations requiring interaction in both periods after the jump.

But the heart of nearly every Zelda game is the dungeons, and Ocarina of Time simply has phenomenal dungeon design. Each of these are filled with strong puzzles and enemies, and figuring out where to go next can be a challenge. The Forest Temple stands as one of the most iconic locations in the series, an eerie, overgrown mansion with twisting corridors and a complex structure. Even getting to this temple is a challenge, forcing Link to navigate the Lost Woods and then a maze. The Spirit Temple makes great use of the age mechanic. Few of the later Zelda games really capture the masterful complexity of these designs.

While Ocarina of Time may have captured our collective attention with its improvements on 3D gameplay mechanics, it is the detailed world design which makes it an enduring classic. Even writing about it now, nearly a decade after my last playthrough, I’m in awe of how much was packed into this relatively small world. While Ocarina of Time laid the foundation for the 3D Zelda series, few of its sequels have even attempted a similarly narrow-yet-expansive design. Every inch of this game has soul.

The Greatest Games: The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (2017)

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (2017)
Developed by Nintendo EPD

Breath of the Wild just might be the most ambitious Zelda game yet, transposing the traditional dungeon puzzles all across an open world map. While trying on this new form, The Legend of Zelda manages to maintain its colorful style. And despite all the space, the central cities are among the most populated places in the series. Like The Witcher 3 and Skyrim, this is an open world game which never feels empty or lifeless.

In classic Nintendo form, Breath of the Wild sets itself apart by capturing the large scale of an open world game while maintaining a simple focus. The grand majority of side quests in this game revolve around shrines, which reward the player with orbs which can be exchanged for increased health or endurance. By letting the player know what they stand to gain by completing each shrine, BotW offers a straightforward sense of progress despite its open nature. While some might deride the lack of complexity, this simplicity separates this experience from its endless competition.

The puzzles themselves are expertly designed. Many are built around Link’s unique tools and end up being ingenious timing or physics puzzles. A few more offer challenging battles. The best go a step beyond and involve the outside world. Some involve finding the right thing to gain access, like one shrine demanding Link approach while riding a buck. At the far corners of the map are a few labyrinths which feel like mini-dungeons. My absolute favorite is Eventide Island, hidden in the southeastern corner of the map and only accessible with a hefty stamina wheel. This sequence operates as a microcosm of the full game, stripping Link of his armor and items and forcing him to make do with what he finds until he manages to find and place three orbs.

Navigating the world itself can be its own puzzle. Each major location has a tower which must be climbed to reveal that section of the map. This again offers some form of a guided experience, as the tower will usually be the first place the player will want to tackle. Each of these have their own dangers to overcome, adding to the sense of this game being a series of micro-dungeons. Yet travelling is never a hassle – the game offers fast travel to any of its towers and shrines.

Each corner of the map has its own immersive gimmick. Cold mountains and an active volcano require the right gear to safely navigate. The Lost Woods are as dizzying as ever, while the Gerudo town requires Link to pass as a woman to enter. Adding flavor to many smaller locations is a bardic bird named Kass who will sing songs hinting at hidden shrines. BotW has a dense cast for a Zelda game with many heroic figures, yet this wandering accordionist stands above the rest thanks to being the one recurring face among the wilds.

The art style might be The Legend of Zelda at its best, mixing the vibrant colors of The Wind Waker with the more realistically proportioned designs of the other games. Anytime I climbed to the top of a tower, I had to take a moment and look around to take in the sights. The Hyrule Compendium encourages taking a closer look, letting Link keep track of every creature, enemy, and item he stumbles across by taking a picture. Everything from the mountains to the wildlife to the trees is a wondrous sight.

This Hyrule is a partially ruined world, and nothing quite reinforces this like the guardian stalker. These mechanical, spider-like beings hunt down anything which crosses their line of sight. Areas like Hyrule Castle Town remain largely inaccessible due to their presence, and the reward for finally crossing the field is a saddening glimpse of what was lost. The stalkers also have a simply anxiety-inducing theme anytime they begin their hunt, with most encounters devolving into a mad dash behind cover just to make the music stop. There will be several times you abandon all current goals just to panic and dive off a cliff, and there’s nothing quite as fulfilling as finally learning how to take these suckers down.

This game is filled with some surprising emotional depth, especially once you unlock a feature on Link’s Sheikah Slate (the legendary ancient iPhone) which allows him to regain lost memories by visiting certain places on the map. These moments really help build the otherwise distant relationship he now has with Zelda, who’s been busy warding off Ganon during the 100 years that Link was unconscious. This is absolutely Zelda at her most complex, and the reversal of her being the one trapping Ganon this time is a perfect note.

Yet the most powerful moment comes completely out of nowhere and largely by chance. Link has a tendency to climb all over everything to try and get to new locations. When he climbs onto the railing of a certain bridge, an NPC will mistake his unthinking heroics for a suicide attempt. What makes this moment so compelling is its unexpectedly organic nature. Most conversations with NPCs are prompted by the player, and the few who reach out are usually there to block access to certain areas. No one expects an interruption in this particular location with this particular trigger. It’s a small moment, yes, only accounting for a few lines of dialogue. But Breath of the Wild is all about hundreds of small yet brilliant moments stitched together.

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild offers the same scale as any massive open world game. What makes it stand out is the vibrant Zelda charm mixed with Nintendo’s penchant for simple yet expansive creations. Skyrim can feel like several distinct episodes while The Witcher 3 is firmly divided into acts. The unique aspect of BotW is that Link conquers these many shrines to gain better favor with the goddess before confronting Ganon. Even taking down the Divine Beasts is in purpose of that central conflict. By shaping every action around this battle, Breath of the Wild manages to feel like one distinct journey from beginning to end; the only difference is how you get to that end.

The Greatest Games: The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker (2003)

The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker (2003)
Developed by Nintendo EAD

The Wind Waker apparently was a controversial game when released. Dropping an aesthetic established in two medium-defining games and replacing it with colorful cel-shading was a bold move. For a perfect example of the backlash, the only year Link legitimately lost one of the many GameFAQs character popularity contests was 2003, when the picture for the match featured Wind Waker Link against Cloud Strife’s new and improved Kingdom Hearts model.

As someone who really started gaming during the Gamecube era, Wind Waker was actually my introduction to the Zelda series. The backlash has certainly died down in the ensuing years, and for very good reason. With early 3D video games, a stylistic art style trumps realistic graphics. The Wind Waker still holds up where many of its contemporaries now look dated. If I have repeatedly praised Nintendo for this feat, it is only because their dedication to making their games actually hold up visually was surprisingly uncommon. The Wind Waker has a charm like few others, and its colorful nature actually heightens the darker moments.

While Wind Waker’s ocean can feel a bit empty (it is an ocean, after all), I always enjoyed weaving my way through uncharted waters while moving to the next destination. There’s a sense of mystery behind this design, and knowing each square of the map has to contain something worthwhile gives a purpose to this exploration. This barren world in contrast to the open plains of Ocarina of Time also heightens the stakes; how could the world be left in such a state?

While each Zelda game since Ocarina of Time has had its own unique gimmick (barring Twilight Princess, which essentially operates as OoT 2.0), Wind Waker is one of the few to capture its own unique presentation while perfectly incorporating Ocarina of Time’s sense of progression. Each of the central dungeons have their own distinct appeal. Dragon Roost Cavern and Forbidden Woods both have a grand sense of scale which is then outsized by the even grander Tower of the Gods. The Earth and Water Temples make great use of Link’s allies.

The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker is in an odd position where most of its exceptional qualities are outdone by other installments in its series. The fact it still manages to be an all-time classic simply showcases the quality of Zelda’s basic formula. The dungeons might not compare to Ocarina of Time, the world certainly isn’t as expansive as Breath of the Wild, and the ocean gimmick doesn’t match the impact of Majora’s Mask’s three day cycle. But Wind Waker consistently displays all of the key elements in a surprisingly disparate series. If I had to suggest one game to truly capture the spirit of The Legend of Zelda in its entirety, The Wind Waker would be at the top of my list.