How do you follow up one of the most critically acclaimed games of all time? Nintendo’s answer was to create a darker, more compact and personal adventure. Miyamoto wanted the sequel to Ocarina of Time to be completed in one year which was a short development cycle even in the days of the N64. Aonuma, the new series director reused assets from Ocarina in order to speed up development and ultimately created a game that compliments Ocarina and completes the hero of times story. Its 17 years since Majora’s mask was released so its probably about time to look back at its impact, what it did right (and wrong) and whether this game was ahead of its time.
Lets start with the basics. The game uses a slightly improved game engine as Ocarina (with the aid of the expansion pak which I’ll come onto later) so graphics and combat are very similar. In contrast to its predecessor, Majora’s Mask is heavily focused on side quests. An innovative 3 day time system is used that is perhaps the most polarizing part of the game. As a kid I didn’t like this system as it puts pressure on the player, and makes for an anxiety inducing experience. However, now I realize that its part of what makes Majora’s Mask so special. The atmosphere and feeling of impending doom is with you throughout the experience. As an adult I now appreciate the time system, but the pace is a lot different compared to Ocarina. The NPC’s follow routes set by this time system. So for example, each character has their daily routine and will be at certain places at certain times. Most side quests are emotional and intricate, following with the games dark tone.
In regards to the story, the game follows directly from Ocarina, with link on a journey to find a lost friend, probably Navi the fairy. A skull kid (who link actually met in Ocarina) ambushes him and steals Epona and his Ocarina. I won’t talk anymore about the story so as to not spoil anything for those who still havn’t played the game but the happy mask salesman from Ocarina returns (some people think he actually represents Miyamoto in this game). Speaking of masks, they play a key role in this game, and there are four transformation masks. These allow link to transform into other races from the Zelda universe. It’s exhilarating to roll through the game world as a Goron, or swim as a Zora. These masks have unique abilities which act similar to items and help you solve puzzles in dungeons. There are only four dungeons, but they’re all different and have cool, clever puzzles. Stone tower in particular has awesome music and cool mechanics. The side quests help to bulk out the story. Overall the story is much sadder than in Ocarina. I’d even go as far as to say its a bit like a nightmare link is living through. It’s ironic how games where you kill people are dubbed only for adults when games like Majora’s Mask are thematically more mature (even in Ocarina there are some dark moments, dead hand in the shadow temple comes to mind). The whole experience isn’t without its flaws (as I’ve said with the time system) but the side quests and NPC’s really make the world feel alive. Ocarina was a grand, open adventure whereas Majora’s Mask is more of a compact, side quest heavy detour (the original Japanese title Zelda Gaiden means side story) so they compliment each other really well.
Back in 2000 when the game was released it required the N64 expansion pak which was a barrier to entry for some as it was really hard to find at the time. No doubt the game would have sold more copies if it didn’t need this accessory. The game sold 3.4 million copies, which is about half of what Ocarina sold. Not bad numbers considering the N64 was coming to the end of its life cycle. At the time reviews for the game were great but not quite up to Ocarina’s standard. Despite this Majora’s Mask has been re-released on the Gamecube, and the Wii/Wii u’s virtual consoles. A remake on 3DS was also released in 2015 that streamlined the experience. Some sites criticized the changes in this remake but they made the game so much more accessible. Maybe its because I never finished it as a kid, but the advantage of having more save points, a better notebook for sidequests, and much better graphics definitely make for a better experience.
Overall Majora’s Mask is a classic that despite living in Ocarina’s shadow utilizes concepts well ahead of its time.