The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask – Nintendo 64’s greatest achievement?
Despite its brilliance, it almost seems anarchic to claim that Majora’s Mask is a more forward thinking and influential title than its older sibling, Ocarina Of Time. Although Ocarina revolutionised 3D gaming, tearing up the adventure game rulebook in the process, Majora’s Mask was a work of experimentation and, ultimately, innovation.
Through building upon the wonderful framework pioneered by the previous game, Nintendo managed to push its 64-bit console to the limit and created a franchise entry with an unprecedented amount of depth.
This depth arises from multiple junctures. Although the basics of the game are the same as that of Ocarina, Majora’s Mask is more a manifestation of creativity than a tour-de-force of mechanical design.
Seen in the game are various concepts that weren’t present in Ocarina Of Time, and so at its root it feels more like a work of heart – a risky yet confident segue into uncharted territory for the series.
Of course the exemplary gameplay and graphics inherent in Ocarina Of Time had been brought forward for Link’s second N64 outing.
The game was built in the same engine as its predecessor and utilised the same graphics package, therefore enabling the development team to turn the game around in only a year, compared to the four-year development cycle enjoyed by Ocarina.
The same combat returned – complete with strange camera mechanics – as did a primary focus on dungeon crawling and elements of open-world exploration. However, this is essentially where the comparisons to Ocarina Of Time end.
For one, in narrative terms Majora’s Mask strikes a rather more adult chord than the rest of the franchise. Opening with Link, astride Epona and riding through a misty forest to search for a friend, the game swiftly lays out its terms with the introduction of the Skull Kid, sporting the game’s eponymous facial attire.
This mask was stolen from the Happy Mask Shop salesman, earlier found in Hyrule market in Ocarina Of Time, and he hints at an ancient apocalyptic power that resides within it. Link enters Clock Town in the land of Termina to find that the moon will fall from the sky after three days and destroy the world.
From this point on, Link sets about conquering four dungeons and the giants within in order to force them out of hiding to stop the moon from falling, enabling him to go up to the moon and face the Skull Kid and Majora’s Mask once and for all.
This threat carries weight where the likes of Ganondorf never could, as the moon is visibly sinking lower and lower in the sky with every second that passes, and conversations with NPCs reveal their thoughts on the imminent apocalypse.
Masks play far more of a role in the game than they did in Ocarina, with a select few proving necessary to progress in the game and allowing Link to shape-shift.
These few masks are simple to obtain, however the larger proportion of the 24 masks available in the game require very specific criteria to be met, often at very specific times throughout the game’s three-day cycle.
This feature still hasn’t seen a rival outside of the RPG space to this day. That an action-adventure would display such intricacies is still impressive 14 years later, and highlights the astute nature of the game’s design.
In typical Nintendo fashion the art direction is incredible here, and the series’ ability to neatly theme dungeons and areas around elemental factors are no more apparent than in Majora’s Mask. Most surprising is the depiction of the moon’s surface, as when Link arrives it is revealed to be a vast, colourful field with a lone tree at its centre – further proof of the game’s unwillingness to resort to the familiar.
However, the most interesting concepts at work in Majora’s Mask are the game’s real-time aspect and, in turn, its time travel mechanics as well. Due to the game’s aforementioned three-day cycle, it becomes necessary for Link to use the Ocarina of Time to travel backwards and forwards as he requires.
The entire three-day cycle in-game equates to around an hour in real time, and is one of the earliest examples of an accomplished real-time system, offering its own set of consequences. First and foremost, it allows players to interact with the world around them in varying states.
A ranch in the south-west of the game world is obstructed by a large boulder, being hacked at with a pickaxe by a builder. Return on the third and final day, and the boulder has been removed in a truly organic and tangible way – it takes the builder two days to destroy it, and so the ranch and its associated side-quests are only available when his task is complete.
In turn, heading back into Clock Town towards the end of the last day, the player will find it near enough empty, as most of the NPC residents of the area have fled in advance of the impending apocalypse.
This kind of intuitive game design is rarely seen nowadays, let alone nearly 15 years ago. By introducing the three-day cycle Nintendo incorporated both a wonderful narrative framework and a means to cram a truly vast game experience into a cartridge, as the predetermined environmental occurrences are allowed to repeat themselves infinitely as and when Link travels back to the dawn of the first day, thereby requiring less memory.
Through all of these elements – and a truly breathtaking encounter on the surface of the moon that fully highlights the more mature focus of this outing – Majora’s Mask managed to rival the acclaim of its predecessor and remains, to this day, a challenging and curious experience.