The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask
Despite being developed in just one year, The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask remains the most narratively ambitious installment of its franchise. Establishing an oppressive atmosphere from the first few minutes of gameplay, Majora’s Mask presents a world full of darkness, that is defined by the way those who inhabit it are related to the concepts of loss and death.
The game has its beginning soon after the events of its predecessor, Ocarina of Time, with the protagonist Link wandering through a forest in search of an old friend. The boy, however, soon encounters an elf-like creature named Skull Kid, who, wearing a strange mask, scares his horse away and causes him to fall in a hole in a tree. When he wakes up, Link discovers that he was cursed and took the form of a creature made of wood, called Deku. Pursuing his tormentor, he arrives at the world of Termina, by a passage in Clock Town, and is approached by a mask salesman who warns him about an important setback: if Link cannot regain Majora’s mask within 72 hours, freeing the giants from every region of that world, the moon will fall and kill everyone in Termina.
The game’s most important system involves the passage of time and the control of those 72 hours. Every sixty minutes in Termina equals 45 seconds in real life, making the three fateful days last about one hour of playtime. Fortunately, the player can go back in time by playing a song, which takes the protagonist back to the morning of the first day.
The directors, Eiji Aonuma (who remained as producer of the series) and Yoshiaki Koizume (who came to direct the brilliant Super Mario Galaxy and Super Mario Odyssey), do not miss the opportunity to develop this system, stimulating Link to interact with all the inhabitants of the place and solve their problems. As the player encounters too many characters to deal with in just one hour of playtime and many are performing actions at different points in the city at the same instant, the system of time cycles is crucial to allow the player to know everyone without the common sacrifice of verisimilitude in other games, in which the characters’ routine is static in time.
Most people in Termina, especially in Clock Town, have a dynamic routine during these three days, moving around the city with a different goal and doing their chores every passing hour. While some are working on the preparations for the local festival that celebrates precisely time, others are arguing with the mayor about the possible end of the world and calling for an evacuation, and the rest are simply immersed in their routines, taking care of their business and personal problems, unaware of the impending disaster.
These people often have narrative arcs that need Link’s help to progress. The city’s postman, for example, is characterized by the strictness with which he deals with his work: his agenda is immutable, and can never be modified or ignored. If Link tries to talk to him during his work, the postman only complains that he is being late and asks him to leave. However, the fall of the moon puts his principles in check, because evacuating the city would force him to leave his post. It is up to the player, therefore, to arrange a solution that will make the character free of his obligations.
Majora’s Mask, due to its premise, is filled with tragic characters. The secondary mission with the most prominence in the narrative, for example, involves the impossible relationship of a young couple: even if Link eventually gets them together, either the moon falls and kills them anyway, or the hero returns in the time, separating the two again.
This constant reversal of events builds an oppressive atmosphere charged with hopelessness. Each one of the protagonist’s victories in curing the ills of that world is annulled by his own hands at the end of each cycle. The developers further reinforce this contrast by making the changes that Link causes in the world far more evident than in Ocarina of Time. When the giant of the icy area is reanimated, for example, a blizzard disappears from the nearby region, which enters springtime. The accessible areas change with the rejuvenation of the vegetation, but the effect only remains until Link comes back in time again, bringing back the ice.
Clock Town is the center in which the rest of the game revolves around. Each new area explored, each mask discovered, each equipment acquired and dungeon conquered, makes new options for dialogue, conflict resolutions, stores and possibilities of interaction become available in the city. Thus, one of Majora’s Mask’s greatest achievements is the paradox of often providing new content even though it repeats the same events continuously and reverts the situations back to what they always were.
There are several systems and mechanics acting in conjunction with the time cycle to prevent it from becoming frustrating to the player. While time travel causes Link to lose all his money and ammo, his masks and equipment remain intact. This allows for a more rewarding gathering of items, unlike Ocarina of Time, where the player often had both ammunition and money maximized and was still “rewarded” with more of them. Certain songs that Link can learn also make life easier: one triples the duration of each hour, giving more peace of mind to the player, another advances Link to the exact time of day that he wants (in the original version, it was only allowed to jump every six hours with this melody) and a third allows teleportation to certain key areas of the map.
As the title of the game indicates, Majora’s Mask also introduces a system of masks in which they assume the most varied functions. Primarily, they are the tools needed to help people around Link, whether teaching two frustrated dancers with the mask of their former mentor, or leaving a lady happy that Link did not sleep during one of her stories because he wore a mask that caused insomnia. Some, however, are also useful to the exploration part, such as the Bomb Mask that replaces the bombs – dispensing with the constant need to gather them, though it does damage to Link – and the Bunny Hood that allows him to move faster. Other masks even transform Link into three different species (Deku, Goron and Zora), allowing new forms of interaction with both the environment – Zoras can breathe underwater, while Gorons are able to roll over steep ramps, for example – and with certain characters, who only are open to the protagonist because they believe he is someone else.
Being a game about adventure, Link’s actions and the places he visits are the most varied possible. In one moment he is sneaking through a Deku Palace to save a little monkey from being burned unjustly by a mad king, in the second he is bargaining with spirits to help a people who is about to be frozen to death and, in the third, he is pretending to be a guitarist and playing in a band formed by aquatic creatures.
And since it is a title from The Legend of Zelda series, Majora’s Mask has the progress of the player marked by the conquest of special dungeons full of puzzles and dangerous monsters. Although they come in smaller numbers, comparing to Ocarina of Time, the dungeons here compensate that in their complexity. If the ones from that title had most of their puzzles contained in their respective rooms, here they are more open for exploration and require the player to understand the full extent of the place’s architecture. It is not a surprise, for example, to notice that a single temple in Ocarina of Time contains almost as many locked doors as the entirety of Majora’s Mask, with its miserable nine keys in total.
In Snowhead Temple, for example, the puzzles prioritized are ones related to the notion of space. The logic of the challenges is not anymore actions like hitting devices, killing enemies and lighting torches, but how to reach certain platforms and how to get to certain floors. Here, moving the immense block to its corresponding place is just the beginning of the puzzle. The main challenge is figuring out how to get on top of it, now that it has become a platform. Snowhead Temple, in particular, works with verticality, presenting a central tower that allows the movement through floors by jumping from one to another. The only problem with its design is that, everytime the player misjudges the distance, missing the jump and falling to the base of the tower, they will have to climb back to where they were.
Meanwhile, Great Bay Temple explores the idea of streams of water with plenty of variety: the player must release the flow of water through pipes, use water as a lever, manipulate it by freezing and melting the ice from its sources, and even change the direction of its currents, making way for new rooms. Instead of stopping the player’s advance with innumerable locked doors, like the infamous Water Temple in Ocarina of Time, Great Bay Temple is built by several connected underwater tunnels, allowing for a less linear design. The chest with the key to the boss, for example, can be opened at any time from the middle of the dungeon and, since one of the most frequently caught tunnels passes through its room, the player can choose when to try to open it. In fact, only this room has two hidden fairies, two chests and two different types of enemies, besides a door that can only be reached with the dungeon’s special item. It is a pattern of the temple’s design: each room does not contain a single puzzle, but offer innumerable interactions.
Great Bay Temple still benefits from having two mechanically different secondary bosses, who compensate the back and forth in the water with a bit of action. On the 3DS version, it is also important to point out that the fight against the main boss, Gyorg, has been redone, now having two distinct phases: the first with Link and the other obligatorily as Zora, needing his ability to shoot his fins to hit mines, causing the monster to swallow them. Despite being a better fight than the original version, the mines are not prepared during the temple, being introduced only during the fight. Yes, the idea of bomb-eating monsters is not new to the series, but that does not excuse the fact that they should have been introduced earlier than the actual fight against Gyorg.
Now, an excellent addition to the dungeons in any version of Majora’s Mask is the act of collecting fairies. In each dungeon there are fifteen of them hidden inside pots, chests or enemies. Unlike the Skultullas of Ocarina of Time, who become irrelevant from a certain point on, saving all the fairies from a temple within the same three-day cycle generates useful rewards, such as having Link’s magic bar doubled – essential for swimming like Zora without stress, for example. Fairies are an excellent inclusion because they provide fifteen optional challenges in each temple, giving them a greater dose of complexity and non-linearity, and because they encourage careful observation of each space and can be collected in any order.
Another significant improvement compared to its predecessor is the fact that its monetary system is a bit more useful. The game features a number of minigames of target practice, treasure hunting and racing that charge for the entrance, and it introduces a bank system to store the money collected and preserve it during the time travel (who knows how), rewarding the one that can save more than 5000 rupees in total.
However, the element that stands out in Majora’s Mask the most and puts it apart from the rest of the franchise is its dark atmosphere, which balances elements of horror with the uncanny. As the protagonist ends up in Termina by a hole in a tree, the premise’s reference to Alice in Wonderland is evident. As in the work of Lewis Carol, the fantastic universe of Majora’s Mask can be analyzed as an allegory for the protagonist’s internal conflicts: his solitude is reflected in the way all the characters around him have to deal with the feeling of loss, often manifested in the figure of death.
As some characters claim, Link is the only one there still fighting against fate: his journey to recover his friend and save Termina is also a clash against destiny. And if he is able to prevent some fatalities during his adventure, others will appear to be above his powers: Link can rescue the monkey from the Deku Palace or help the witch Koume in the forest, but the Zora he finds in the bay is doomed to die in his arms. Moreover, it is thematically appropriate that the effects of his actions are inevitably reversed at the end of the 72 hours: to face death is, after all, a vain struggle.
Being somewhat obscure as to the minutiae of its theme, Majora’s Mask is able to generate numerous interpretations on the exact nature of its allegory, enabling theories that claim that Link is already dead, needing to deal with his own mortality, or that it was his friend – probably Na’vi from Ocarina of Time – who perished. One of the theories that further develops the main theme is the one that points out how each region of Termina can represent one of Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’ stages of grief: while most of Clock Town’s inhabitants deny their future, defending that everything is normal, the Dekus, blinded by their anger, are about to burn an innocent monkey, a Goron spirit does not hesitate to bargain with Link to help his people, and a Zora singer is immersed in depression without being able to speak. Regardless of this interpretation, Majora’s Mask builds Link’s image as a warrior fighting against fate, trying to prevent or reverse the inevitable death of those around him.
This gives a macabre atmosphere to the game, which is constantly enhanced by other elements. The text of the scene that opens the game, for example, shows particular care with the lexical choice, thanks to the preference for terms related to a more disturbing semantic field: Link does not simply “leave” Hyrule in search of his friend, he “creeps out” of Hyrule. The encounter with Skull Kid, in turn, is emblematic: in twisted movements, the mask gradually takes shape amidst the fog of the forest, while the character’s laugh seems to be formed by two superimposed ones, generating an eerie effect. Link’s own transformation into Deku takes on nightmarish contours, with the protagonist running continuously on a black background, surrounded by numerous gigantic and menacing figures.
This atmosphere is amplified in the course of the adventure. The Mirror Shield, for example, comes with a panic-stricken face engraved on the glass, which, after being acquired, will forever face the player until the end of the game. The masked salesman who explains Link’s mission is equally scary, since he moves between frames, popping up around Link very suddenly, almost like he teleported. And the main masks that Link wears generate an animation in which he screams in pain and anguish. Majora’s Mask is also still to this day one of the rare games to work with the aspect ratio of the image, decreasing it with each ring of the bell to a new day, which cages the protagonist, resulting in a potent claustrophobic effect.
Meanwhile, the situations in which the protagonist finds himself in usually border on the bizarre: in a mission Link must prevent cows from being abducted by aliens, while in another he can watch mummies doing Cossack dance inside the ruins of a haunted castle.
The artwork for the environments and the characters is also admirable. Clock Town is surrounded by tribal graffiti, suggesting the eccentricity of the place, while the mask vendor has his harmless name (Happy Mask Salesman) in contrast to his frightening appearance: the mask he carries beside his face contains an expression eternalized in sheer horror, while that of Mario on his back is positioned between that of the demon of Insidious and the one that surely represents Satan. The character even wears purple, a color usually associated with death and that here is related to Skull Kid’s spells, besides the fairy that accompanies the antagonist, cursed characters, and the mayor of the city where everyone is doomed to die.
Finally, the soundtrack composed by Koji Kondo remains one of the most brilliant and complex of the franchise. The theme of Clock Town, for example, has three variations. The first is joyful, appropriately unaware of the approaching disaster. As the second day approaches, alongside rain, the instruments are changed to reflect a more melancholic tone: the percussion comes out and enters the violin and the ocarina. The third version is the most impressive: the rhythm of the melody is accelerated, imparting urgency, but the main effect is that of imminent tragedy, generated by a continuous bass chord in the background. Now, the theme song of the game, Song of Healing, is both sad and fatalistic. It is full of pathos, since the contrast between the positive semantic field of its name and the tragic element contained in its melody perfectly illustrates the paradox of its use in the narrative: the cure it offers is a prison, freeing souls from their torments as it forever ties them to masks.
The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask is a very unique installment in the series, daring to create a more complex system to complement its mechanics, in addition to building a suffocating and heavy atmosphere, and telling a story so ambitious that, until today, all subsequent Zelda games could not surpass.
December 13, 2018.
Originally published in Portuguese on February 03, 2017.
---> GET IT ON AMAZON
TO EXPAND THE DISCUSSION:
- The Legend of Zelda Theory: The Five Stages of Grief;
- Majora’s Mask’s Dungeon Design;
- Unoficial Deku Palace remix by Theophany;
- You’ve met with a terrible fate, haven’t you?
Eiji Aonuma, Yoshiaki Koizume.
Mitsuhiro Takano, Shigeru Myamoto, Yoshiaki Koizume