The Best Games of All Time, #2 – The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask

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The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask is a game that I have loved since I first saw the demo in a Target back in 2000. For thirteen years I have loved this game, with all its horror and its grotesque oddities. It’s one of the games I frequently return to, several times a year, and enjoy without fail. It is a masterwork of planning and execution, made on a time crunch with recycled assets, and designed with the intent to cut corners. And yet, those cost-saving measures are ultimately what created the masterpiece of a game that we have today.

As a child, this game always terrified me, despite my love for it. From the haunting iconography such as that which you see in the image above this article to the unsettling nature of Termina, everything in this game seems poised to scare young children, as I was when I first played this game. Yet underneath that veneer of horror lie a number of fantastic emotional stories about the denizens of this bizarre land. As I have written many times in the past, Majora’s Mask is ultimately a game about its setting, the world of Termina, than about anything else. And this world is filled with intrigue and heart.

The game’s central mechanic, the three-day cycle that is rewound at will, undoing all of the progress the player has made but allowing them to keep items they have acquired in the process, is the stroke of brilliance that sets this game apart from the rest of its series. In creating a repeating cycle, Nintendo is able to give characters in the game a set schedule that players can readily observe. Once the player begins to interact with the game world, however, that set schedule begins to change. It’s interesting to watch how the player’s actions change these schedules, and just how far reaching such changes are. I’ve discussed before the wonderful structuralist nature of Majora’s Mask, and seeing how the introduction of an outsider into a rigid structure can bring the whole thing crumbling is incredibly engaging. It’s a testament to how well Nintendo crafted the machinations of all the different characters that Link can cause such significant changes in their schedules each cycle, regardless of the scale of his direct actions.

The three-day cycle also enforces time management as a necessary skill in order to complete the game. Knowing when to reset a cycle so as to avoid the Moon crashing into Termina and erasing your progress, knowing when to push it and finish that dungeon before playing the Song of Time and resetting your progress (but keeping your items), and knowing exactly where resetting a cycle will result in the least amount of backtracking are all things that the player comes to learn over time. The ability to slow down the passage of time adds a further dimension to time management that makes for some very deep gameplay, especially upon replaying the game. Knowing how much you plan to accomplish in a given cycle can lead to some very urgent, very tightly planned cycles that you can execute with a ruthless and satisfying efficiency, picking up a number of items and collectibles like Pieces of Heart in one fell swoop. The feeling of a well executed cycle with no wasted time is quite euphoric; but, conversely, the feeling of time quickly running out, of having overplanned and not having the time to finish what you wanted to accomplish, is quite nerve-wracking. The sense of urgency that the Moon looming overhead and the inexorable forward march of time adds to all of the game’s proceedings is an exciting one; no game has managed to capture a feel quite like it.

As the title of the game suggests, masks are an integral part of both the gameplay and the thematic threads in the game. The player is able to equip Link with various masks that grant him special abilities. From the three transformation masks that turn him into a Deku, a Goron or a Zora (series staples that have only been playable in this title alone in the series’ 27 year history) to the smaller masks that keep Link as a human, but make him invisible to enemies, attract stray fairies, make him run faster, give him the ability to march and rally animals behind him in a marvelous parade, there are a multitude of interesting gameplay options opened up through them. But what makes Majora’s Mask transcendent in this regard is the way it uses the masks as gameplay to create an intriguing parable about the nature of heroism.

It’s a rather hackneyed metaphor that verges on straight up literal truth, but masks as a form of concealed identity – both in the literal sense and the sense of being dishonest about oneself – is a trope played with rather heavily in Majora’s Mask. Link can fool the guards in Clock Town into letting him by simply by putting on the Goron or Zora Mask. They will try to stop Link in his Hylian or Deku form, but put on one of the other masks and he can waltz right by. This is a rather innocuous example, but there are more cases of active deception in the game: Link can cheat at the Treasure Chest Shop game by wearing the Goron Mask, starting the game, and then taking it off and slipping on the Bunny Hood to beat the timer and get a better prize. He can exploit the happy marriage of Anju and Kafei at the conclusion of their storyline by wearing the mask the newlyweds gift him – the Couple’s Mask – to extract a Piece of Heart from the mayor. There’s a running trend of these sorts of callous treatments of these masks, all of which carry significant meaning to the person gifting them to Link, for personal gain through deceit. At the end of the game, when the Moon Children pose interesting questions about morality, one has to stop and consider: is Link a hero in this game? He lies, cheats, steals, impersonates the dead and exploits the emotions of mourners (that is a topic for another day, as fun as it is to talk about) – these are not heroic actions. But it was all in the name of saving Termina… wasn’t it? And even if he used these masks for personal gain, he still made the people who gave the masks to him happy at some point… right?

Well, yes, but then he rewound that time. He helped Anju and Kafei overcome the obstacles in the way of their marriage, accepted their Couple’s Mask, and then promptly rewound time, undoing all of that. Anju and Kafei were separated once more, but Link was able to reap the reward of the Couple’s Mask despite that. How heroic is that?

This is ultimately what makes Majora’s Mask so special. We get emotional glimpses into the lives of Termina’s citizens through the actions of Link. But at the end of the game, we have to question those actions: were they moral? Were we a hero in doing the things we did?

I don’t have answers. But I will continue to play this fantastic game, even if I never find the answers to the Moon Children’s questions.

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One thought on “The Best Games of All Time, #2 – The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask

  1. […] I’ve been thinking about my favorite games lately. A lot of people have jumped to claim Breath of the Wild as a new favorite, as a best in the series and so on. I certainly have been considering it – it’s a uniquely gripping experience. But I keep hesitating at a certain point, and it is, as fate would have it, another Zelda game that is causing that hesitation: The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask. […]

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