Review by MSuskie

"Nintendo, you've spoiled us rotten."

I've found it very easy to admit that 1998's The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time on Nintendo 64 is my pick for the greatest game of all time. Not just because the gameplay was as perfect as it gets (or so I thought, before I played this one), but because it did a fantastic job of translating the already stellar gameplay of the 2D Zelda games into an amazing three-dimensional world while remaining true to the franchise's basic elements – that is, running around and completing dungeons. And if the N64 sequel, The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask has any problem, it's the “sequel factor” that occurs with most other sequels as well – it's missing the freshness and initial jaw-dropping shock the original had. Is that a big problem? Certainly not. In fact, if Ocarina is the greatest game ever made, then Majora's Mask could very well be a personal favorite. Because the game is just as fantastic as the original and even fixes some of the first's minor quibbles.

Majora's Mask essentially plays identically to its predecessor. And that's a huge compliment, considering that Ocarina had one of the most influential and intuitive control setups of any game. But while Majora's Mask plays much like the first N64 Zelda adventure, it doesn't feel the same – the game's play style and overall ingenuity give the game its own feeling. And that's exactly what makes Majora's Mask a standout in the long lineup of classic, wonderful Zelda games – it actually takes the formula and heats it, forges it, shapes it, and welds it into its own unique design that's truly unlike any other game in the franchise, and possibly unlike any game out there. It's the way the gameplay works itself into the story that's so brilliant, and shows that Zelda always has a surprise around the corner.

The story itself in this “unofficially” direct sequel to Ocarina focuses on Link, a bit after he returned to his childhood years at the end of the original. He's a bit older and more mature, but still not the adult he was when he pulled the Master Sword from its pedestal and became the Hero of Time. Link sets out to explore a brave new world in search of a “beloved friend”, with nothing but his old sword, his horse Epona, and of course the Ocarina of Time. While traveling through the forest, he encounters a strange mask-sporting imp – later introduced as the Skull Kid – accompanied by two fairies. This bothersome troublemaker steals Link's horse and Ocarina, turns him into a Deku child, and leaves him to die, along with one of his fairies, Tatl. Feeling rage for what her friend has done to her, the fairy decides to join Link and help him to escape the cavern, return him to his original form and get his stolen items back.

The two emerge in Clock Town, the central hub of the land of Termina – a world doomed to destruction by a menacing-looking moon that's creeping closer and closer by the day. It's here that they meet the Happy Mask Salesman (a side quest character from Ocarina), who tells them that the mask the Skull Kid was wearing was the Majora's Mask, a precious and sacred mask that was stolen from the poor salesman. By wearing the mask, the Skull Kid was driven into madness. What's worse is that the power of the mask is fused with the power of fate itself. The salesman demands to have his mask back before he leaves in three days. And as the fate of the mask is tied to the fate of the world, the moon will crash into the earth in exactly three days time, and the world will come to an end. If Link can manage to get this Majora's Mask back before the three days are up, the salesman will give Link the secret to returning to his original form.

Majora's Mask makes up probably the first time in a game in which clocks (which are abundant through Termina) are a key character to both the story and gameplay. The three days of time aren't tied to events that the players must complete, but rather, the game has its own unique time system, in which the clock is continuously ticking down to the one moment when the seventy-two hours (game time) are up and the moon collides with the land of Termina. Each set of twenty-four hours – daytime and nighttime – equal roughly fifteen minutes in real life. And if you were to think about it without playing the game, it would seem ridiculous. After all, how can you complete a game in forty-five minutes? But the game works in such a way that you don't have to worry about that.

The first three-day cycle in the game is used for you to find the Skull Kid and retrieve the Ocarina of Time – the game's most important item. From then on, you're given the ability to pull out your Ocarina at any time and use the C-buttons and A to play songs vital to performing tasks. The very first song you learn – or, I should say, the very first song you remember – is the Song of Time. Though this song was occasionally used in Ocarina, it's an absolute necessity here, as every time you play this song, you'll instantly be warped back to the start of the three-day cycle, and will have the chance to save your game. Throughout the course of Majora's Mask, you'll be warping back to the beginning of the cycle dozens and dozens of times. The game is essentially the same forty-five minute period over and over. And as monotonous as this sounds, it truly is a brilliant gameplay mechanic.

It all works so well just because the game has easily the most living, breathing world in any Zelda game to date. Whereas most games are littered with countless NPCs that usually only having one or two lines of dialog, in Majora's Mask, almost every NPC in the game is an actual character. Meaning that if you were to actually talk to all of the people in the game, you'll find that most of them have something useful to say or have some sort of conflict that needs to be resolved. Many of the characters in the game are connected with one another in some way, and all of them are getting the personal crises mixed up with the panic of the end of the world, which seems so final to everyone. The game is loaded with sidequests, and many of them involve helping these people with their problems. In fact, there's an entirely optional portion of the game (called the “Bombers' Notebook”) in which you are called upon to solve the troubles of the people – sometimes with no real reward other than personal satisfaction. And often times, that's enough.

The three-day life cycle also has a major effect on your surroundings. Bear in mind that no matter what trouble you go through to solve puzzles, help people and do all sorts of various things, when you play the Song of Time, you're warped back to the first day, and everything is reset. All the people still have their problems. Dungeons are still unsolved. Bosses are undefeated. You get the idea. The nice thing is that you'll keep all of the important items – weapons and major items, heart pieces, upgrades, and masks (which I'll get to in a moment) are all nicely in your supply when you go back in time. On the other hand, expendable items, such as rupees, arrows, bombs, bottled goods and various other typical things are emptied from your sack, meaning that every time you go back to the dawn of the first day you'll have to re-stock yourself. The only area where this gets really tricky is with money, but there's a convenient little “bank” system you can use to hoard money.

The time system also places a certain pressure on you when completing events. Unless you've paused the game or you're scrolling through a text bubble, time is always on the move, and the progression is something you can't take lightly. When completing certain events, however, you can't just do part of what you want to get done in the three-day cycle, rewind time and then just pick up where you left off. You have to complete certain parts of mandatory quests within the time limit. There are, aside from the central hub of Clock Town, four major sectors, each in a different compass direction. Each of these regions is suffering in some way from the Skull Kid's doings, and each also has a temple you must complete (and all temples conclude with a fun and creative boss battle). Half of your time in each region is spent simply exploring and finding a way to learn the special song that opens up the temple of the respective area. The other half is spent actually completing the temple.

Do you see a pattern here? It's generally wise to solve the conflicts of the region and discover this song first, rewind time, then use the song to open the temple and complete it in another cycle. You have to balance out your use of time. If you come to the end of a cycle and are forced to play the Song of Time to avoid a “game over” screen, but haven't finished completing a temple, then you're screwed. Thankfully, though, there are some ways to avoid this. For one thing, there's a secret song that you can use to make time progress half as fast, which gives you twice as much time. Also, if there's an event you don't want to wait around for, there's another secret song you can use to skip ahead a bit. What's more, each temple has, in traditional Zelda form, a special weapon that's granted to the player about halfway through. Usually, this weapon can be used to open a shortcut to roughly where you left off, in case you've got to rewind time.

What I really liked about the time system, though, is how the world changes as the three days go by. On the first day, the moon seems to be getting big, but people are still generally happy, cheery, and excited now that the Carnival of Time is going to be occurring. On the second day (on which it always rains), the moon seems to be getting bigger, and people are getting worried. On the final day, people are scared and are fleeing Clock Town and taking shelter in far-away locations. The only people left are those running the carnival, and even they're nervous. Even better, certain events only happen at certain times. For example, one of the areas in the game that you'll visit is Romani Ranch, which is blocked off by an enormous boulder that Skull Kid put there. A man from down is trying to get the boulder down to gravel. By the third day, the boulder is gone… But in the course of the first two days, aliens had arrived at the ranch and abducted the girl living there!

I mentioned masks before, and that's because they have a huge bearing on the game itself and not just the Majora's Mask, either. You'll get the chance to find and wear a couple dozen masks throughout the game, and they play such a big role that they get their own subscreen on the pause menu. Whereas mask in Ocarina of Time just had a part in a side quests, here, they're a necessity. Most importantly, a few of masks in the game have the ability to transform you into other beings, whether it be a Deku, a Zora or a Goron, or more beyond that. These masks have vital roles in certain parts of the story. There are also many other masks, some of which are necessary to find to complete the game, and others are simply there for convenient uses. One mask, for instance, makes you invisible to all enemies. Another mask helps you to find stray fairies in temples, as part of one of the game's many side quests. Every mask in the game has its uses, and most are very fun to experiment with.

Aside from these various gameplay innovations, Majora's Mask really plays and feels a lot like Ocarina, which is certainly not a bad thing. Control remains identical. The targeting system is simple and intuitive, and the camera even more so. The dungeons are well designed, and the puzzles are logical and perplexing. In fact, Majora's Mask even makes a few improvements over its predecessor. Whereas the boss battles in Ocarina were fairly easy and repetitive, here they're clever and a lot of fun to battle. Some could argue that Ocarina had an uncreative and uninteresting story, but this game has one that's intriguing and enjoyable to follow. And where Ocarina had a good but not fantastic soundtrack, Majora's Mask has easily one of the best musical scores I've heard in any game, and it's complemented by the classic Zelda theme song! All this adds up to a game that absolutely cannot be missed by anyone.

Pros

+ The sequel to the greatest game of all time.
+ Superb, perfectly realized gameplay.
+ Time system adds a new element to gameplay.
+ A living, breathing world filled with interactions.
+ Intriguing, original storyline.
+ Masks add a lot to the game design.
+ Tons of side quests.
+ Gorgeous graphics.
+ Terrific soundtrack, including the Zelda theme.

Cons

- The main game isn't quite as long as that of Ocarina.
- Control and feel is largely unchanged from Ocarina (but is that so bad?).

Overall: 10/10

The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask may in fact be the most perfect game ever created. I consider Ocarina of Time to be the best game ever made, yet Majora's Mask improves upon that game while also adding its own share of excellent gameplay quirks that really add a lot to the design. Don't let anyone else persuade you to think any differently: Majora's Mask is an unbelievably fantastic and underrated game. Think of it this way: If a game is similar to the greatest game of all time, only it's better, then what does that say? It's a game that can't be missed. Although it lacks the shock factor and revolutionary design of the original, Majora's Mask is a glorious sequel that will be cherished for years to come.


Reviewer's Score: 10/10 | Originally Posted: 07/25/05


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