Two years, two games, two stone-cold masterpieces. That kind of track record is the envy of any person working in a creative medium, but the fact that Nintendo pulled it off with a year of development time, the same engine powering the masterful Ocarina of Time, and unreasonably stratospheric expectations, deserves nothing less than the highest accolades possible. Majora's Mask is Ocarina of Time viewed through a fun-house mirror, and the results are as dark, ominous and gut-wrenching as Ocarina of Time is joyous and life-affirming. In short, they're two sides to the same, brilliant coin.
For games that essentially share the same architecture, they stake their claims to near-perfection on very different design principles. Ocarina of Time is about unabashed wonder, about bravery and being swept up in a sublime, epic landscape. Majora, though, is much more about precision. Every single element fits together like clockwork, and the story of the game and the story of the gameplay, often far more dichotomous than one would think, are inextricable in Majora's Mask.
The "sandbox" genre is often looked to as the pinnacle of player involvement and interaction, but they ain't got nothing on Majora's Mask, a game that has the player always in control by making them feel out of control, struggling to gain some foothold in this ominous and dangerous world. The stakes are set early: Link, on a deeply personal trek through the wilderness after saving the land of Hyrule, is searching for his friend, the fairy Navi. Arriving in the land of Termina, the odds begin to stack against him. A deranged Skull Kid wearing a tribal (and titular) mask steals Link's ocarina and his horse, Epona. Not only that, he transforms Link into a Deku Scrub (perhaps there are shades of the First Nations "Trickster" character at work here?), essentially robbing Link of his own humanity too. It's a dark and instantly gripping opening to the game, creating a hatred for the main villain of the game that goes far beyond the more esoteric machinations of the standard JRPG villain.
The odds keep getting worse. Under the influence of Majora's Mask, the Skull Kid has started to crash the moon into the Earth, and that cataclysmic event is set to happen only three days from the first moments of the game. And the only person who will help Link transform back into his old self won't help him until he gets his mask back. So, tall tasks. But if there's one person handled to face these challenges, it's the Hero of Time himself, who soon learns to control those three, Groundhog Day-esque days in a time-hopping, paradox-laden fashion.
Looking at that setup – Link has three days to save the world and everyone in it – it becomes a little clearer how the development team was able to shorten the usual four-six year wait for a new Zelda game to just two years. This is a game that substitutes the breadth of Ocarina of Time for density, creating a game that is superficially simple while actually being inordinately complex. The complexity of juggling the lives of most of the citizens of Termina with the need to look out for your own survival, all within the strictures of the ever-ticking countdown, is an unbelievably harrowing experience, and the gut impact – the way it makes you feel – is about as grim as it gets in video games.
It's also totally brilliant. How many games allow us to feel anything at all? How many games can foster that attachment with its main character so deeply without reams and reams of dialog? Majora's Mask is the best example out there of the gameplay telling the story. Termina becomes less about the script and more about the player's involvement in the lives of the people who live there. From the frightening (the story of Pamela and her half-Gibdo father is especially troubling, especially when you consider the fact that even if you save him, he still keeps turning back into the half-Gibdo) to the melancholy (Anju and Kafei, separated by a curse that makes him look to be a little boy? Hella depressing.) to the silly (hello, Gorman Bros.!) to the incredibly complex (Anju and Kafei, again) – the stories themselves are interesting and well done, but the fact that you get to do something meaningful about them is what makes it a masterclass of video game design.
Hell, it's the whole thing. Every element of this game's design is about fostering unease, pushing the player to the emotional breaking point, until the game earns its ultimate catharsis at the end. Time is what causes the greatest unease (if you fuck up, everything on Termina dies) but the other elements of the game operate on a stealth-creepy mode as well. While the transformations into Deku Scrubs, Gorons and Zoras are kind of awesome (and allows for some very varied and un-Zelda-y gameplay), what's not awesome is the fact that Link screams in agony at the camera as he transforms into these various beasts. Or simply taking into effect that a lot of the conventions upon which Zelda had traditionally hung its hat up to that point – Hyrule, freedom to do what you want, or even Zelda herself, who is basically not present in this game – are nowhere to be found, means that Termina becomes an almost completely alien landscape, a place infected from top to bottom with a creeping dread.
This is obviously not a mode that Zelda has traditionally operated in, and yet, it works wonders here. Koji Kondo's soundtrack is amongst the best pieces of music he's ever created, incorporating aspects of Chinese opera to unsettling effect. And those N64 graphics, so blocky and simple by today's standards, have an air of mystery around them. A strictly-realistic graphical style couldn't capture the ineffable weirdness of Termina, the mirror-world of Hyrule characteristics that only a game running on the OoT engine could.
Unlike something like, say, Link's Awakening, Majora's Mask often feels safe when it's doing anything that is Zelda formula canon, though perhaps that's an unfair assessment. The dungeons (there are only four of them, though several "side" dungeons, like the Pirate's Fortress, could also count) are tighter and more vicious than almost anything on display in Ocarina of Time, even including the Water Temple. They're complex almost to the point of feeling un-conquerable, which was the perfect decision. If Ocarina of Time was all about empowering the player, Majora's Mask is all about making you feel weak, unsure and doubtful. You're given old tools that you know and love and forced to use them in ways you'd never expect. You have to make your way through some of the most convoluted dungeon design yet seen in the series, and all the while dealing with the constant tick, tick, tick…
I think that Nintendo might have seen that they made a vicious, sometimes cruel and unrelentingly dark game, and they liberally spiced it with really fun side quests. These don't feel like a design misstep – they're nothing if not immaculately designed – but they do feel like a nice reprieve. There's plenty of Goron racing, Gorman Bro shooting, alien abduction-preventing goodness on display, and all of these sidequests, which could have felt like a meandering way to pad out such a tight experience, end up feeling comprehensive rather than regressive. You get a real feeling for the world of Termina, and the way in which its clockwork rules are applied. People come and go at certain times and certain events can only happen at specific times, and while the programming on display isn't that complicated, the effect is gloriously well-realized: you feel that this is a world with its own rules. The idea of sandbox games is generally that the sandbox should conform to you, but Majora's Mask drops you in the sandbox and says "figure it out," and it's far more compelling because of it.
With all of those odds stacked so high, the game can occasionally feel insurmountable. But surmounted it can be, and when the player does eventually conquer the game, the catharsis is enough to catch the unwary player off guard with fits of emotional release. But there's also a sense of melancholy – Link's travails are basically unseen by any of the town's people, and at the end, he rides off as inconspicuously as he arrived. Link's not the only person who transforms throughout the game – we're made to care for everyone, even the hapless and manipulated and lonely Skull Kid, the innocent spirits trapped in evil masks in the game's dungeons, and there's one other person who transforms just as much: ourselves.
It's a shame that Majora's Mask took so long to receive this kind of recognition of its brilliance. Now regarded as a bit of a cult classic, at the time, it was lambasted for not being "Zelda" enough. The Legend is as sturdy as it's ever been, but Majora's Mask takes the Legend to new, smarter places, and with gamers' rejection of that, it has taken some time for Nintendo to take these kinds of risks ever again. As always, gamers get what they ask for.