An hour after he was locked in Clock Town, Link’s been turned into a Deku Scrub staring down a massive, fiery-eyed moon so close that he could pick its gritted teeth with his sword. Looming over him is Skull Kid, supercharged by the Majora’s Mask. Playing the Song of Time Zelda had entrusted him with to save Hyrule, Link returns to the exact moment he’d entered Clock Town, the moon again 72 in-game hours from destroying everything, the citizens back on their schedule as if the first round had been a bad dream.
Zelda’s storytelling changed with Ocarina of Time. Cinematically, the polygonal models allowed Link greater expression, shaping a personality onto what had been an empty avatar. Narratively, the three dungeons of act one presented a child with a grand adventure only to be thrown into a dark and ugly future that forced him to grow up before he was ready. At the start of Majora’s Mask, Link is neither a boy nor a man, having had to skip over his adolescence literally and metaphorically. The design handles the hurdles of growth by using its systems to apply a psychological pressure so strong that the act of play requires emotional fortitude to deal with the stress. Majora’s Mask is notable for how it’s actively designed to push you away. Similar to what the original Legend of Zelda constructed to simulate a true adventure, Majora’s Mask’s machine transforms the very notion of the word, setting Link off on the great journey to maturity.
Majora’s intro is a melancholic affair, somber in its style as Link aimlessly wanders through a foggy forest on Epona’s back, his head held down in despair. It informs us that after stopping Ganon and returning to a child, Link set off in search of his friend Navi, who had been beside him every step of the way but left unexpectedly at its finale. When Skull Kid attacks and robs Link, our hero chases him into Termina, a bizarro inversion of the kingdom he’d saved but would never know it. You start this game in a state of supreme loss: of home, of friendship, and of accomplishment, and from there takes away your future with every passing second.
Majora’s first new mechanic turns Link’s very identity into a utility. Expanding on Ocarina’s mask concept and including the same happy salesman, the masks apply theories of persona and the acted roles of identity onto the narrative. You’ll get many as rewards for your deeds and many do little but get you more rewards, but some, including the Deku Mask Link receives upon his cure, transform his body at will and grants him new abilities capable of new interactions, accompanied by horrific animations of pain and suffering that are deeply unsettling. Link’s initial detainment in town was a means to teach the player that Link’s appearance would earn different treatment from different people now that he approaches them in his normal body. The little dog on the west side is up front about his biases: he attacks Dekus, flees from Gorons, embraces Zoras, and ignores Kokiri boys.
You also learn of the complex relationships that move Termina. In Clock Town you met Mayor Datour, caught in the drama of his people, paralyzed with indecision; Tingle, the cartographer who longs to be a fairy; and Kafei and Anju, the young couple ensnared in the most tragic side quest of the series, separated by a grave injustice. But no matter where you go in Clock Town, the people are all going about their lives as if nothing was happening around them, confined to their routines like it’s the last bit of control they have left.
With the tightly controlled framework of events, Termina was put in a position to be mapped into a massively scripted world, a tight clockwork mechanism that is working behind the scenes to move characters and environment at all times. These paths are packed to the brim with characterization expressed as gameplay rather than words. Mailing a letter. Checking into an inn. Making a midnight delivery. Every path contains a sequence of events that has internal logic and purpose. Look no further than Kafei’s note, which you can follow from the starting mailbox, to the post office, and finally to Anju in the afternoon, where she will request a favor in secret. With the understanding that these routines can be interacted with at certain points, the Bomber’s Notebook you get from the titular club is an incredibly useful resource for recording the drama. Because Link was confined within Clock Town for the first cycle, the player was provided an exhibition of the dynamic ecosystems found the world over before they stepped beyond its gates. Majora’s Mask’s simulation of time absolutely needs to be celebrated: by making its imaginary world move consistently with the player’s real one, they automatically understand the implicit threats presented by its rules.
The river ride in south Termina takes you through a poisoned swamp and drops you at the entrance to the Deku palace. With the loss of the Princess, the King has gone ballistic, blaming a monkey who was caught just trying to help. Making way to the temple at Woodfall, Link evades its traps, defeats the cursed Odolwa, rescues the Deku Princess, and clears the source poisoning the swamp. Throughout it all, you’re running as fast as you can, squeezing as much progress as possible as Clock Town’s bell tolls, the ground shakes, and the moons grin keeps getting bigger. It’s simultaneously exhilarating and terrifying. You are one step closer to saving Termina. And after all that, its clock resets and you lose every rupee, every arrow and find the swamp is a toxic dump once again.
It only takes a few cycles to be overwhelmed with a crushing sense of futility. No matter what you do, no matter how hard you fight, eventually everything will be taken away from you. It’s hard not to feel like it’s all so fucking unjust. In OoT, time was your greatest ally, you’re ability to bend it meant nothing was set. You’re propelled through the plot by your desire to save Hyrule and its people from evil. In MM, time is now simultaneously your unstoppable enemy and immediate salvation, creating a reality where nothing is definite. Emotionally, the time limit constantly builds tension, the very release of which replaces failure with hope and success with remorse. Majora’s Mask’s gameplay lesson is this: nothing lasts forever. Don’t let loss stop you from action.
To account for the time limit, Majora’s Mask had to be built with a very particular progression. In traditional linear narratives, story expands outward as the player overcomes obstacles. Since A Link to the Past, that progression has been rigidly predicated on item collection; bombs destroy physical blockades like boulders and walls, and the hookshot grapples to otherwise inaccessible areas. This progression is inherently suited for the circular nature of Majora’s Mask’s structure, rewarding the player with items or warp points that act as shortcuts past events in subsequent cycles (building an organic chapter select mechanism directly into the game). Link is dynamic, the world is immutable.
At its core, the adventure consists of a series of quest chains whose every link had to be designed to be finished within a set period of time – every beat must be short enough to fit inside the three-day limit but long enough to force players to focus their efforts. We saw this rhythm in the sequence leading up to Woodfall temple, the journey divided by traveling to the location, discovering its central conflict, and resolving it by completing the local dungeon. It’s smart then that Clock Town sits at the center of the map with the games four dungeons at each cardinal direction, standardizing the length of each beat. The condensed size makes the story and the world in which it takes place feel smaller and more personal.
Throughout his quest, Link has transformed himself, borrowing others strengths and increasing his own in the process. They helped guide him over the rough process of dealing with loss. Majora’s background thread brings its narrative and gameplay themes together. We’ve already seen how Clock Town and the Deku are dealing with their imminent demise, wrapped up in their respective denial and anger, but by observing the rest of the world, we find that they’ve all lost something as well, bargaining with their situation, becoming depressed by it, and finally accepting the reality of their situation. As the excellent DidYouKnowGaming? fact informs us, the five locations all represent the stages of grief, running Link through each as he struggles against the looming disaster.
With the unfolding story, you discover that Skull Kid is more complex than he initially seemed. When he first attacked Link, you saw a thieving little thug. But he didn’t start that way. In many ways, Skull Kid is a dark reflection of Link – both are orphans lost in the world, wearing masks that have turned them into people they’re not. Unlike Link, Skull Kid’s loneliness turned unguided mischief into bitterness. Since he never worked through his despair, he became trapped by anger, the Majora’s Mask giving him the power to take revenge on a world that didn’t have a place for him.
Nothing changes until you do. For the type of looping narrative that structures Majora’s Mask, the protagonist needs to find the right action that allows them to reroute fate and break the cycle. We come again to the masks. By the end of the game, Link has worn twenty, giving him the ability to see from other peoples’ eyes, allowing him to transcend being even a man to become, if only for a moment, a Fierce Deity.
But maybe none of this happened to you. With the incredible stress it puts on players, there’s a chance you stopped playing, maybe out of anger at how unfair the entire thing is. Beating Majora’s Mask takes courage, a too rare barrier to success even for the series that offered gaming’s first masterful example. In every way that matters, Link’s adventure through Termina is a Zelda game, but one that reapplies the series’ concepts into a bold narrative that brashly subverts many of the thematic elements of its predecessor and claims its own identity. Constructed with the broken gears of time, Majora’s Mask is a game about realizing that to be strong enough for the adventure that is your future you must free yourself from the weight of the past.
DEVELOPER: Nintendo EAD
PLATFORM: Nintendo64 (requires N64 Expansion Pak), 3DS (remake)
Dane Thomsen is the author of ZIGZAG, a sport-punk adventure in a world of electrifying mystery. With the voice of her people as her guide, Alex walks neon purple streets thrown into chaos, wielding the concussive force of her baseball bat the mighty ‘.357’ against the forces of evil. Print and kindle editions are available on Amazon. For sample chapters and to see his other works please check out his blog.