I find that each The Legend of Zelda game advances the series forward in different directions. For instance, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild reworked franchise conventions to deliver an open-ended epic. Meanwhile, The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask, which celebrates its 20th anniversary in North America today, demonstrated how side content can play a more significant role in both narrative and gameplay.
Majora’s Mask is a strange game, and it uses that to its advantage. Unlike other entries in the Zelda franchise, Majora’s Mask is dark and often brooding. The atmosphere is unusual by Nintendo standards, and the world truly feels alive. It makes for one unique adventure with a ton of variety, and although it’s a divisive entry in the fandom, I consider it to be the best video game ever made.
You’ve met with a terrible fate, haven’t you?
Link’s second 3D adventure begins in a more sinister fashion. Our hero heads to the forest in search of Navi but is instead ambushed by Skull Kid. This results in a chain of events that can be summarized in a simple question: “You’ve met with a terrible fate, haven’t you?” Link is transformed into a Deku Scrub, with his ocarina and horse missing in action.
As far as dark introductions go, it’s a really effective one. It establishes early how the game will be depicting tragic events through its music and narrative. The Moon looming over Termina then solidifies that threat into something tangible and horrifying. The player is constantly being reminded that the world is unsafe and must be protected.
Majora’s Mask‘s central mechanic is its three-day time limit, which isn’t nearly enough time to actually save the land. The player must use the Song of Time to revert time back to the beginning of the cycle to have another chance. This essentially acts as a reset button with the world remembering and forgetting certain player actions.
However, as the days progress, you notice the changes throughout the world as the end approaches. The Moon is constantly getting closer to the land, and various NPCs and important characters start to panic. These changes over time mold the sidequests and the main story alike to fascinating effect. Indeed, many events will only trigger at specific time slots.
My personal favorite side mission is the Couple’s Mask questline, which spans the entire three days. It is easily the most complicated and lengthiest activity you will encounter in the game. Missing a key event or item will automatically result in having to start over again. This can be annoying but is a worthy punishment for incorrectly managing your time. Upon quest completion, you are rewarded with the Couple’s Mask. It’s not actually a wildly useful item in the grand scheme of things — it helps you get one Piece of Heart — but is still proof of your hard work to obtain it.
Classic Zelda with a twist
Every activity that you encounter in The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask is tracked through the Bombers’ Notebook, which you obtain through an important story moment early in the game. This makes managing your time slightly more bearable, especially in the Nintendo 3DS remake. Not only are you expected to uncover secrets amid the ticking clock but must also complete traditional Zelda dungeons.
There are not many dungeons present in Majora’s Mask, which is often considered a weakness of the game. It instead diverts focus to the side content, which presents an alternative way to extend the game’s length. If you’re familiar with other Zelda titles, then the dungeons themselves play out in a similar fashion. The basic premise is to solve puzzles, beat a couple of bosses, and so on.
While Majora’s Mask is familiar territory in that sense, you can also find 15 Stray Fairies in each dungeon. This is worthwhile as you unlock excellent rewards for doing so. Also, the dungeons themselves are still well designed and quite challenging at times. The last two areas of the game prove especially difficult if you’re unfamiliar with certain mechanics. Choosing when to approach a dungeon is also important, with time constantly slipping by.
However, time mechanics aside, Majora’s Mask has another unique major game mechanic in its wearable masks. Throughout the game, you can equip a variety of masks that will benefit Link in different ways. The main masks utilized are the transformation masks. They allow Link to take on the form of a Deku, Goron, or Zora. This mixes up the gameplay a little compared to with other entries in the series, since each mask allows Link to use a variety of unique abilities. For example, Goron Link can destroy boulders and turn into a ball to travel quickly, while Deku Link can use Deku Flowers to glide through the air.
A dynamic world
The land of Termina really feels like a living, breathing world. NPCs will arrive at specific locations at a given time slot as they follow their designated daily schedules, living their lives, and how you interact with one character could affect how another character behaves. At the time of its release, this was pretty revolutionary, especially for a Nintendo title. Not many games at the time approached game design in this way and with this level of detail, and it was an impressive accomplishment. Everything in the game can be described as connected. No matter what the player decides to do, they’ll be affecting the world in one way or another. There is an underlying sociology and psychology to everything.
On its 20th anniversary, The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask is truly something special, unlike any other title in the franchise. Termina is a wacky and peculiar location with engaging side content and darker undertones. If you have never played this game before, you’re in for one magical journey. With the 35th anniversary of Zelda approaching next year, I hope that they re-release this game alongside other games in the series. This is an adventure that can still be enjoyed all these years later on both Nintendo 64 and Nintendo 3DS.