And then there was Tingle...
The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask
Platform: Nintendo 64 (GCN Collection version reviewed)
I've said numerous times over the course of the last year or so, "I wish I'd played this game when it was released." I wish I'd grabbed Paper Mario when it originally came out, I wish I'd played Link's Awakening when it was released, I wish I'd acted on my damned instincts by playing Xenogears back in 1998 and I wish I'd given Final Fantasy 8 a good chance when I'd originally bought it. When I was still in highschool, it always seemed like such a long wait between games. I kept shrugging off all of these lesser-known titles in favor of just grabbing the big-name entires, and in the process, wasted a lot of time by doing so.
Of all the games I wish I'd played during its heyday, Majora's Mask takes the cake. It was released about two years after Ocarina of Time, and at the time, I was still on an OOT buzz. When I found out that the next game would be missing Adult Link entirely and revolved around a three-day time limit, I nearly vomited on myself. I thought that Nintendo was ruining Zelda, and I was irate. I was also an idiot, and a pretty huge idiot too, because one of my best friends was loving the game at the time and was harping on me constantly to give it a try. I ingored his pleas, like a friggin' retard, and brushed the game off for years.
Then, about a year ago, I managed to score a copy of the Legend of Zelda Collector's Edition disc, containing the first two Zelda games as well as Ocarina of Time and Majora's Mask. Considering I'd never played the latter, I decided to give it a shot. Hell, I got the disc for free, didn't I? So, I popped it in and proceeded to sacrifice some 20, possibly 30 hours of my life to Majora, and the only regret I have is that I didn't sacrifice those hours when I first had the opportunity.
To be blunt, this is the best game in the entire series.
In the final moments of Ocarina of Time, Link did battle with the King of Evil, Ganondorf, and used the power of the Seven Sages to seal the demon away in the Sacred Realm. Having removed the sorcerer's vile influence from the land of Hyrule, Link traveled back to his original time period and sealed up the Temple of Time, forever putting an end to his quest. After everything had calmed down, and as the rest of Hyrule rejoiced in their newfound prosperity, Navi, the hero's fairy companion, said goodbye to Link and flew away, to parts unknown.
An unknown amount of time has gone by, and young Link is restless. He is lonesome for the companionship of his fairy guide, and has a burning desire in his heart to set out looking for his lost friend. So, packing up a small number of his belongings (sword, shield, etc) and striding atop his trusty horse, Epona, Link sets off through the Lost Woods in search of Navi and adventure.
After wandering for several days, and not having seen trace one of his friend, Link is accosted by an erratic Skull Kid (an enigmatic Zelda creature found in the Lost Woods) wearing a strange mask. The Skull Kid hops around, giggling and attempting to coerce Link into playing with him. Behind the Skull Kid trails not one but two fairies, a sister and brother named Tatl and Tael, respectively. Link stares in shock at the visual similarities between Tatl and Navi when the Skull Kid grows impatient and decides to play a prank on Link. Stealing his horse and transforming Link into a Deku Scrub (a half-plant/half-animal creature), the Skull Kid hightails it out of the forest, accidentally leaving Tatl behind in the process. Deciding to assist Link, Tatl becomes his new fairy guide and leads him through the forest and into a completely new world.
Link winds up in a parallel dimension of Hyrule, named Termina, in which all of the inhabitants of Hyrule can be found, only their relationships to one-another as well as their names, personalities and lives are completely different. Link learns from speaking with the people of Termina that the Skull Kid is currently guilty of far worse than just grand-theft-horse. Apparently, he's been using the power of the strange mask he wears, named Majora's Mask, to wreak havoc across all the land. The most dangerous of his crimes, however, is that he has cast a spell upon the moon above Termina. In three days, the moon will crash into the kingdom, obliterating everything in sight, and there seems to be no way to prevent it. Unable to refuse a quest and a cry for help, Link becomes Termina's champion, destined to save the people of the land from utter destruction.
The biggest aspect of the plot that needs to be immediately addressed is the fact that Majora's Mask is without a doubt the darkest game in the series. The setup I just gave you is not indicative of this, but playing the game for a while will make the idea blazingly obvious to you. Characters face serious, life-changing dilemmas and they respond in genuine, heartfelt ways. The fact is, when you hit day three and the moon is literally minutes from crushing the world, you will be simply destroyed by how black and hopeless and desperate the world becomes. Life fades out of everything, joy turns to ash and tears become law. The way that some of the characters respond to their irreversible fates can be just simply heartbreaking to watch. I have never played a more emotionally-engaging game than this one.
Atmosphere aside, the second major aspect that needs to be addressed is the giant shift in story and character-focus. You won't be saving Zelda from Ganon again and you won't be exploring a world like the last game, in which the worst thing that has happened is the fact that the lake has dried up. Here you will witness the true evil of the Skull Kid's wicked acts. A swamp-community of Deku Scrubs is slowly dying off because their water supply has been polluted with poisons. A mountaintop Goron settlement is freezing to death because a blizzard has enveloped their homes and refuses to stop. However, smaller, more vital wrongdoings have taken their toll upon the people as well. A pair of lovers, set to be married not long after the tragedy struck, suddenly find themselves separated when the young man is cursed by the Skull Kid and transformed into a child. Filled with shame, the young man goes into hiding, leaving his fiancee broken and fearing for his safety and for the sanctity of their future marriage.
The entire game is overflowing with unique characterization, and you will be hard pressed to find a single "throwaway" or "filler" character in the entire bunch. Nearly every person you encounter has a story to tell, or an important portion of the plot to fill. Becoming acclimated to these people and really becoming attached to them is one of the game's strongest points.
In terms of story, atmosphere and characterization, Majora's Mask ranks a perfect ten. It is without flaw.
Considering that Majora's Mask runs on the same engine as Ocarina of Time, the control interface is exactly the same, as is much of the overall functionality of the game. So, I won't be redundant by going back over the Z-Camera or the three item slots again.
Link's inventory sees a massive upgrade this time around, possibly offering the biggest selection of items he's ever had at his disposal. First and foremost, his equippable item inventory. No longer is Young Link barred from using the Bow, or the Hookshot or the nice, metal Hylian Shield that only Adult Link could use in OOT. Nowadays, he's got all that stuff at his fingertips, and much more. In addition to the standard Bow, Bombs and Boomerang, Link also gets back his trusty Bombchus, Lens of Truth, Magic Beans, Deku Nuts and Deku Sticks from OOT. Some of the newer items include the Powder Keg, a massive bomb that can destroy huge boulders, and the Pictograph Box, which is just a fancy name for a camera. On top of that, Link also gets six empty bottles this time around instead of only four, as well as a few empty slots dedicated to "Quest Items" that need to be traded around to different characters for different effects.
However, the largest upgrade to Link's inventory comes in the form of 24 different masks that can be collected and used in the game. Some of them are simply for a specific, one-time purpose, some are just for show, some can be used frequently for bonus effects and some can actually transfrom you into a completely different person!
Most importantly are the transformation masks. There are four, although the fourth is the final mask in the game and can only be used against bosses. The other three are the Deku Scrub mask, the Goron mask and the Zora mask. Using any of these three items will transform you into the creature they represent, and each form gives you new powers and weaknesses. Deku Scrub Link can fire bubbles from his snout for long-range attacks, and he can also run across the surface of water, allowing you to bypass poisoned areas with ease. Goron Link is huge and powerful, making you invulnerable to lava and giving you a ton of offensive and defensive power at the expense of speed and adequate jumping ability. Zora Link is capable of breathing underwater and flying through the seas with grace, agility and lightning speed. Each form also has their own special abilities, such as Deku Link being able to use Blast Flowers to leap to higher places and Goron Link's Speed Roll, which transforms him into a high-speed, rolling ball of spikes and death! Definitely one of the most entertaining abilities in the game.
Beyond the transformation masks, the remainder all have different abilities effects and uses. The Bunny Hood doubles Link's walking/running speed while worn, the Stone Mask makes Link invisible to most enemies and the Blast Mask can actually make Link explode, and deals you one half of a heart of damage (it comes in handy when you're out of Bombs, and there is actually a way to negate the damage entirely, but I'll let you figure that one out). Some masks can only be used in certain situations, like the Bremen Mask, which allows Link to command a group of chickens, and the All-Night Mask which allows you to stay awake during a few boring-ass stories told by an old lady.
There are 24 of these badboys to be found, and the majority of them are actually really fun to play around with. They are a great addition to Link's arsenal, and add a lot of character to an already character-soaked game.
Aside from the masks, Link also has his standard selection of permanent effect items such as sword upgrades, new shields, etc.
Another major aspect of the game to bring up is the three-day time limit that the game uses. Now, I know that your initial response to hearing that is "yuck", because that was my original reaction too. However, in my opinion, it's actually the best thing that has ever happened to the Zelda games.
Here's how it works. In Ocarina of Time, there was a day-night system in which every 24 hours totaled up to maybe 18 minutes in real time. Day would shift into night, and back to day, and dependant upon what time it was, you could see and experience different things throughout the world. Different enemies popped up, different characters appeared, different scenarios became available. Majora's Mask takes this theme several steps further by implementing a three-day system, in which wholly separate events occur on each of the different days.
On day one, Clock Town (the central town in the game) is bustling with activity. The background music is chipper and happy, and you can watch as each of the characters follows their unique daily routine as the day passes. In the morning, the mailman delivers mail to all of the mailboxes and then does it again later in the afternoon. At about 10am, the inn opens up and Anju, one of the clerks, stands at the counter and checks people in. However, when it hits about 1pm, she takes a break and makes lunch for her grandmother, while her mother covers for her at the front desk. Most every character in the game world has a pattern like this, although some are certainly more detailed and varied than others. Anju does a lot of stuff on day one, while a random Zora out at the Great Bay most likely won't be doing anything different until Day 2. The fact that the game is able to constantly keep track of the complex behavioral patterns of about 50 unique characters, and the less-detailed patterns of about 50 or 60 side-characters, is a pretty impressive task for a 64-bit title.
When Day 2 hits, however, things suddenly become different. The entire first half of the day it rains constantly and the background music, while still mostly upbeat, has this slightly ominous twinge behind it. There are less people on the streets and everybody's daily routine changes. Anju now spends less time at the desk and her mood is becoming less and less happy. By day three, Clock Town is a graveyard. Few people walk the streets, the sky is dark and the earth occasionally shakes from the impending force of the now-closer moon. Anju and her mother have taken up residence at the Romani Ranch, and are cradling each other for comfort against their quickly-approaching death.
The three-day system is, in my opinion, the best thing that has ever happened to Zelda because it gives the behavioral patterns and sequences of the world and people a lot more versatility. You get a sense that these are real individuals rather than just videogame characters, and that they have real lives to attend to.
I mentioned before, however, that each day in the game only totals up to about 18 minutes. In total, that means it takes 54 minutes to run through the entire three-day cycle. How in god's name did I squeeze 20, possibly 30 hours of time out of a 54 minute game? Simple: the Ocarina of Time. This item has survived the transition between this and the previous game, and is actually more useful in this one. Of the nearly-dozen different songs you can learn on your trusty Ocarina, the most important of which is the Song of Time. In Ocarina of Time, this melody was nearly worthless, really only useful for opening the Temple of Time and removing special time blocks out of your path. In Majora's Mask, playing the Song of Time allows you to reset back to the first day without losing any major items or progress in the game. In other words, if you collect the Bow, Bombs and finish the Snowhead Temple and then reset back to the first day, you won't lose any of that stuff and the Snowhead Temple will still be beaten. The only stuff you lose is temporary items like Rupees, Arrows and Quest Items. On top of that, the melody can actually be played backwards, or in double-time to either slow the flow of time to half its speed (meaning you can stretch out a three-day block into 108 minutes) or skip ahead 12 hours at a whim. Time is completely under your control, and having such power is just awesome.
The genius part about this three day system is the fact that, by implementing it into this game, Nintendo has created the only game I have ever encountered that gives a solid, rational, believable explanation for why the characters keep repeating the same behavior over and over again. Why does Anju always say the same thing on day one? Why does it always rain on day two? Because you keep repeating the same set of days over and over again. It's because of this and the three-day system that playing Majora's mask almost becomes real to you. The people and events of the game cease to be just a game, and it almost becomes like you're actually living these experiences with these people. I've never had this happen to me in my entire life, and it is possibly the closest that anyone has ever come to breaking down the fourth wall between the game and the player. It is a stroke of gaming genius. Probably the most powerful stroke of gaming genius I have ever witnessed.
Tying into the three-day system, much of Majora's Mask revolves around sidequests and activities that take place outside of the dungeons. Don't worry, there are dungeons, but the majority of the game happens away from them. In order to even gain access to most dungeons, you'll need to explore the far reaches of Termina in order to locate the masks and items necessary to opening your path. The Great Bay Temple, for example, requires you to solve internal issues between a Zora rock band in order to gain access to a Gerudo Pirate base. Upon infiltrating the Gerudo base, you must recover the Hookshot, which will give you access to new areas of the Great Bay. Upon using the hookshot to acccess these new areas, you'll be granted the items necessary to enter the Great Bay Temple. This "pre-dungeon" quest takes roughly an hour or two to complete, and it was actually just as entertaining (if not moreso) than actually trolling the depths of the Temple. All of the Temples require quite a lot of preparation like this, and it extends the overall life and variety of the game dramatically.
In regard to the dungeons, many people scream and howl over the fact that there are technically only four of them, along with one final dungeon. What most of these people fail to realize is that all of the "pre-dungeon" adventuring you have to do is almost like a whole four more dungeons in and of itself. So, don't go thinking that you're being shafted in terms of how much game you're buying. You're getting just as much game as every other Zelda game on the market (more, in some cases), only much less of it is spent skulking through dungeons.
In terms of dungeon-quality, Majora's Mask hits the nail square on the head. Each one is incredibly designed and features exactly the type of huge advancements that I had hoped Ocarina of Time's dungeons would feature. Instead of just being a series of rooms and passageways filled with enemies and smaller puzzles, each of the four Temples in Majora's Mask is a centralized dungeon, consisting of many smaller puzzles used to complete one huge puzzle. These dungeons are very much like those found in Soul Reaver, in which the entire Temple is one big puzzle that can only be completed by defeating the enemies and solving the smaller puzzles that make up its structure. Each one of these Temples is also guarded by a massive boss, and each one is an absolute joy to fight. I won't spoil anything for you, but needless to say, Majora's Mask contains what is probably my favorite boss battle in the entire series, aside from the final duel with Ganondorf in Wind Waker. The only member of the boss-roster that is a bit of a letdown is the last one, and that mostly comes from the fact that you can make the fight far too easy. However, doing so is entirely optional, and if you want to take him on the hard way, you're more than welcome to.
Beyond the dungeons, you've also got a massive list of sidequests to complete. Early in the game, you recieve an item called the Bomber's Notebook, which contains about 20 different characters who require your assistance through various personal issues they might be having. It might be something as simple as helping the Mayor bring a long meeting to an end, or helping a ranch-hand herd chickens into a pen. Then there are some, such as the separated lovers I mentioned much earlier, who will require you to dedicate an entire three-day block to solving their problems. The Bomber's Notebook quests easily add another seven to ten (possibly more) hours of play time onto the game, especially if you stay away from a player's guide and try to figure out all of the solutions yourself. Each one is extremely rewarding, either by granting you a new mask, a new item, a Heart Piece or simple genuine satisfaction from helping these people with their issues. You'll want to complete them all, because depriving yourself of it would be depriving yourself the complete experience of the adventure.
The only genuine gameplay flaws I can identify would have to be the save system and a few minor technical issues. First, you can't save anytime you like, as was the case in OOT. No, in Majora's Mask you can only save either when you reset time, or when you find an Owl Beacon to save at. These Owl Beacons allow you to save your progress and avoid having to reset, however it's a one-time thing. You can save your game, turn it off and pick back up where you left off. However, after loading that Owl Beacon save, you can't suddenly turn the game off and re-load it again. The only way you can hard save is to reset the three-day period. This is irritating when you're working on a limited amount of time, because if you suddenly need to quit and you're nowhere near an Owl Beacon, you've either gotta find one and save or reset the three-day period.
The other issue is only in reference to the GCN Collection version of the game, and therefore, will not be factored into the score. The Zelda Collection version of Majora's Mask is technically not a port, but an emulation. The problem with this is that occasionally the game will glitch and lock up. This becomes a serious problem when considering the issue with saving. Because you can't hard-save anytime you damn well please, if the game freezes up on you in the middle of day 3, you'd better be prepared for having to go all the way back through everything you've done since the last time you reset. It's a rare problem, and it only happened to me one or two times, but it's worth mentioning all the same. Again, this is not an issue with the N64 version of the game, which is why I'd recommend picking that one up instead.
Overall, aside from those two issues I listed above, Majora's Mask is a flawless stone of absolute gameplay brilliance. The masks are plentiful and fun to both use and collect, the three-day system is a marvel of videogame design, I actually prefer the pre-dungeon questing over spending 75% of the game in dark temples, the dungeons are awesome and are designed with a great central-puzzle system, the bosses are fantastic and the sidequests are some of the strongest extras I've ever played through in a game. Majora's Mask is silicon bliss.
I'll keep the following sections short and sweet. In terms of visuals, Majora's Mask is barely any different than Ocarina of Time. Slightly higher polygon counts on the character models, slightly better animations, slightly better lighting and effects. Textures are basically the same, so they're still a bit muddy. Overall, it's not a huge advancement over Ocarina of Time, like everything else in the game is.
I can say that, artistically, Majora's Mask stomps nearly every other game in the series into the ground. Every location is bursting with creative design, from the colorful and oddly-constructed Clock Town, to the scenic and vast Great Bay to the frost-covered Snowhead Mountain. Each location is designed with a lot more thought and detail than in previous games, and most of the areas seem a lot more functional and realistic than comparable regions from the other titles. The one downside in terms of the artistic direction of the game is in Termina Field. In comparison with Hyrule field, it actually does have a lot more stuff to see, but it's all too tightly-arranged. There's a bit too much stuff and not enough space.
As opposed to the visuals, the music to be found in Majora's Mask is a noticeable improvement over that in Ocarina of Time. You won't find any laughably-bad synth tracks like the last time, although the score does have its ups and downs. One of my favorite pieces from the game is the music that plays during the final countdown on the last day. As the sky turns black and red, and the moon is looming only hundreds of feet from Clock Town, a terrifyingly dramatic piece plays that effectively conveys the complete and total hopelessness and horror of the situation. It is so perfectly composed that you'll actually forget that it's not fully-orchestrated.
And then, the cherry on the icing of the musical selection is the fact that the traditional Overworld Theme makes its triumphant return in Majora's Mask. After having been woefully absent from Ocarina of Time, it's presence in this game is dearly appreciated.
Again, the effects are top-notch, featuring all of the great atmospheric and contextual sound effects that made OOT's soundscape so enthralling. First class sound effects, without a doubt.
1) The save system. It's just annoying to either have to warp back to an Owl Beacon or completely reset the three-day block in order to save your progress. A save-anywhere function like that in Ocarina of Time would have been far more appealing.
2) The GCN Collection version has some bugs. Occasional freezing and some minor sound glitches. I'm not factoring this into the score, but I'll list it here simply to specify that the N64 version is the superior of the two, and should warrant a purchase over the GCN version.
3) The final boss is a bit too easy if you use the Fierce Deity Mask. On top of that, the battle in and of itself just wasn't as impressive as it should have been. The final battle in Ocarina of Time was breathtaking, whereas the final battle in Majora's Mask is pretty underwhelming.
4) While the artistic direction of Majora's Mask is head-and-shoulders above almost every other game in the series, the actual technical aspects of the graphics are almost identical to that of Ocarina of Time. Slightly more polygons is not quite enough of an advancement, in my opinion. On top of that, Termina Field needed to be bigger. Too much stuff in too little space.
I think it's pretty obvious why I consider this game to be the best in the series. My complaints with it are minor, and are mostly centered around ignorable technical issues. On the reverse, the game takes a monumental leap forward in terms of characterization and storytelling, as well as providing the three-day system, which is one of my favorite gameplay advancements of the last decade as well as numerous other evolutionary changes and additions.
I fell in love with this one. The story, the characters, the atmosphere. All of it is so seamlessly presented and woven into the fabirc of the gameplay that it creates an experience closer to life than any other I've ever had with a videogame. This game is intelligent, subtle and dark without ever once delving into vulgarity or excessive violence. It manages to create an emotionally-charged, grimly-themed adventure that anyone can play and enjoy. That's a hell of a thing to accomplish.
Don't deny yourself the experience of having played this one just because you've heard bad things about it from your friends. Don't pass this one up because you don't like the idea of having a game give you a "time limit". To do so is to deprive yourself of a work of art. To do so is utter foolishness. Play it and love it. My highest recommendations.