I would like to preface this review with an apology. When I originally reviewed this Nintendo 64 classic, I did so through the 3DS remake without realizing this was a controversial version of the game. At the time, I thought my memories of the game must have been way off and it was a lot less fun than I recalled, but NO! that’s just the 3DS version. I don’t know why Ocarina of Time was given a faithful adaptation with as little changes as possible, only for Nintendo and Grezzo to completely overhaul Majora’s Mask. I am sorry for the unfair critique I gave it and hereby present a more accurate and representative review.
Following the events of Ocarina of Time, Link has left behind the Kingdom of Hyrule that he helped save. Returned to his child form and separated from his friend Navi, Link sets out on a new journey to find her once again. This takes him deep into the forests where he has an unpleasant reunion with another old friend.
A Skull Kid assaults Link and robs him of the Ocarina of Time before hopping unto Epona and running off. Link is dragged to an alcove and follows Skull Kid down a tunnel, only to fall into a deep hole that teleports him to the parallel world of Termina. The Skull Kid awaits him there and turns Link into a Deku Scrub before running off. However, one of his two fairy companions holds Link back, causing her to be separated from her brother. Link and this fairy, Tatl, then join forces for a while to help each other out of their respective pickles.
This is a Zelda story unlike any other. As you set foot into Termina, Link is approached by the Happy Mask Salesman from the last game, now travelling the land with his backpack. He reveals that the mask worn by the Skull Kid belongs to him and holds some ominous powers. If Link can retrieve it, he will undo the spell that turned Link into a Deku. Once in Termina’s central town, you find half of the population preparing for a festival while the other half is evacuating, claiming that the moon over Termina is going to crash and kill everybody in the land.
The game runs on a 3-day cycle that concludes with the moon destroying Termina and the first cycle is all about getting your bearings and figuring out what to even do. You soon find that this is a much more moody game than the already-melancholic Ocarina of Time; it has some of that lovable Zelda wackiness in it, but it reminded me of that initial moment of stepping into Castle Town after the timeskip, stretched out over an entire game.
Everywhere you go you find people suffering under the stress of seeing the moon approach the land more with each passing day, or being affected by one of Skull Kid’s many schemes. You can help them, but do you have time for that?
Time-management is central to Majora’s Mask and that is going to make or break the game for many. It came out soon after Ocarina of Time and is mechanically much the same. However, it only features 4 dungeons with corresponding quests that lead into them. That doesn’t sound like much of a main story, until the game asks you to complete everything in less than an hour unless you want to be mooned to death.
Having that constant timer on your screen ticking down to your impending doom is stressful and lends an urgency to your quest that other games lack. You can reset the clock using the good old Song of Time, but this also causes you to lose progress. There are conveniences in place to make this less annoying than it sounds: you can warp to owl statues as a fast-travel method, you can use the bank to save your money, and you don’t lose key items like the bow or your masks. Still, that makes the time-travel rules kind of arbitrary and that comes on top of a confusing save system.
The main new feature of Majora’s Mask are the masks themselves, which act the same way as items. Majora’s Mask‘s inventory is a bit sparser this time around if you’re just looking at Link’s tools, so he also gets to collect a variety of masks that have various uses. The most prominent of these are the 3 transformations masks that allow Link to take on the form of a Deku Scrub, Goron, or Zora, each of which has a unique playstyle that can be used for puzzle-solving and combat.
It’s impressive stuff and especially cool that each race has a replacement instrument for the Ocarina. The other masks serve smaller purposes, such as the bomb mask that allows you to cause an explosion at the cost of some health or the bunny hood that increases your movement speed. While some of these see regular use, many others have only a single purpose and it’s usually trivial. Some masks just serve to get a single piece of heart from another character and others don’t even give that much. The Mask of Scents lets you find mushrooms that can be exchanged for potions and I have never used it even once in any of my playthroughs.
The masks also bloat the inventory and are a strain on Majora’s Mask‘s 3 action buttons. If you felt there was a lot of menuing to equip new items in Ocarina of Time, wait til you see how bad it gets here.
The dungeons themselves are all quite hard and lack the gentle introductions that characterized Ocarina of Time‘s pre-timeskip part of the game. It’s definitely intended for the more experienced players and is quicker to give you difficult puzzles and powerful enemies to deal with. Majora’s Mask breaks with a lot of such Zelda conventions and this is best seen in the boss-fights. These are tough encounters that break the usual mold of using the dungeon’s item and then hitting the weak point. Instead, you can damage bosses in a variety of ways and they have wide or unpredictable movesets themselves. These are exciting encounters that I wish the series would feature more of.
With that said, remake or not, I do have my grievances with these dungeons and the quests leading up to them. I find the dungeons thematically kind of boring and unmemorable, with only the swamp area having a fun quest leading up to it and a dungeon I enjoy playing through. There are several parts of Majora’s Mask that I dread having to revisit, with the egg hunt in the Great Bay area being a particular nuisance. It’s exciting to replay Majora’s Mask and take on the amazing side-quests, until I find myself face-to-face with that pillar in Snowhead Temple or having to do that item-trading maze in Ikana Valley.
Majora’s Mask shines in the little moments for me that tell the story of Termina and its people. Helping a man see his chickens reach maturity before the end of the world or any of the other various tasks in the Bombers Notebook are more entertaining to me than doing the usual Zelda game-loop but now on a timer that puts you at risk of having to do the whole thing from scratch if you aren’t fast enough. It really encourages players to use a guide when they are so close to the boss, but the final day is upon them and you want to actually do something once the dungeon is cleared and the lands around it are saved. You open up a lot of content after clearing a dungeon, but that too is reversed when you use the Song of Time.
It’s punishing for sure and, as much as it frustrates me, I am willing to bear with it for the sake of everything else the game has to offer. This is a Zelda story that really grabs you and hits the right emotional strings for me. It recycles characters from the last game, but gives them twists that make them well-rounded and unique all over again. Calling the game lazy or rushed is doing it an injustice; you can’t point at a character like Mutoh, Anju, or even the Happy Mask Salesman and honestly tell me these are on the same level as the usual character cameo seen in other Zelda titles.
The custom content that is there is also amazing. Majora’s Mask reuses a lot of the music from Ocarina of Time, with the return of Kotake and Koume’s theme being particularly nice, and it supplements these with many new tracks. The Deku Palace theme, the council meeting, Clock Town’s evolving theme song, Odolwa, we even got a new rendition of the Zelda theme for Termina Field, it’s all amazing stuff. I can’t understate how much Majora’s Mask made me love the Deku Scrubs; I love their new design, their roles in the game’s story, their culture, and that Deku Palace theme is just the best.
Majora’s Mask is a complicated game and it’s a unique experience both in the Zelda series and larger gaming space. Its time-management is both a boon and a curse, a mechanic by which the game can tell an amazing story, yet also a constant nuisance that stresses players out as they try to enjoy that story. It features many upgrades over Ocarina of Time, only to replace them with major flaws of its own. I would recommend the game only to Zelda veterans or skilled action-adventure players intrigued by the game’s grim storyline and oppressing atmosphere.
It’s strange. Even though I could make a top 20 about ideas I believe Majora’s Mask executed better than its predecessor, I’d still pick Ocarina of Time over it any day. I play through Ocarina of Time at least once every year, whereas Majora’s Mask I might honestly never play to completion ever again, despite believing that it’s the superior game.