Hiya folks! Taylor here, and I’m glad to be bringing you something new today. Those of you who have been to Outright Geekery before might have noticed our Comics You Should Have Already Read By Now articles; well, there’s quite a few video games that deserve recognition too, so we needed a new segment. Enter: Video Games You Should Have Played By Now! Basically, what we’re trying to do here is shine a spotlight on some of the best video games ever made, and try to break down what makes them the best of the industry.
And what better game to showcase in our inaugural outing than an entry in the venerated Legend of Zelda franchise? So that’s just what we’ll do! But while looking at Zelda may be an obvious choice, we’re going to be focusing today on an entry you might not expect to see first. That’s because we’re going to feature the other N64 Zelda masterpiece: The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask.
Majora’s Mask has Link questing in Termina, a strange realm that seems like a shadowy reflection of Hyrule. Soon after he arrives, he meets the Skull Kid, a strange imp that steals his ocarina and warps his body into that of a Deku Scrub. This is just the beginning of Link’s problems, though, as he learns that the Skull Kid, empowered by the enigmatic Majora’s Mask, has been wreaking havoc in a number of different ways, not the least of which is pulling a moon with a distorted grimace down upon the land, dooming it in a mere three days. Armed with a number of magical masks in addition to his usual tools, Link is tasked with awakening Termina’s guardian spirits and recovering Majora’s Mask to save the land.
Now, it’s not exactly a secret that the Zelda franchise has a wealth of quality games to choose from, drawing upon nearly thirty years of outstanding entries, more than one of which is on many a shortlist for greatest games ever. So why, of all the Zelda games I could have chosen, did I single out Majora’s Mask to be the first in the series to write about? And for the first ever installment no less. I mean, it’s not like I think Majora’s Mask is the best game ever made, or even the best Zelda game. I’ve played Zelda games that have better gameplay mechanics. I’ve played Zelda games that have better bosses, and with better overall dungeons and puzzles. I’ve certainly played Zelda games that are longer (that is, with more than a mere 4 dungeons).
But I have never played a Zelda game that has haunted me like Majora’s Mask has.
I’ve thought long and hard about the effect this game has on those who play it, and I can’t think of a better term than haunting. Not in the sense that it torments you or makes you wake up in a cold sweat; no, it’s haunting because of the way it seeps into your mind and through your thoughts, the way it sticks with you long after you put away the controller. This is a game that refuses to let you go, and will make you love it all the more because of it.
The reason for this is hard to quantify exactly, but I think perhaps the greatest contributors are the environment and atmosphere, which in turn are the result of the setting and those that populate it. Majora’s Mask is a game that relishes in being bizarre and off-putting. As you interact with the world, it never really wants to let you find your center as you deal with a range of characters, some strange and some downright creepy (the Happy Mask Salesman is a particular standout). No matter where you go, though, there is one element that pervades your experience like no other: dread.
Not fear. Not menace. Just a small dread that is elusive yet inescapable.
As you travel throughout the land of Termina, you are constantly exposed to the gloom and despair of the land’s denizens. You are, after all, moving through a doomed world coping with problems even beyond the imminent crash of a falling moon. Your journey takes you to a mountain village locked in an eternal winter mourning a fallen champion, to a forlorn land where all that remains is the pain and regret of those long dead, and a wide range of hardships in between.
But while I think that these epic-level catastrophes are very compelling, I believe that there is even more power to be found in the smaller, more personal problems of the everyday people. Perhaps more than any other Zelda title, Majora’s Mask showcases a level of craft and care in populating the world with intriguing characters, and watching them cope with a seemingly inevitable disaster draws you to them in a variety of ways.
The real beauty of it all, though, is the way in which these nuanced characters and setting are complimented and reinforced by the aesthetics and music the game employs. Majora’s Mask never seems to find the color and cheerfulness that were on such proud display in games like Wind Waker; even in the sunlight, Termina is set in muted colors and dulled lighting. The music, too, has a creeping vibe to it in the dungeons, and even the main overworld theme becomes more frantic and panicked as your time slips away. Even ambient noises are not your friend; everywhere you go in Clock Town, for instance, you cannot escape the constant noise of ticking clocks, an additional reminder of your looming deadline. Not that you could forget, what with the ever-present timer at the bottom of the display, and the foreboding bulletins that blanket the screen (e.g. Dawn of The Final Day: 24 Hours Remain). Even the ground itself shakes beneath you on the Final Day, when your doom is nigh. All of this and more ensures that every facet of the game creates a dire mood, and is a breathtaking example of smart design choices working in concert to create a cohesive experience.
Perhaps the best illustration of this blending of characters, music, and aesthetic can be found in Clock Town during the final hours before annihilation. As soon as the clock strikes midnight on the Final Day, the Carnival of Time begins even as the moon blots out the sky. The fireworks that ring out signal a shift in the world around you, as you move through the empty streets. The music, which had been repeating the same tune with less and less harmony, changes entirely into something new and melancholy. It somehow manages to be both gloomy and serene, a creeping, forlorn melody that conveys sorrow, but with acceptance and without malice. The moon seems to hang mere feet above the clock tower, its distorted grimace maddening. And the few people that remain behind are stuck in states of denial, panic, or depression. We have Mutoh, standing defiantly in the town’s main square, stuck in denial even as death stares down at him from above. We have the Swordmaster, whose brave facade finally cracks as he is reduced to sobbing alone in the back of his dojo. We have the Postman, who is torn between his sense of duty and his desire to flee, crippled by indecision. And we have Madame Aroma, who simply sits in a bar, mourning for her lost son, waiting for it all to end. All together, this sequence is executed masterfully, with every element making you feel the town’s desperation and despair.
Cheerful stuff, huh? But that’s the world of Majora’s Mask. Termina is truly a world without hope.
So you’ll just have the bring the hope yourself.
What keeps Majora’s Mask from being just a soul-crushing exercise in Nihilism is your ability, as Link, to set right this world gone wrong. You may not be able to fix every problem, but you can do genuine good. You can save the life of an innocent prisoner falsely convicted. You can bring spring to a frozen land and give peace to the ghost who watched over it. You can break the depression of a young mother by returning her stolen children to her. You can lift a curse of the vengeful dead to reunite a father and daughter. And yes, you can save this doomed world.
It is true that saving the world is pretty much what you always do in a Zelda game. But rarely has it felt this satisfying or this personal. Because this world was so bleak, the warmth you bring is all the more profound; the light shines brightly precisely because of how deep the shadows are. And once again, the setting and characters were so well-crafted that you feel their relief just as surely as you felt their sorrow.
I can think of no better illustration of this than the game’s most lengthy sidequest, where you solve the dilemma Anju and Kafei. A pair of lovers set to be wed the day after the apocalypse, Anju and Kafei are beset by tragedy when Kafei is transformed into a child by the Skull Kid. Worse yet, his wedding mask is stolen by a thief, who sees a mere boy as an easy target. When you first start out, though, you know nothing of this; all you can see are a mysterious kid running around in a Keaton mask and a sullen innkeeper, with no reason at all to connect the two. As you play the game, you slowly uncover more and more of the mystery, just before you hit another dead end. Finally, towards the end of the game, you are able to help Kafei find and recover his mask, and return to Clock Town to find Anju waiting for him. It is here, after a long series of arduous tasks, that the player receives their very simple reward: with the world dying around them, the two exchange their vows with Link serving as their witness.
For me, this was the most powerful moment from the whole game, and I’m not alone in that assessment. Why does it strike such a strong chord with so many people? I can tell you that it’s not because of the material incentives; the Couple’s Mask that you receive is almost entirely useless, good for exactly one Piece of Heart. But you aren’t really bothered by that, because the moment itself is better than any bauble could ever be. All your work, all your hardship over a repeating time-cycle, pays off when you see this couple reunited. Letting them find their happiness in a world on the brink of ruin makes for one of the most genuinely heartwarming scenes I’ve ever seen in a video game. They don’t have much, but they have each other, and that’s enough for them at the end of all things.
That, to me, is what makes Majora’s Mask so special: finding beauty within that strange, dark world.
Now, I’ve just spent a while gushing on Majora’s Mask, and you might be asking yourself “Didn’t this guy say that Majora’s Mask wasn’t his favorite Zelda game?”. Yes, I did, and as strange as it might seem at this point, I stand by that. As stated earlier, there are only four dungeons, only one of which, the Stone Tower Temple, is particularly good; the Great Bay Temple, on the other hand, is awful, while the other two aren’t that memorable at all. There are also issues with the controls, which have not aged well. And to top it all off, if you play the game to completion and earn the Fierce Deity Mask, the final boss is laughably easy.
That being said, this is still an outstanding video game, one that any Zelda fan (and indeed any gamer) should experience. While it may have its faults and may not be the best Zelda game, I would argue that it is the most artistically made. And one that might very well BE the best if it were given updated controls and some dungeon-tweaking (UPDATE: And now there IS in fact a remake!). Playing this game is a cerebral experience, one that is an amazing example what developers can accomplish by coordinating all aspects of setting, narrative, visuals, music, and characters to create an artistic experience. The result is a game of splendid bleakness that works its way into your head and rewards your scrutiny. There is a reason this game has developed a fanatical following, and it is little surprise that the intricately crafted dark setting has led to compelling theories and even ghost stories.
Majora’s Mask takes root in your thoughts and refuses to leave. Once you play it, it will haunt you forever.
And you’ll love it for it.