Why impose a time limit? Time limits are present in a lot of games, usually as a minigame or a test of strength outside of normal gameplay. They’re there to measure a player’s ability to perform a task quickly, accurately, and if the time limit is short, to eventually complete the task after a few failures. They create leaderboards and add a challenge to what otherwise might be a boring experience.
But The Legend of Zelda series hasn’t ever been competitive. With few exceptions, the Zelda series rarely even offers any sort of “hard” mode.
So, why does Majora’s Mask impose a time limit?
It’s fairly apparent that the time limit is not meant to be a time challenge, as in racing or puzzle games. It exerts a subtle amount of pressure on the player to teach them that struggling with a dungeon is acceptable, but unlike in other Zelda games, there is a limit on how much time can be spent stumped.
The time limit in Majora’s Mask is broken up into three days. The three-day cycle passes in roughly one real-life hour, give or take cutscenes and menus. The Song of Inverted Time will slow down everything but monsters and timed events, so both the clock and NPCs will move slower under its effect.
Typically a dungeon can be completed in well under the three-day limit if the player doesn’t dawdle, uses the Song of Inverted Time, and doesn’t attempt to collect the carefully hidden Stray Fairies. But throw in the Stray Fairy challenge, a particularly stubborn puzzle or two, and the time the player must take to gain access to the dungeon in the first place and a first-run-through can get pretty hectic.
So what’s the point? Why ruin the player’s exploration by punctuating the experience every hour by literally resetting the world?
There are two big reasons why, and the first is fairly obvious. Rather than exploring the land of Termina, Majora’s Mask requires you to explore Termina in time. Where does this NPC go as the moon gets closer? If the player interferes, does that path change?
Clock Town, the central hub of Termina, is gearing up for a festival for the first two days of the cycle. Although the player never gets to experience the festival in-game, the in-game schedule called the Bomber’s Notebook is essentially an itinerary of events and shows for the player to see. Because time is moving, it’s more than a static list of quests for the player to run once and forget. Some events, like the midnight visit with the zombie arm in the Inn’s toilet (shiver), recur identically at various times and affect no other part of the game. But others, like the defense of Romani Ranch on the first night, kick off interactions between many NPCs over a span of time.
It’s a method typically implemented in a linear way in other games. The world can change over time as the player completes the game, like in Batman: Arkham Asylum. When Poison Ivy is freed, the player explores her effect on the Asylum and how her plants have changed the landscape. With Majora’s Mask’s nonlinearity, the player might have to intervene in order to see her freed. And rather than her inevitable retreat, she might go on to wreck the Asylum until the final day when time is reset and other paths can be explored.
The three-day cycle gives the world to the player as more than just a setting for quests- it turns the world into a vast wind-up toy for the player to experience a fraction of in one go, then wind up for another run.
The second reason the time limit works for Majora’s Mask is that it meshes . Majora’s Mask, more than any other Zelda game, centers its plot around a variety of themes. Friendship, trust, and forgiveness are fairly standard E-Rated Zelda themes present in the game, but the other huge ones, hope and grief, are feelings the player would better understand because of the cycle of time in the game.
After the completion of each dungeon, an enormous problem is solved for some citizens of Termina. The defeat of the boss of the Swamp Temple removes the poison from the water, and resolves tension in the Deku Tribe. As is typical in most Zelda games, the post-defeat celebration opens up minigames, sidequests, and the atmosphere becomes cheerful and bright.
But, once the player has to use the Song of Time, all that progress is reset. People who linked saved are in peril again, fights are starting, and things are looking down. It’s an inevitability, like the falling of the moon, that people will suffer. The world acts as Majora’s nihilistic evidence for Link that his efforts to save Termina are futile.
So, when Link finally saves the day (spoilers), it makes it that much more uplifting that the inevitable was overcome. It’s beaten into your head throughout the game that your cause is hopeless, even your fairy, Tatl, describes the situation as “hopeless.” When would Nintendo ever allow that kind of defeatism in a game today? Modern Zelda is constantly about how Link is the hero, Link was born to do this, and everyone is there to encourage him when things get hard. But characters in Majora’s Mask just brush Link off, because he’s a kid, because he’s not one of their cultural heroes, or because they think pushing back the moon is impossible. The ability to wind back the clock is Link’s trump card, and beating the game is one long “I told you so!”
So yes, the time limit had its issues. I found having a magazine handy for when I arrived at a sidequest too soon, and the way that Link is only able to save his Rupees by giving them to the bank never really made much sense. But honestly, I think it’s a travesty that I can’t Google “Games Like Majora’s Mask” and get an actual result. I enjoyed the time pressure and the depth that it gave to the game. Giving Majora’s Mask such a huge twist was a risk for Nintendo, and I think it’s a missed opportunity to not experiment with the rewindable adventure some more.