I was wrapped up in Zelda lore as a child. I ate cereal hoping that it would energize my Zelda skills. I wore my brother’s Nintendo branded glasses so that the invisible floor in Legend of Zeld: A Link to the Past would reveal itself. I bragged to my uncle about the genius behind the level design. He nodded his head and sipped at his MGD. Lately, I found myself in my uncle’s position whenever Zelda is brought up. I sip at my drink and nod my head slowly. I nodded through Skyward Sword despite the “innovative sword play.” I humored the 3D remake of Ocarina of Time and its empty fields. Zelda’s fundamentals have become so rusted and mundane that no matter the majesty of which Miyamoto spoke of his baby, I couldn’t get on the hype train. A train I was once leading.
This past month Club Nintendo unveiled their new digital rewards. For reaching Gold status I had the choice between Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask, Metroid II: Return of Samus, Super Mario Kart, or a calendar. I love keeping track of the dates with the help of my favorite mascots, but a friend of mine harassed me into playing Majora’s Mask over text message. It was on my to-do list, and free was the right price. I cashed in my Gold reward and began downloading the mysterious Majora’s Mask.
After playing Skyward Sword I was disgusted with tutorials and slow pace. If Nintendo couldn’t respect me enough to explore their world without guidance, why should I even bother? I’ve heard great things about Majora’s Mask, but I expected the typical slow start. Instead, the game opens with Link being mugged. After a fair bit of dialogue I’m in control, and I knew I wanted revenge. I charged ahead, filled with rage as if it was me that was mugged. For the first time I felt for Link. Mainly that has to do with understanding the feeling of being bullied and not so much what it’s like to destroy an ancient evil.
Before I knew it, I was a Deku scrub shooting bubbles and flying through the air. Two things I’ve never done in a Zelda game before. It was like seeing color after a growing up within shades of grey. Instead of introducing innovation later in the game, Majora’s Mask begins with a curve ball. Then the curve balls keep coming. Like a batting cage outing gone horribly wrong.
I was anxious exploring Skyward Sword’s hub town, and Hyrule in Ocarina of Time may as well have been made of cardboard. Aside from the Bombchu gallery and a spinning couple, the to-do list was sparse. In Skyward Sword, side missions were muddy. It took a stroke of luck to find a side quest, and even then the reward wasn’t worth bragging about. Majora’s Mask solves that problem by making the entire town of Clock Town a puzzle that can only be solved by talking to the denizens. Every NPC has a heavy heart or an albatross around their neck. Thankfully, Link is a professional albatross remover.
Need to find a kid? Need help popping balloons? Need a moon rock for your wife? Fine, sure. Slowly but surely Link solves the problems of Clock Town and the surrounding areas. I’ve spent hours of playtime simple meandering about the time, like some Animal Crossing spin-off, trying to help these NPCs. And then after three days the world resets. And you know what, I don’t mind.
My time is valuable to me, and if I lose progress in a RPG I’ll usually turn it off for a few days. I have things to do, I’m a full grown man! It’s frustrating to traverse the same dungeon and battle familiar boss. Yet, I’m totally okay with that happening in Majora’s Mask. I’ll admit I was bummed at first, but it was only a lightning strike of frustration. I soon realized how elaborate and clever the design was. Of course the player was going to have to reset the clock before beating a long chain of quests, so there are checkpoints at logical areas. Warping around is as simple as playing a few songs, and a handy-dandy notebook keeps track of what the citizens of Clock Town are up to. While progress is hard to come by, when you do complete a task that adds permanence, it feels amazing. Conquering a boss, resetting the clock, and seeing their mask in my inventory is a point of pride. Finding a new weapon or mask means when you travel back to day 1, a whole new world of possibilities are opened. The only other game I feel this sense of wonder with progress is when I find a new weapon in the barren world in Super Metroid.
Progress means something and consequences are real. The three day countdown isn’t some abstract warning that only impacts the game at certain junctions; the threat of the moon is constant, and not something the game will let you forget. Days are punctuated with ominous title cards, and as the end nears the music begins to warp. The game takes a demonic tone and it all comes to climax after a five-minute countdown. Never have I felt so anxious then when that final timer appears on the screen. I scramble for anything to remember my journey or try to squeeze in last second tasks to cement a bit of progress. Before the moon crashes into the world I play the Song of Time and travel back to the start. I breathe a sigh of relief and run head first into the future.
After finishing Zelda games out of obligation, I find myself excited to pick up Majora’s Mask and explore the world. Coming to Majora’s Mask after the hype train of Skyward Sword makes me realize just how important Majora’s Mask is. Majora’s Mask is an experiment from Nintendo. It showcases their design brilliance and talent at pleasing an audience. It’s peculiar and odd, but it teases the trite Zelda formula and introduces a slew of new elements. It’s maddening that Nintendo discarded all the progress and innovation of Majora’s Mask, and the games following Majora’s Mask failed to capitalize on its brilliance. Nintendo tried creating a darker Zelda in Twilight Princess. All they did there was make the game actually darker. The hint of neon didn’t help. The hub world in Skyward Sword is dull, despite the pastels. And the variety of combat options has yet to be matched, despite the advent of 1:1 motion controls.
Majora’s Mask is built on brilliant fundamentals that outshine the Zelda brand. It’s bold, beautiful, daring, and challenging. I’m confused why this formula hasn’t been adopted or spun-off into its own series, and it’s a shame that Nintendo hasn’t capitalized on this formular. It’s probably best I waited so long to put on Majora’s Mask. Having to play through Zelda games knowing that they left the mechanics of Majora’s Mask out in the rain to die would fill me with disappointment. Well, more disappointment. Once you put the Majora’s Mask on, it’s difficult to rip off. Unfortunately, going forward and entertaining future Zelda experiences is going to be difficult blinded by the Majora’s Mask. I mean, if you described to me every Zelda game and asked me to put them in order of when they were released based on features alone, I would put Majora’s Mask as the newest, not the one created in 2000.