Despite the fact that I feel that Nintendo has jilted me these past few years, there’s still a not-so-secret place in my heart for the lover I once had. And certainly despite my attempt at aloofness, I still eagerly look forward to Nintendo every year at E3, at the Tokyo Game Show, at Christmastime, and on the other videogame blogs to catch any whisper of news that Nintendo might be changing its heart and coming back to court me. Given the sheer magnitude of an impact that Operations Rainfall and Moonfall have made of late, it’s definitely been encouraging to hear gamers challenge Nintendo, to ask their long, lost lover to come back to them one more time and see that our favor is still true.
And so with as much encouragement as I hear from all the fans out in the Zelda community, I figured I’d toss in my hat to remind Nintendo just how much Majora’s Mask meant to me as a gamer and a game maker.
No matter where Majora’s Mask ranks on your list of favorite Zelda games (or even favorite games full stop), every Zelda fan has to admit that it’s a rather unique entry into the series. In fact, I’d actually have to say that the game was almost ahead of its time. In a world where development cycles for games range in the ballpark of two years at a minimum, Majora’s Mask was developed in a scant year, the second fastest dev cycle for any Zelda game, losing only to The Adventure of Link.
Yet despite how much content was physically lifted from Ocarina of Time, there are so many elements that are completely distinct in Majora’s Mask that it’s actually quite amazing that they managed to finish all of the gameplay and artistic elements within a single calendar year. There are actually quite a few technically advanced achievements that went into the creation of MM. First and foremost, you’ve got the three-day cycle. While this doesn’t seem like an amazing technical feat at first blush, it’s actually quite an accomplishment—with such limited space on the cartridge—to not only remember the location of every NPC at every given point during the 72-hour period but to also know where they are based upon the events that you have performed thus far over the course of the current iteration. While I will admit that most of the NPCs have a tendency to remain in place for the most part (and only warp to new locations at dawn and dusk), the same is not true for many of the major characters like Anju, Kafei, Romani and Cremia, and the Postman who physically wander about the world as time passes. Sure, it may just be a state machine like any other game, but it’s definitely fairly robust for its time.
Second, there were a host of new controls and gameplay elements that had to be prototyped and developed. Being able to control Deku Link, Goron Link, and Zora Link (not to mention Fierce Deity Link) would not have come in a day, especially considering that some of Link’s various forms controlled extremely differently. No two characters ran quite the same way nor had the same sound effects for them. And each of Link’s forms interacted with the environment in drastically different ways. Zora Link would smoothly glide through the water like a dolphin whereas Goron Link would flat out drown. Deku Link would practically skip like a stone for a few precious hops while Link himself would be able to temporarily dive underwater. Goron rolling across the landscape became my preferred way of travel, but no doubt that had to be perfected when navigating those tight corridors in Snowhead Temple and on the Moon. And with the ability to both fly and swim with relative ease, it’s no doubt that the dungeon design of MM had to contain radically different scenarios than anything OoT had to offer in order to provide the proper level of challenge.
And speaking of dungeons, they didn’t make any of them a simple walk in the park either. Despite having all of the advantages of Link’s Deku, Goron, and Zora forms, having the 108-minute time limit in tandem with some wickedly devious puzzles made defeating them a heart-pounding, gut-wrenching, mind-numbing experience. It had everything from Woodfall’s pitch-black corridors and poisonous floors to Snowhead and its mazelike tower and ice-laden traps, from Great Bay with its one-directional passageways and Rube Goldberg physics to Stone Tower’s epic temple inversion mechanic. Speaking of, Stone Tower needs a very special callout; coming up with that can’t be easy; that’s just not something you can sit down at your desk with some quadrille graph paper and go to town on. Those puzzles were extremely well designed and a testament to the development team to conjure those devious puzzles in just a year’s time.
And if that wasn’t enough, the bosses would certainly be the game’s coup de grâce. While Ocarina of Time had its sizable bosses, they hardly compared in stature to MM’s monstrosities. I remember jumping in against Odolwa as the first boss, and I still recall how worried I felt by how gigantic he was in comparison to scrawny, 10-year-old Link. And yet in many respects, Odolwa was the most forgettable of the remainder of them. To this day, Goht remains the most fun boss I’ve ever had the pleasure of fighting (though Stallord in Twilight Princess came extremely close), Twinmold goes into the record books as the biggest of all the Zelda bosses ever, and… The Evil Fish of Doom™ can forever die in a fire after how many times he killed me and how much I panicked that I was going to run out of time during the third day when trying to slay it. To see bosses that massive was incredible for its now obsolete hardware, and it was not until Shadow of the Colossus did I ever think that bigger was possible. All in all, each dungeon completed left me completely satisfied and eager to rewind the clock so that I could find out what awaited me next.
When Majora’s Mask came out for me, I was in my sophomore year of college. My roommate Aaron and I were huge Zelda geeks, and we eagerly awaited the game. And as the days towards launch day approached, we decided upon an accord. The two of us would blow through the game as fast as physically possible (though doing our best to not let the effort into our schoolwork wane) in order to see who could beat the game first. The winner would get… well, I don’t think we actually had any wager on it other than the having the pride to lord over the other with our achievement.
Regrettably, I lost the match, all on account of me having one more test that week than my roommate. (Still I regret that loss and would be eager to settle the score with Skyward Sword!) But despite my speed demon efforts to beat the game as fast as possible, something triggered in me as I played MM, something that I’d never noticed before in any videogame to that day. And that was how closely I felt to the various characters spread throughout the land of Termina.
Majora’s Mask has always been criticized for not having the sheer length of Ocarina of Time; when you compare OoT’s nine dungeons (11 if you count the Ice Cavern and beneath the well) to MM’s four (five if you count the Moon), MM really doesn’t seem to hold up by comparison. But whereas OoT had length, MM had breadth and depth that OoT couldn’t hope to dream of. For the first time in any videogame, I was standing in the living, breathing city of Clock Town. Each other denizen of Termina had an agenda and earnest emotions. You were seeing a people buckling under their own stress and fear for their lives as they came to grips with the fact that nothing was going to prevent them from dying. No longer did you have to go talk to the stationary NPC eternally standing right next to the village gate; you had to hunt him or her down… sometimes going way out of your way at odd points during the three-day cycle because they weren’t available at any other time. And yet, this level of depth is a feature that most modern games still struggle to achieve. Unless you have the crazy crowd mechanics of Assassin’s Creed or the large list of notable characters of Tales of Symphonia, every city out there looks and feels completely bland. (Final Fantasy, I’m talking about you.)
Yet sadly, in its heyday of the N64 days, Majora’s Mask remained much more of an eclectic title, selling less than half as well as its sibling predecessor. I remember the Zelda forums of the day quivering with trepidation over the rigid time limit, wondering if that single feature alone would make a game with Link in it somehow un-Zelda. I already mentioned the complaints about MM’s length. I remember the Americans’ horror at being introduced to Tingle (though I will admit, it wasn’t until Wind Waker and Four Swords Adventures when my full hatred for the other man in green had taken a firm root). I remember my first encounter with the characters I lovingly call “the nose gods” and wondering just how much drug-laced tea Miyamoto had to have been drinking during that year of development. I remember the disappointment when Princess Zelda had been reduced from major plot point to minor cameo. And dear goddesses, do I remember cringing every time I set foot into the Goron hall, only to be treated with screams more annoying than baby Mario from Yoshi’s Island.
And so I have to admit that Majora’s Mask wasn’t an entirely flawless game. I’ll admit that it took some effort to overcome my resistance to the alien world of Termina. I’ll admit that I gave it criticism for wholesale copying and pasting character models from OoT (criticism that I now realize was entirely wrong to dish out). And yes, sometimes I still have nightmares centered upon that Evil Fish of Doom™ (It-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named).
But I go up against anyone who says that the experimentalism and creativity that went into creating this crazy twist on the Zelda series somehow makes it a less worthy title in the franchise.
Is it any wonder why so many fans would love to re-experience it yet again on the 3DS?
Now if only Nintendo could finally figure out a way to emulate that dang memory Expansion Pak well without crashing, we’d all be set, ne?