Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask are often pitted against one another. It’s no surprise: they were released just two years apart, used the exact same engine and many of the same character models, and are both fiercely defended by those who love them (myself included). The games are extremely different on the surface, with Ocarina of Time being the bright, enthusiastic sibling to Majora’s Mask’s more mature tones and dark, vivid environments. These tonal and presentational differences have been compared and contrasted in countless features, videos and forum arguments for their entire shared history. But I believe that the difference between the two games is something deeper and more fundamental, where Ocarina of Time holds faith at its core, and Majora’s Mask science.
“They say we Hylians have big ears,
in order to hear the voices of the gods” -Hylian Man, Ocarina of Time
I’ll preface this by explaining my use of the terms “faith” and “science”. I’m approaching each as broader catchall terms, faith representing deities, religion and a belief in the unseen. Science will represent modernity, reason and the scientific method, and a demonstration of the “why” within the game, rather than just the “what”. It is through these lenses that I will be examining and contrasting the two games.
An Engineered World
One of the clearest and most often cited examples of Termina and Hyrule’s difference is the way in which Termina is shown as a more advanced society. Entering the basement of the Clock Tower sets the tone for the kind of land that Link has found himself in: gears seldom seen in Hyrule twist and turn, showing some age with their coats of moss. Termina is a land of technology. The supernatural certainly doesn’t disappear when Link enters Termina, quite the contrary, but it takes a bit of a backseat. One of the best examples of subverting the magical high-fantasy trope that Ocarina of Time toys with regularly is the downgrading of Koume and Kotake from fearsome boss to swamp small business owners.
These changes largely seem to be due to Termina’s industrialised nature. Feats of science and engineering are rife throughout the land, from the Astral Observatory’s telescope, to the motorised boats of the Great Bay pirates, to Sakon’s conveyor belt laden hideout. A Gibdo even refers to water as H2O, and in case you were wondering, the chemical formula for water was discovered in the real world in 1920.
A pertinent example of this technological difference lies in the games’ respective water temples. Both involve puzzles in which water must be manipulated, and both are maligned in varying degrees by those who’ve played them. The central mechanic to Hyrule’s Water Temple invokes the power of Zelda’s Lullaby to mystically alter water levels where the Triforce is inscribed. In Termina’s Great Bay Temple it is the manipulation of water flow, where Link physically activates switches to increase water flow and change the direction of the current. This is an obvious, but poignant example of where Ocarina of Time relies on an unseen power to further the game’s progression, while Majora’s Mask gives the player something more tangible to work with.
Societal structures differ between the two games as well. Clock Town functions as a democracy, with Mayor Dotour (read: Madame Aroma) running the show with input from citizens. This governing family are a far cry from Hyrule’s royal family, who have a clear connection to their land’s creation deities. Monarchy in Hyrule is intertwined with the divine through the connection to the Triforce, and so it can be inferred that governance has reasonable influence from the golden goddesses. Many of the characters in Hyrule who aren’t nameless have clear links to the divine, like the sages. Religious collectivism in Hyrule is replaced with Termina’s secular individualism, and this manifests itself in Majora’s Mask as the Bombers’ Notebook, where characters are named, and given individual motives and schedules.
Indeed, the ever-present deities in Hyrule permeate the landscape. Quite literally, there is a cutscene where Din, Nayru and Farore’s respective essences are poured into the Hyrule the player explores. Their presence can be felt in each of their items as well, but they are never seen in person so to speak. The four giants of Termina have a far more physical presence. They were friends to Skull Kid, and once freed respond to the Oath to Order to aid the player. They are ambiguously stated to have created Termina, but are reasonably accessible, and seem more akin to guardian deities like Lord Jabu-Jabu or the Great Deku Tree than the creation deity goddesses. Moreover, by the end of the game, Link is elevated to deity level himself. The Japanese name for the Fierce Deity’s Mask translates to something closer to ‘mask of the demon god’. Both the fact that the four giants were so effectively subdued, and that Link is essentially promoted to a god by the end of the game seem to undermine the idea of Termina being ruled by omnipotent divine power.
There’s also the thematic differences of the stories. Ocarina of Time is posited as a huge, epic, sweeping adventure. It echoes tales told time again, a classic good vs evil narrative. The evil in Ocarina of Time is singular, discrete and luciferian — fire, brimstone, skulls. The standard tropes of evil pervade Ganondorf’s character design. There is a clear division between good and evil, a dichotomy that echoes the religious epics. It’s not a far cry to think Ocarina of Time could be inspired by these texts either: the original Japanese Legend of Zelda saw Link bearing a bible and a cross on his shield, and Ocarina of Time itself initially made reference to Islamic symbolism and prayer in the Spirit and Fire Temples respectively.
In contrast, while Majora’s Mask eventually presents the player with a horned demonic beast to defeat, for the vast majority of the game the “big bad” is a much more nuanced look at evil. Early on, the player is given a glimpse into a closer representation of what we know to be true of antisocial behaviour. It is a more modern take, which reflects behavioural science understanding – that fear, isolation, and division breed violence. Skull Kid’s misguided acting out is a tale much truer to life. An underdeveloped Ganondorf in Ocarina of Time acts as a placeholder for the concept of ill-will, and it is not until The Wind Waker that we see him portrayed as a villain with a motive other than “be evil; get power”. This is a broader theme across Majora’s Mask – “the grey area”. Even the Gibdos and Garo will give you advice if you’re wearing the right mask, and this notion is set up right from the beginning, where Link is saddled up to Tatl, who only moments before was attacking him.
A Leap of Faith
These differences are in part symptomatic of the environment the games were created in. Ocarina of Time, which is now considered a crucial moment in game design, was once a leap of faith, a foray into an unknown, three-dimensional world. By the time Majora’s Mask was released, two years following Ocarina of Time’s success, Z-targeting, 360-degree navigation, and puzzles which utilised a three-dimensional space were all proven roaringly successful. Majora’s Mask released towards the end of the Nintendo 64’s lifespan and was a repeat experiment. One of the tenets of science is that it must be replicable, and Majora’s Mask, for all its different gameplay elements, took what worked from Ocarina of Time and did just that. Central to Majora’s Mask gameplay is this idea, the player using the scientific method by repeating their three days in Termina over and over and optimising their experience. Repetition and replication is the core of good science, and why we consider large clinical trials to be higher levels of evidence than anecdotes or case studies. In Majora’s Mask, the player uses repetition as the primary conduit for understanding what works and what doesn’t, the same way any good scientific evidence is built.
The differences between Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask run deep, and for two games that share so much, they could not be further apart on the spectrum. Each of these brilliant games is known and loved, and each is only a part of the overall picture. Where Ocarina of Time illustrates its story using the divine and unseen, Majora’s Mask does so with the tangible and the known, and this faith and science dialogue is not only what facilitates their uniqueness, but also the way in which they complement one another.