How do you follow up a game as great as The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time?  The Nintendo 64 classic redefined the adventure genre, raised the bar for video game storytelling and instantly reached the top of many gamers’ “Favorite game of all time” lists when it hit the scene in 1998.  After creating what is arguably the best game in the entire Zelda series, Nintendo must have realized that their next entry needed to stand out.

Enter The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask.  As the pseudo-sequel to Ocarina of Time, Majora’s Mask became instantly distinguishable by its considerably darker tone. Filled with feelings of hopelessness and doom throughout the entire game, Majora’s Mask truly stood out as the black sheep of the Zelda series, and as a result, some gamers of the early 2000s were turned off by this transition.  Those who did enjoy it, though, tend to absolutely love it, and so the sequel has found somewhat of a cult following.

Fast forward fifteen years and, after the successful Ocarina of Time port a few years back, Nintendo is releasing Majora’s Mask on 3DS.  After all these years, how do Majora’s distinct themes hold up?  I’m proud to say that gamers who enjoyed the game years ago will love this new port, whereas those who passed on it, or missed it entirely, owe it to themselves to play this gem.  Majora’s Mask 3D is truly special.

The story takes place shortly after the events of Ocarina.  While visiting the nearby land of Termina, Link comes across Skull Kid, the mischievous imp from the first game, who is in possession of an object known as Majora’s Mask.  Link soon discovers that the mask is cursed, possessing Skull Kid to act in evil ways.  Making matters worse, Link looks up to the sky to discover that the moon is on a crash course with Earth, with only three days left before it comes crashing down.  The hero’s goal then becomes retrieving Majora’s Mask while finding a way to save the world from the lingering doom above him.

Skull Kid Moon

Skull Kid ominously stands before the moon.

 

Thankfully, Link has some new abilities at his disposal.  Still in possession of his time-traveling ocarina from the last adventure, Link is able to return to the morning of the first day at any time and relive the 72-hour cycle over again.  Much like the movie Groundhog Day from the early 1990s, Link will find himself in an infinite loop as the events of the three day period continue to unfold in the same way with each cycle.

This creates an entirely unique gameplay scenario where players get to see how the actions that they take (or don’t take) affect the world around them.  Reliving the end of the world over and over again, Link is encouraged to proceed in a new direction with each passing cycle, in an effort to continue to find the help he needs to save the world.  With the 72-hour cycle equaling only about an hour in real time, players must make progress by finding new quest items or conquering monsters before the clock runs out.  This creates an intensely stressful situation where players are constantly in a race against the clock.  There are ways of slowing down the progression of time though, and during my playthrough, I never encountered a situation that could not be completed by nightfall on the third day, but I’d be lying if I said the countdown didn’t create a satisfyingly tense situation.

Perhaps what is most satisfying about the way that time flows is the behavior of the townsfolk.  All characters follow along the same pattern with each cycle, but depending on the day and time, their actions might drastically change.  On the first day, folks are just beginning to notice the enlarging moon in the sky.  By the second day, fear and caution begin to set in for some, while denial occurs for others.  On the last day, the folks who haven’t yet evacuated the dire situation are either in full-on panic mode or, for some, have come to fully accept their hopeless fate.

Part of this is what makes Majora so dark.  Throughout the entire game, players are reminded that the sky is literally falling and there is little that they can do to stop it.  The game carries a weight of helplessness that sets one hell of an emotional mood.  Whereas previous Zelda games are mostly lighthearted adventures with moments of evil, Majora’s Mask fully embraces its dire situation.  It’s understandable why some gamers were turned off by Majora’s dark tone after Ocarina of Time, but for anyone willing to commit, there’s so many moving moments as dozens of characters experience their last days.  It all creates an emotionally impactful narrative that rewards those who invest in its moody setting.

Skull Kid, in particular, is a rather refreshing villain too.  Previous Zelda villains, such as Ganondorf, tend to be truly evil beings whose ultimate goal is power, but that’s not the case here.  Skull Kid is not an evil character, but simply a prankster under the possession of evil influence.  The few scenes where players get to experience the trickster’s past are quite enjoyable, and provide a better understanding to the sad and misunderstood character.  As a result, Skull Kid’s presence is much more interesting than the one-dimensional tough-guy villains who are simply after world domination.

Majora’s Mask is incredibly weird as well.  Aside from the shadow that the moon casts across the entire game, certain elements of the game are just downright strange.  Whether spending a night saving a farm from an alien abduction or interacting with a character that is literally nothing more than a hand that reaches out of a toilet bowl, some aspects of Majora are wildly bizarre.  There’s definitely nothing wrong with these odd elements, but they definitely feel slightly off for the series and contribute to the already creepy atmosphere of the game.

A side quest? Sure, you seem trustrworthy!

A side quest? Sure, you seem trustrworthy!

As far as gameplay goes, the game continues to feel fresh and unique after all these years.  The tried-and-true formula of moving from one dungeon to the next is still intact here, but rather than collecting new gadgets along the way, Majora emphasizes the use of masks to progress through the story.  That’s not to say that items aren’t necessary here – you’ll still acquire the classic hookshot and bow and arrow – but most of the game’s puzzles instead require heavy use of the abilities provided by the game’s masks.

In total there are 24 masks to collect throughout the game.  Some are simple, giving Link abilities such as increased movement speed or the ability to speak to animals, but there are others that provide drastic differences to the way a normal Zelda game plays.  Three in particular – the Deku, Goron and Zora masks – allow Link to literally transform into different species, giving him new abilities and conversation options.  As a Deku scrub, Link is slightly smaller and faster, with the ability to launch himself into the air and fly using flower petals.  Goron Link is big and slow but packs a huge punch and is able to curl into a ball to roll around inside lava pits or climb steep hills.  Lastly, as a Zora, Link gains swift movement through water, allowing him to take on some of the game’s aquatic puzzles.  Each mask has its positives and negatives and using all three is essential to progression.

One area where Majora’s mask really shines is in its dungeon design.  Although there are only four of them, these are some of the best dungeons in the entire Zelda series, featuring some truly brilliant puzzles.  Each dungeon makes heavy use of the game’s special masks, and players will need to use the right mask in each situation.  There’s a few navigational issues here and there, especially in dealing with verticality, but there’s no denying that each temple was expertly crafted around mastering the masks.

Another notable area is in the game’s boss fights.  Once again, masks will play a crucial role in defeating each boss.  More importantly each boss is a blast to fight as there’s always a trick to fighting the larger-than-life monsters.  What’s even better is that, because of the ability to rewind time, Link can battle these fun bosses over and over again.  Nintendo should be commended on how awesome those bosses were designed.

The game features some truly impressive boss fights.

The game features some truly impressive boss fights.

The game is also noticeably more difficult than Ocarina of Time.  In general enemies seem to be tougher than before, and many foes involve more than just a sharp sword to defeat.  Hints and instructions seem far less common than before too, encouraging players to explore their abilities on their own.  This will certainly cater to experienced players, but for those who did not play through Ocarina, there will be a steeper learning curve.  Keep that in mind, as it’s hard to recommend Majora as your first Zelda title.

The game also features some new bells and whistles for the 3DS version.  Just like Ocarina of Time 3D, Majora’s Mask has been optimized for Nintendo’s handheld.  Aside from a graphical update (more on that shortly), the controls have been revamped to make use of the unique features of the 3DS, some for the better and some not so much.

For starters, when aiming in first-person mode, players are now able to use the gyroscope sensor built into the system, meaning players can move their 3DS to aim their bow and arrow.  While this is fun the first time, it can quickly grow annoying and there were several occasions in which I found it difficult to aim with the circle pad as the screen would move slightly due to the natural movement of my hand while playing.  Admittedly only a slight nuisance, but I did find myself disabling motion controls early in the game.

The camera is also a slight problem.  For regular 3DS owners, the only camera control that players have is the ability to press the L button to center the camera behind Link.  Thankfully there is added camera control for users who own the circle pad pro attachment or the New 3DS XL model with built-in C-stick, but users without these things are limited in their camera control.  It was by no means a major problem, but there were a few frustrating instances where the camera would aim too high or too low for me to see the area that I was trying to view.

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Another new feature is the use of the touch screen.  Displayed across the bottom at all times is a map of the current area.  Zelda games are loaded with hidden secrets around every corner, so having an ever-present map became incredibly helpful, especially when trying to backtrack through the game’s dungeons.  The bottom screen also provides two item slots for quick use.  While I don’t recommend assigning some of the more involved items, such as bombs or hookshot, to the touch screen, assigning passive items, such as the lens of truth, can be quite useful and certainly save some time as the Nintendo 64 version required returning to the start menu and assigning these items to a button.

Also completely revamped in the Bomber’s Notebook.  This helpful item tracks the movements and progressions of the game’s many side quests.  Players are able to sort events based on either characters involved or on time.  This makes it much easier than simply remembering where characters will appear through each point in the three day cycle.  The notebook was available in the original game, but this version completely retools it and it is now much easier to use.

The game’s way of movement through time has also been streamlined.  Link is now able to play a song on his ocarina in order to jump forward to a specific hour in the three day timeline, rather than only in 12-hour increments like the original game.  This is a nifty feature as side quests which are time-based will no longer require getting to your destination and waiting hours for the person of interest to show up.  Definitely a helpful time-saver.

Perhaps the most impressive update comes from just how great the game looks.  Despite the game’s dark themes, the game does feature brighter and crisper visuals than it did previously.  Visuals look considerably sharper and the color palette bursts from the screen.  The 3D visuals work well too, with an enjoyable amount of depth to the game, should you choose to play in 3D.  For a truly enjoyable visual spectacle, let the 72 hour clock completely run out without traveling back to the first day – you won’t be disappointed.

zeldaskullkid

Another area where the game really shines is the soundtrack.  Majora’s Mask features some truly wonderful tunes and each one of them suits the situation on screen.  In particular, some of the game’s darker and sadder moments become even more intense because of the emotional weight that the music carries.  It’s also a nice touch how the music grows faster and more panicked on each day as the threat of the moon looms closer.

Content-wise, Majora’s Mask is sadly on the shorter side for a Zelda title.  The game only features four temples, and as a result, I was able to finish the game in under 15 hours, although gamers who have never played the original will most likely spend more time than that.  With that said, even though players can finish the story on the quicker side, the game is bursting with side quests and unlockables.

Acquiring all of the game’s 24 masks can add a considerable amount of play time.  Majora’s Mask leverages its unique time cycle concept to create some fun side quests in order to unlock masks.  The citizens of Termina will follow a set path, so oftentimes finding the solution to a quest is simply a matter of being at the right place at the right time.  In one particularly lengthy side quest, Link will find himself helping out Kafei and Anju, a young couple who have many errands that they’ll send Link on depending on when they are encountered.  Choosing to help them or not at a given time creates several branches, and in order to see every possible outcome, the storyline must be experienced several times with different choices being made in each cycle.  It can sometimes feel incredibly repetitive, but it’s definitely fun to see how things play out depending on how involved you get.