NA Release Date: October 26, 2000 (N64)
Initial Playthrough: c. December, 2001 (N64)
Replay: c. July – September, 2022 (2DS)
My recollections of my initial sojourn through Termina at roughly age 12 are pretty few. I remember needing to add the expansion pak to my N64, playing it all fuzzy after getting my wisdom teeth removed, and the fact that I never got the Fierce Deity’s Mask. The last one in particular stuck with me, given that ‘Oni Link’ is something of a fan-favorite, and I’d never had the pleasure in person. Thus, when I sat down to tackle MM, I knew going in that I was going to have to change my tack a little bit.
Typically, I’m a little quite lenient with myself on side quests. If they seem fun, I’ll put a little time in, but I’m usually coming to a game for the main story, so these seldom feel essential. Here though, from the reputation the game has gained my intervening 20 years away, it seems to be that the side quests are, in fact, mostly the point. Plus, I needed to track down dang near all of the side stories anyways to obtain the Fierce Deity’s Mask. Therefore it would seem, for this game anyways, I was then going to try my hand at being a completionist…
Ocarina of Time 2, This Is Not
For the uninitiated it seems worth pointing out that this is not a typical Legend of Zelda title. On several levels. First, it’s a direct sequel, which happens only occasionally in the franchise. Next, owing to a compressed development schedule, the game reuses nearly all of the character assets from OOT. Perhaps most distinctly, the mechanics of the narrative are also quite unique. The Hero of Time initially came by this moniker for traversing back and forth across a seven-year gap, while instead here the same three days are repeated over and over (24 total cycles in my playthough, for reference). Lastly, but perhaps most importantly, MM significantly downplays the trope-ish “beat temples to collect MacGuffins to get to the boss” structure to focus on a different kind of storytelling.
Sure, there are still temples and MacGuffins (remains of the temple bosses) to collect, but there are only four in total, and (at least for me) not where you end up spending most of your time. The bulk of your efforts are instead put towards chasing down every last denizen of Termina to try and solve their problems. It should be emphasized how different these are from typical side quests. Firstly, few if any are simply handed to you- many of them literally come to you as suggestions or little fragments of hearsay. Past that, few of them are simple fetch quests you encounter en masse in modern RPGs. Your reward is commonly a piece of heart, a bottle, or occasionally a new mask.
While it might commonly be straightforward to solve the initial issue, the mask you get as the reward often has no obvious use… and it might be dozens of hours of gameplay before you encounter the right scenario to use that mask to earn some other reward by helping an unrelated character from another part of town or different region altogether. A handful even require a more complex execution of a series of interconnected events which can span quite nearly the full three-day cycle.
What’s most interesting about the three day cycle is that it gives you so much more ‘time’ with the characters than we’re used to having. So often in games (certainly at the time) you meet an NPC and their dialog tree is static, almost necessarily so. If you aren’t ready then and there to complete their quest/task, there’s an expectation that it will be there for you when you come back later, better prepared. Due to this, these characters are sort of stuck in time- eventually when you complete their task the dialog will be updated to reflect this, but that’s typically all you get: before, and after.
Here that whole mechanic is upended: so many characters offer very limited windows to impact their subplot in a meaningful way because they’re essentially living their lives. You mostly catch them going about the business of living, but if your timing is just right, you can alter the course of their lives with the right action or item. Doing so requires a rather intimate knowledge not just of their routine, but insight into their personal motivations as well. In this way, when these dozens of little side-narratives are fully experienced, you come to know the people of Termina in a way we seldom do the inhabitants of Hyrule.
Doing this on the backdrop of the impending apocalypse lends the interactions that much more pathos.
Paradigm Shift for Dungeons
The distinguishing qualities are not limited to the strong characterization and writing of the game though. The core Zelda mechanic of dungeons is also significantly impacted by the imposition of the three day time limit. While the Inverted Song of Time goes a long way to stretching the clock, you might still imagine the constant threat of running out of time makes the dungeons more nerve-wracking to play- and it does. My first passes of both the Great Bay Temple and the Stone Tower Temple were cut short by the Moon just a few rooms shy of the boss’s lair.
It’s a real gut-punch to have to reset and lose all the stray fairies and especially the Boss Key by winding back to the Dawn of the First Day. To my surprise though, jumping right back in and playing a temple from the start was not as much of a drag as I expected. Being able to immediately blast through puzzles and more quickly navigate the spaces meant that the second attempt at both finished successfully, with plenty of time to spare. While this entire game evokes Edge of Tomorrow vibes (or perhaps more relevantly, All You Need is Kill vibes), the dungeons specifically throw the similarities into sharp relief. Upon successive tries, the dungeons can be completed with increasingly greater efficiency due to familiarity born from repetition.
The downside is that, with each one basically requiring a pseudo-speed-run to complete, there’s not as much time to really savor the environments. The Woodfall temple eschews a straight ‘forest dungeon’ aesthetic for the more sinister poison/decay feeling, and though it’s the first temple you complete the experience is anything but introductory. With so few dungeons, the four we get feel really jam-packed with varied mechanics and even environments. Snowfall combines fiery lava pits at its depths with icy spires near its peak, a fantastic riff on what is ordinarily just a ‘rocky mountain’ environment for the Goron-associated temple.
If there’s a weak one among the bunch it’s the Great Bay Temple- it felt somehow the most complex to navigate, and when coupled with the arduous swimming mechanic it does really start to drag sooner than one would hope. Even there, the Ice Arrows finally prove of some value in creating ice floes to navigate large expanses of water, and the water flow puzzles were complex enough to be interesting. As far as an environment evoking a very specific feeling though, none of them can top Ikana Canyon and the Stone Tower Temple.
Each region suffers some blight as a result of the Guardian being imprisoned/disabled by Majora’s boss henchmen. Woodfall’s water has been poisoned, Snowhead is trapped in an eternal winter, the Great Bay also has some aquatic contamination issue. Ikana has no environmental problem though- instead it is haunted by the souls of the damned Garo tribe, their malevolent energy still so strong that Tael can feel their hatred from the other side. Why are they so angry? Just a largely unexplained ancient conflict with the Ikana that was marked by a long, brutal period of seemingly endless bloodshed.
It’s on that backdrop that we enter the Stone Tower Temple, and only then with the aid of the cursed-looking dummy Links generated by the Elegy of Emptiness. Within those walls a lilting, chanting hymn of a soundtrack accompanies you through a labyrinth of mazes and puzzles replete with several creepy idols, one of which looks suspiciously like the eponymous Majora themselves when the temple is inverted.
The inversion mechanic is one of the most interesting temple gimmicks I can recall. It doesn’t quite totally make sense, a huge structure like this ‘flipping over’, but neither does the relative positions of the rooms staying the same (ie: east-west rooms are not transposed), only being upside down. ‘Inverted’ is probably the best word for this, and the strangeness of it all really only adds to your sense of being through the looking glass.
Don’t Bring Me Down
Tonally, this game seems to have such darkness waiting just beneath the surface. This, coupled with the nostalgia factor, may offer some explanation as to the enduring popularity of the game within the fan community. What seems like a bunch of weird and wacky characters and fun side-quests tracking down collectible masks really belies the overarching mood at several levels.
To begin, consider the transformation masks themselves. As perhaps the most central mechanic of the game, you must use these each probably hundreds of times over the course of the dozens of cycles required to complete the game. After watching it once, you’re allowed skip it each subsequent time, which I imagine most people do? I built up a substantial muscle memory to button-mash through this in the interest of expediency, but for a moment imagine in the world of the game these brief scenes really transpire every time. Then listen to that scream of anguish that accompanies the transformation process- it’s almost gruesome.
Not just that, but the main three of these transformation masks are each accompanied by a very tragic and depressing story. Mikau is mortally wounded trying to retrieve Lulu’s (no not that one, but perhaps inspired by…) eggs from the pirate’s fortress. Link actually makes an attempt to save him, but witnesses his last moments. Before the events of the three-day cycle, Darmani III was killed in a fall down into the canyon below Snowhead attempting to resolve the endless winter plaguing his people (perhaps resulting in that massive gash across his abdomen for his trouble).
Most tragic of all is of course the Deku mask. There is an almost throwaway moment at the very start of the game where Link, just after being transformed into a Deku Scrub, encounters a weird decrepit tree-thing.
The importance of this is only realized if you complete the quest to obtain the (rather inconsequential) Mask of Scents. Upon completing the race against the Deku Butler and earning the mask as a reward, he remarks that Link (in Deku form) reminds him of his son, who left long ago. In doing this, a short scene is unlocked during the ending credits, in which you see the Deku Butler weeping before the strange tree.
The tree is all that’s left of his son, who Majora killed simply to play a prank on Link. This subtle revelation takes up almost none of this game- it’s maybe three text boxes of dialog, and about 12 seconds in the credits in total, but makes for one of the most gut-wrenching twists of the entire ordeal.
Even putting this sub-narrative aside, the story related by the main plot of the game is also quite heavy emotionally. We learn from Anju’s Grandmother that the Skull Kid, far before his encounter with Majora’s Mask, was (somehow) the friend to the guardian deities of Termina, the Four Giants. The story continues that at some point, the Giants decided to disband, guarding each of the four regions comprising Termina. In their absence, the Skull Kid starts causing a bunch of harm to and trouble for the people of the land, which angers the giants who threaten to destroy him in retribution.
It’s curious to note that there is some ambiguity here. Does the story refer to some earlier mischief and falling-out between Skull Kid and the Four Guardians, prompting his hurt and malice to be amplified by Majora? Or is this story somehow referring to the concurrent set of events happening presently during the three-day cycle? The former seems more likely from a causal standpoint, but to fly in the face of such convention also seems very Majora’s Mask.
-but I digress. The most striking and again sad part of this story is that so much strife and death has arisen from an almost innocent misunderstanding. The extremely limited dialog of the Giants tries to communicate this: after Goht they ask you to “Help our friend”, though Tatl misses the point in her hurry, thinking they mean the final Giant. After Twinmold, they repeat the request to “Call us” using the Oath to Order, but Tatl comments on their sadness. Their final reply is to “Forgive your friend.”
They’re talking about Skull Kid, of course, their friend. Tatl and Tael’s friend. Link’s friend, even. They want to help their friend whose hurt and pain has been weaponized by Majora to bring a cataclysm down on the poor Terminians. The game has taken the same juvenile spat between friends we’ve all experienced and turned it up to 11; with the moon bearing down on the world it’s easy to demonize poor Skull Kid, but the Giant’s perspective here at the close of the game suggests that he instead deserves our pity.
Down to its closing moments, this game can’t let you feel OK about things, though. Even when you set every last quest right, stop the moon, patch things up with Skull Kid, and let Termina and its inhabitants return to their relatively normal, happy lives (with the notable exception of poor Deku Butler), we’re left with one final stinger. Link is back with Epona, back to wandering through another forest. It’s certainly great he was able to help all those people, but I just found myself thinking about Navi. The whole point of his quest was to find his old friend, the one person who could fully understand the trauma he underwent during the events of Ocarina of Time.
Despite the all the good he’s done, Link is no closer to finding Navi. In the larger timeline, this is the last adventure of any significance we spend with the Hero of Time, so we have no clue if he ever finds her. In spite of all the fun I had playing this game, this is a bleak thought to close on.
Not What You’re Expecting
It might be a little unfair to characterize MM as ‘dark’. Perhaps a more apropos characterization of it would be ‘mature’. At its core, this is ultimately a story about how ordinary people respond when they find themselves staring their own mortality in the (lunar) face.
You see bravery, perhaps to a fault, in the Clock Town guards and the Postman, to hold their posts to the last, despite none of them really wanting to linger. You see cowardice too, in Sackon’s thieving, and something like despair as Madame Aroma gets drunk(?) alone at the Milk Bar, holding on to a thread of hope for news of her missing son. Mutoh remains fatally stubborn, angrily taunting the Moon to fall on him even as all his sons have fled town for safety. With a little help, you see love too, in Kafei and Anju pledging their lives to one another, despite the fact that they are moments from ending.
This is not the mass hysteria of a disaster film, but a very human reflection of how real people react when they are ‘met with a terrible fate’ of their own. Sure, the player eventually plays hero, a deus ex machina countless three-day cycles in the making, but that’s the exception, and arguably not the point of the larger story. The player is always a few ocarina notes away from getting a fresh start- in a sense Link has no reason to be scared. Instead, the angst surrounding this impending apocalypse comes from humanizing these characters like few NPCs often are. They don’t know it’s all going to be all right- most of them are convinced otherwise, in fact.
In Ocarina of Time we spent the bulk of the game wandering through a sort of post-apocalypse; the countryside wasted, burned, ruined. Majora’s Mask, ever on-brand, subverts this trope by instead showing the pre-apocalypse, and it turns out to prove far more disturbing.
Loser: Bomb Shop Lady. You can’t stop her from getting mugged if you want to complete the epic Kafei and Anju story, arguably the pièce de résistance of all available side-quests. This somewhat precludes a supposed mega-happy ending, where Link fixes everything in a single three-day cycle. Rather than an oversight though, you could make the argument that this serves as a rather poignant reminder: one of the themes of the game is about accepting what you can and cannot change.
Winner: Bros. Sharp and Flat. This little family drama plays out at the start of the sequence of events that gets you access to the Ancient Castle of Ikana. Your initial encounter with Sharp is somewhat terrifying, as his song causes your health just methodically deteriorate, no matter what you do. Only when you uncover Flat in the graveyard crypt are you taught a special song that can heal his cursed brother. It doesn’t last very long, but the mini-episode features some pretty satisfying catharsis between these estranged siblings, and you get to listen to the Song of Storms. Hard to argue with that.
Loser: Twinmold Boss Battle. Getting the Giant’s Mask to become huge and fight the thing with your bare hands is an incredible, nearly astounding moment of the game. It is instantly squandered by a confusing damage cycle mechanic which allows the battle to drag on for a stupid-long period of time.
Winner: Bunny Hood + Inverted Song of Time. After a few cycles I started to get a little obsessive with squeezing as much ‘work’ on the main and side quests into each cycle as I could. I played nearly all of the game with time slowed down and virtually all foot-travel was done with the bunny hood. Moving faster through slowed-time forced me to be patient for things that needed the next cycle, and I was constantly consulting the Bomber’s Notebook to see if there was any little side quest I could squeeze in. This made for very full cycles, but also proved to be a nice balance between the primary story and a the little side-plots.
Loser: Indie Go-Go’s and Ballad of the Wind Fish. This one cut pretty deep. The ‘actual’ Ballad of the Wind Fish from LA is one of my most cherished melodic moments in the entire series- its beauty has few parallels in the franchise. To take that label and slap it on this weird, plodding pseudo-Bossa Nova bit was painful. It has no energy, and felt like a huge waste of the reference. Also hard to believe that such a dud of a song was “one of their hits.”
Winner: Fierce Deity Link. This really did mostly live up to the hype. The design of ‘Oni Link’ is phenomenal, and the fact that he’s so massively overpowered even in the final moments of the game makes it feel like cheating. It’s such an appropriate reward for collecting all the masks, though. Arguably the point of MM is to engage with the NPCs on a much more personal level that we have before; in really committing to doing so, the game allows you to bypass the tedium of challenging combat, something that’s arguably secondary to the storytelling, at least for this outing.
I haven’t spent much time comparing the various games to one another (though we’ll probably wrap this project up with some sort of ‘tiers’ list), but I did come to a rather startling conclusion. Namely, that this playthough has made for a very compelling argument that MM is my favorite Zelda game. I played it for 10 hours longer than the next longest games (~35 hours for OOT, WW) not because I was struggling, but on account of really wanting to leave no stone unturned. The game rewards that persistence in such unique and unexpected ways while telling a story with so much depth and compassion that I suppose it should not come as such a surprise after all.
That the developers could fashion such a rewarding feedback loop from a game with such a rote premise (play the same three days over and over) is nothing short of incredible. The richness of this world, to which Link never returns, draws you in. You can’t help but hang around, at least for a few days…
Twilight Princess (WiiU Virtual Console)