It was only five years ago that I played my first Legend of Zelda game, but Majora’s Mask has haunted me since the day I first picked it up.
Growing up, my family owned every console Nintendo released, yet somehow Link managed to elude me. By the time I was 16, my only experiences with the series had been E3 trailers and watching my girlfriend aimlessly ride Epona in Ocarina. Around that same time, I began to develop a keenness for narrative and experimental games, so in October 2009, when Majora’s Mask launched on the Wii Virtual Console, I took my first leap into the franchise.
What I quickly learned is that Majora’s Mask is the most stigmatized title in the franchise. Constantly thrown around when talking about the game are vague words like “dark” or “stressful” or even “limiting” — often by people who have yet to even play it. That’s not to say those things aren’t true, but the problem is that the real game becomes buried under it all, and the public mask of the game becomes tainted.
The premise of Majora’s Mask is simple: Prevent the moon from destroying Clock Town. In contrast to the grandiose quest of Ocarina of Time, it’s no wonder why so many players are immediately turned off. Where’s the adventure? Ocarina’s Hyrule has a vast field, world politics, and a high-stakes journey that literally spans generations. In Majora’s Mask, nobody outside of Clock Town even gives a damn about the impending obliteration via giant moon, and the playable story takes place during a span of only three days. By comparing the two games in such ways it’s hard to see an argument for Majora’s Mask at all, and in this way I was fortunate: My experience in Termina was without those Ocarina-coloured glasses.
At the heart of Majora’s Mask is its time mechanic, its biggest difference in gameplay from Ocarina. Players are limited to three days game time, which equates to a mere hour in real world time, before the moon crushes Clock Town and the game is over. Where Ocarina allows you to roam freely, Majora’s Mask seems to threaten the very idea of adventure. Early on, however, you have the opportunity to find the game’s first secrets, hidden in plain sight: Two songs for your ocarina which allow you to either slow down time by 1/3 (generously elongating the game clock from one hour to three) or skip forward half a day. You can play through the whole game without ever finding those songs, but, if you’re playing in search of an adventure, they’re impossible to miss. Suddenly, the most tenacious criticism against Majora’s Mask—its factor of limitation and lack of adventure—becomes the most ironic.
But why would Nintendo make the songs secret in the first place if they’re so imperative? The answer is because they’re not.
Trying to play through Majora’s Mask without ever using the hidden songs makes a difficult game even more difficult, but it doesn’t make it impossible. All it requires is a more fundamental understanding of the time mechanic. Take the notorious Stone Tower Temple, for instance, which takes about an hour to complete even if you know what you’re doing. The solution comes with the Song of Time. What most players seem to miss is that each temple in Majora’s Mask is designed in such a way that as soon you find a key item (the Hero’s Bow, Fire Arrows, the Hookshot, etc) then a whole new section of the temple unlocks, and the previous section becomes redundant. While things like small keys don’t carry back if you use the Song of Time, your key items do. Essentially, finding one means you’ve hit a large checkpoint. Return to the dawn of the first day, use the Song of Soaring to return to the temple entrance, and then start right where you left off, now with your timer reset and a fair hour (or three) to discern any puzzles. Even if you solve one just as the clock runs dry, you now know the solution and can come right back and finish it in one go. It’s certainly not as intuitive as just running straight through a temple, but it drives the theme home that time is essential.
And with time comes the inevitable, most evident theme in the game: Death. This is why Majora’s Mask is always referred to as “dark.” But it’s not that simple. Where Ocarina of Time was about saving a world, Majora’s Mask asks you to save the details. The conceit revolves around the game’s masks which, with only a few exceptions, each contain the soul of someone passed. Even the bosses of the game wear masks, albeit cursed ones. Upon their defeat, you heal them and free their soul in a beautiful, blissful moment. Death becomes transcendence as you save your enemies’ spirit and literally carry their mask—their burden—for them.
The same goes for characters within Clock Town, most of whom are alternate versions of those seen in Ocarina of Time. They have lives, personalities, and relationships, and they’re on the verge of losing everything they love unless you intervene. Simply stopping the moon isn’t enough; side quests in Majora’s Mask literally revolve around making the last moments of these characters’ lives happy ones, and are tracked via “Happy Stickers.” In comparison to all of Hyrule, the fate of Clock Town may feel small, but that doesn’t mean the lives of its people are any less significant. In this way, it’s Ocarina’s characters that become the supplement. Majora’s Mask is a game about forgiveness, closure, penance… To simply call it “dark” is to do it a great disservice.
At the crux of Majora’s Mask’s humanity is the lost boy, Kafei. While Skull Kid and the moon paint the game’s main, emotional narrative, Kafei’s side quest is a convergence of the game’s mechanics that earns its own profound climax. Kafei is the first thing you’ll notice when you enter Clock Town—a masked, blue haired boy simply checks his mailbox before running off without a word—and it’s while unearthing his mystery that the entire vein of Majora’s Mask is exposed:
You can’t save everyone.
Unlike the main quests where there are checkpoints of sorts whenever you earn a new item, Kafei’s quest offers no such leeway; through to completion it takes up the entirety of a 3-day cycle. It’s during this journey that you become deeply aware of the nuances of Termina, and of what’s going on beyond your screen. While you’re off at Snowhead Temple, your monkey friend is being burned at the stake. While mulling about in Great Bay Temple or jamming out as a Zora, the elder Goron is helplessly freezing to death. While trying to resolve a sisterly dispute, a young girl—and one of your best friends in Ocarina—is being abducted by aliens. The list goes on and on. Kafei’s quest is a bittersweet sacrifice, but a necessary one. Because you’re the hero.
Majora’s Mask is a dark game, but it’s full of bright moments; it’s melodious because every detail matters. Every second counts. You’re the people’s hero, and the Hero of Time.
This article was originally published on financialpost.com on February 12, 2015.