You don’t have to be intimately familiar with The Legend of Zelda universe to grasp the unique personality of Majora’s Mask. The art direction, vivid and unusual, benefits the most from this bold new remastering. The original Majora’s Mask came from a time of overly blocky graphics, but the game knew how to inspire emotion with clever horror concepts, trumping Resident Evil’s gore and, later, Silent Hill 2’s amateurish overreliance on fog and darkness. In Majora’s Mask, you play as legendary hero Link, who must help a world facing imminent destruction in the form of a moon on a collision course toward Earth. The celestial body literally has a face, and even when you’re not looking at it, you can sense its presence and remember its threatening visage. The moon’s malevolent stare and teeth were striking in the original game, but they elicit more anxiety in the technically superior rendering of Majora’s Mask 3D.
The horror in Majora’s Mask conveys stress of personal and worldwide proportions. At one point, you must create a copy of yourself in order to solve a puzzle, and the sight of this clone implies a loss of soul and dignity as it allows you to move further to save a doomed world. You have to wear masks to go far in this quest. Some masks allow the hero to assume a superficial identity to trigger important conversations with different characters. Other masks grant a single ability, such as improved speed. The horror comes from the third type of mask, which changes Link into a new being through an audibly painful transformation. It’s strange to change into characters who are supposed to be dead. More significantly, the story expresses the wounds—physical, psychological, emotional, spiritual—of the communities that these characters are destined to heal. By doing so, Majora’s Mask suggests identity and heroism arise from communal ties as much as they do from individual traits and struggle. The first major community problem is generic game fodder: a kidnapped princess and a falsely accused prisoner. But issues in the game world become more analogous of real-world ennui and the general feeling that something is off on a scale that no single person can overcome.
The game suggests identity and heroism arise from communal ties as much as they do from individual traits and struggle.
A Groundhog Day-ish sense of repetition accentuates the world-weariness and spiritual, existential panic that underlies the game. You only have three days to restore order to the world, so you learn songs that manipulate the passage of time. The most important song starts the game over at the dawn of the first day. If you forget to play this song and allow the three days to elapse, the moon annihilates everything (with evocation of nuclear-war imagery), and you have to resume the game from a save file. In addition to complementing the emotion of the story, the requirement of time travel creates problems in terms of game rules. When you go back to the first day, you lose certain consumables like arrows, bombs, keys, and currency, though you keep reusable items like shields, bows, bottles, and masks. Sometimes you might be solving the final puzzle in a temple when the third day is about to end, so you have to go back to the first day and retrace your steps in the dungeon. In other cases, the three-day structure can reveal unexpected mysteries or opportunities depending on where you are during a particular hour. Majora’s Mask encourages experimentation as much as it demands time management.
As distinct as Majora’s Mask is, the remastered version still suffers from some predictability and a type of pandering nonsense that recalls 2014’s atrocious Fantasy Life. Mini-games are scattered throughout Majora’s Mask and detract from an otherwise creative blend of tones and play. Even if one takes these side missions for what they are, their design is clearly lazy. Three of them involve banal target practice. Worse, the rewards for these games can seem pointless. A couple of them only exist to give you free chances to play a fishing mini-game. Majora’s Mask 3D also has a tendency to overstate methods of guidance. For instance, when you meet a new significant character, the game automatically adds the character to a notebook/scheduler. After you finish talking with such a character, the game forces you to look at a screen to ensure you know that, yes indeed, the character has been added to your notebook/scheduler. If that sort of interruption isn’t enough, Majora’s Mask follows the lead of its overrated predecessor, Ocarina of Time, with the inclusion of a fairy companion who won’t shut up, and whose whims can even contradict your desire, or lack thereof, to lock onto a specific enemy or object.
Thankfully, the pesky parts don’t spoil the richness of Majora’s Mask. Like the time manipulation, the story’s moral—“Forgive your friend”—is deceptively straightforward. The game’s spiritual guide broadly defines “friend” as anyone with the human condition. People often sum up this game as the “weird” and “dark” Zelda. But here’s a better summary: Majora’s Mask is more compassionate than most popular video games, yesterday or today.