Sometimes, creative restrictions can lead to the most elegant solutions. Case in point: The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask. Shigeru Miyamoto set Nintendo EAD the unenviable task of following up Ocarina of Time, still widely regarded as one of the greatest games ever made, within the space of just one year.
To achieve this impossible task, the team employed some of the most efficient and creative recycling game design has ever seen. Bosses and incidental characters from Ocarina were reimagined and fleshed out with idiosyncratic personalities. Items and powers were subtly changed. But most brilliantly of all, the game’s central time-rewind mechanic allowed the development team to re-use many aspects of the world, creating a huge amount of gameplay depth across a small physical space.
It’s a stroke of genius. The giant, grinning Moon is on a collision course with the game world of Termina, and after three in-game days will make impact, destroying everything in sight and causing the game to end. The player is armed with the ability at any point to rewind back to the start of the three day cycle, but there’s a catch: all non-essential items and events in the world are reset back to how they were at the very beginning.
Making forward progress, then, is about unlocking items, powers and ocarina songs which are permanently written to your inventory, and can be subsequently used to skip everything up until the point at which you acquired them. After descending into the Pirate’s Fortress to acquire the hookshot, for example, you can then grapple right across the whole area without having to traverse through it.
The structure of Majora’s Mask is elliptical, constantly looping back upon itself in delightfully clever ways, and inching forwards a tiny bit closer to the end goal with each time cycle. It strikes me as a precursor to the kind of ideas that fuel roguelikes such as Spelunky, where the inevitability of death constantly forces the player to learn and grow their understanding of the game until they are able to complete it in a single run.
The unique structure of Majora’s Mask also gives it an incredible sense of urgency which few other games can match. Nothing is quite as nerve-wracking as approaching the final boss battle of a dungeon with only a matter of minutes to spare, praying you can kill it before time resets and forces you to trudge all the way through the dungeon to meet it again.
It’s not hard to see how the impending doom of Majora’s development deadline manifested itself in the game’s central time-limit mechanic, and the constant threat of a repeated apocalypse. There are few dev studios out there who could be so daringly creative and cunning as to take a nightmarishly logistical, real-world game-development problem and transform it into the central mechanic of the game itself. Utterly, utterly brilliant.
And while we’re on the subject of nightmares, we have to mention the uniquely dark, unsettling tone of Majora’s Mask, which is still the weirdest Zelda game ever made. Characters and questlines are rife with melancholy, bereavement and guilt. The wonderful soundtrack becomes more and more warped as each time cycle approaches its end, and then there is that unignorable, evil grinning moon face.
This focus on tone and character, on smaller interactions and stories, bleeds into the gameplay as well. Majora puts a heavy emphasis on side content with only four bespoke dungeons, but all of its side quests are folded into the larger structure of the game with incredible elegance. Some unfurl gently across the span of the entire game, while others which begin as innocuously simple tasks sprawl into world-spanning questlines which require the use of all your accrued knowledge and powers.
The dungeons themselves are perhaps the only point where Majora falls a bit short of other Zelda games. The first two are effective without bringing anything particularly memorable to the table, while the third is a clever spin (literally) on Ocarina’s majestic Water Temple, centred around the flow of water through spinning wheels. The game’s only classic dungeon is its last, the Stone Tower Temple, which deliriously flips upside down at the halfway point, and asks you to traverse it again with the sky beneath your feet.
Moments such as this look fantastic on the New 3DS XL’s huge screen, which is the version of the game I played. It’s nice, also, to finally play a game that makes use of the little camera nubbin above the Y button, and the new head tracking means you can actually go 3D without getting a headache. The concession in Majora 3DS of time-slowing and fast-forwarding songs, however, says a lot about the ever-reducing levels of patience modern devs expect from their audience, and slightly cheapens the sense of urgency found within the original.
But these are minor quibbles. Majora’s Mask is a truly otherworldly feat of economy and creativity, and one that stands alone in the series. By stripping away large swathes of Zelda mythology, Majora ended up a stranger, more personal, and more alluring adventure. Its practical construction conceals a sprawling, 40-hour epic that matches Ocarina in depth, if not in width. And its influence is still being felt today, even seventeen years later.