As someone who's not-so-quietly championed The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask for years, I'm happy the game's been given new life on 3DS. Finally, everyone gets it!
The last time I played Majora's Mask, however, I was only 15. Today, I'm double that. While replaying Majora's Mask, I've come to realize how much my favorite Zelda game is about death.
There will, unsurprisingly, be some spoilers for Majora's Mask ahead.
My life has changed plenty in the last 15 years. Teenage Patrick didn't understand death because it seemed so far away. Death was something that happened to other people. It was an abstract concept. Then a few years ago, my father and one of my close friends suddenly passed. Death is no longer abstract to me. Instead, it's an unfortunate, semi-regular reality. Those tragedies sharply defined my decision-making in the past few years, as I've come to realize how life and time are precious, and the importance we should place on using both wisely.
Though each Zelda game is couched in a hero's story, a reason for Link to save the day, they rarely feel grounded. You're not meant to empathize with anyone, and the quests you're completing tend to involve solving some puzzles and swinging a sword at an enemy for a while. That's all fine, but part of Majora's Mask specialness is how it bucks this trend.
Majora's Mask is about the inevitability of time. Specifically, how little we have. Each day, each night, the moon approaches. And each day, each night, so does death. Despite this, the citizens of Termina continue about their daily routines. Why not? They can't save the world.
Everything in Majora's Mask takes place on a three-day cycle. All the while, an enormous moon lingers overhead. As time lumbers forward, this death-sphere inches closer and closer to the land of Termina, threatening swift extinction. It's Link's job to try and stop that from happening. Thankfully, Link has the ability to rewind time, start the three-day cycle over again, and keep certain items with him. If he does this enough times, maybe he can stop the moon.
Whenever Link completes one of the game's dungeons, he encounters the deities that govern the land of Termina. Their way of helping Link is by openly weeping. In their sorrow, however, Link can discover hope.
"Could that crying be its way of teaching us some sort of melody?"
When Link plays the tune, the god, slow and strained, tries to respond.
After Link resets time, his arrows, bombs, and other collectibles disappear into the ether. As he tumbles through the timestream, the game forces you to watch all of these items vanish. What you don't see are the countless Termina residents who are forced to begin anew, as well. The cycle starts over, and so do their problems. Everything is at it was. Link wanders around Termina, helping residents in order to acquire new items and masks for his ultimate goal, but along the way, he's forced to condemn everyone else to their own personal Groundhog Day.
Many of the quests in Majora's Mask involve spirits with deep regret, unable to move on because of unfinished business. Many of them see Link as a way to settle these matters.
The Goron people thrive in the dry sun, but in Termina, they've been relegated to an endless onslaught of bitter cold. Desperate to help his people, Darmani the Third, one of the Gorons' best and brightest, marched off into the blizzard. He died along the way, failing in his quest.
Unable to accept his own failure, Darmani's ghost hangs outside of his own village and watches his people suffer. This is his burden. When you find him wandering, he leads Link to his grave.
"This feels strange for me to say, but when I was alive, I was a renowned warrior and veteran. Yes...when I was alive…But alas...I am now dead. [...] As I am, I can only watch as Goron village is slowly buried in ice...I may have died, but I cannot rest. [...] I beg you, bring me back to life with your magic! If it is beyond your power, then I beg of you to do this for me instead…Heal my sorrows. Any way that you can do it will suffice...heal my sorrows."
Link never has to truly face his own death. If his health bar disappears, the game promptly drops him back into the world. There are no consequences for Link, yet death is very real in Termina.
Though Link is capable of a great many things, he cannot resurrect the dead. But with a few notes on his ocarina, Link is able to lift the guilt from Darmani's shoulders and let him rest.
When Link stumbles into Great Bay, he spots a barely conscious Zora floating in the water. Given the Zora people are strong swimmers, this does not bode well. It wouldn't be a surprise if Link simply had to speak with this Zora and he would suddenly head to shore, but in this case, Link must actually, physically drag him closer to the beach. The Zora stands, only to collapse.
"Uuungh...I am Mikau of the Zora people...guitarist in the Zora band...I think this is it for me...My final message...Will you listen to it?"
Despite collapsing onto the sand, Mikau finds the energy to sing about his predicament to Link. While trying to save the eggs of his band's lead singer, he was attacked by pirates.
"Baby! If I die like this…
Even if I die…
It won't be in peace…
That's for surrre!
Somebody, please rescue her eggs before the pirates take their toll.
Oh, somebody, somebody,
Please heal my soul.
That was all Mikau had left. He falls to the ground, Link plays his healing melody, and we bear witness to a curious scene. Mikau's final thoughts? His passage to the beyond? It's unclear, but Link gives Mikau enough peace to let go, and Mikau imbues Link with the power of the Zora.
It's clear Termina is not the safest place around, but for these people, it's home. A girl named Pamela lives with her father in Ikana Canyon. There's danger everywhere in Ikana Canyon, but her father is studying the Gibdo, the creepiest enemies in Zelda. These walking mummies freeze Link into place if they spot him, and let out a horrifying moan as they make their approach.
Pamela's father has somehow become part-Gibdo. She's locked him in the basement, and every few hours, ventures out into the world in hopes of stumbling upon a cure. When she leaves the house, it's possible to sneak in and discover her tortured father. He bursts out of the closet and tries to attack you before Pamela rushes to his side, begs him to enter the closet, and he abides. The human part of Pamela's father is still there, even if the Gibdo aspect is dominant.
If Link returns to the house and plays his song of healing, the father is cured, triggering what might be the game's most emotional scene:
Pamela: Father? Father!
Dad: What have I been doing this whole time?
Pamela: You...haven't been doing anything…You had a bad dream. You were just having a little nightmare.
When the scene is over, you can't talk to them. The two embrace, Link collects his mask, and leaves. When Link rewinds time, of course, the embrace will be erased from time's record, and Pamela will have to find a cure for her father once more. This time, though, Link will have moved on.
As I've replayed Majora's Mask, I've found my heart breaking. There's so much sadness, so much despair. Even if you stop the moon from crashing and save the people of Termina, their problems still exist.
When I originally played Majora's Mask in 2000, I was struck by how powerful I felt: I could weave through time, collect a gallery of masks, and defeat the largest monsters. Playing it 15 years later, I'm struck more by how powerless Link truly is. He might save the world, but he can't rescue everyone along the way. We can't do that in our own lives, either.