The Legend of the Zelda: Majora’s Mask is 20 years old. It’s been the dawn of the final day for two decades, and looking back after all this time reveals one of the most interesting games of its time. It’s creative use of limited assets led to an experience drenched in anxiety. Existential, human, experimental. There’s not been another Zelda game quite like it.
Majora’s Mask was released in Japan on April 27, 2000 for the Nintendo 64. 1998’s Ocarina of Time was a smash-hit that helped redefine the limits of the Zelda series and games overall. Zelda’s’ signature kingdom of Hyrule was rendered into the third-dimension and the result was an experience that established fundamental rules for how 3D action games are played. Lock on cameras, intricate (and importantly vertical) dungeons. Ocarina of Time’s sweeping and romantic adventure was compelling and important. This was how to make an action-adventure game, it seemed. It’s how many developers do it to this very day. How do you follow that up? How do you keep up the momentum of a medium defining epic?
For the Majora’s Mask creative team led by producer Shigeru Miyamoto and directors Eiji Aonuma and Yoshiaki Koizumi, the solution was to make something smaller but more dense. The turnaround time would be tighter than the torturous five year gap between the Super Nintendo’s A Link to the Past and Ocarina of Time. The world would be large but not quite so grand and sweeping. Majora’s Mask is a game that turns inwards. Four dungeons, one town, and a central hook: in three days, the world will end.
Video games had day and night cycles before Ocarina of Time. They were mainstays of role-playing games like Ultima. Majora’s Mask took a feature of its predecessor—a world that wakes up and falls asleep—and built on that. Here’s the set up: Link finds himself transported to an alternate world called Termina. It is a strange, Alice in Wonderland reflection of the Hyrule he knew. Faces are familiar to him (and players of Ocarina of Time) but the names and stories are different. He enters the world transformed into a skittering Deku Scrub by a mask-wearing mischief maker. He needs to return to his original form and do it fast. The moon is falling. In three days, it will impact and destroy everything. The quest to save Termina will involve physical transformation and time travel. Link collects masks that allow him to change into different forms and, whenever he wants, he can use magic to travel back to the start of Termina’s final three days. Characters within the world go about their lives over the course of these 72 hours—which last about one hour in real life. Slowly but surely, the player unlocks new items that allow them to explore the world. More importantly, they learn more about each character’s schedule over those three days, allowing them to intercede in a variety of time-sensitive sidequests in an attempt to right even the smallest of Termina’s wrongs before the apocalypse. Help a mailman with his final delivery by completing a days long sidequest chain. Show up at the farm on the right day to protect cows from invaders and later help them deliver milk later in the week. Find a stranger dancing in the fields at night and teach his moves to aspiring artists.
If the three day countdown to doom sounds intense, it is. Majora’s Mask has a completely different feel than the swashbuckling heroism of Ocarina of Time. Link has three masks that allow him to transform into three different forms: the floating Deku Scrub, the fast-swimming Zora, and the burly Goron rockdude. These masks are the last vestiges of fallen heroes and lost children. In terms of gameplay, they unlock various abilities crucial for navigating the world and solving puzzles. When Link puts them on, it hurts. Bones shatter, magic cracks, and he cries out in pain. Link makes and unmakes himself over and over again during his quest, all while the scowling face of the moon leers down from above. The greatest enemies in Majora’s Mask are not the titular demon or the thieves wandering Clock Town’s back alleys; they are fear and time and forces that you cannot eradicate. In the end, you can only face them and do what you can. Did you reunite the lost lovers Anju and Kafei? If so, that’s a good story but it doesn’t stop the moon from falling by itself. Perhaps all you’ve done is make it so that in this timeline, they can die together before you travel back to the start to try to save everyone. Maybe you still don’t get it quite right next time. Majora’s Mask is a game you win in increments, and as time passes in Termina there is always the possibility that you will have to abandon your work and start over. People change as the days move on. They start out wandering the streets or peddling wares. Some stand confidently in the face of impending doom. In the final moments before the moon falls, most of them are huddled together in fear no matter how many good deeds you performed in that particular cycle.
This undercurrent of pain that makes many players label Majora’s Mask as “the weird one.” Yes, Termina is a topsy-turvy take on Hyrule but it is not somehow more inscrutable than any of the other fantasy worlds Link has explored. What makes it feel “off” and “odd,” is that the sense of adventure from the previous games is replaced with something more disturbing. The cultural memory of Majora’s Mask’s strangeness is tied to its rejection of traditional hero narratives. Very often, the player’s work is left incomplete as they travel back in time. The scale of heroism is sometimes small. This structure—small victories, apparently unavoidable calamity—creates a different narrative thesis than the more straightforward Zelda stories that preceded it. Majora’s Mask stresses the importance of individuals more than any other game in the series. These people you meet have lives, schedules you can observe by following them. They have fears. They can be left broken unless you step on a butterfly and change their lives.
What is heroism? Is it defeating Ganon and saving the princess? Not always. Sometimes, it’s putting a crying baby to rest. Other times, it’s having one last jam session with the band. The good that is achieved in Majora’s Mask is often fleeting. But while it is a game willing to wallow in pain and anxiety, Majora’s Mask never suggests that these moments are any less good than saving the world. That’s an important message, and one that Majora’s Mask tells with only a few mechanical tweaks from Ocarina of Time. Many of the assets are recycled, Zelda only shows up in a brief flashback, and while you do save the entire world in the end, much of the game is focused on fleeting side-quests. It would have been just as “easy” to give players “Ocarina of Time but more.” To make the world a little bigger, resurrect Ganon, and let them storm the castle. Instead, players got something else: a remarkable experiment that was still magical but much more personal. Two decades later, we remember the transformations and the freaky moon but it’s crucial to remember the lesson too. Day by day, do something good. That’s just as worthwhile as saving the world.