One of the most frequent criticisms lobbed at the Zelda series is that it’s always just the same game, over and over again - that people who love it were indoctrinated as children and are incapable of seeing it for what it is.
I have heard this not just from people on the Internet, who are always ready with their reductive criticisms, but from friends, family, a couple of lovers (related: heated arguments about Zelda in bed are deeply unsexy). It always makes me ball my fists and breathe deeply.
Like most criticism that strikes a nerve, there is an element of truth to it. Zelda is a myth endlessly retold. The same basic story - the pursuit of the Triforce, the vanquishing of evil, the disappearance of a princess - guides them all, shepherding you gently between dungeons, towns and the open road. The same well-worn and well-loved toys are brought out of the attic every time: boomerang, bow, hookshot. The same locations, transformed by time and reinterpretation and technical advancement, keep reappearing. All Zelda games, alongside their many technical and creative innovations (revolutions, even), conform to this template. Except when they don’t.
Majora’s Mask is the strangest, saddest, most memorable Zelda, the one that strays furthest from the conventions of the series. It did things that no Zelda since has done; actually it did things that no game since has done. Majora’s Mask was released at a time when games didn’t really do “emotions”, and yet it is one of the most evocative and most depressing stories ever told interactively. When I first played it, at the age of twelve, it deeply affected me. Rediscovering it as an adult, ten years later, I expected to find that its brilliance had been exaggerated in my mind by naivety and nostalgia. Instead I discovered that it was much cleverer than I’d thought.
It is an extraordinarily lonely game. At the end of Ocarina of Time, Link is surrounded by the friends he has made across Hyrule, dancing around a fire and celebrating the aversion of the end of the world. Then, he is returned to a time before he met most of them. At the beginning of Majora’s Mask, Link is entirely alone, guiding Epona through a forest in search of Navi, who left him in the Temple of Time at the very end of OoT. The opening screens tell of “a boy who, after battling evil and saving Hyrule, crept away from the land that had made him a legend”, on a “secret and personal journey… in search of a beloved and valuable friend”. He’s slumped on the back of the horse, head downcast. It is deeply sad - shockingly so. Zelda games weren’t without their darkness before Majora’s Mask, but they had never been this… bleak.
His chance meeting with Skull Kid quickly escalates this gloomy opening into a full-on tragedy. Even Epona is taken away from him - “there’s no point riding a thing like that, so I got rid of it!” chuckles Skull Kid, as Link looks on in shocked devastation - and he is soon left with a face that ostracises him from everyone else in Termina, the bizarre world he finds himself consumed by. That moment where Link glimpses his reflection as a Deku Scrub is heart-rending. Especially when you learn, right at the end of the game, the implications of that transformation. The concept of identity, I think, is at the core of Majora’s Mask, which is why it revolves around masks. It starts as a story about Link trying to regain his identity, or perhaps to build a new one after the events of Ocarina of Time. His transformation into a Deku scrub makes that quest literal: he must regain his own face.
It’s a world suffused with sadness, and strangeness. Majora’s Mask’s artistic style - the strange geometric patterns, the way the cutscenes blur and distort the screen, the strange colours - in combination with the N64’s primitive polygonal rendering gave it a surreal, unsettling look. It’s weird enough to have spawned one of gaming’s greatest, eeriest ghost stories. But it’s the people of Termina and their situations that stick in the memory - not just their universal plight of being forced to watch the world end, which is sad enough, but their individual circumstances. There’s the desert-dwelling father whose dangerous research into the supernatural hideously disfugures him. There is - of course - the doomed romance of Kafei and Anju. There’s the strange and twisted alienation of Skull Kid himself.
Majora’s Mask’s three-day repeating structure remains - to the best of my knowledge - unique in video games. Most games put something in front of us for 30 minutes and then take it away. Majora’s Mask’s Termina - and its dungeons, its people - must stand up to theoretically endless examination. In Ocarina of Time, Link has time stolen from him - the ten years between the moment he touches the hilt of the Master Sword and the moment he reawakens in a broken Hyrule. In Majora’s Mask he regains that time, albeit as an endless succession of the same three days. In Ocarina of Time he is a child in an adult’s body, in Majora’s Mask he carries the weight of experience of a grown man, but in a child’s body. Time stretches and contorts in Majora’s Mask. In game-time, Link spends maybe 30 hours repeating that 72-hour period, but for Link, it would feel like years.
As much as I love Zelda, it is difficult to argue that its story is exactly profound. Majora’s Mask is the exception; it is something I can enthuse about without fear of hyperbole. Like Wind Waker, it is a bastion of technical and creative bravery in a series that sometimes doesn’t get enough credit for its innovations. We’ve never had anything like it since, perhaps because Nintendo is not as keen to let its teams go off-piste with its pillar franchises as it was in the N64 era. Its return on 3DS came at exactly the right time.