Game Description: For anyone who enjoyed playing the original Zelda game on the Nintendo 64, The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask should come as a pleasant surprise. This game again features Link, the young elf who has been the star of every Zelda game so far. This time, however, he has to stop the moon from crashing into the land of Hyrule. Link must travel back in time 72 hours to avert the disaster; otherwise Hyrule will be destroyed. There are four dungeons to explore, with many other places to visit. In addition, Link can use over 20 masks to gain even more abilities!
Playing The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask is like returning home after a long time away. It's wonderful to take in all the old familiar sights and sounds. It's nice to see the familiar faces of those I became close to while there; their familiar mannerisms and comforting (though barely intelligible) vocalizations. Before I can get settled in, I stumble across a new epic quest—one of the utmost urgency that will occupy my time here and leave me little time to enjoy my stay. As it turns out, that is just fine because whatever time I do have here is time well spent.
For the most part, Majora's Mask stays the course first charted by last year's Ocarina of Time. The control system is identical to the original. Considering how perfect that original set up was (right down to the revolutionary Z-targeting system), I can only see it making the transition untouched as a plus. I have to admit that the control scheme did take some getting used to (it still lacks a jump button), but it quickly becomes second nature and is relegated to an afterthought while playing. The graphics and sounds in Ocarina of Time were probably the best I'll ever find on the Nintendo 64, but by taking advantage of the Expansion Pak, Nintendo succeeded in setting Majora's Mask apart from its predecessor.
Expansive vistas that would have been hidden by blankets of fog and mist in Ocarina of Time now stretch far into the distance. I was taken aback a couple of times when I would stand Link at a particular vantage point and actually be able to see the land extend out in front of me while displaying everything in sight. Speaking of which, the Expansion Pak allows for many more objects—as well as enemies—to be onscreen this time around. To aid the visuals, Nintendo tries its hand at special effects like motion-blur and particle effects for the first time, but it was the augmentations to the game's environments that work the best. Textures are much more varied, and the character models appear smoother and animate more naturally. Environmental effects like multiple light-sources are employed to drape all of Majora's Mask's environments in all shades of moody color, casting foreboding shadows on everything in sight. This, along with the addition of a decidedly somber selection of background music, gives the game a darker tone than Ocarina of Time, but it is works to perfection in this alternate universe.
Perhaps some developers at Nintendo of Japan had always wanted to create a darker game and saw this release—previously a simple add-on of the late DD64—as a chance to do just that. Whatever the reason, it is clear that Majora's Mask was not meant to be a simple rehash of Ocarina of Time. The story begins somewhat lightheartedly, with a young Link being ambushed by a malicious mask-wearing Skull Kid in the forest. During the ensuing struggle, he loses his trusted steed, Epona, and is left with no course but to follow the thief into the deep, dark forest. This isn't the most pressing of reasons to dive into a new adventure, but it quickly escalates into an engaging mission to save the world. The true power of the Mask of Majora is quickly revealed, and Link must do all he can to stop the imminent destruction of the land aptly named, Termina, by a falling moon.
Once a simple diversion in Ocarina of Time, mask collecting has been upgraded to a key aspect of Majora's Mask's gameplay. Much of the game is spent in pursuit of masks—some completely new, some familiar—needed to get around in Termina and progress through the game. For the uninitiated, when Link adorns a mask, he acquires new abilities. If, for instance, he wears a Zora mask, he then becomes a Zora and has the ability to swim at great depths; if he wears a Deku mask, he is essentially powerless, but he can use the Deku plants strewn about Termina to catapult himself high into the air—most likely to find hidden objects. Other masks, like the Bunny Hood simply enhance Link's speed. This is a great means to add variety to the gameplay, and it is far more fun than it was in the Ocarina of Time.
What ultimately sets Majora's Mask apart from its predecessor is the deliberately heightened sense of tension that permeates the game. This tension is accomplished by the new time limit that Nintendo now imposes on players. From the moment Link first sets out on his adventure to the moment the game ends, it is a race against the clock—a clock that sits at the bottom of the screen ceaselessly counting down the days, hours and minutes until the end of the world. What's worse is that the allotted time is a scant 72 hours (three days) in game time, and roughly an hour in real-time. This is not enough time with which to beat an RPG of the scale of Majora's Mask, but Nintendo does offer some leeway. By using Link's trusty Ocarina, I could change the flow of time, but the catch is that all progress and inventory up until that point would be lost, and I'd have to restart the mission or whatever dungeon I was in at the time.
And that is where Majora's Mask begins to take on a life of its own. Success in the game is dictated by a player's ability to complete the game, including its mini-games and side quests, within the aforementioned confines. Adding further to the complications, some tasks are specifically designed to consume the entire three-day period so a mistake forces players to restart from the first day. If you're not careful, you'll find yourself going through parts of the game many times before finally meeting all the conditions needed to proceed. The result is a game with an ever-increasing pace that doesn't afford the player much time to stray or else he or she will find themselves on the receiving end of a celestial collision. But as challenging an experience as this element of the game can be by itself, it is magnified by Nintendo's decision to do away with Ocarina of Time's save system. Instead of being able to save game progress at will, it can now only be done at prearranged save points in the game. There is a stopgap option where you can save at special owl statues scattered across the land. But these statues are few and far between and only serve as temporary backups. Once you start from one of these save points, you start in the same place and with the same amount of time left on the clock. If there is a flaw in this game, this is it.
In the end, Majora's Mask fights valiantly to get away from its add-on roots and for the most part is successful. However, the game's new features have not been perfected and the frantic pace can feel unbalanced—no doubt a factor due to Miyamoto's lack of involvement. Despite these problems, Majora's Mask is a wonderful place to visit. There is much to see and do, as long as you realize there isn't much time to do it in.
According to ESRB, this game contains: animated violence
Parents won't find anything objectionable in this game—okay maybe that scantily clad Great Fairy—but other than that it is good fun for all ages.
If you loved The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time then Majora's Mask is a worthy sequel. It won't bowl anyone over the way Ocarina of Time did, but it is still one of the best RPGs ever made.
Nintendo 64 fans have few alternatives for their RPG fix, as Ogre's Battle 64 is the only other Nintendo 64 RPG on store shelves.
PlayStation owners should give Majora's Mask a try once they are done with Final Fantasy IX.
Dreamcast owners should do the same once they are done with Skies of Arcadia.
"It's like déjà vu all over again." - Yogi Berra
Writing a review for a game in Nintendo's Legend of Zelda series is different than writing a review for other games, because Nintendo's work allows discussion of higher level elements such as form and structure rather than implementation. The camera for example, which has been the bane of most other third-person games, Majora's Mask somehow improves from Ocarina of Time. It's perfect, both in placement and behavior, and does wonders for immersing the player in the game. The controls that are both complex and effortless reinforce the fact that Nintendo understands and practices the fundamentals of game design better than anyone in the industry. It's wasted ink to say how much of joy comes from playing Majora's Mask, just because it's from Nintendo and we expect as much. From this statement, we can focus more on the structure and form of the new elements introduced into Majora's Mask.
The centerpiece of the sixth Zelda game is Clock Town, a large bustling city that is literally and figuratively the heart of the game. The city is beautiful and features great architecture, but the real magic is in the inhabitants that carry out their daily routines in the town's streets, shops and homes. For example, you can follow the mailman performing his rounds in the morning, afternoon and evening each day. You can see the gradual construction of a tower by workers, each day climbing higher. All the characters in Clock Town have a sense of the impending doom, worried about the gigantic grinning face looming in the sky. Your role is to somehow fix the world in a Groundhog Day-like manner, setting things right for individuals in the town. This may be as simple as listening to one of them tell a story of a sad thing in their past or as involved as reuniting a pair of lovers torn apart by evil plans.
In this manner, Majora's Mask uses the time in Clock Town in a completely different manner than Shenmue, an adventure game by Sega that features a similar time-driven town. Most of the characters in Shenmue operate similar to well-rehearsed walk-ons; they flow through the cities and have a daily pattern, but they serve more as well-crafted decoration than an integral part of the game. In Majora's Mask there are far fewer characters, but you must understand their lives in order to help them. Helping them often involves following them the entire three-day cycle and is simultaneously the most boring and exciting element in Majora's Mask. You follow the character around all day, bored to tears waiting for something interesting to happen, but when something does occur, it's often a memorable moment that defines the character and the game, making your patience worthwhile. After walking in the footsteps of the townsfolk, the player begins to understand the town as one would understand a old neighborhood, an area filled with characters with real lives. This intimate familiarity with the complex workings of the community combined with the knowledge that you have helped these people is rewarding in a wonderful and powerful way.
The only letdown about Clock Town is that the rest of the game is nothing like it. Aside from the local ranch, the other settlements in Termina are populated by typical RPG inhabitants; characters that are fixed in place with no home or life, repeating themselves, and completely oblivious of the moon attempting to smash into the planet. This inconsistency is unsettling because it pops the delicate bubble of immersion. It seems that Nintendo worked very hard to create the intricate video game environments in Clock Town and then forgot to apply its meaningful characters and depth of interaction to the inhabitants of Termina. The inconsistency between the town and the rest of the world often drops the player's expectations of the game from something revolutionary to a standard Zelda adventure.
Not that being a "standard" Zelda game is by any means a bad thing, but when the game slips, it feels more like falling into convention than making a real stumble. This is because the mechanics of the Zelda series is both its greatest strength and weakness. The dungeon romp gameplay has been nearly unchanged since the NES classic in 1985. You wander around the overworld and perform a task to open a dungeon. In the dungeon, you wander around—fighting monsters and solving puzzles to uncover the map and compass. You fight a mini-boss to gain a special item which allows you to access more areas of the dungeon, which in turn allows you to get the boss key which unlocks the final battle. It's like Swiss clockwork in its effectiveness, predictability and precision, and has served the Zelda series well, acting as a guide for players and a thoughtful framework for the designers to explore. It is also an elaborate cage that is preventing the Zelda series from growing into something more interesting.
For the first time in the series, the dungeon system in Zelda has begun to show its age. This may be the result of the dynamic Clock Town that brings the game into the fourth dimension, making the dungeons seem lacking in their mere 3-D nature. It may be the uninspiring final bosses that are a pale shadow to the great conflicts in Ocarina of Time. (Though the mini-bosses have never been better, with the exception of the oft-repeated Wizrobe.) It may be the result of familiarity with the items from Ocarina of Time. I walked into many rooms in the first two dungeons and immediately completed them in my head because they were using the same game mechanics as Ocarina of Time. Fire arrow there, hookshot here, whammo; now all I have to do is find those items. I believe the issue is that the Zelda dungeons have always been a way for the designers to explain to the player the fundamentals of the game world in bite-sized lessons. In Majora's Mask, it seems as if they have little to say, or at least nothing as new or as interesting as the other advancements introduced in the game. Fortunately, the final two of the four dungeons are among the best in the series, and succeed by pressing level design to the very edge allowed by the framework. While the later two are better, they don't directly address the limiting nature of the mechanics and are more of a stop-gap fix than a real solution. The dungeons are still enjoyable and a worthwhile challenge, but they have not evolved enough to keep pace with the other advances in the game.
While the dungeons have begun to show their age, some elements of the reward system have completely broken down. The major rewards are fine, especially the new masks. The problem is that the world is saturated with little puzzles and mini-quests that reward the player with quarter hearts and money. Extending one's health is usually a very compelling reward in games, but Majora's Mask uses it so frequently that it loses its impact. With a astounding 52 quarter hearts available in the game, you can fill Link's life up to 20 hearts, 10 more than ever possibly needed. Now that Link can carry six bottles with fairies, the game can even be completed without finding any extra life very easily. The spectre of death was removed from the Zelda games since A Link to the Past, but the bloated health bar removes a lot of the tension in combat and allows the player to be sloppy. The money issue is somehow worse. The Nintendo developers still believe that providing a player with cash and without anything interesting to do with it is somehow a compelling reward. The situation has improved somewhat from Ocarina of Time with the inclusion of a bank to store your excess piles of rupees, but outside of the handful of purchases and a few mini-games, your money gathers dust in the bank. It is frustrating to complete a difficult task and receive a worthless reward.
While there are elements of Majora's Mask that could have used some work, most of the game is executed to perfection and exceeds the great heights of the series. For example, the narrative in Majora's Mask succeeds in spinning a well-crafted story that is less innocent but maintains the beauty. Characters spend their final moments prior to destruction drowning their sorrow in milk, cowering in their rooms, or arguing over evacuation. The game's cutscenes (especially the Zora guitarist and the Goron parent) are artistic, brief and extremely potent, showing the industry how cinematics should be used in games. The main story gets left behind at times, but the subplots do a great deal of drawing the player into the world.
The transformation masks effectively borrow the main hook of the Kirby games. For the most part, all three forms are wonderful. Each of the characters has its own feel and identity that makes them unique. Goron Link walks slowly and can't jump, Deku Link is highly flammable, and Zora Link is much more functional in the water. The special abilities that the characters have are great fun, but seem more fitting to a Mario game. Don't get me wrong, tearing through the overworld as a huge Goron Garden Weasel and porpising above the water as the Zora are two of the best things in Majora's Mask. The only real complaint is that the characters can't use items that seem entirely appropriate. For example, as a Goron, the bomb people from Ocarina of Time, Link can't use bombs. Unfortunately, all of the transformations severely limits the items that you can use, making the masks more of a temporary effect to evoke than a separate skin to grow into and understand.
The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask takes one big step forward while the other bum leg drags along. In spite of its inconsistency, it improves upon the amazing Ocarina of Time by fixing a number of gameplay issues and introducing the transformation masks and the adventure game elements in Clock Town. Even though the dungeons and rewards need much work for the next game in the series, the sum is an amazing game that is, in this reviewer's opinion, the best game of the year. The only reason I docked it half a point is that the Majora's Mask team inherited a wonderful game engine and that they should have made the entire package more consistent.