dorchadas: (Majora A Terrible Fate)
[personal profile] dorchadas
Majora's Mask almost completely passed me by. I think the first time I even saw any of it was at the first Symphony of the Goddesses concert I went to, where the gameplay footage of a moon with an evil face, Link turning into some kind of plant monster and flying around using flower umbrellas, and mysterious giants assembling to defend the city completely confused me. What was this? What was even happening here? And what is it about Majora's Mask that leads Zelda Dungeon to have a huge philosophical exegesis on the game?

(The answer to that is "When there's only one Zelda game every 3-5 years, they've got to publish something")

When my sister bought a Nintendo 64, I played Super Mario 64 and I played Ocarina of Time, and sometimes I played Blast Corps, and then I played Quest 64 and that was basically it for me. The N64 was not the system for an RPG-lover like myself, so I went back to my PC games and that's why I didn't know anything about this game until I played it.

I feel like I'm still missing a lot, honestly.

"You've met with a terrible fate, haven't you?"

Alright, that's mostly because I played it in Japanese, and unlike Ocarina of Time I've never played it before so I didn't have pre-existing knowledge of the story. I kept a walkthrough close at hand to make sure that I wasn't getting confused about what to do and where to go, and while in some ways that diminished the experience because Majora's Mask is about discovery and piecing together the threads of NPCs lives into the vibrant tapestry that is Clock Town, in other ways it kept me from wandering aimless for hours being confused about what was going on. There was one major error I made early on with monkeys, where a monkey in a swamp excitedly told Link that they had captured someone and I needed to help them quickly. This didn't make much sense, obviously, and after a while of wandering in confusion I realized the problem--に捕まえられてる means "is captured by [X]," not "has captured [X]." One of the monkeys had been caught by the king of the Deku Nuts and they wanted Link to go rescure him. Now that's a quest I can undertake.

This can't end well.

Majora's Mask opens with Link searching for a "lost friend," heavily implied to be Navi, when he's mugged by a creepy figure in a strange mask who steals the Ocarina of Time and curses Link into the form of a Deku Nuts when he tries to take it back. Chasing after him, Link meets the Happy Mask Salesman, who explains that the figure stole one of his masks as well and that it's vitally important that Link get it back. But he only has three days to do it, because that's when the salesman will be leaving Termina. This seems bizarre the first time it's explained, but if you know anything about Majora's Mask, you know where this is going.

The strange figure is named Sutarukiddo (スタルキッド), or Stalkid, translated as "skull kid" in English and presumably based on the Stalfos skeletal enemies. But I think that misses something, because when written 廃る, sutaru means "to go out of fashion," "to become obsolete," or "to die out." Early on, Link sees a vision of Stalkid huddling inside a hollow log, friendless and alone, and witnesses his joy when he meets two fairies who become his companions. And if you do the quest to speak to Anju's grandmother and listen to her stories without falling asleep, she talks about a 子鬼 (ko-oni, localized as "imp") who was a friend to the four giants before they scattered to the four winds and fell asleep, leaving their friend alone.

Is it any wonder that Stalkid goes power-mad when he wears Majora's Mask? The game clearly says that he's under the power of the being that lives in the mask, but I wonder. When the giants left he lashed out like an abandoned child and was ostracized by the other inhabitants of Termina for it, and even repudiated by the giants when the people cried out to them for aid. When ultimate power came into his grasp, what incentive did he have not to use it? And so after causing all the problems in the four compass directions, at the end of three days, he pulls the moon down from the sky and destroys the land that has brought him so much pain.

Spring comes again.

But just before this happens, Link gets the ocarina back and, urged on by one of the fairies, plays the Song of Time...and wakes up three days before.

That time loop is the central conceit of Majora's Mask. At any time, you can play the Song of Time and return to the beginning of those three days, but it undoes everything Link has accomplished. You keep the various items you've found, the heart containers you've acquired...and that's it. All quests are undone (though not their progress), everyone forgets Link's actions, bosses return to life, and the world resets completely to its opening state.

In some ways that makes Majora's Mask one of the most nihilistic games I've ever played. I saved that monkey from the Deku Nuts, I stopped Romani's farm from being attacked by Them and made sure her sister's milk made it to Clock Town, I fed the goron shivering in the long mountain winter, I brought the Zora eggs to the Aquarium Research Lab so they could hatch, and I reunited Anju and Kafei...but I didn't. The final cycle where I actually beat the game, the "real" timeline, Link woke up, drank a bottle of magic milk, then loitered around by the pond for three days before climbing the tower and defeating Stalkid and Majora. Even if I had wanted to accomplish more, and even though there's a song that slows the passage of time down to one-third normal, there's just not enough time in one three-day cycle to do all of that, all the other sidequests, beat all four bosses, and win the game. Not to mention that some quests take place at the same time and so only one can be completed per cycle. Someone always gets left out. Happiness comes and goes, and the moon rises and falls, and Link remains at the center of it all.

"To die without leaving a corpse--that is the way of the Garo."

It's this interpretation, plus the constant urge to insert grimdarkness into everything, that allows the fanbase to come up with the "Link is dead" theory. See, Link failed fighting Ganon at his tower in Ocarina of Time. In the moments of his death, tormented by his failure, he replays the events of his quest through Hyrule. That's why all the characters look like the people in Kakariko and Hyrule Castle Town and why the cycle of events repeats over and over and over again until Link gets it right. It's why he leaves town immediately afterward as, flush with illusionary success, he can finally die.

It's clearly silly, and not just because Nintendo wouldn't have done a story like that. The reason why all the characters are reused is because Ocarina of Time came out at the end of 1998 and Majora's Mask came out a year and a half later. Why not reuse the engine, the items, and all those assets they had already spent all that time making?

And considering so much is reused, the games still manage to feel completely different. Ocarina of Time is expansive and far-flung. Hyrule Field wasn't actually particularly expansive in real terms, but it felt that way. Termina Field feels compressed. It's all visible from Clock Town, and even the corner areas that Link goes to are mostly hemmed in by walls and forest, with the exception of the west and the sea. The sun rises and sets without end in Hyrule, days passing quickly every few minutes, but in Termina the same three days repeat over and over again with a hard limit on how long Link has to complete his quest.

In context this is actually okay.

That's the draw of Majora's Mask. Warren Spector has said several times that he'd love to make an immersive sim that took place entirely on a single city block, meticulously modeling all the houses, inhabitants, and items of that small area. Majora's Mask isn't that, but it's close to that. To really get everything out of the game requires talking to the inhabitants, learning that the old woman's bomb bag is stolen at some point and being in place to stop the thief, picking up hints about Anju and Kafei throughout the game and then spending one cycle setting their lives right, finding a despondant Romani the first time you go to her ranch and being able to get there on the first day and prevent her sorrows from occurring, racing the Deku Butler and later finding his son, and following people around as they go about their days and learning their schedules so you can be waiting for them when they arrive or take some item before they get to it.

The game deliberately draws the focus down onto those small moments. In Ocarina of Time it's possible to ignore them while on the grand quest to defeat Ganon--I don't think I did anything in castle town on my playthrough--but in Majora's Mask there's no way to avoid Mikau's last words, which leads to the Zora band ダル・ブルー (Daru Bluu, maybe "Dull Blue, referring to their color?), which leads to the manager in the mayor's office building in Clock Town, which leads to both the mayor's arguing with the town council about evacuating and the mayor's wife Aroma talking about her son Kafei and how he's vanished...

Ocarina of Time requires conscious effort to engage with the inhabitants of the world. Majora's Mask requires conscious effort to ignore them.

Flying stealth sequences are the superior kind.

I haven't talked at all about the gameplay this whole time, but that's because it's exactly the same as Ocarina of Time. It's the same engine with all the same assets. Link still Z-targets enemies with his fairy companion's help and then circle-strafes and and shoots arrows or hookshots or stabs everything in his way.

The biggest change is obviously the masks, which entirely replace the old equipment screen. There are 24 of them, of varying importance and usefulness. The Goron, Deku Nuts, and Zora masks are used all the time to transform into members of those races--accompanied by a cutscene where Link screams in agony as his body warps into a new shape --to access new areas, obtain new movement forms, and talk to other members of the mask's race. Meanwhile, the Giant's Mask is used once during the Twinmold boss fight and can't even be put on otherwise, and the Bomber's Mask used to...explore, which is totally pointless after Link gets a bomb bag. Add in that there's no dedicated mask interface and they have to be mapped to the C buttons along with everything else, and I avoided using masks to the greatest entent possible. I didn't even use the Bunny Hood to run everywhere like I'd usually do with any speed-enhancing item. It was just too annoying to open the menu, switch to it, equip the mask, run to where I was going, unequip the mask, every time, and after once or twice I gave up and only used the bunny mask to make a few jumps or when speed was of the essence.

The mask I used most often was the Stone Mask to make enemies ignore me so I could just run past them. Link has as much time as he needs to get Majora's Mask back, but no time to fight trash mobs.

nuWater Temple.

But now I come to the worst part of the game--the save system. As I said, Majora's Mask repurposes the Song of Time to allow Link to return to the beginning of the three-day cycle. This is also the only real way to save progress, and that's where the problems come in.

There are owl statues throughout Termina, used with the Song of Great Wings for fast travel. It's also possible to use these to make a temporary save, but the game explicitly warns that this save is deleted after being reloaded and only Song of Time saves are long-lasting. This means that it's impossible to save in the middle of a dungeon--you have to leave, go back to a statue, save there, and then after reloading go back into the dungeon. It's how I beat Snowhead Temple over three days, leaving and re-entering, and how I almost lost all that progress when the game froze and then crashed right after I beat the temple boss. Fortunately I managed to recover, but I was pretty worried for a moment.

See, I played the Collector's Edition gamecube version that shipped with Wind Waker, because in the original Japanese version of Majora's Mask, the owl statues didn't let you save. The CE edition runs N64 emulation in a GameCube and so is prone to stuttering, audio skips, and crashes, but at least it keeps the bugfixes and owl change from the Western version of the game. I can't imagine playing this game knowing that I might have to wipe out all my progress or stay up for an extra hour just because it has a terrible save system. I would have quit in a rage long before finishing.

The Majora's Mask 3D remake adds feather statues that can't be used for fast travel but can be used for saving, so if I ever replay this game, that's the version I'll play. The Japanese version even has furigana over the kanji!


I can see why Majora's Mask is such a polarizing game. It's not really like any Legend of Zelda game that came before it, as until then, every mainline console game had been about fighting Ganon (or preventing his return in the case of Zelda II) and saving the princess. Link's Awakening, the game to break that formula, had come out on Game Boy, which already had a reputation of being the platform where franchises were a little different--see also Super Mario Land. Majora's Mask has a mouthy fairy who's contemptuous of Link, the same dungeons and areas done multiple times, constantly wearing and taking off masks, and no triforce, Zelda, or Ganon at all.

It's a different kind of game, and it requires setting aside assumptions of what a Zelda game is to enjoy it. But having done so, I thought it was excellent. Better in some ways than Ocarina of Time--while the latter is an expansion on the original course laid down in A Link to the Past, Majora's Mask tries something different and novel with the series and pulls it off with charm and style.

And now I know what Deku Nuts are, so it's a triumph all around.

Date: 2017-May-13, Saturday 17:48 (UTC)
schoolpsychnerd: (Default)
From: [personal profile] schoolpsychnerd
This is such a great review!

Date: 2017-May-13, Saturday 20:45 (UTC)
pshaw_raven: (Swandog Raven)
From: [personal profile] pshaw_raven
I haven't played any of the Zelda games in years, and reading this just reminded me why I like them. Awesome :)


dorchadas: (Default)

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