Link's grand departure returns.
I missed the boat on the original Majora’s Mask. I first tried it in the GameCube Collector’s Edition. But the emulation was marginal, and the poor framerate and pause lag, along with the poorly aged graphics, made me lose interest by the first dungeon. The 3DS version provides a great new opportunity to experience the unique world of Termina.
In some ways, Majora’s Mask is the anti-thesis of a modern Zelda game -- it decidedly lacks a drawn-out introduction sequence, instead assuming you remember Ocarina of Time and quickly throwing you into new and urgent situations with shades of Metroid. And overall, the game is weighed way more on the puzzle side than combat. In fact, Majora’s Mask includes only four major dungeons. But those dungeons have more depth than most others.
Majora Mask’s structure is such that you have to approach the game with a different mindset. While most Zelda games are pretty linear, there are often requirements to progress. In Majora’s Mask, those dependencies are layered like dozens of reverse Matryoshka dolls -- every time you’re sent on a quest, you find something you need to accomplish before you can do it, which itself is contingent on solving another puzzle. It’s like the whole world is intricately constructed to prevent you from getting anywhere. Contrasting with other Zelda games that may have one chain of trades or a single level of indirection, the spotlight on puzzles is the make-it-or-break-it characteristic of Majora’s Mask. I found this aspect somewhere between genius and overly contrived.
With the moon crashing down after three-days time (under an hour in game time), you’ll need to repeatedly relive those 72 hours to accomplish everything that you need to. But starting out, you’re transformed into a Deku Scrub and lose your ocarina, enforcing the time constraint on you. It’s an intense introduction to the dark game. With the clock counting down, I imagine that you’re almost intended to fail in order to experience the gravity of the situation. To really begin the game, you must get your ocarina back, but a number of tasks blocks the way. I managed to retrieve my ocarina back with just seconds to spare. The time constraints pop up again, especially when trying to complete a dungeon.
The aspect of time travel is central to the game. You need to meet with various people at specific times over the three-day cycle, so you’ll need to plan accordingly. The Bomber’s Notebook is supposed to help you do that. It’s been greatly enhanced in this version to list all of your quests, as well as keep track of who is available when. However, while use of the original’s version was optional, Majora’s Mask 3D pops the notebook up any time anything of consequence happens, and it’s pretty jarring, an unwelcome “achievement” intrusion. If you really get stuck, a Sheikah Stone, introduced in Ocarina of Time 3D, produces “visions” to help you.
It’s very easy to wander around aimlessly, so when you do set out to do something, having to take many steps back can be frustrating. Thankfully, Majora’s Mask 3D makes some improvements related to time travel -- the Song of Double Time now allows you to go forward in time in small increments so that you don’t have to waste time waiting for events to happen. The new save features make a big difference, especially now that the game is in a mobile format. Owl statues now work as regular save points, rather than quick-save, and extra feather statue save points have been added. This means regular saves don’t force you to start from the beginning of the first day (where you lose your items). Even still, having to retrace your steps over and over can become tiresome. There’s no fix for that -- for better and worse, it’s the game’s central premise.
By focusing on the the short three-day cycle, the condensed world of Termina feels more alive than many Zelda games. The individual wants and needs of the inhabitants are more realized. And yet, since there are so many interconnected stories, nearly everybody plays a role at some point. The repeated visits actually end up making the world feel more sparse.
The other deviation from Zelda norms is the focus on masks. These masks allow you to perform specific tasks, and some even transform you into a Goron or Zora, imbuing their abilities. Being able to transform rather than needing to equip a bunch of gear is appreciated. With two dozen to collect, there’s a lot to experiment with and heavy use is required to complete the dungeons.
Though the game itself is relatively unchanged from the original, it was apparent from very early on that various small changes pervade the game. For example, right at the beginning, the locations of some of the Bombers who you have to find have changed. So, while the broad strokes are the same, some smaller details change it up a bit for veterans, while preserving the large majority of the original’s design.
It may not have seemed like it when it originally came out, but the N64 version is pretty muddy. With the exception of a few low-res textures and some frame-rate dipping, the 3DS remake looks crisper all around, featuring improved 3D models and lighting effects. It was always more colorful than Ocarina of Time, but the conversion looks better than Ocarina of Time 3D. The reuse of character models from Ocarina in some ways feels lazy, but in others adds to the surrealness of the environment.
The touch screen controls make selecting items, especially the large variety of masks, much more convenient. When playing on the New 3DS, the C-stick allows you to easily control the camera. But I found more often than not, messing with the camera angle only made things more difficult as it locked into weird angles -- the default camera works well.
Majora’s Mask was and still is a fresh departure from the Zelda norm. Majora’s Mask 3D improves greatly on a few of the original’s deficiencies, though some of the bold choices inherent to the game still have a negative effect on the experience. That said, the tenuous balance that is struck, coupled with an ever-unfolding mystery makes the game a must-play and the 3DS version the definitive one.