The Great and Terrible Majora's Mask
NOTE: Before we start, I want to make it clear that the intent here isn’t to just complain about how much I don’t like Majora’s Mask. The intent is to explain why I’ve always struggled to enjoy playing it, and to try and understand why some people consider it their favorite game in the franchise. Feedback here is most welcome. Let’s get started.
A terrible fate
The Legend of Zelda franchise has always been my favorite game series. Since the first NES game, I’ve anticipated every single sequel with an unprecedented degree of excitement. Yes, even the CD-i games. I begged my parents to buy me one of them so I could play Faces of Evil. Fortunately, they said no and I was spared several hours of pain and sadness, but the point still stands that I was hyped for anything, and I mean ANYTHING, Zelda.
Majora’s Mask was a different animal. I was working at FuncoLand at the time, and it was the first Zelda game to release following the massively successful Ocarina of Time. I feigned excitement for my customers, and I was certainly interested in trying the game out, but from the very first moment I laid eyes on it, I couldn’t help but feel like something was off.
I’ve now played the game to completion twice in my life, just finishing my second playthrough a few weeks ago, and I can say without question that it is my least favorite game in the franchise (excluding the CD-i games, obviously). It took me many tries over several years to even be able to bring myself to keep playing past a certain point. Meanwhile, there was no shortage of people out there claiming Majora’s Mask to be not just a great game, but superior to Ocarina of Time. Were we playing the same game?
Recently, I’ve seen another swell of people on social media singing the praises of Majora’s Mask, not just saying it’s better than Ocarina, but their favorite Zelda game period. When it comes to more popular games I don’t really care for, I can usually at least understand why people like them. Red Dead Redemption, Grand Theft Auto, Assassin’s Creed, The Last of Us, etc., I get it. They’re not for me, but I get it. Even stuff like Call of Duty or Fortnite, I understand what the appeal is. But no matter how many times I try to understand it, Majora’s Mask, in all the ways that count to me, simply isn't very good. It’s hideous, its reuse of assets is done so haphazardly it makes Ocarina less special by association, and most importantly, it’s simply not fun to play. So why, then, do people love it so much?
It’s not my intention to claim that people who love Majora’s Mask are “wrong.” Opinions generally can’t be “wrong.” But Majora’s Mask is a really bizarre case to me. I’d like to understand it better so that I can at least appreciate what it is that so many people love about it, even though I never want to play it again. So let’s break it down.
To start, I’d like to lay out my experience with it.
Dawn of the First Day
First impressions are important, and Majora’s Mask ranks among the ugliest games I’ve ever played. Most games from this era are chunky disasters, visually speaking, but Majora’s Mask has always struck me as especially ugly. When playing a game like Metal Gear Solid or Ocarina of Time, of course they look like stacks of polygons. That’s what they are, after all. But for the bulk of both of those games, their visuals are held together by some excellent art direction which makes them look like more than the sum of their parts.
Maybe it’s because I had already been playing games like Sonic Adventure and Soul Calibur on the Dreamcast when Majora’s Mask released, but I’ve never been able to look at it and see anything but chunky geometry. Every character, every environment, all looks unnatural. Termina has a very “laid out'' feel to it. Very little about the environments seem all that organic, and the actual geography itself is nothing but giant chunky polygons and grotesque textures. I know this was the case in Ocarina as well, but for all the life Termina Field can boast over the desolate Hyrule Field, there was never that feeling of open wonder Hyrule Field impressed upon me. Termina feels crowded, stuffed with a bunch of ugly, useless crap.
A perfect early on example is that big hollow log on the way to the swamp. I'll give the game credit for the context around it, with the tree stump nearby, but why is it there in the first place? Why would someone leave it there instead of using it for firewood? As far as I can tell, there is no reason for it to be there. It’s there for decoration. It’s there because someone designing the game thought it looked cool, but there was seemingly no thought put into why it should exist there. It’s out of place, and it’s one of the first things you see when you venture outside of Clock Town.
The whole world feels like that to me. Like these things were placed there by a developer, not that they organically belong in this world.
A bit too familiar
Then there’s the character designs. I understand why they reused so many assets from Ocarina. They had a limited window to make the game in and that was a tremendous time saver. But the least they could have done is try to dress them up a little bit. Take the witches Koume and Kotake. Those two are dead. We saw them die in Ocarina. So when we come to find two new witch sisters who look exactly like those boss characters, who also have the same names, it really bothered me. Sure, there’s a theory that this game was all just a dream like Link’s Awakening, but as far as I can tell the only evidence of that is the repeat characters. It isn’t anywhere in the story itself (that I noticed).
Change their clothes. Put a hat on them. Do something. Otherwise, it just feels like an inconsistency, and that kind of stuff bothers me a lot, even in a franchise as loosely connected as Zelda.
It’s more than that, though. The whole game aesthetic is just grotesque. I don’t throw that word around lightly and I’m not trying to be hyperbolic. I’m pretty sure grotesque was the plan, and I don’t understand it.
So much of this game is designed to be, for lack of a better word, grotesque. Not just ugly, but aggressively so. Built specifically to be unsettling and difficult to look at. I’m not saying everything has to be bright and happy, but some degree of visual appeal would have been nice.
That’s a Zol. It’s also hideous, but it’s also awesome to look at, and in every single way a better design than whatever this thing is.
But again, this is how I experienced it. Do people who claim this as their favorite game actually think this looks good? Is this in some way visually appealing and I just don’t get it, or is that the point, and the fact that the game is ugly is what makes it appealing?
Okay, let’s address the music. I don’t want to take anything away from the effort put into making even more ocarina songs using the limited inputs of the Nintendo 64, but those new tunes, and almost every other song in the game sounds… wrong.
The recurring theme that plays in the four major areas is a gross, dour piece. And that they keep using it in each area with different instruments takes away from the songs that I actually do like. The dungeons themselves have pretty interesting pieces in them. I really enjoyed the Deku Palace. The boss tunes are killer. But for as good as that stuff is, whenever I think of Majora’s Mask music, all I hear is the weird, obnoxious bagpipe sound that plays when you enter the swamp. Even the Termina Field theme, a take on the classic Zelda theme, is far and away the worst version of that song ever featured in a game.
So the music is a mixed bag, but the thing I really can’t get past is the gameplay itself. The dungeons, while incorporating some clever elements, felt exceedingly tedious, especially towards the end of the game. The Stone Tower Temple, where you kept having to go outside to flip the world around, was a great idea at first, but by the end of the temple it felt like a chore. Playing that Ocarina song to place the statues too, was an even more grievous waste of time than changing the water levels in Ocarina’s infamous Water Temple.
Swimming as Zora Link rarely, if ever, feels good. Rolling as a Goron is only fun in open areas. When the game makes you try to be precise with it, it’s awful. Link and Deku Link are pretty cool though. But that’s 2 of the 4 forms. Half of what you can do in this game isn’t fun to control. The Zora Cutters fly out at weird angles, making them an exercise in frustration to use. Goron Link’s melee attacks can’t hit bushes right in front of him half the time. And what’s with the ridiculous butt thrust? Why does the camera get all wiggly when he does it? Is that supposed to be funny?
The good stuff
Okay, I went down a pretty negative hole there, and I’m sorry. Let’s switch gears and talk about the good stuff. I’ve talked to a bunch of people who love this game, and almost everyone mentions how the game feels alive. How everyone’s stories have meaning. I feel like understanding this is the key to understanding why people truly love this game.
My first time through, I didn’t get all of the masks. Doing so felt like a supreme waste of time, and all the waiting around wasn’t very fun, so I skipped it. This time through, I played with my son who was bent on getting the Fierce Deity mask, which meant getting every mask. This in turn meant interacting with all the NPCs.
In a few cases, this was indeed a rewarding experience. The dancing guy who wanted me to pass on his sweet dance moves was cool. The dude trying to break the boulder on the path was neat. Even parts of the Kafei experience (more on that in a bit) were very interesting and human. Too many of them though, felt pointless.
The characters themselves had a lot of personality, and I can certainly appreciate that. The whole thing with Kafei is super interesting, and somewhat well put together. I don’t really like that you have to wear a stupid-looking mask of Kafei to get people to talk to you about him, but seeing the people who are afraid of dying, seeing the people who decide to stay and face their end, it’s all very effective. The trouble though, comes from the tedium of having to sit through this sequence multiple times if you make a mistake, or if you want to see a different outcome. I messed up during the trap sequence right at the end once and had to run through the whole thing again to get the mask. Then I had to run through the whole thing a THIRD time to get the bottle. As good as the other stuff is, that really sucks the fun out of the experience.
Still, the bit with the work obsessed postman, the nice Goron whose room you stole sleeping happily outside, and even Kafei himself, were all characters who had a real feeling of life to them, even though they were on specific set paths, and that was pretty unique at the time.
But, they aren’t all like that. The aliens attacking the farm was a tad too silly for my tastes. The skeleton dudes who ask permission to move on got old after the first few of them. The good to bad ratio felt imbalanced to me, and not in a good way. So what is it that I’m missing?
While I understand thinking those story elements and interactions are some of the best in the Zelda series, what I don’t understand is them being good enough to overcome all the other problems the game has, primarily all the tedium, awful camera angles, grotesque artwork, and lack of fun.
Again, I have to say that these are just my opinions. One of the things I find so fascinating about the Zelda franchise is just how many different people have different favorites. Mine is Wind Waker. Lots of people hate that game. So what do I know?
My question to you, Majora’s Mask fans, is this. If you are someone who loves Majora’s Mask, and you have the time, I would love to know why you love it as much as you do, and how you feel about the issues I have with the game. I may never understand its true brilliance, but I’m always willing to talk about it and learn more. A fresh perspective could be just what I was missing. After all, I’m currently attempting to play through Oracle of Ages for the third time, and this time I think I’ll actually finish it because I think I get it, and I’m having fun. I’d love to love Majora’s Mask someday. Here’s hoping I can.