ONE MORE GO: MAJORA’S MASK, OR HOW TO BE YOUR OWN HERO OF TIME


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3.19.2009

Margaret Robertson

30 Replies

I’m sitting in a hotel room with a girl I barely know. She is beautiful, but sad and close to tears. The man she loves has deserted her, and she feels like her world has ended. I know she’s wrong, but don’t seem to have the words to tell her why. Her world hasn’t ended. She is still loved, will still be loved, if only she would save herself. But she won’t. Consumed by the past, bereaved by her loss, she’s paralysed. Oblivious to the fact that a very different horror – concrete, violent, terminal – is threatening to end not just her world, but that of her family, her absent lover and everyone she’s ever cared about. Me too, now I come to think of it. But the words won’t come, and so I stand here, counting down to the end of the world one tear at a time. And then, at the last sad second, time loops backwards and everything begins again.

I’m sitting in a hotel room with a man I barely know. He isn’t beautiful, or sad, or paralysed, but he is oblivious. Not oblivious to the end of the world, however. He’s oblivious to a game called The Legend Of Zelda: Majora’s Mask, and that means he’s also oblivious to the unbearably bittersweet experience of sharing the end of the world with Anju as she sits in her bedroom in Clock Town’s hotel, mourning the disappearance of her fiance. And so I tell him about it, trying to condense dozens of hours of brave, benevolent adventuring into five short minutes. And then, at the last frustrating second, time loops backwards and everything begins again.

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I don’t know why he’s oblivious to Majora’s Mask. It’s the sequel to Ocarina Of Time, one of the most enduring lauded videogames ever made (most recently again by Edge). If ever a game was hotly awaited – not least thanks to Ocarina‘s arguably unresolved ending and rumours of hidden Temples – it was Majora.

But less than a decade on, the world seems to have collective amnesia. Over the last year I’ve been living out my own Groundhog Day, sat in pitch meeting after pitch meeting for games which propose to break radical new ground by having a looping narrative, or telling stories at a domestic rather than an epic scale, or having a hero who is actually transformed by the events that befall him. Have you looked, I ask hopefully, at Majora’s Mask? and every time watch as brows furrow and rusty memories are accessed. Oh! they say eventually, I never really played that. Was it good?

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Was it good? No, it wasn’t good. It is good. It hasn’t expired, it isn’t stale or mouldering or rotten. It, like so many other masterpieces, is sitting waiting for you in retro shops and on rom sites and in friends’ parents’ attics. And it’s more than good. It’s a blueprint of brilliance, an object lesson in how innovative game design and non-linear story telling can combine to create that holy grail of emotionally resonant interaction. Ten years on we’re still asking if such things are possible, having already forgotten that these are already old achievements.

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I shouldn’t really wish that more people remembered Majora. It would be harder for me to make a living if they did. But I do. I hate the deep breath I have to take before asking if anyone remembers Jumping Flash or Rescue On Fractalus. I hate being the geeky bore who’s more interested in talking about games from twenty years ago than about BioShock 2 or GTA 5. But even more I hate the waste of modern game development, of watching talented teams burn time and energy reinventing wheels previously perfected by men now in their 60s.

This isn’t about nostalgia. Most old games are shit. Most new games are shit too, of course, but that’s another story. But littered through the last forty-odd years of commercial videogame development are titles which are more effective treatises on design than anything Amazon could sell you. Everything I know about games I learned from games – or, at the furthest remove, I learned from people who’d learned everything they know about games from games.

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There are new avenues for games to explore – new technologies, new philosophies, new mechanics – and their potential fills me with excitement. But if all we manage over the next forty years is to do justice to the ideas and innovations of the last forty, we’d still exceed everyone’s wildest ambitions for gaming as medium.

So if you are oblivious to Majora you owe it to yourself to give it a try. I’m begging you now, right now, before time loops again and we get trapped in the same, wasteful cycle, this time please come back with me. There are riches in the past which outweigh the promise of the future.

[Margaret Robertson is the former editor of Edge magazine and now videogame consultant. One More Go is her regular Offworld column in which she explores the attractions of the games she just can't stop going back to.]

Previously:
One More Go: Werewolf, or why playing games can give you hairy palms – Offworld
One More Go: World of Warcraft, home is where the hearth is – Offworld
One More Go: Rhythm Tengoku, or Why plucking the hairy onion makes …
One More Go: Disgaea's quest for numerical orgasm – Offworld
One More Go: Donkey Kong Jungle Beat – Offworld
One More Go: Ikaruga, The Big Enemy Is Approaching – Offworld
One More Go: Ranarama – Offworld
One More Go: New York Times Crosswords – Offworld

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COMMENTS


  1. Lovely piece of writing. :)

    Harmen, you can get ocarina for wii I’m pretty sure. There’s also collector editions copies of windwaker for gamecube that include ocarina and majora’s mask which are wii compatible.

    I got my copy for gamecube and I must confess I haven’t played it. I know it’s brilliant, I just haven’t made time. I will now.


  2. @1 If you have a Wii or a Gamecube you can try and track down the Zelda Collector’s Edition that was released a while back.

    Still, I find Majora’s Mask to be the most annoying and obnoxious of the canonical Zelda games. Some of the repetition feels like a throwback to the bad old days, particularly the points where you have to repeat a dungeon because you died or you got stuck. To this day I haven’t finished it.



  3. I can only hope Nintendo releases Majora’s Mask for digital download some day soon.

    Even as a kid I found myself in the strange minority that asserted Majora’s Mask as the more interesting of the N64 Zeldas, but couldn’t explain why. I reeeeally want to take another look at it now, 10 years after the fact – if only I had any idea where my cartridge went.


  4. While I totally agree that Majora’s Mask hit all the right emotional notes with the characters (particularly the Zora whose form you take), I couldn’t stand the short time limit and constant repetition for more than a few cycles. I got frustrated with losing all the progress I’d made over and over again long before I’d finished the game.

    It also doesn’t surprise me that so few people played it. The game came out late in the system’s life and required an expensive add-on, making it a nearly-$100 game for anyone who didn’t already have the N64 Expansion Pack. Even hardcore Zelda fans would balk at paying almost a c-note for a Zelda game that Shigeru Miyamoto only had a small hand in.

    Still, I have to give the game a whole lot of credit for trying something so radically different than what was expected. Even in the 32/64-bit era, that must have taken some serious cohones.

    The different forms you could take were also a whole pile of fun.



  5. I remember never getting this for N64, getting the Zelda collector’s disc for Gamecube and still never playing it, before I finally buckled down and decided that I wanted to do it… and it really was quite good. I think it was a little hard to get into. You almost immediately start off as a weird little Deku guy, which is kind of off-putting, and the whole time-restart thing takes a few (in-game) days to get used to. But once you figure out what progress you can and can’t keep, I’d say it’s just as fun as Ocarina of Time.


  6. A New Challenger

    I never really got the bitching about the time mechanic. There were a couple of instances where it could potentially be frustrating (trying to grab all of the fairies in a dungeon) but never once did it hinder my enjoyment of the entire game. Okay, screwing up the final part of the whole Anju thing could be annoying as well, as that was one of if not the only event that required you to do stuff on each of the three days.

    Also, I may or may not have looked at a walkthrough for getting all the masks in Nintendo Power long before I actually got the game as part of the Zelda Collectors’ Edition. And I may have seen my sister play through most of it on a friend’s copy on the N64 (only two save files, grrr.) So maybe I didn’t have as much of an initial shock. I often wonder if anyone who hates the game ever learned the Reverse Song Of Time, though.


  7. I LOVE Majora’s Mask. Even to this day I can beat it in a mere ten hours. Few games have reached the emotional depth of Majora in terms of characters cohesive world and pure blow your mind weirdness.(the moon, the tree, the MASK CHILDREN?)
    I’m sure it will come out on virtual console at some point in the near future. We just have to wait.

    As for talking about old games, I can’t help but feel there are zillion untried design directions that could lead up and be updated from older games. I work in a game studio where we talk about Bio2 all the time (because some people are ummmm working on it) but in our design meetings we still talk about games like Exile, Taskmaker, Myst, Zelda, Metroid,Fallout 1,Zoombini’s, Zork and a million other treasures.
    We have much to learn from older games. Games from the 80s and 90s were made at a time where the consequences for experimentation and risk were less dire. Proto-typing was quick and free and the benchmark for pop success was lower. Of course exploring old games, being inspired by that knowledge and applying some of those ideas to design today will end up with something interesting, workable and ultimately fresh.

    Older games haven’t aged well. We’ve learned so much about usability since the 80s, 90s, early 2000s. Today you can save anywhere and quit at any time, tutorials have reached the point of art form and game VO is actually good. For those who can overlook a bit of design messiness older games have lots to offer and most are far more interesting than many of the stale boxes that line shelves today.


  8. I used to play this when my brother’s friend came over. I had very little idea of what was going on, but I loved it. Good times…


  9. I was little when I had it, so I never finished completely, but this never stopped me from playing. Definitely my favorite N64 game.


  10. hmm… i have an emulation of majora’s mask sitting on my hard drive. perhaps i should actually try playing it. i was putting it off because zelda games have a tendency to consume me and make me horribly unproductive.


  11. I liked Majora’s Mask better than Ocarina. While Ocarina was good old-school gameplay, it was still by-the-numbers. Majora’s Mask was more surreal with good character depth.

    It led me to divide similar games between Large-Scale (save the world) and Small-Scale (save your village). The difference between the former and the latter is quantity vs quality of the characters & locations. Small-Scale gives you only a few characters, but repeated interactions with them to give them depth. A lot of my favorite recent RPGs/adventures, such as Majora’s Mask & Persona 4, are Small-Scale. Both have the passage of time play a major factor, too; I wonder if that’s necessary for Small-Scale games?


  12. Successfully finishing the Anju quest, so that her missing lover comes through the door just before the world ends, was the most emotionally fulfilling quest in any game ever. My only complaint is that the music in Majora was not as good as Ocarina.


  13. Generic Lighthouse Unit

    One other great thing about the character side-quests was that you had to do some actual work to get them finished. Anju side-quest was, If I remember right, really long and required you to sacrifice a lot of time thinking, waiting and traveling in order to get all the pieces in the puzzle to fall into place. And rather than making the game tedious, I think it got you more involved with the character archetypes, made you think you sacrifices yourself just for them.


  14. You can also pick up a copy on Ebay for really quite cheap. I purchased myself an unopened copy several months ago for a little over $30. It’s sad really considering an unopened copy of Ocarina sells for several hundred rupees. Majora’s Mask is really a treasure all should experience at least once.


  15. I bought it a few years back and was pleasantly surprised with its quality despite its lack of claim. It is a great follow-up to OoT. The game had more immersion than OoT too. Becoming different species through the masks was a brilliant design.



  16. Nostranoodle…seeing as the article is at least partly an exhortation to get people to play the game, you’re a bit of an arse for posting that spoiler there.

    I’d be much obliged if you or a mod could mask that up in white text.

    Of course, for me it’s too late…although I will still try to track down a copy for the wii, it pisses me off that I couldn’t discover tyhat bit for myself.


  17. Anonymous: There is nothing, absolutely nothing, arbitrary about the time limit in Majora’s Mask. It’s critical to the experience. It’s also not final – you can speed up, slow down and reverse time at will.



  18. This is certainly among the top two or three in the Zelda series. I love it to death.

    I don’t agree with the comment that the music isn’t up to par. The upside-down fourth temple theme is perhaps the best Zelda song of all. And how about the emotional reunion of the little girl and her de-zombified dad, with the simple piano version of the Song of Healing in the background? Pure magic!

    There are so many others! The main theme at the beach, the Astrologer’s theme — these are great songs!


  19. majora’s mask and wind waker were both excellent and the way that dumb people have used good, central mechanics (the time system and the sailing, respectively) as reasons to dislike the two are maddening.


  20. Majora’s Mask is, in my very unfortunately deviant opinion, the best Zelda game because of its strange, surreal ambience. I’ve rarely come across a game that could consistently hold a unique atmosphere in such an exciting way quite as well (Bioshock is really the only one that comes to mind). As people have already said, it immerses the player quite well with a decent sountrack and some moving characterization. The theme of time is most consistently and artistically tackled in this game than any other in the Zelda series.

    Personally, I slam controllers with frustration in timed games, but I had no problem with this one, so I have trouble understanding where the detractors come from when criticizing the vestigial time-based mechanics because the game gives too many tools to overcome it for it to ever become a problem. Honestly, I don’t believe these people gave the game an earnest try, otherwise they would have found it wasn’t so bad.

    One complaint I have against the game is the lack of guiding introduction for new Zelda players who don’t want to resort to stradegy guides or any other outside help. I’m mostly referring to the first three days of the game, when a certain someone must be met at a certain place at the end; there are no hints anywhere to tell a player how to utilize cetain tools to get there. Though I suppose it didn’t matter too much because the game did not make mainstream status anyhow.

    If I were to make a list of “ten most artistic video games” (my way of giving Roger Ebert a well-earned middle finger), this game would definitely make it’s appearance.


  21. Majora’s Mask is, in my very unfortunately deviant opinion, the best Zelda game because of its strange, surreal ambiance. I’ve rarely come across a game that could consistently hold a unique atmosphere in such an exciting way quite as well (Bioshock is really the only one that comes to mind). As people have already said, it immerses the player quite well with a decent soundtrack and some moving characterization. The theme of time is most consistently and artistically tackled in this game than any other in the Zelda series.

    Personally, I slam controllers with frustration in timed games, but I had no problem with this one, so I have trouble understanding where the detractors come from when criticizing the vestigial time-based mechanics because the game gives too many tools to overcome it for it to ever become a problem. Honestly, I don’t believe these people gave the game an earnest try, otherwise they would have found it wasn’t so bad.

    One complaint I have against the game is the lack of guiding introduction for new Zelda players who don’t want to resort to strategy guides or any other outside help. I’m mostly referring to the first three days of the game, when a certain someone must be met at a certain place at the end; there are no hints anywhere to tell a player how to utilize certain tools to get there. Though I suppose it didn’t matter too much because the game did not make mainstream status anyhow.

    If I were to make a list of “ten most artistic video games” (my way of giving Roger Ebert a well-earned middle finger), this game would definitely make its appearance.


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