27 April 2015

A few weeks ago, I purchased a 3DS with the intention of digging into its catalogue. Off the top of my head, I could count several games I was interested in trying out: Monster Hunter 4, Bravely Default, Xenoblade Chronicles, Luigi’s Mansion: Dark Moon, Fire Emblem Awakening, Pokémon X (or Y), and all three Zelda games: A Link Between Worlds, Ocarina of Time 3D and Majora’s Mask 3D. Especially Majora’s Mask 3D.

Considering how influential its original incarnation on the N64 was for me, let’s just say I was pretty excited about it. Twenty hours of non consecutive play time later, with all masks and most pieces of heart collected, here are my thoughts about it.

Before I begin, let me say a few things. First off, the New 3DS XL is a pretty cool piece of hardware. The 3D and the touch screen work well, the battery life is pretty good, and overall it made me realize how important it is for a mobile gaming device to have real actual physical controls if it wants anything more complex than pointing and clicking. Secondly, Majora’s Mask 3D is everything a remaster should be: it’s the same game but better looking and sounding and with most of its numerous frustrations polished away. If you liked the original MM and you own a 3DS, pick it up. If you didn’t like MM, then your heart is probably all withered and sad, but it’s okay, I won’t judge you.

Becoming the mask

So, what makes Majora’s Mask so interesting? Well, for one, it’s a Zelda game, but it doesn’t really feel like one. Oh sure, it looks like Zelda: it was made with the assets, talent and tech of Ocarina of Time, after all. But it doesn’t have the same ideas. Zelda as a whole is built on a very Judeo-Christian theme: Evil is always present, but it will always lose to mortals chosen by God. The series is as such very idealistic: yes, Ganondorf will return one day, but he’ll still lose, because Good always triumphs over Evil. If you couple this with a high fantasy setting of elves and castles and magic, then it’s no wonder why Nintendo chose this particular attack vector to secure the Western market.

On a surface level, Majora’s Mask still fits the same artistic direction of its predecessor, at it was built from Ocarina of Time. But underneath, it is nothing like any other Zelda game. Firstly, it is incredibly cynical: the entire concept behind MM is that trying to help everyone is pointless, as you will not have enough time to do it all, and in the end you’ll have to reset and your work will be undone. Quickly you adopt a quite mercenary attitude: you help people not because it is the right thing to do, but because you need the items they will give you in return. After all, what is the point in saving everyone if you have to start over on every cycle?

Majora’s Mask has a happy ending, but it doesn’t really work. It’s more of a weird timeline merge that shows what you would get if you saved everyone in the same cycle before going up Clock Tower and confronting the Skull Kid. While it is technically doable, in practice that’s not likely to happen. I understand that many of the credits’ scenes only appear if you have collected certain masks (for instance, get the Couple’s Mask to see Anju and Kafei’s wedding), which makes them some sort of reward for 100% completion. But still, it would have worked better from a narrative standpoint if the credits instead showed you the state at the end of your most recent cycle: basically, this is where you broke the loop, and now there’s no turning back. In any case, there are some people that cannot be saved no matter what: the Deku Butler will never see his son again, and Lulu will have to raise her children alone.

Remember, it’s always the process

Come to think of it, I have the feeling that most of what makes Majora’s Mask special is probably a direct result of its development. The story goes that after the grueling process of making Ocarina of Time, which lasted four years, the team behind it was tasked with making an expansion pack for the N64 Disk Drive add-on. But there was a problem: the developers were understandably sick of it all. Then level designer Eiji Aonuma bargained with Shigeru Miyamoto: if they could make a Zelda game in one year, then they wouldn’t have to work any more on OoT’s expansion. Miyamoto accepted, and the gamble paid off. From this, it is easy to see how Majora’s Mask is very cynical and deals with very adult themes and ideas. After all, it was made by exhausted and stressed out people on a tight deadline. In such conditions, it’s probably easy to see most things as pointless.

Because of said short deadline, MM has only four dungeons and the rewind mechanic means many events can be stuffed in the same areas by placing them at different times. Most characters reuse existing models from OoT. And since it’s much more easy to write more text for a character with an already made model than it is to design levels, puzzles and combat encounters, most side quests involve bringing something to someone at a specific time, and a lot of the content is basically dialogue. The most fascinating part is the gigantic level of attention to details that went into making the game despite the tight deadline: there are so many special bits of dialogue depending on who you talk two, when, and wearing which mask, which leads you to go and try to learn as much as possible about everyone. This makes the people of Termina the focal point of the game, and this is why the end credits are mostly their whereabouts. This is in stark contrast with Ocarina of Time’s end scene, which mostly consisted of Hyrule’s landscape. In short: Majora’s Mask is about characters, while Ocarina of Time is more about the world they live in.

And finally, no other Zelda game is like this. Wind Waker returned to the usual “chosen boy saves the world by going through dungeons” structure, and every other Zelda afterwards did the same. And while many people describe Twilight Princess as “dark”, it’s not the same feeling: TP is Ocarina of Time with some blood splatters added, while Majora’s Mask is all about existential horror that only hits you when you’re standing in the shower and thinking about something else. TP’s darkness is only skin deep, while MM’s sticks with you. TP is for teenagers, MM is for adults.

I’m not saying it’s dumb, but…

Because here’s the thing: for all its strenghts, Zelda as a whole is little more than high quality entertainment. It looks good and sounds goods, it checks all the little boxes on the “How to Make a Good Game” list, but it’s still just entertainment. Zelda games are some of my favorites, and it’s one of the few series that I would feel comfortable buying at full price on launch day, because I know that they’ll come with the level of quality and polish that I would expect. But while Zelda games are safe bets, they’re not really thought provoking. They might be engaging and packed full of content, but they don’t challenge you. In a way, it’s a bit like Lord of the Rings: sure, you had a blast enjoying that, but once you’re done with it, all that’s left is a few quotes and a few memes, but no real questions. Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against quality entertainment, and Lord of the Rings is an incredibly well written story, but it’s good to have something that pushes the envelope a bit once in a while.

And as such, Majora’s Mask is the dark horse of its franchise, and this is why it’s important: it is proof that, even in an established AAA franchise with a well developed structure, there is still room for experimentation, and that a tighter experimental title made with a smaller team and budget can still have great critical and financial success. I don’t think they’ll do it again, since Nintendo, these days at least, dislikes anything that might scare children, but hey, maybe the stars will align at one point.

And now you know why Majora’s Mask is my favorite Zelda game. While I think Twilight Princess is the technically superior one, and Ocarina of Time is the most important from an historical standpoint, I still prefer MM since it’s the only one that still occupies my mind even when I’m not playing it. Now, keep in mind that I didn’t play Skyward Sword, so maybe there’s a bunch of hidden subtext in that one that renders my whole point moot. And hey, maybe the Wii U Zelda will change my entire outlook on things.

Anyway, as I said earlier, if you own a 3DS, there is no reason aside from poor finances to not play this. You might not love it, but it will not leave you unaffected. And with that out of the way, I’m gonna try out Luigi’s Mansion: Dark Moon next. If it’s interesting enough, maybe I’ll write a review.

Oh, also, I’m happy to announce that you can expect a new article on the last monday of every month! How’s that for a deadline?