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The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask is the weirdest game in the Zelda series. It’s also the best, even better than its obvious inspiration, Ocarina of Time.

I originally played the game upon its release on the Nintendo 64 in 2000, and I fell in love with its bizarre world and innovative take on the core Zelda formula. It’s always been my favorite 3D Zelda game (next to Wind Waker), but I couldn’t quite articulate why until I replayed it recently, in its 3DS re-release.

Majora’s Mask isn’t just great because it’s different — though it sticks out even among its odder brethren. Majora’s Mask is great because it takes risks that pay off. It comments intelligently on its inspiration, it presents characters and a world that demand attention and even affection and it is the best-realized, best-designed game in the series.

A whole new world

I know this isn’t internet hyperbole etiquette, but I want to give proper respect to Ocarina of Time. Without it and its revolutionizing the Zelda template for 3D, Majora’s Mask wouldn’t exist. It informs everything about Majora — from the basic controls and moment-to-moment gameplay down to many of the art assets. It’s a beloved classic, and a truly fantastic piece of game design.

A mere two years after Ocarina‘s release, Majora’s Mask came on the scene. It was originally conceived of as a side story to Ocarina, a pseudo-sequel, and it was set in the bizarre parallel universe of Termina. Fans tend to love it and call it their favorite, or hate it and go back to playing Ocarina. Structurally, it’s the most innovative game in the series. No other Zelda — not even A Link Between Worlds, with its rental mechanic had the guts to mess with the core Zelda formula this much.

Majora’s Mask has the player repeating the same three days over and over again, until you have everything in place to finally defeat the main antagonist, the skull kid. A giant, menacing moon threatens to crash down and end the world — and it does, like clockwork, on every third day.

You can make permanent progress in the game on each cycle — defeating a dungeon and clearing that section of the world from evil (at least, until the next reset), collecting masks and quest items, etc. But you will lose some of your items — and all of the people you interacted with will forget you on each cycle.

This overall structure is weird and risky enough for a Zelda game, a series that tends to play things conservatively when it comes to formula. But Majora’s Mask goes even further off the beaten path by fully integrating the world and its various dungeons and tying many player powers to masks — four of which transform Link into an entirely different creature.

In taking these massive risks with the proven formula, Majora’s Mask feels fresh and bold even 15 years after its initial release.

Majora’s Mask feels fresh and bold even 15 years later

Importantly, it never feels like the game messes with structure just for novelty’s sake. Majora’s Mask feels committed to every design decision — the mask powers are needed in every dungeon and sub-dungeon, and even most side quests require some blend of mask powers. The three-day cycle is ironclad. The need to complete several side quests in the world around each dungeon, including side dungeons, follows throughout the entire game. In doing so, the game is not only a refreshing change of pace, it’s able to explore its themes thoroughly. It takes an unconventional game to tell this particular, unconventional story.

Zelda Gaiden

Much of what makes Majora’s Mask so special is how it comments on, and radically differs from, Ocarina. In Ocarina, the story centers on Link as The Hero of Time. Mr. Hero. It’s a simple narrative about good and evil, and you play the chosen one as he adventures to right all the wrongs of the world by conquering bosses and besting dungeons.

Majora’s Mask is more complicated. Sure, you can still be a hero, and you still need to save the world. But, by design, you will fail many times throughout that journey. That you need to repeat the same three days over and over again means, well, you essentially fail often. The world ends. The people that you get to know — all of whom have personalities and problems — will die, many times, until you get it right.

That’s a sober, difficult thought to swallow, and a perfect counterpoint to Ocarina‘s gung-ho narrative.

Artfully repurposed

It’s especially touching, given that, if you’ve played Ocarina, you’ve seen all these people before.

Majora’s Mask makes brilliant use of Ocarina‘s art assets. Most of the characters and enemies and even world textures are here, but re-arranged and re-contextualized. Termina itself is something like a remixed version of Hyrule, with a sort of dream logic behind the re-assignments.

The “hags” Koume and Kotake, who form the Twinrova boss in Ocarina, are just two sisters who live in the Southern Swamp here. You need to help them out in order to make any headway in the swamp, and, far from being witchy, they seem like cool old ladies here.

Being a hero is more important than just saving the world

Most of the NPCs, which were merely one-dimensional enemies or window dressing in Ocarina, are now fleshed out in a similar manner. These people have hopes and dreams and fears. They have schedules that you need to pay attention to to help solve their problems. They need to reconnect with loved ones, or find some kind of peace or hope while the world keeps threatening to end. Going on side quests feels more central and important than it ever does in Ocarina, because you actually care about these people. Being a hero is more important than just saving the world. It means making a personal connection, it means caring, on some level.

And that is supported in the gameplay itself. On day one, late at night, you can help save Romani Ranch from ghostly space invaders. Doing so keeps Romani herself — a young girl — safe, and allows you to complete a side quest on day two. You don’t have to help everyone in this game — but it behooves you to do so.

Is this all a little goofy and playful? Sure. There’s even a side quest where you need to help a ghostly hand find toilet paper in a mysterious bathroom. Majora’s Mask is colorful and has far more light moments than its predecessor. But I always thought about the consequences of my actions in this game. The game may operate on dream logic, but it cares deeply about the people that live in its bizarre world.

Masks

It’s precisely that care that makes the game so special.

Majora’s Mask is what happens when talented, acclaimed game designers use existing assets and design elements and reconstruct them in new, meaningful ways. It’s what happens when these people have permission to be weird and even sad, to create something that reflects on previous creations.

Majora’s Mask lodges in your memory and sticks forever. In its imagery, in its weird but consistent logic, in its charming, odd characters. It’s unforgettable.

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