You’ve likely played at least one Legend of Zelda game. That game probably wasn’t Majora’s Mask.
Not that it wasn’t a hit. Originally released for the Nintendo 64 in 2000, Majora’s Mask sold nearly 4 million copies. It boasts an innovative time-travel premise, features great combat and puzzles, and ranks among the most critically acclaimed games in the long-running franchise.
But still it’s considered a sleeper, a lost classic. Why? Who knows. Perhaps it’s the fact that it directly followed what most gamers consider to be the high-water mark of the 3D Zelda games, 1998’s groundbreaking Ocarina of Time. Or maybe its darker tone and strange mechanics kept some folks at bay. You could even blame it on the PlayStation 2, which was released on the very same day. Ouch.
No matter how you missed it — or how long it’s been since you helped Link save a peculiar world from an angry, falling moon — Nintendo is giving you a do-over. The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask 3D isn’t just a beautifully sad, wildly creative, and smartly updated port of a 15-year-old game for the 3DS. It’s a must-own action adventure for any Nintendo gamer worth his weight in Rupees.
Much has been made of Majora’s Mask being the “weirdest” Zelda game, and, well, yeah, that’s pretty spot-on. Ditching the familiar comforts of Hyrule for the bizarro land of Termina, the game challenges Link — the same Link who just saved Hyrule in Ocarina of Time — to stop a jerky kid wearing a magical mask from triggering the apocalypse by bringing down the moon in three days’ time.
Luckily, Link still has that nifty ocarina, which he can use to rewind time once things get too close for comfort. Thus begins Link’s 72-hour version of Groundhog Day, but instead of trying to woo Andie MacDowell, he’s off to summon the power of four giants to help put an end to the madness.
It’s a fascinating gameplay conceit, and it holds up remarkably well. A little timer counts down the days, turning each gameplay session into a mildly stressful race against the clock (a handy time-slowing ocarina tune helps). Once you rewind time, the entire land — characters, monsters, major events, world state, etc. — rewinds as well, turning Termina into Link’s private Punxsutawney.
Unlike the constant forward momentum of most adventure games, Majora’s Mask revels in its amnesic rhythm. The breakthroughs — a special item here, a defeated boss there — don’t reveal their rewards immediately, but only through rewinding and starting the cycle anew. It’s Möbius strip storytelling, a twisting Ouroboros, and it’s just as fresh now as it was 15 years ago.
It’s also an existential bummer. The oddball citizens of Clock Town, the game’s main city, are lovably goofy and, as that third day draws to a close, gripped with angst, or acceptance, or denial as a giant, angry satellite bears down on their home. You feel the weight of their lives hanging in the balance, and thanks to an almost overbearing amount of side-quests, you’ll get to know each character well. Even Tingle. Oh, Tingle.
It’s heavy stuff for such an otherwise playful, cartoony affair, but that awkward, unsafe undercurrent is exactly what keeps Majora’s Mask’s engine running. Strange things happen. A UFO terrorizes a ranch. A hand pops out of a wooden toilet requesting assistance. Then there’s that moon, that scary, grimacing, enormous moon, hanging over everything. Even the brief cut-scene that plays when Link dons one of the game’s shape-shifting masks to gain useful new abilities is unsettling. The screen swirls as Link groans with pain. It’s like someone snuck a clip from Alice, Sweet Alice into the game code.
So yes, this is a weird video game. But it’s also a great one, and the 3DS version is the best yet.
The basics of movement and combat, largely retained from Ocarina of Time, work comfortably on the small system. The control scheme goes the extra mile, too, with nice additions like the ability to aim arrows by moving the 3DS itself. There’s a good reason Nintendo went with a limited-edition Majora’s Mask version of its upcoming New 3DS XL: The new system’s second analog stick is invaluable for camera control, and while it can be played adequately without it, it’s nowhere near as smooth.
But kudos to Nintendo for balancing a fine line with the visual upgrade. The graphical leap from the N64 to the 3DS is significant, especially in what it does for Link. He looks terrific. So does the rest of Majora’s Mask, for that matter, but it also looks like an older game, pointy polygonal edges and all. It lands on a happy medium, blending new power with nostalgia to create a game that looks as timeless as it feels.
Occasionally, however, the game does show its age, and it isn’t always flattering. The time travel mechanic, brilliant though it might be, also leads to a bit too much repetition. You’ll pass through the same environments more than a few times, especially if you don’t solve a particularly tricky puzzle or dungeon before time expires and you have to rewind.
Rewinding time can lead to more headaches, too. In one case, I failed to complete a certain side-quest (spoiler: it involves a powder keg) that halted progress further in the game. The solution? Replay a significant chunk of a level and fight the dungeon boss again. Sure, it’s unflinchingly old-school, but it’s also wonky and frustrating.
By and large, however, Majora’s Mask for the 3DS is a wonderful trip — emphasis on trip — through the dark, deep, and ultimately delightful black sheep of the Zelda line. Back in 2000, it was heralded as a game ahead of its time. That time is now. Don’t miss it again.
What’s hot: Time travel; memorable characters; strange and sad in all the right ways; looks and plays great on the 3DS
What’s not: Can be annoyingly repetitive; boss fights are too easy
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