This post concludes a two-part Halloween special. You can read Part 1 here!
Let’s pick up with the characters.
As I mentioned in Part 1, the characters in Majora’s Mask are incredibly well-developed, thanks largely to the game’s three-day cycle. Many characters have their own stories that play out over the game’s span. As the player repeats the cycle, she can get to know these characters, and can even help them.
Over the game’s three-day span, the innkeeper waits faithfully for her lost love to return. Her lover hides in shame, unable to break a curse on his body. The circus troupe leader finds out that their event is canceled; unable to face his troupe, he tries to drink away his sorrows. An orphaned rancher loses her younger sister to creatures from the sky. The postman delivers letters to the very end, shaking in terror, unable to break his dedication to deliver the mail come rain or shine—or fiery death.
I could go on, and on, and on. The characters in Majora’s Mask are staggeringly well-developed. Heck, I haven’t even mentioned the mask salesman: the only character who seems to know exactly what’s happening.
Yeah, he’s creepy. If the player watches the moon crash into the earth, the screen fades to black, only for the salesman to chuckle and ask, “You’ve met with a terrible fate, haven’t you?”
The time travel
Besides the falling moon, the land is afflicted by terrible woes, all caused by an imp wearing a mysterious mask: Majora’s Mask. The swamp reeks of poison. The mountain is caught in a deadly cold snap. Murky water fills the ocean, driving away the fish. An ancient curse fills the valley. Everywhere the player goes, things have gone wrong.
Fear not! This is a Legend of Zelda game! The player can save the day! In addition to resolving the major crises mentioned above, the player can help people on a smaller scale. Remember the characters I mentioned a few paragraphs back? The player can reunite the lovers, comfort the circus troupe leader, protect the rancher’s sister, rescue the postman, and help many more.
Here’s where things get nihilistic.
I’ve discussed the game’s three-day cycle. At some point, the player must rewind time to the dawn of the first day. Guess what happens to the people the player helped? Yep—they are back where they started. Everything resets. Whatever good the player did is undone. The only person to benefit is the player himself, who keeps whatever reward he received for helping others. Those he helped? Nah, they’re screwed.
This Sisyphean cycle reinforces a sense of helplessness. Nothing the player does really matters. Everyone is doomed anyway. Besides, the player can’t help everyone in a single three-day cycle. While she helps certain characters, the others continue to suffer. She can’t help them all.
This hopelessness makes Majora’s Mask a surprisingly dark game, especially for the Legend of Zelda series. It also makes the game’s eventual happy ending all the more cathartic and satisfying.
The unsettling moments
On top of its nihilistic tone, Majora’s Mask offers plenty of creepy moments, and even a few scares. Don’t worry, I won’t spoil them all. I’ll spoil just one.
The cursed valley of Ikana is populated by corpse-like monsters and vengeful spirits… and one little girl. Meet Pamela.
Adorable, right? Pamela is a sweet girl. She lives with her father, a paranormal researcher, in a cute little house shaped like a music box. It even plays a cheery carnival tune to drive away those pesky undead monsters. How nice!
Then, one day, something goes wrong. Something goes very wrong.
Pamela’s father gets a little too, um, wrapped up in his research. His daughter shuts him in a wardrobe in the basement. Right around this time, Pamela’s music box house stops playing its music. Monsters begin circling her home with slow, lurching steps. She locks the front door. There are monsters outside, and a monster in the basement.
Fortunately for Pamela, this is right when the player arrives to save the day… assuming the player isn’t busy saving the day somewhere else on this particular three-day cycle. (If that’s the case… rest in peace, Pamela.) The player reactivates the music box, drives away the ghouls, and sneaks into the house when Pamela isn’t looking—only to find a monstrous mad scientist in the basement.
The scene itself is pretty scary. When the player looks at it from Pamela’s point of view, it’s much scarier. It’s scariest to realize that she (presumably) dies a horrible death every single time the player spends the three-day cycle helping other characters.
This is the kind of thing that scares me about Majora’s Mask. I don’t find more traditional horror games all that scary. Jump scares? Zombies? Whatever. Majora’s Mask takes a more insidious, Lovecraftian approach, and it scares me more than practically any other game I’ve played.
Majora’s Mask balances its bleak tone and occasional scares with surprising amounts of heart and humor.
The innkeeper’s grandmother is perfectly sane, but feigns senility in order to avoid eating her granddaughter’s lousy cooking. A cutthroat thief prances daintily instead of walking, even when fleeing the scene of a crime. The local mapmaker, Tingle, is convinced he’s a forest fairy… despite being merely a thirty-five-year-old man wearing red briefs.
Majora’s Mask is frequently surreal, but not always in spooky ways. Its weird touches are sometimes endearing, even heartwarming, providing comic relief in a story that might otherwise be too dark.
There’s so much I haven’t mentioned. This is a game with pirates, spirit foxes, Yorkshire Terriers, aliens, bobblehead cows, and a monstrous mechanical goat. Majora’s Mask is the very best kind of bonkers. It’s also designed with the same brilliance and loving care as the other greatest Legend of Zelda games, despite taking only one year to make.
This follow-up to The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time had to do the impossible: live up to expectations set by a game considered by many, even to this day, the best ever made. Majora’s Mask did the impossible. It’s better than its legendary predecessor.
I consider Ocarina of Time the greater game of the two. It broke new ground. It was amazing first. However, Majora’s Mask is the better game of the two. It’s superior in practically every way.
It’s also pretty freaking scary. Happy Halloween, everybody.