1. Whose Time Is It Anyway?
Time limits are stressful. They demand your attention, your focus, your concentration. You must complete a given task or set of tasks within an allocated time. They exert pressure on your to perform as well as you can. Sometimes, even when you least expect it, they can push yourself that bit further and you realise that you’re better than you once thought. But other times, it’s really just not what you need. Sometimes, you feel the need to rest, to relax, to unplug and let things just pass by. Time limits then are a double-edged sword, and should always be wielded with care.
The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask (2000) is famous for its time limit. Its entire story and structure are built around this time limit. You have three days to stop the moon crashing into the earth, or everyone will die. No really, it will. Do nothing and you can watch the buildings get flattened and the earth get scorched. The entire world goes to hell in a handbasket right before your very eyes. That’s pretty heavy stuff for a video game rated ‘E for Everyone’. Due to the lack of an official ratings board until 2003, the British version didn’t even have an age rating.
Yet it’s miraculous that the game even came to exist. After the incredible critical and commercial success of the franchise’s previous instalment, Ocarina of Time (1998), producer Shigeru Miyamoto wanted to make a remixed version of the game featuring a mirrored overworld and redesigned dungeons. Eiji Aonuma, who was in charge of designing those dungeons, did not. Aonuma countered with a request to make a new game instead. Miyamoto obliged, but gave him only one year to make it. Given that Ocarina of Time’s development had taken nearly four years, you can imagine Aonuma’s despair. Majora’s Mask was born from a very strict time limit.
2. The Greatest Game Of All Time Isn’t All That Great
I don’t like Ocarina of Time all that much. I played the 2011 remake for 3DS a decade ago now and my thoughts upon completion was that it was just a good action-adventure game, no masterpiece. It was elevated at times by some excellent dungeons and action set pieces, but dragged down by most of the running around in between, which I found largely tedious. I guess you just had to be there to understand why it felt so revolutionary at the time.
The story is a pretty traditional ‘Hero’s Journey’ where a young boy is destined to be the Hero of Time, stop the Evil Ganondorf from conquering the land of Hyrule and save the princess Zelda. Supporting characters you met felt like accessories to your quest, interfaces you were required to interact with just to impart further story details. I found it all laughably predictable. It taught me that Zelda games were not about the story. To me, Ocarina of Time felt like, well, a product of its time.
Critics might retort that this is what Zelda games are supposed to be, about the going on an adventure, exploring the overworld, solving puzzles and fighting monsters. It’s meant to be a form of escapism, a power fantasy, something to make you feel good. And indeed, most Zelda games tell that same basic story as Ocarina of Time: boy wakes up, boy puts on green tunic, boy sent off to save the world. It’s just there as a framing device, existing to give some context for the sequence of events that make up the actual game itself. Everything else is just aesthetic.
3. The Game I Never Wanted Until I Needed It
I learnt about Majora’s Mask existence in the pages of Official Nintendo Magazine, mostly around the time it saw a release on the Wii Virtual Console in 2009. It seemed to be primarily defined by its black sheep status, the not-quite-as-good sequel to Ocarina of Time. It looked strange to me and I definitely did not appreciate the chunky 3D graphics. However, it was in 2011 when I watched Chuggaaconroy’s Let’s Play of the title that I was shunted me out of my shallow first impressions. Enough so that when Nintendo announced a glossy 3DS remake of Majora’s Mask for release in Spring 2015 that I promptly bought it… and left it on a shelf for seven years.
This doesn’t surprise me in retrospect. The stresses of university life and, later, working life were constantly hanging over me. There was always some new deadline to meet. So strangely I never found myself in the mood for a video game which would set me deadlines whilst a terribly stressful object was hanging over me. I think over time I was afraid that it would feel as mediocre as Ocarina of Time but with extra dollops of stress and anxiety thrown on top. Majora’s Mask now actually scared me and I had not even booted up the game.
I then visited a friend earlier this month and brought my Nintendo Switch so we could play games together. When I showed him the range of retro games available through the online membership, he asked to play Majora’s Mask, because he’d never played a Zelda game but always wanted to and he had heard of it because of the infamous ‘Ben Drowned’ creepypasta. I happily obliged and spent the next ninety minutes watching him progress out of the game’s first area, Clock Town. I was enthralled by his experience and my anxiety had been cracked. I was now eager to play it for myself.
4. A Different Kind of Zelda
Majora’sstory is a product of its constraints. With just one year originally allocated to make a new Zelda title, it was essential for the development team to reuse many the same assets from Ocarina of Time. It used the same engine, user interfaces, basic control scheme as well as large amounts of its music, code and character models from that game. As Ocarina was an origin story for this incarnation of Link as the Hero of Time, Majora had to be a direct sequel to Ocarina. But Link has already saved the entire world; he has fulfilled his destiny – where does he go from here?
Majora opens with Link on horseback wandering through a dark forest, the text narration telling us he is searching for a dear friend with whom he parted ways after his last adventure. This is not some quest handed down to him from the heavens, for once this is his own choice. Link finally has some agency in the trajectory of his life. Majora moves past the epic and heroic nature of Ocarina, and instead embraces the intimate and introspective. This is Link’s personal quest; he is soul-searching.
Link is quickly ambushed by Skull Kid, who is wearing the titular mask. In Ocarina, we learn that Skull Kids are believed to be children who wander into the Lost Woods and never return, becoming inhabitants of the forest. They have bird-like faces, wear clothes made from straw and carry a flute. Far from malicious, they are known to be cheeky and playful. Perhaps this is the same Skull Kid the one Link encounters in Ocarina, but we simply don’t know.
The mischievous Skull Kid steals Link’s ocarina and horse, before making a hasty getaway. Link tries desperately to hold on to his trusty steed but his grip eventually slips. He valiantly gives chase, entering a large hollow tree, before suddenly falling down a large empty hole, Alice in Wonderland-style. The transition is quite abstract and surreal: as Link falls through the darkness a swarm of brightly coloured symbols depicting various objects and faces rise up towards the screen.
Link’s fall comes to an end and he encounters Skull Kid once again, but he’s different this time. The mischievous child-like bandit is gone. Skull Kid is casually floating in mid-air, illuminated by spotlights, evoking a powerful and vengeful aura. His dialogue changes from cheeky to cruel. His mask rattles and quakes, transforming Link into a Deku Scrub, a tiny forest creature made with a body of wood and leaves for hair. He stares at his reflection and squeals in horror. It’s quite startling to see such body horror in a Nintendo game. All of Link’s growth and maturity from Ocarina is wiped away just like that. He has become a child once more and must learn to mature once again.
5. Delivered at Termina
You then wander along a corridor that rotates a full 360°, twisting your entire view and flipping you upside down. This is how Link enters the topsy-turvy parallel world of Termina. The developers have confirmed that the world gets its name from the noun ‘terminal’ denoting a place where many people pass through whilst journeying towards their destination. Fans have speculated that the game is suggesting that Link is dead and we are following his journey through purgatory or the afterlife. However, in Japanese the word ‘terminal’ doesn’t have the same connation with death and finality as it does in the West, which I feel is evidence enough that this was not the intention of the developers.
As you explore this new world, you might get an uncanny feeling if you’ve already played Ocarina prior. Many of the world’s buildings and landmarks will feel familiar, but everything has been… remixed, jumbled up, discombobulated. Many of the characters that you encountered in Ocarina will reappear, but they now have new names or new jobs. A pair of wicked witches who were bosses you had to defeat in Ocarina now run a potion shop and boat tours in Majora.
You will also notice a ticking clock along the bottom of the screen, constantly reminding you how many hours you have left. ‘Left until what?’ you might ask. If you just happen to look up in the sky, that uncanny feeling turns into dread. A giant moon with an awful face hangs in the sky. It is slowly moving towards the earth. The apocalypse is nigh and there’s no escape from this land, no turning back. We are now trapped in the realm of Majora’s Mask, whether you like it or not. You’ve met with a terrible fate, haven’t you?
6. A Heart of Darkness
It took me several hours before I finally noticed something that the symbolism of Majora’s Mask had been staring me in the face the entire time. The mask itself is shaped like a heart, painted in reds and yellows and purples. It has two large, bright yellow eyeballs, like those belonging to a wild animal, and tiny green eyes within them. It has no mouth and yet a face that screams. There are ten spikes protruding from it: two from the top of its head, like devil horns, and four from each side, like cat whiskers. Some of the protuberances have tints of orange and green and blue. It is striking how so many different colours come together to form such a dark palette. Perhaps the spikes are not facial features though, maybe they are needles piercing the skin, like those stuck within a voodoo doll; it certainly has an occult feel. The combination of shapes, colours and features made me realise that Majora’s Mask really is a heart of darkness, one that preys on the shadows of others.
Skull Kid is going through a particularly challenging time when he first encounters Majora’s Mask. He played some mischievous pranks and, as a result, lost his four friends, the giants of Termina, and now feels very sad lonely. This makes him vulnerable to the influence of Majora’s Mask. Skull Kid’s body becomes of a vessel for the mask to wreak havoc on the lands of Termina; he is quite literally a voodoo child.
His emotions of torment and sadness are amplified tenfold to cause a series of ills that plague Termina. In the South, the swamps are poisoned and the local Deku people blame an innocent monkey for their problems. In the North, the mountains are frozen over and the Goron people have lost their one great leader whom they believed was their only hope. In the West, a Zora has lost her eggs because the oceans have become stormy and restless, and so the members of her rock band are in a state of deep depression. In the East, the souls and spirits of dead soldiers from two rival armies continue to fight centuries after they all had long perished. And in the centre of it all is Clock Town, where the annual Carnival of Time is set to be cancelled because the moon is heading straight for the clock tower. The entire world is in crisis and it seems that only have a chance at putting thing right.
7. We All Wear Masks From Time to Time
The Happy Mask Salesman provides you with a way forward. He was a minor character in Ocarina, a person who sold you masks to deliver to other characters. This little side hustle enabled you to befriend some NPCs, make some spare cash and complete a trading sequence. But he’s no longer just another side character now, the Happy Mask Salesman is your mentor. All he wants in return is for you to find his missing mask, the titular Majora’s Mask. He teaches you the Song of Healing, which helps you return to your former state. He encourages you to find more masks and to use them to make all the people that you meet as happy as they can be.
When you initially fail to return Majora’s Mask, his jolly exterior disappears into raving anger. His mask has slipped to reveal his deeper anxious feelings. It also reads as a sly dig at the shiny, polished image of capitalist outlets. The Happy Mask Salesman encapsulates one of Majora’s most prominent themes: how adults hide their troubled and anxious feelings beneath a calmer and happier exterior, a critique of the values of stoicism so blatant you’d think the script was written by Kazuo Ishiguro. The children within Majora’s Mask will always tell you exactly how they’re feeling. All the children that you meet have no problems with hiding their true feelings, whether they are distraught or carefree. It’s the adults you have watch for. Masks allow these characters to hide their true feelings from the world.
Masks are an important and unique aspect of Majora’s gameplay. You receive masks from other characters by making them happy, whether that means helping with them with a particular task or just listening to what they have to say. Each of these masks help you obtain additional items and progress other sidequests. A pair of dancers need to discover a new dance to perform at the upcoming festival whilst someone else just wants to see their baby chicks become fully grown Cuckoos before he dies. Both of these wishes can be fulfilled if you find and then use the right mask. The game rewards you for your attentiveness and for taking the time to understand each character’s needs, establishing a positive feedback loop. Thus, the game teaches you that by making others feel happy you will also feel happy. Masks provide a necessary source of joy to momentarily escape the end times.
8. The Hero Hiding in Plain Sight
Likewise, you will also acquire three transformation masks throughout your quest: the Deku Scrub, the Goron and the Zora masks. These masks are created by Link through playing the Song of Healing in order to bring peace to three characters who have either died or are just about to pass on. Their souls become crystalised in the form of these masks. This enables Link to assume their identity and acquire new abilities. The Deku Scrub can burrow and then launch themselves from Deku flowers to fly over large gaps, the Goron can break heavy rocks and roll at incredible speeds over ramps, whilst the Zora can swim underwater at great speeds. The player must utilise the skills of all these forms, including Link’s regular human form, if they want to complete the game.
But with great powers comes great responsibilities. In return, Link must take on each of their own personal challenges before they were tragically struck off in their prime. The nameless Deku Scrub must rescue an innocent monkey and cleanse the poison from his swampy homeland, Darmani the Goron must help the stop the endless winter and also stop a baby from crying, Mikau the Zora must reunite his fractured band and find the missing eggs of their lead singer. Unlike in Ocarina, where each quest was one more arbitrary step towards saving the world, the quests of Majora are an end to themselves, providing happiness and comfort to their family, friends and peers in those precious final days before the world ends. Masks therefore act as the sum of their memories, their legacies.
The consequence of this is that Link effectively becomes a ghost. Ocarina is a game where everyone seemed to know who you were by reputation alone, Majora is one where nobody knows who you are – you’re just some random kid! And when they do recognise you, it’s because you have taken on somebody else’s form. The only way for people to remember you is to perform good deeds for them. It shifts Ocarina’s attention away from who you are (The Hero of Time) and where you are going (Hyrule Castle, to defeat Ganon and save Zelda). Majora’s Mask is much more fixated on what you do (your good deeds) and why you are doing it (to help ordinary people). What might feel like a curse to begin with slowly slips away, revealing itself to be a blessing in disguise: the masks allow your old self to completely disappear and a new self to emerge from within. But in order to make the transformation, you first have to make the choice to do it.
9. Finding Hope in A Hopeless Time
Majora’s Mask is perhaps the best depiction of desperation and hopelessness I’ve encountered in any video game. It’s raw and overwhelming and inescapable. Just like the moon at the end of the final day, this game crushes you. But by learning to cope with the constant resetting of time and working through the challenging emotional state you are trapped within the player can find that there is still hope, even in the darkest of times. It may also be unsurprising to hear that the game constantly reminded me of the all-too-recent (and still ongoing) pandemic, as many of the characters felt like they were just one step removed from the present world. There are far too many characters that I’d love to discuss here but I’ll pick the few that really stood out for me.
Firstly, there’s the Postman – a true hero among modern society. Every morning you see him running around Clock Town collecting letters from each mailbox and then delivering them to the residents of Clock Town. But each night he goes home in a state of anguish; he is torn between leaving the town to be with his family or staying to perform his essential duties. The Postman is a ‘key worker’ trapped by his sense of loyalty and goes largely unrewarded. Only by completing a strict set of time-critical tasks can you deliver his ‘marching orders’ to him, allowing him to finally leave Clock Town, mere hours before the world ends.
Then there’s the story of Pamela and her father (who has no given name). Whilst conducting his research into the spirits found in Ikana Canyon, Pamela’s father becomes cursed and is slowly turning into a Gibdo, a sort of undead mummified creature. Pamela makes the awfully brave decision to lock herself inside the house with her father to keep everyone else safe from the curse. But the house becomes surrounded by other Gibdos and so there isn’t anyone coming to rescue her. Eventually you drive away the monsters from their home and play the Song of Healing to lift the curse from Pamela’s father. The thought of Pamela being housebound with a sick parent, trying to cope on her own, with nobody sending any help, all in the backdrop of unprecedented world events, still haunts me even after all these days since I finished the game. But the moment when she is reunited with her father, now uncursed, is a beautifully touching moment and managed to restore a sense of hope within a player as cynical as myself.
But arguably the most memorable side characters in the game are the star-crossed lovers of Kafei and Anju. The quest to reunite them before the world ends is frequently lauded as one of the best, if not the best, sidequests in Zelda history. After much investigation around Clock Town you will eventually find Kafei in hiding. He has been trapped in the body of a child by Skull Kid and has lost the mask he must exchange with Anju at their wedding. Through an exchange of messages, recovering the lost mask and retaliating against the thoughts of some doubtful parents, you are able to reunite the two just ninety minutes before the world ends. The image of them embracing each other as the sky burns from the impending doom is powerful and moving reminder of the importance of love and hope in desperate times. Anju then turns to Link and says “Please take refuge. We are fine here. We shall greet the morning… together.” I left the room without a sound, leaving them to spend their final moments with each other.
10. There’s Just No Time To Die
Clockwork games and time loops are now considered to be quite fashionable, particularly among the indie developers. Just in the last handful of years we’ve had the likes of Outer Wilds, Minit, Overboard!, Deathloop and Returnal. But back in the year 2000 it was quite an innovative and unusual feature. Majora’s Mask is considered to be one of the earliest examples of a ‘clockwork game’. As already mentioned, the world of Termina will end in three days. Every real-time second is roughly a minute of in-game time, each real-time minute roughly an in-game hour and each real-time hour is almost the entirety of your three in-game days. The dawn of each day is marked with a plain title card. There’s an on-screen ticking clock to remind you that time is never standing still.
The first three days act as a tutorial for the game’s central mechanic. Trapping you within Clock Town immerses you among the hustle and bustle of people wandering around, each one following their own schedule by day and night. The initial set of tasks encourage you to explore the entire town and teach you that certain tasks must be completed in certain orders or at certain times. You might even witness an old lady being mugged on the first night but you can’t help her until later on. There’s even a Notebook provided that keeps track of all these bits of information. Time management is just as important as a spirit of adventure.
I was unsurprised to read several reports online about kids who found Majora’s Mask to be a difficult, obtuse and frustrating experience. Partly this is because there’s much greater emphasis on player-led exploration and piecing disparate information together in order to make progress, rather than the more hand-holdy, following the ‘adventure line’ approach to story seen in Ocarina of Time. But mostly I feel this is down to the game’s atypical structure of time repeatedly looping back around and resetting, which can come across as a repetitive fail-state. to a young child if they don’t make the required progress within the allocated time – but instead of dying and losing a life you’re just trapped within a living hell. Nintendo has always been a very family-orientated developer so perhaps these tales of confusion among younger players are why they been reluctant to explore time-travel in any of their games since.
11. Philosophical Fancies
Zelda games are very stoic by their nature. They ask you, the player, to give up their safe and tranquil home lives and set forth on an epic adventure to save the world from a great evil, all without saying a cross word. Perhaps this is just an accidental feature of an adventure game franchise where the lead character happens to be a mute? After all, mute protagonists are not uncommon in video games that want the player to supplant themselves into the role of their protagonist. But it doesn’t appear accidental to me.
At one point in the game you can witness an argument occurring in the Mayor’s Office as to whether the Carnival of Time should be cancelled or not because of the giant moon heading towards them. At one point in the discussion, the Mayor remarks “Let’s not bring my wife into this.” This has been confirmed in interviews as an inside joke among the development staff in reference to the long hours they were spending to make the game, meaning they did not spend much time with their families. I suspect there would have been several members of staff who believed the sacrifices they were making was more important than how they felt during the development.
Writer and journalist Kate Gray has also highlighted that Majora’s Mask has a much greater helping of other philosophical concepts, namely nihilism and absurdism. Nihilism is present within the townsfolk of Clock Town, as they become ever more despondent when they realise the world is going to end and their lives will go unfulfilled, whether that be because they will never see their family again, marry their true love or even see their baby chicks hatch into adult hens. Their lives suddenly seem so pointless when the things that matter to them have been taken away.
Meanwhile, absurdism is rife within Majora’s Mask. You fall down a rabbit hole into an alternative dimension. There’s a giant moon with a scary face on it, not to mention an atypical sense of gravity. There’s a local farm is fending off its annual alien invasion. There’s a mortal child who used to be good friends and regularly play with four eternal giants. There’s a mask that lets you talk to rocks for crying out loud. Life is strange frankly, and you’re just left to get on with it. After all, what’s the point of being alive, if not to find some meaning among the chaos of existence?
12. Letting Things Go
Adventure games are almost entirely driven by the accumulation of stuff: money, potions, weapons, gear. Sometimes you will even have to trade stuff to get other stuff. As a wise man once told me, money can be exchanged for goods and services. But Majora’s Mask is a rare example of an adventure game that asks you to give away your spoils before you reach the endgame. Assuming that you are going for 100% completion, in order to acquire the last four heart pieces as well as the final mask of the game, you must give away all of the masks you have acquired over the course of your quest. Despite figuring out I would lose them all anyway, I still ended up giving them away roughly in order from least to most sentimental value. I actually found it harder to give away the masks that I had used the most or spent the most time working towards obtaining them. But this is all part of the game’s broader spiritual message of learning to let things go.
The climax of Majora’s Mask is not so much about triumph over evil as it is about acceptance of change. The hero Link must accept the loss of his childhood innocence and the friends he had made throughout his quest during the events of Ocarina of Time. Skull Kid must accept that his friends, the four Giants of Termina, have moved on now to the responsibilities of adulthood, that is protecting the land of Termina, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be friends still. The final song you play on Link’s ocarina is the Oath to Order, a mournful and melancholic tune that symbolises their acceptance of loss and grief for the lives they once knew.
The Happy Mask Salesman memorably concludes the story with a sentiment about companionship: “Whenever there is a meeting, a parting shall follow. But that parting needs not last forever. Whether a parting be forever or merely for a short while… that is up to you.” Link started his journey by searching for his friend Na’vi and whilst it is left unsaid whether he continues to search for her, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they ever stopped being friends. Link and Skull Kid must also accept a new and different world, ones forever changed by their actions, but they don’t have to do it alone. A tree mural of them both, presumably carved by Skull Kid, symbolises their everlasting friendship, regardless of whether they ever see each other again.
Having now become a hero to the inhabitants of Termina, Link must also let go of them and return to the land of Hyrule. He arrives back at the Lost Woods with his trusty steed and, at last, spots a light at the end of the forest. Without hesitation, he heads onwards into the darkness, in search of the light.