If an adjective other than “epic” is used to describe the “Legend of Zelda” series at its best, I’m unaware of it. Many are the trials that elven hero Link must face. His success at dungeon delving and other miscellaneous deeds depends on players being able to adjust to a series of game-play mechanics that run the gamut from platforming to racing challenges with lots of way stations in between. Deft adventuring also requires finding and correctly manipulating a growing kit of items – anything from glass jars to magic beans. I’d gamble more people have tried out a Mario game than a Zelda game for these reasons. Playing a Zelda game requires more of a time commitment. When I was a kid, it was conventional wisdom that Zelda wasn’t the sort of thing you broke out around friends. Its enigmas were best decoded at one’s leisure.
Originally released during the sunset of the Nintendo 64’s commercial cycle, “The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask” (2000) – recently remastered for the 3DS – revoked the luxury of allowing players to muddle through its scenarios at their own pace. This is and was intended to be rattling. Eiji Aonuma, the game’s director, has said that “Majora’s Mask” was meant to challenge players who had completed the previous game, “The Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time” (1998). He laughingly described the game’s departure from its predecessors as, “It was something like until then you were welcomed with open arms being invited to come in, and now you’re being told at the door to go home if you don’t have what it takes!”
“Majora’s Mask” revolves around a swift three-day cycle at the end of which the world is destroyed by a moon that has been commandeered by an imp. One’s only immediate recourse to avoid annihilation is to rewind time before it expires on the night of the third day. By playing a melody on Link’s magical instrument, the Ocarina of Time, players replenish the game’s 72-hour period. (An hour in the game equates roughly to a minute in real life.) As it was for Bill Murray’s character in “Groundhog Day,” the goal is to escape the time loop.
Link’s musical repertoire develops over his journey, granting him the power to speed up or slow down time, clone himself and perform other miracles. Because progress can be lost if one fails to finish some tasks within the allotted time, and certain actions can only be attempted under specific conditions, a fog of anxiety can stretch over the most mundane chores – be they scouring the land for supplies or running errands in Clock Town, where the game starts at the beginning of each three-day cycle.
Video games rely heavily on repetition. Designers speak of 30-second fun loops and players talk about muscle memory. The conceptual triumph of “Majora’s Mask” was to use repetition to create a haunting atmosphere. (One of the most unsettling games that I’ve ever played, “P.T.,” does this, too.) Indeed, there were plenty of occasions where I found it hard to suppress a feeling of futility when Link casts his rewinding spell by playing the Song of Time. Often, it would only remind me of what I’d failed to accomplish on my to-do list.
Another detail that might click with those who understand the value of shapeshifting is the game’s wide assortments of masks, which is unique in the series. Scattered throughout the land and tied to quests, these masks grant Link different abilities. Some masks are whimsical, like the Bremen Mask, which allows Link to lead a flock of chicks on a parade that transforms them into chickens or “cucco chicks.” Others – like the Zora Mask, which transforms Link into a fish-like man – are less innocuous. Link howls in agony when he puts on a mask that transforms him physically. And you will certainly be compelled to swap between masks many times. In “Majora’s Mask,” it’s obvious that Link’s path to victory costs him something. (Whenever you reset the game’s internal clock, Link loses items that are not counted as “gear.”)
The 3DS version of “Majora’s Mask” beautifully touches up the graphics of the original game. I played it on the new 3DS and was stupefied by the boldness of its 3-D effects. I always flicked the 3-D slider on during cut scenes, but during boss battles or other tense spots, I found the added depth distracting.
I think, because I owned a Nintendo 64 in college, it astonishes me today that one can have a game of the scope and complexity of “The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask 3D” at one’s disposal. I spent dozens of hours with the 3DS version last week and have yet to see everything in it. To my immense surprise, I haven’t fallen for a Zelda game like this since I played the “The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past” (1991). Evidence of master craftsmanship is everywhere in this game. By the time you’re flipping a temple upside down then right side up, you may discover that your imagination has been enlarged.
Christopher Byrd is a Brooklyn-based writer who has been playing video games since the days of the Atari 2600. His writing has appeared in the New York Times Book Review, the Barnes & Noble Review, Al Jazeera America, the Guardian and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Byrd.
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