Ever since its initial release on the Nintendo 64 in 2000, The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask has existed in The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time’s shadow. It holds the distinction of not only being one of the few direct sequels in the franchise but also the direct sequel to what many believe is the best Zelda game of all time. What’s more, it was saddled with an impossibly short development cycle of just over one year, necessitating the re-use of the Ocarina of Time engine as well as many of its assets. With the uncharacteristically short turnaround between games, the memory of Ocarina of Time was fresh in the mind of gamers as they embarked on their next adventure with Link. Because of that, it was nearly impossible to evaluate Majora’s Mask without making direct comparisons to Ocarina of Time.
Perhaps that is why Nintendo did so much to differentiate the two titles in all the areas they could. Majora’s Mask was darker and stranger with a much heavier emphasis on side quests. Unfortunately for Nintendo, it seemed gamers didn’t want a differentiated game; though it received similar critical acclaim, Majora’s Mask could never match the commercial success of its predecessor. By comparison, it was a bit of a failure. Well, it’s now been seventeen years since the original release of Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask has finally been given opportunity to come out of the shadows and be evaluated on its own merits. The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask 3D remake for the Nintendo 3DS delivers in spades as developer Grezzo has made all the right tweaks to make a fifteen-year-old game relevant and accessible in today’s gaming landscape. This is absolutely the best version of the game and also one of the very best reasons to own a 3DS.
From the opening scene with Link riding alone in a desolate forest on his search to find Navi, it’s clear that this is a much different adventure than we have come to expect from the franchise. It’s darker and stranger. The scope seems much smaller. Zelda, the franchise’s constant damsel in distress, never even appears in the game. Once again, Link must save the world, but this time he only has three days to do it. He’s not saving the vast expanse of Hyrule, but a much more condensed world known as Termina. He isn’t on a quest to thwart Ganondorf, but instead he must stop Skull Kid, an otherwise weak antagonist who is empowered to do great evil by Majora’s Mask. And he must do it all as a child.
Though these differences are at first jarring, they’re quickly justified by one of the most uniquely gratifying stories in all the series. It’s a story of impending doom and the sadness and death that surrounds it, but it’s also a story of healing. The impending doom comes in the form of a large anthropomorphic moon with piercing red eyes and a menacing grin that will crash down in just three days. But before Link can take care of the moon, he must heal the sadness that has enveloped Termina. In this healing journey, Majora’s Mask delivers some of the most poignant moments in all of the Zelda series. In particular, I was moved when I was finally able to release the soul of Darmani, a Goron leader, from his pain and sorrow. He felt the pressure to save his people from a demon unleashing a blizzard on his Goron Village. When he arrived at Snowhead, the demon blew Darmani off the ledge and he fell to his death. My heart ached for Darmani as he explained how his soul was trapped in his village by the overwhelming guilt he felt for failing his people. And this heart-wrenching moment was only one of many. In fact, I made quite a few emotional connections to non-playable characters throughout. And when I finally defeated Majora, I felt accomplished not only because I beat the game, but also because I saved Termina, a home to many with whom I had made those connections.
Like the story, the basic elements of Majora’s Mask’s gameplay have remained unchanged in this remake. The combat, the inventory management system, the three day time management system, the puzzle-based temples and the mask-focused side quests are all still here, but they’ve been tweaked to make the gameplay relevant and accessible for a new generation of gamers.
The battle system works the same way you remember it. It’s been translated to the 3DS flawlessly. If an enemy is close enough, Tatl will highlight the enemy and you can hold R to lock on. Once locked on, you can lunge forward with your sword or jump back to avoid attacks. It’s simple, but elegant. Because of the wonky camera in the original on Nintendo 64, this was the only viable way of fighting. However, if you’re lucky enough to own the New 3DS XL, you can now use the C-Stick nub to control the camera. With this addition, you can realistically choose to fight without locking on. It makes a lot of enemy encounters considerably more playable and I suggest that anyone with a New 3DS XL gives it a shot.
Still, boiling down the battle system to a series of lock-ons and sword lunges seems unfair. In fact, the battle system in Majora’s Mask is probably the deepest in the franchise. Using masks he acquired through healing, Link can now transform into a Deku Scrub, a Goron and a Zora. Each offers unique traits, resulting in varied gameplay. The Deku Scrub is quick, can skip across water, and can burrow into flowers to shoot up into the air and fly from platform to platform. The Goron throws powerful punches. He can roll into a ball and gain enough steam to go up steep inclines and mow down foes. He can ground pound, but lacks the ability to jump between platforms. The Zora can swim and walk underwater without the need to come up for air. He can throw his scales like boomerangs and he can release electric magic underwater when enemies approach. Each form feels different and adds much-needed depth to the battle system borrowed from Ocarina of Time.
Like the battle system, the inventory management system has been tweaked for the better. Whereas in Nintendo 64 you mapped three items to the C Buttons, you now have four buttons with which to work. And in Majora’s Mask, you will welcome this as you not only need to use those buttons for weapons and bottles, but also masks. Unfortunately, only two of those are face buttons while the others are touch screen only. It’s a welcomed tradeoff, especially considering the limited amount of buttons on the 3DS itself, but perhaps those touch screen buttons should have been mapped to the additional shoulder buttons on the New 3DS XL.
Grezzo has taken great care in tweaking the time management system. In the original as well as the remake, you are able to travel back and forth through time within the three-day cycle from when you arrive in Termina until the moment the moon crashes down. In the original, you were often facing a ticking clock rushing in panic to a save point, or worse, you were faced with having to wait around idly for 7AM to become 5PM. Understandably, many gamers became frustrated. Thankfully, Grezzo’s tweaks to this system make it much less frustrating. They’ve added many more save points scattered throughout the land and adjusted the Song of Double Time to allow you to pinpoint exactly when you want to be in the three-day cycle, rather than only allowing you to travel to the nearest dawn or nightfall. Though minor, these tweaks have made the game much more enjoyable.
The temples themselves, though expertly designed and largely the same from a puzzle perspective, have received a few tweaks as well. Most notably, Grezzo has made drastic alterations to each of the boss fights. All four of the temple bosses now have the same weakness: a bulbous red eye. This in itself would be fine, except that the addition of the eye is never really explained. Why does Odolwa the tribal warrior have a huge eye on the top of his head? Why does Gyorg the gargantuan fish have a huge eye in his mouth? Also, with the addition of the eye, each battle has changed to some degree. The previously mentioned Gyorg used to be the hardest boss I had ever encountered in a Zelda game. Yes, it was partly because the camera of the Nintendo 64 version was cumbersome, but I can’t shake the feeling that I was cheated out of my rematch. The Gyorg in this 3DS remake was dumbed down and that’s a shame. Still, the negatives surrounding that battle are far outweighed by the positives resulting from the tweaks to the Twinmold battle. The original Twinmold battle only had two steps. Step one: Link turns into a giant. Step two: Link slashes the flying snake to death. In this 3DS remake, Link cannot turn into a giant until halfway through the battle. He must first use his bow to precisely shoot the underside of the snake to bring it to the ground. Only then can Link become a giant. Without the use of his shield and sword, he must pummel the flying snake with right hooks and left jabs. Once he has grounded the snake, he must swing him in the air and pound him on the ground. This battle was delightful in that it used mechanics that I’ve never seen in this franchise. It’s easily one of my new favorites.
However, this game is much more than a series of temples and boss fights. The side quests involving mask collection are intricate yet rewarding. To complete these side quests, you must be adept with time management as all non-playable characters have specific schedules for where they will be at specific times of day. If you want the Blast Mask, which allows you to cause small explosions by pressing B, you will have to remember to be in North Clock Town at 12AM on the first night to prevent the old lady from the Bomb Shop from being mugged. If you want Romani’s Mask, which gets you inside the Milk Bar after 10PM, you will need to be at Romani’s Ranch at 2AM on the first and second nights to meet Romani and stop the alien and horsemen invasions. While these masks only have slight effects, other masks offer much greater rewards. If you acquire the Bunny Hood, you can run much faster. This not only makes traveling across Termina more tolerable, but also brings many previously unreachable platforms within jumping distance. Some difficult enemies become much easier with your increased quickness as well. However, no mask has more impact on the game than the Fierce Deity Mask. You receive this mask for acquiring the other twenty-three masks in the game. It transforms Link into a fierce deity who can shoot magic from his sword during boss fights. With this mask, even the final boss of the game is a cakewalk.
Unfortunately, though many of these masks offered incredible advantages, many gamers found all the time management and tracking to be far too tedious to bother pursuing them. Thankfully, Grezzo has updated the Bomber’s Notebook, a notebook used to track side quests. While twenty entries were automatically made to the notebook in the original game, this remake now has many more entries. Moreover, schedules of the NPCs, their locations and rumors you hear are now added automatically as well. Combine the improved notebook with the fact that you can now use the Song of Double Time to travel to an exact moment in time and side quests are now far more accessible.
Though many of the aforementioned tweaks are subtle, the tweaks to the graphics are immediately apparent. Back in 2000, the original Majora’s Mask was one of the best looking games around, but by today’s standards, it’s hard to look at. Thankfully, Grezzo has made meaningful changes best exemplified by Link. His green tunic is far more vibrant. His Hero’s Shield has improved textures as all the minute details of the crest are now plain to see. His character model is much more realistic with less blocky limbs and a more expressive face. And these changes aren’t just limited to Link. Many of the non-playable characters have seen a similar treatment. Additionally, the texture improvements start at his shield but go to many of the environments throughout Termina. Though these changes aren’t subtle, they won’t take you out of the experience. In fact, if you don’t go back and look at the original game, it’s easy to convince yourself that this is what the game looked like fifteen years ago. But that’s just a testament of how well Grezzo has preserved the original arty style, because I assure you, it looks much, much better. But with all these improvements, rough patches become glaringly evident. Some of the environments didn’t receive the same level of restorative care. The grass on Termina Field and the snow on Goron Village are still flat and lifeless. Worse still, the game suffers from a few too many frame rate slowdowns, particularly in battles.
Aside from these few nitpicks, these graphics get the job done. This game is beautiful. More importantly, the graphics work in tandem with the music to create the dark, foreboding atmosphere that brings the Majora’s Mask from being a great experience to an exceptional one. It’s not just the moon in the sky that acts as a constant reminder of your impending doom. The screen slowly folds in on itself as one day passes into another. The sky looks somewhat normal on the first day, but transitions to red on the second and to purple on the third. The music goes from cheery tunes reminiscent of Ocarina of Time to dark and dreary tunes reminiscent of a funeral. As I played, I was constantly on edge, doing everything I could to make sure I didn’t stick around to find out what happened when the moon reached Termina. Even when I was doing side quests that had little to do with my progression in the story, the overarching narrative was not lost on me. I was always emotionally invested and in that way, Majora’s Mask succeeds where many games fail.
The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask is one of the most bizarre Zelda games I have ever played, but it’s also one of the best. Despite being hampered with a quick development cycle and the same engine as Ocarina of Time, it delivers an emotional story and deep battle system, proving that it is a great game on its own merits. Grezzo has done an admirable job of remaking it for the Nintendo 3DS, making all the right tweaks to make it much more accessible. Even with some questionable adjustments to boss fights, some flat textures and a few frame rate issues, this is by far the best version of this game. For newcomers, this is an easy recommendation, but veterans can rest assured knowing that the tweaks absolutely merit another play through. This is a must play.
4.5 Chicks out of 5