I’ve always had an odd relationship with the Zelda series. I think they’re all great games, they all play well, are memorable, and hold my attention. However, I’ve never liked what I call the traditional Zelda games as much as the odder entries in the franchise. I like the Oracle games over Link’s Awakening, Twilight Princess is just as good to me as Windwaker, and my pick for greatest Zelda game ever made (excluding the ones I haven’t played of course) is Majora’s Mask, not Ocarina of Time.
Ocarina of Time is fun, but it’s essentially the basis of the traditional Zelda at this point, there’s nothing I can consider odd or curveball-y in it. It’s everything we expect a Zelda game to be and perhaps that’s why its still a blast to play. Majora’s Mask is an entirely different story. It doesn’t just present you with a few curveballs like some of the series’ other quirky entries do, it bombards you with them. It’s dark, but full of humor. There are familiar faces, but they’re all different people. The stakes are high, but is any of it really happening? The game throws a lot at you and so keeps you thinking throughout, all while providing the puzzle-solving dungeon-crawling goodness that makes Zelda what it is. For now though, let’s just focus on the single biggest factor that sets Majora’s Mask apart: It’s sense of Atmosphere.
This is a dark game people. We have poisoned swamps, never-ending winters, an entire region cursed and haunted by ghosts, and an ancient demon bent on the total annihilation of the world and all its inhabitants. What’s more, there is an ever-present reminder of this impending doom in the form of an angry moon drawing closer with each passing moment. Each transformation mask you receive is born of unfinished business, passed on to you by other heroes who failed in their tasks and died as a result, or as a curse inflicted on Link in the very beginning of the story. (There is the exceptions of the Fierce Deity and Giant’s Masks, but both mask are implied to be imbued with evil magic.)
That’s a lot to contend with, perhaps too much if we were forced to constantly contend with it. But we aren’t. Like the inhabitants of Clock Town we can choose to ignore it and go about our business. We can enjoy the funny moments and wrap ourselves up in mini-games and side-quests, and generally ignore what’s going on. But the night of the Final Day always comes and we, along with the rest of the characters, must face the inevitable. No matter how much we do, or how many we save, that moon is still going to fall and no amount of distraction can change that fact.
Despite their cheerful facades, everyone in this game is aware of the impending doom, and it finally shows in the last hours of the Final Day.
(start at about 1:00)
Denial in the face of the inevitable. It’s this theme’s permeation throughout the game that makes the atmosphere it creates succeed so well. We along with everyone else in the game know that moon is going to fall, but we go about our business anyway, because what else can we do? We as the player are put in the very same situation as the townsfolk and everything that happens in the games feels all the more real because of it.
Finally, there are the numerous hints that all of this is a dream. This is the foundation for the game’s theme of “denial”. It’s what would allow us and the residents of Termina to continue to function in the face of certain destruction. Indeed, maybe the entire game is nothing more than something Link dreamed up.
It sounds odd, I know, but there is evidence to support it. At the opening of the game, Link get’s knocked off his horse, get knocked out, and chases the skull kid down a mysterious hole featuring little icons of each of the transformation masks among other things. Additionally, many of the characters Link meets are alternate versions of those from OoT, many of the side quests are remixed or extended versions of activities found in in OoT, and every cut-scene except for the very end makes extensive use of motion-blur, adding to the game’s other-worldly feeling; Even your basic movements in the game have a little too-much blur. Whether or not the events of Majora’s Mask are a actually a dream (a la Link’s Awakening), the theming makes the case that Link (and by extension the player) is caught in a literal nightmare, which oddly enough would provide just the sense of hope needed to deal with the nightmarish situation of the world being destroyed.
The atmosphere of a game contributes a lot to how genuine and real the world feels, and it’s because Majora’s Mask does this more successfully than any other game in the series, that I’ve crowned it as my personal favorite.
What’s your take on Majora’s Mask? What made your favorite Zelda game your favorite?