The world ends in 72 hours. You learn this right near the beginning of the game, while you are still trying to find your bearings and work out why the hell you are in Termina and why you are a little Deku, a type of plant with a coconut for a head. That doesn’t sound that bad, I can handle a game in 72 hours, right? Except time is running away at a blistering pace, which causes quite the panic. Running around and finishing tasks becomes a timed dash, looking for the fastest way around town, muttering when I get lost or the camera takes too long to rotate to give me a good view. It sits on the border between frustration and excitement, doing everything as efficiently as possible, like some tiny green mercenary plant. Then, just as you realise that you cannot beat the new enemy, as the moon is about to crash into Termina, Link remembers something from Ocarina of Time and plays a song to reverse time to the beginning of your first day in Termina.
It is pretty intense and you are so happy that you are now Link again, rather than plant-boy, that you might not even stop to question why he couldn’t reset time to a point where he was in Hyrule rather than Termina. That game breaking question aside, by this point you have access to the two central mechanics of the game. The Deku form you were cursed into at the beginning of the game is still accessible to you via a mask in your inventory. The masks are split into major and minor variants, with major masks changing your abilities, speed, attacks and methods of traversal. Minor masks are worn by Link for tasks like investigating a missing person, running faster or tricking monsters into thinking you are one of them. The second central mechanic and theme is time and time manipulation. You have to travel through the three days several times in your quest to work out how to stop the moon from crashing into the world. This extended Groundhog Day is not without progress though, as some items, like masks and pieces of heart containers, stay with you when you reverse time but you lose your money, ammunition, bottle contents and any fairies you saved from the game’s various dungeons. This allows you to progress toward your ultimate goal of, in classic Legend of Zelda style, visiting four temples (dungeons) in four areas of vastly different geographic nature.
The dungeons are the defining point of Majora’s Mask, as the level design is elegant. Each dungeon requires something your latest major mask provides, such as traversal or immunity to lava, to work your way through the various chambers, before gaining a new tool that allows you to access previously inaccessible areas. The dungeons are always multi-layered, complete with various secrets and shortcuts to help you return to the depths if you need to. Whether losing your way or due to a death sending you back to the entrance of the dungeon, you need to try keep track of where you are and where you need to be, as that clock is constantly ticking down meaning at most you have around three hours to solve a dungeon and defeat the boss enemy. Due to the time constraints and the weight of knowing that failure means doing the whole dungeon again adds a mixture of excitement and frustration to your dungeoneering. Nothing hurts more than finishing a dungeon and being two collectibles short of a sweet reward and knowing there is no time left to comb through each room for the missing stray fairies which don’t stay with you when time resets.
The side quests are neatly staggered into chains thanks to the various minor masks. Often one mask will lead to another as reward, which leads to a new quest, with a new mask and so it continues. These quests also grant you more hearts, allowing you to survive a few more hits and if you are extremely lucky, empty bottles. In the world of Termina bottles are an oddly rare commodity, forcing some serious resource management on you during the game. Not only are bottles used to house the various potions in the game, but they are used to solve puzzles, carry a large multitude of things and aid the various odd people in Termina. It is during these side quests that one of the main mechanics trips up the game.
Generally, Link helps people for the sake of helping them, being the hero with a large heart. However in Majora’s Mask the problems you help people with, their ailments or issues reset each time time resets, meaning that all those people you are helping are merely to further your own inventory, abilities and wealth. Once you have helped someone there is nothing to draw you towards helping them again as their reward is already yours and you won’t be doing it again to farm pieces of heart containers until your health bar becomes excessively large. While I understand that Link has to reset time to save everyone on this world, he is also saving the world to protect himself and a dark, mercenary image starts to form in my mind, a self-serving Link who forgets about characters and their problems as soon as their rewards are his. This and a few other issues stand out in this remaster of a game from a time where things weren’t as heavily scrutinised, at least by me. For example the loyalty of your fairy to you, after we have just seen him assisting the antagonist in ‘dealing’ with Epona, seems to be done out of convenience, while the banker’s ability to store funds regardless of your journey through time and space is never questioned, as is why some items can travel and others don’t. Also, why does Link decapitate every boss he fights, whose head is then a ‘mask’ containing an evil spirit?
As a remaster, this title does a few things right. Some of the fairy locations have been moved away from frustrating feats of patience and timing to more accessible locations and the first boss, who was notoriously difficult for a starting encounter was reworked to help players learn the rigours of fighting a boss, while still standing a chance. Sadly beyond camera control, changed boss fights and an added fishing minigame, the ‘remaster’ is rather thin in the audio department. No voiceovers have been added and the sounds still have their N64 feel to them, as do the short, repetitive loops of background music. For a game that buts such an emphasis on music, having these short, tinny loops in the background do no justice to the title. The 3D is well done, with Link clearly standing out in his environment and Tatl can be followed as he circles and flits around Link.
Considering its age, there are elements of Majora’s Mask that must have been mind-shattering at the time. Now the game still feels good, but weighed down by repetition, both through the time mechanics and the unskippable scenes, conversations and the repetitive strategies of boss fights. The time mechanic also wears away the replayability of the game, thanks to you doing so much of the content a few times anyways, as well as manipulating time to find those masks and quests that you missed. The game also comes across as rather needy, thanks to the time limits imposed on exploration and completing tasks. Many boss fights require following a strategy perfectly as the damage bosses can do is really punishing, and this has to be done several times over to finally beat the boss. This is exacerbated by the controls feeling somewhat clunky, with the game often deciding that locking onto a target is exactly what I don’t want to do, before whipping the camera around. In the end it comes down to your take on the Legend of Zelda franchise, as well as your patience with playing older games. As a remaster, this game needed a bit more effort to be a sure purchase.