It’s no secret that my favourite Legend of Zelda game is, beyond any shadow of a doubt, Majora’s Mask. For as much as I love the peaceful explorative nature of Windwaker, and the quaint yet surreal quality of Link’s Awakening, Majora’s Mask represents something different and special within the LoZ canon. Majora’s Mask is not simply another Zelda game, once more regaling us with the tale of Link, Zelda, and Ganon, but rather it is one of the few true sequels in the series; it connects directly to Ocarina of Time and offers some insight into a part of that classic narrative that we never get to see, the epilogue. That narrative hook alone makes it worth playing, and that’s without even touching upon the fantastic gameplay that mixes classic Zelda concepts in with Groundhog Day style time travel and bodily transformation. Such is why I was so elated to hear that Nintendo was remaking Majora’s Mask for the 3DS and thankfully, after getting to play through it all over again in that new format, I can say that the 3DS version of it is even better than the N64 original.
While I could go on endlessly about why I think Majora’s Mask is the best Legend of Zelda game and perhaps one of the greatest games of all time, the purpose of this review is to cover the remake, so as such I’ll just quickly sum up my thoughts on Majora’s Mask proper and then we’ll get into what’s different. While it’s hard to really pin down what makes this game so great in the space of a single short paragraph, if I had to condense it all down to a single word I would say ‘variability’. You’re constantly going over the same areas, talking to the same people, and completing the same objectives but there are so many variables involved with those things and how they impact the rest of the game that it doesn’t feel repetitive. You’re constantly changing race, changing masks, changing time, and changing numerous other things throughout the course of your adventure and figuring out what parameters need to be in place to satisfy any given situation is incredibly engaging. Planning your three-day run so that you can get as much done as possible, managing your schedule against that of the townspeople and racing against time to line everything up, becomes a meta-game in and of itself. We haven’t even talked about the story yet, though I’m not going to recap it here, which holds a dark and mournful quality and keenly balances hope and despair. Its themes of loss and grief are perfectly intercut with moments of levity and joy, the world is doomed and the people of Termina know it but manage to strive forward anyways. While much has been said about what this game is supposed to mean, with fan theories claiming it represents everything from Link mourning Navi’s loss to Link being dead himself, my personal feeling is that Majora’s Mask is about the consequences of being a hero, specifically the Hero of Time. To be a hero means that you have to give up the simple life you know, it means you’ll have to risk your life fighting evil and could fall before ever making a difference, it means your success is the only thing preserving the lives of others, and it means that in the process of your struggle you could lose those you deeply care about. Each of the transformation masks Link acquires in the game represents a failed hero of their respective races, which is why they are the only people in the game whose lives you can’t save. When the Happy Mask Salesman remarks how you’ve met a terrible fate, he’s not talking about you being turned into a Deku scrub, or you being cursed in the Lost Forest in OoT as some have suggested, he’s lamenting the fact that you’re cursed with being the Hero of Time. But obviously that’s just my very subjective and personal take on the story of this game, everyone I’ve talked to seems to interpret it differently, which is one of the things that makes it so powerful as a piece of narrative. Though I could continue, let’s instead move forward and start talking about this remake and what it does to make such a great game even better.
The most obvious changes in this version of the game can be seen in the presentation, specifically the graphics, as the game has been given quite the face lift. While much of the base world geometry remains unchanged, the textures have all been cleaned up and sharpened, getting rid of the muddier look for which many N64 games were known. They’ve also straightened up the UI somewhat, moving much of it to the bottom screen and giving a lower profile to the stuff that remains on the top screen. The A and B contextual icons, which show what those buttons do at any given time, have been moved to the bottom right of the screen and made transparent. Similarly, they’ve replaced the half sundial style clock with a straight timeline style clock that sits flush with the bottom of the screen; not only is this new clock less intrusive but it also provides a much more accurate reading of the in-game time as compared to its sometimes awkward predecessor. Where they’ve really done some impressive work though is with all the remodeling they’ve done of the older assets, going so far as to completely replace character, mask, and item models with more complex variations. This really ends up sprucing the game up and some of the new models look leagues better than the originals did, especially when it comes to the masks which seem more detailed throughout. In terms of sound design, the game is more or less the same as the original as far as I can tell (it has been fifteen years since I last spent any significant time with this game) but it feels like they might have gone in and redone some of the music. Remastered or not, it’s still an absolutely amazing soundtrack, combining bits of the Ocarina of Time OST with some impressive pieces of its own. The Clock Town theme in particular is an underrated classic when it comes to Zelda music, creating the perfect of ambiance for a happy little town that’s quietly ripping apart at the seams.
Of course they haven’t just improved the game on a surface level, they’ve also gone in and tinkered with the gameplay, refining things and generally making it much more pleasant experience. Probably the most useful alteration they’ve made is the larger empowering of the Bomber’s Notebook. Formerly it would only track quests related to people who lived in and around Clock Town, making it great for the larger side-quests but allowing smaller ones to be forgotten about. Now the notebook tracks everything: every mini-game, every rumor, every character, it’s all in there. The game now also does a better job of alerting you to new events, with the Bombers regularly flagging you down in town to give you new tips and leads. They’ve also built in a really smart walkthrough mechanic, where you can return to a special Sheikah stone in the clock tower that will provide you with clues as to how to progress. These clues are done as short video montages, showing just enough to get you back on track but not enough to spoil that section of the game. They also made a number of smaller and subtler changes to the game overall, such as moving around the Owl statues and changing the position of the Bank in town; these sorts of alterations seem needless and almost unnoticable at first but end up creating a smoother progression overall. A lot of these changes help put useful items in places where they’ll actually be useful or allow you to progress forward with much less fuss than before. One great example of this is the new placement of the Stone mask, which allows Link to slip by patrolling guards unnoticed. Originally you could get it when you entered Ikana Canyon, though generally by that point in the game there were no more guards that you had to sneak past; now it’s found in the Pirate Fortress, a place with guards actively patrolling it, making it an immediately useful item. Small changes like this end up making a real difference with this game, because while individually they may seem small, when added up they really help streamline some of the more tedious sections of the game in ways that feel natural and don’t muck too much with the source material.
For as much as I love this game, I’m still willing to admit that Majora’s Mask is not perfect. The back half of the game drags somewhat and contains a nasty difficulty spike, the last two dungeons are a little gimmicky and annoying, and swapping masks constantly can get tedious (though they’ve improved on that somewhat in this version by giving you an extra equipment slot). All of that said though it’s still a game every Legend of Zelda fan, and really every gamer, should play thanks to its incredibly tight gameplay flow and creative story structure that many games have since tried to emulate. Majora’s Mask was a must-play title back in 2000 and this remake only improves upon it, managing to preserve its unique qualities while at the same time cleaning up the rougher edges. As such I’m giving The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask 3D my full recommendation and a 5 out of 5 stars; it’s very rare to go into a game with such nostalgia and still manage to have it meet your expectations every step of the way.