Diamonds in the Rough: The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask (N64)

July 26, 2010 at 2:27 am Leave a comment

Welcome to “Diamonds in the Rough,” a feature in which I take a look at a few lesser-known and under-appreciated titles of the past. These are games that were fun and original, many of which I fettered away hours of my young life with, but for whatever reason just didn’t get the credit they deserved.

The Zelda series is one that gets a whole lot of flak for being derivative and formulaic, some detractors going as far as saying Nintendo just releases the same game every few years with a different subtitle.  Judging from the relative unpopularity of Majora’s Mask, however, it seems that many fans might be more hesitant about change than they seem.  This is because though its dungeon crawling follows the same basic pattern (find weapon, use weapon to kill boss), Majora’s Mask is perhaps the most unique variation on a Zelda game in the 3D era.

The first distinct element that separates MM from the herd is its use of time.  Where Ocarina of Time had a basic night-and-day system, MM has fully developed days on which different things occur.  The entire game takes place over the course of 3 days, in fact, which you must replay over and over again with your time-traveling flute in order to prevent the apocalypse which happens at the end of the third night.  This conceit allowed the developers to create a more fully realized world in which plot lines develop between NPCs over the course of time, and interesting puzzles arise as you try to figure out when and where you need to be to meet up with a certain person, for instance.  This mechanic even extends into the dungeons – 3 game days may seem like a long time, but combined with the four massive temples of MM it leads to some fairly strict time limits.
Plot wise, this apocalyptic story is one of the darker tales told by a Zelda game, though much of this element is unspoken*.  Spend three days reuniting two estranged lovers, for instance, and you’re rewarded with a scene of them silently embracing as the moon creeps inexorably forward to destroy the town.  There is also a strange sense of futility you get from helping people out only to have to go back in time and effectively undo your good deeds.  Oh, and solving everybody’s problems in a single 3 day period?  Impossible.  You may be the Hero of Time, but you can’t be everywhere at once – an unusually frank statement on the nature of heroism from a series that’s usually black-and-white with the term.  Oh, and collect every mask in the game and you’re given the Fierce Diety’s mask, an item supposedly more powerful and evil than the one you’re supposed to be ridding the world of.  Not every day Link resorts to fighting fire with fire.

Speaking of masks, though, this is the other big unique element of the game – masks that transform you into a member of one of the other Hyrulian races.  Though you’re still “Link,” this is the first time in a Zelda game you aren’t exclusively playing as a sword-wielding fellow in a green tunic.  You can switch between human, deku scrub, goron, and zora, and each has its own skill set and weaknesses, used to solve puzzles, travel to new areas, and even fight bosses.  Having a unique instrument to each race is a cool bonus, but I do wish it had been implemented a bit more.  Beyond these transformative masks, though, you can also find a wide variety of lesser masks which do all sorts of minor things when equipped, from making you run faster to letting you talk to frogs or read people’s thoughts.  It adds a fair bit of depth to the gameplay through the sheer amount of variety it affords you, and it also stimulates the collectionist part of your brain (speaking of collectionism, there are also incidental items you can choose to collect in each dungeons for various rewards – it’s a nice additional challenge and adds some replay value to the levels, something I would like to see more Zelda games do).
As with any experiment, though, the game is a bit hit or miss.  What it does well it knocks out of the park, but it falters in a few areas – most notably some uninspired boss fights.  Though the second dungeon and boss are both great, but the others simply fail to be memorable – they’re done competently enough, but we’ve come to expect a bit more from a Zelda game.  The game is also a bit on the short side with only four dungeons (though they are larger than the norm), and as the trade-off for the cool masks you end up with a smaller repertoire of tools.  Because of this, I can see why people may have been upset with this quirky successor to one of the most celebrated titles of all time, but for what it’s worth I think it stands on its own as a pretty great game.  Just a bit different.

What games do you think were tragically underrated? What hidden gems do you fondly recall from your own childhood? Let me know in the comments!

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* Though there’s some unspoken humor, as well.  Take the banking system for instance, which as far as I can tell is a weird sort of extortion.  Barring a magical bank that’s untouched by time, it seems that what you’re doing each time you reset the clock and make a withdrawal is giving this guy a receipt from a different timeline and asking him for money that you technically never gave him.  Way to be, Link.

(Reposted from Platform Nation)

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Entry filed under: gaming.

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