“What makes Majora’s Mask so special to you?”
The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask is easily the most experimental, atmospheric, and unique game in the Zelda franchise. That isn’t exactly what makes it great though. In fact, the game’s more experimental elements often seem to hold it back for fans of Link’s traditional adventures. Many gamers are daunted by the terrifying sight of the moon in the sky, the ticking clock ever-present on the bottom of the screen, and the unorthodox way in which this smaller realm has to be traversed. When you do learn to get past these elements though, you may find the most meaningful and insightful adventure in the entire Legend of Zelda franchise.
Yes, I am of the persuasion that Majora’s Mask is better than Ocarina of Time, Twilight Princess, and even the revered A Link to the Past. Before you ask – no, it wasn’t my first Zelda and, no, I’m not declaring this just to be controversial. Majora’s Mask is that good. In spite being underestimated by even Miyamoto before release and mostly regurgitating art assets from Ocarina of Time, this spooky sequel brings the traditional Zelda experience fans love while also carving out its own niche.
There is a lot more going on in Majora’s Mask other than a simple “save the princess” gig. Disregarding the obvious facts that there is no princess to focus on and it begins with Link in search of what can be assumed to be Navi, the main quest is totally unique. I mean, the moon is falling and the world seems to be falling apart at the worst possible time. That’s a unique plot for the Zelda universe, but ultimately it takes a backseat to the side quests. You read that right – ultimately the secondary objectives are more insightful and eventful than the main quest. Providing you take the time to do them, you’ll better know the land of Termina itself and also start to recognize that every scenario in the game (major and minor) is tied to a parable for death.
The Link you play as in Majora’s Mask is most likely dead for the entire experience. That’s not a spoiler; that’s the subtext of the game. Why do you think the game takes place in Termina? It’s a parallel world to Hyrule that features the same, but different characters and a name that echoes the word “terminal.” It might also be why the atmosphere is so dark in this game. NPCs die on the regular, the Moon is clearly falling, and you – unbeknownst to the rest of the world – know for a fact that everyone is going to die in less than three days. At first this might seem unreasonably dark for a Zelda title, but – again – if you look at this through the lens of Link’s death it makes much more sense.
Examine the way characters in each region of the game handle loss and it perfectly recreates the Kubler-Ross Model (also known as the Five Stages) of Grief: Denial (Clock Town and the Festival), Anger (Deku Palace in Woodfall), Bargaining (Snowhead and Darmani’s ghost), Depression (Great Bay, Mikau’s death, and Zora Eggs), and Acceptance (Ikana Canyon and its undead kingdom). After this depressing journey, where you have physically traveled through these phases of grief, you are lead to the Light Arrow to put this purgatory adventure to an end. At the end of your adventure, Link is seen fading into the mist of the forest he entered at the beginning of the game – suggesting that he has finally accepted his fate.
To this you might say, “But Link never died! That makes no sense!” Well, if you did play the beginning of the game you might have noticed that Link falls into a deep, dark pit in the forest at the very start. That is how he first “reached” Termina. As many Zelda fans have suggested, The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask is most likely a dying dream (similar to Silent Hill’s Bad Ending), in which the protagonist is trying to come to terms with his own death. Think about it.
Why else would the NPCs in this game be completely different while also looking the same as previous NPCs (a la Wizard of Oz)? Also, why would each of the the transformation masks exclusively represent Terminians who have died? This explanation can even can be somewhat validated by the official Zelda timeline, as the Stalfos-like Hero’s Shade in the subsequent release, Twilight Princess, is suggested to be the spirit of the Hero of Time from Majora’s Mask. Zelda lore states that those who are lost in the woods are fated to become a Stalfos, and the Hero’s Shade in Twilight Princess reflects on regretting being unable to teach the heroes who came after him. Perhaps because he died prematurely at the start of Majora’s Mask.
Oh! And then there is the first line the Happy Mask Salesmen sales to you, “You’ve met with a terrible fate, haven’t you?” Something that I never caught onto until GameTheory did an episode on this exact subject. You think that phrase is said because Young Link has been turned into a Deku Shrub, but that isn’t really the case. The same line repeats every time the Moon falls. That’s because it is a response to your death and failure to realize one last adventure before fading into the abyss.
That’s why I love Majora’s Mask. Yes, the gameplay is excellent and the time mechanics actually breathe life into a world that (finally) feels real in the Zelda universe. Yes, you actually feel connected to all of the NPCs, because Nintendo took the time to flesh them out and give them normal habits. And yes, the dark atmosphere is thick enough to cut with a knife and that’s a very unique thing in what is otherwise a fairly cheery franchise. But really, it’s about the message the game is imparting to the player. Feelings of betrayal, depression, and loss are a few of the things that this game wants you to relate to. If they hit a note with you, this already brilliant experience will likely resonate with you as a person.
Majora’s Mask is a special experience with much more time and thought put into it than many would expect. Getting all of the heart pieces and completing all the side quests isn’t a chore so much as it is a chance to better understand the world, connect more with the characters, and feel as though you are a part of the very terminal setting. No other game has made me feel this way. Majora’s Mask deserves to be played, or at the very least your respect.