Yes, you’re seeing that correctly, Majora’s Mask is the best Zelda that has ever been made. Better than Ocarina of Time and certainly better than Skyward Sword (although the bar wasn’t set very high on that one).
It’s a very weird thing that Majora’s Mask suddenly became this cult game that sparked an online petition to bring a remastered version to the 3DS, because how I remember it was that Majora’s Mask has always been the black sheep of the Zelda franchise (excluding the obvious CD-I abominations). And while critics praised it, I remember a lot of people, even into my adulthood, still considered it to be bad. They criticized the time mechanic, the fewer dungeons compared to the previous games, and the complexity of the whole thing.
But that’s exactly the kind of attitude that got us homogenized, streamlined Zelda games like Skyward Sword that lack in any kind of originality and complexity. So let’s dive right in to what makes Majora’s Mask the best Zelda in the franchise.
Now I won’t analyze the game too much since I already basically did that in my Majora’s Mask: 3D review, instead, let’s look at what makes this Zelda stand out above all others.
The first noticeable difference in Majora’s Mask compared to its predecessors is it’s tone. While OoT tried to mature things up with its slightly darker atmosphere, it was really mostly aesthetic. Majora’s Mask took it to the next level creating characters and an entire world that is more sinister and…well dark! And I’m not talking about Twilight Princess’ dark-for-darkness’-sake-let’s-try-to-win-back-the-fans-with-an-“adult”-Zelda dark, I’m talking about real late 90’s early 2000’s N64 dark.
I remember seeing that commercial in a movie theater as a kid and being genuinely freaked out by it. The game itself bothered me even more. From the intro where Link is cursed and turned into a Deku Scrub (his screams of terror at his own reflection), to the strange town where everyone is pretending everything is fine, to its stranger locations where the theme of death constantly hangs around, and honestly, who can forget when Pamela’s dad bursts out of the closet half Gibdo. Seriously, that freaked me right out.
It was a game that wasn’t afraid to have some teeth and genuinely creep its players out. It feels like the kind of Zelda that was targeted at adults; but even as a kid, while it creeped me out, it intrigued me all the more.
And that final boss plain with the big tree? And the kids running around and Majora just sitting there all innocent like? That was some real Silent Hill level shit.
Majora’s Mask may have a smaller world (I’m not really sure) than its predecessor, however, it’s a world that feels substantially bigger. Clock town feels like a living breathing town, and this is aided by the game’s clock mechanic. People keep schedules and things happen at different times and it makes the town feel like it’s alive. Its overworld is tighter and easier to navigate, and one thing that always got me was how it played the actual Zelda theme in the main field. It’s four locations (forest, mountains, sea and canyon) are more fleshed out and feel bigger than OoT’s four locations (forest, lake, desert, mountain). What’s more, Majora’s Mask explores the various cultures introduced in the Zelda franchise and gives you a chance to be in their world. You get to see what the respective heroes of the Deku, Goron and Zora people were capable of, and experience stories outside of Hero of Time saves World.
Although Majora’s Mask only has four dungeons to OoT’s eight, Majora’s Mask’s dungeons feel like a more weighty challenge. They didn’t need to bog down the game with a bunch of repedative dungeons, when the one’s one hand feel like unique and meaty things to beat. A big part of this comes from the focus on masks rather than the standard Zelda items, but we’ll get into that later on. Suffice it to say, Majora’s Mask focus more on being difficult and having actual puzzles to solve rather than OoT’s whack a diamond to open a door, shoot an eye to open a door, ect. Majora’s Mask’s dungeons added a bit more variety, a bit more exploration and a bit more puzzle solving.
Majora’s Mask kept in a lot of familiar faces from OoT, but fleshed them out a lot more and gave them stories and motivations. There’s a wider emotional range being utilized, some characters want to pretend nothing’s happening, while others have totally lost hope; there’s a lot more characters to empathize with. Even the Skull Kid is kind of a tragic villain. He was just a lonely little kid looking for friends, and his mischief got the better of him. He’s not evil, he’s just a puppet. Way more engaging than “Ganon does it cause he’s evil, yo.”
Even Link himself is a more fleshed out character as he arrives in Termania almost by complete chance and takes it upon himself to be the hero. Link’s whole quest is kicked off by him owing the Happy Mask Salesman who breaks the Deku curse on him in exchange for him getting Majora’s Mask back. There’s none of this destiny bullcrap, Link isn’t the only guy for the job because “the god’s say so,” he’s the hero because he chooses to be, or rather the player chooses to be. Egoraptor was right, in a fantasy game, the things you find fun end up making you the hero, and that couldn’t be more apparent here. Link is busting through time, constantly resetting the events, no one even knows what he’s doing. There’s no grand destiny that is in place that everyone just accepts a hero will come around and fix stuff, they’re content to pretend nothing’s even happening, but you, the player become the hero by doing what you find fun, going to dungeons, fighting monsters, exploring a world.
Oh, and Tatl is by far my second favorite side character (my first being Midna and my third being Spirit Tracks Zelda). She’s so sassy and a welcome change from the dry, by-the-books delivery of Navi. I always loved how she though Link was totally useless but was basically stuck with him. She was always talking him down and giving Z-target info like “What? You don’t know about Deku Scrubs? What’re you useless?” That kind of thing. But she did slowly grab the gravity of the situation and had a solid arch. And her little jingly sounds were much less annoying than Navi or Fi.
The time mechanic was a brilliant way to explore Link’s “Hero of Time” epithet and the masks were interesting as hell.
Being a direct sequel of OoT, Link travelled back and forth through time in order to defeat Ganondorf, thus earning himself the title of “Hero of Time.” Although time-travel was restricted in OoT to the donning of the Master Sword, creating a Light World/Dark World mechanic akin to Link to the Past. Majora’s Mask explored Link’s penchant for time-travel a little deeper combining it with the Ocarina, making it more a means rather than an end. By making the Song of Time rewind the clock, and variations of it speed or slow its progression, the player was able to feel more in control of time and moreso like the “Hero of Time.” While I know a lot of gamers criticize rewinding the clock being the primary means of saving, I never really thought it was all that much a problem. Like, if you’re starting your game on the third day, you’re going to have to rewind and save anyway, so why not just save, rewind and end the game, start fresh tomorrow? I dunno, is it really that big of a hassle? Bank your rupees and slice some grass for bombs and arrows, it’s not really hard. Bombs and arrows are everywhere.
The masks were a sort of fun side-quest you could do in OoT, where you trade masks and unlock new ones. There wasn’t really much purpose to it outside unlocking the Mask of Truth, looking like a Zora if you wanted to and different dialogue from some characters. So I don’t know why this game focused on them to such degree, but I’m really glad they did. Masks aren’t just items, but pieces of the world’s culture that shared stories and even lives. Furthermore, masks create a wider arsenal outside of the standard Zelda items and each work in interesting and unique ways. Since the dungeons are designed more around the masks and not the items you get inside, this creates a feeling similar to the first Zelda…
Focus on Exploration
Much like Arin Hanson said, Zelda is, at its core, a game about exploring a fantasy land, and Majora’s Mask picks that up where OoT dropped it. The game centers on exploring the world, since it gives you the tools to explore it at the start. And since the dungeons were designed around the respective mask you need to beat it, this meant the use of items needed to be reevaluated. No longer did the Zelda formula (explore a dungeon halfway, get an item to beat the other half and the boss) work since you’d only need the Deku or Goron or Zora Mask to beat the boss. This put a greater emphasis on exploration and made gave each item unique abilities for exploration. Get the hookshot in the Pirate Fortress to help you stealth around it, or the ice arrows which create handy platforms on water. Even the masks were all hidden behind a puzzle or side-quest and they were interesting to work out. It did feel like it went back to the emphasis on the way you find things, rather than the things that are found.
Majora’s Mask is the best Zelda in the franchise. It was bold enough to have some teeth not only in its game design but also it’s world and characters. It told an interesting story with complex themes that are worth exploring. It’s odd how it seems the two best Zelda’s ever made (Majora’s Mask and Wind Waker) were also the ones that received the most hate from gamers. But as I talk to more and more people, there seems to be a growing consensus that these two are way better than the so called “best in the series” games like OoT and Skyward Sword, so I guess it’s true that no art is ever appreciated in its time.