Sometimes, Majora’s Mask 3D feels like someone rearranged all the furniture in my house without telling me.
At one point, I was looking for the Stone Mask, which makes you invisible during stealth segments. It used to be in the game’s fourth area, about as far a humanly possible from the place where you actually need it most, a pirate fortress in the third. Once I had the appropriate tools, I started my hunt, knowing I’d memorized the mask’s original location from when I was ten. After an hour of searching and doubting myself, I gave up and finished the stealth section without it. Of course, at that very moment I realized I’d been ignoring in-game tips and the mask was just sitting in front of my face, right at the beginning of the very stealth section it helps you circumvent. It’s a better choice, and one of the many fixes Majora’s Mask 3D makes that improve the overall game.
So whoever rearranged the furniture did a great job with the feng shui.
Majora’s Mask 3D is pretty much what it says on the box. It’s a remake of the 2001 Nintendo 64 game, The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask. Like a lot of Nintendo’s remakes though, it focuses less on presenting the game as it was, and more about how you remember it. Which is particularly interesting, because it was already a game focused on memory.
There’s this moment in Majora’s Mask, towards the end of the game’s signature three-day cycle, where the music in the hub town speeds up to an almost menacing degree. It’s this weird level of intertextuality that plays on your memories, like almost everything else in the game. The sped up music creates a sense of urgency on its own, considering there’s a massive, grinning moon hovering ominously overhead, but it’s also a pretty direct reference to the way the music in Mario speeds up when the timer is under 100 seconds. It’s not something a seasoned Zelda player would have encountered within that series, but anyone familiar with the medium has a pretty good understanding of what sped up music means, even if they aren’t looking at the clock.
Majora’s Mask is full of moments like that. Well, not exactly like that. There’s a lot more referencing other Zeldas (specifically 1998’s Ocarina of Time) than other series, but Majora’s Mask likes to wear its influences on its sleeve. Part of it is simple pragmatism, the game was made in just over a year and reuses dozens of assets from Ocarina, but part of it seems to come from the games’ obsession with memory, and the way we encounter it.
You don’t need to dig too deep to notice the obsession either. For one, the game revolves around a Groundhog Day-esque three day loop. At the end of the three days, the moon crashes into Termina, the strange mirror-darkly version of Hyrule, and our hero is forced to start from scratch. But he remembers things, or more specifically, you remember things. You remember how to beat bosses (which you don’t have to repeat, but it helps), how to finish sidequests, even the schedules of the folks around town. The game doesn’t make you remember that last thing, it notes schedules and sidequests on the bottom screen, but that information persists, even when you reset the clock. The player is always reminded of the nature of the world.
Meanwhile, the game is designed around three key masks that can change Link into some of Zelda’s famous species. He can be a miniature, forest-dwelling Deku Scrub, a massive, rock-eating Goron, or a Zora, a kind of fish-man with a sweet guitar. Each mask is obtained by finding a dying or dead member of the species, putting their soul to rest, and preserving their memory. The Goron is the spirit of a fallen warrior who everyone is surprised has come back to life to save his tribe, and the Zora is a new father out to save his eggs when he is killed by their captors. The Deku Scrub’s relationships are mostly the realm of fan theory, but the prevailing opinion is that he was killed suddenly by the game’s villain, the Skull Kid, and his father, a Deku Scrub you can race, is finally at peace with his son’s passing when he meets your Deku form.
All three have these distinct connections to preserving memory, even legacy in some cases. But they’re all forgotten. When the cycle ends, Link and the player are the only ones who remember. The game is fundamentally about preserving memories, and also throwing them away. If I had to hazard a guess, it’d be because it was the first game directed by current Zelda producer Eiji Aonuma, who was then a design assistant to series creator Shigeru Miyamoto. While I have my theories on how for him, Majora’s Mask was about deconstructing Zelda so he could better understand it, I think it’s a much safer bet that the whole obsession with memory and legacy stems from his concern at not making a game that lived up to the series’ standard.
So Aonuma draws upon these memorials to craft a game that simultaneously tells you to cherish and respect memory, while also focusing on the concept that it’s okay if everyone forgets. It’s this paradoxical game, and it’s never quite at ease with itself. Or at least, it didn’t used to be.
Time has been kind to Majora’s Mask. Returning to it after a decade, I found that it’s a surprisingly forward thinking game. In fact, it reminds me a lot more of open world RPGs like Skyrim than it does its immediate predecessor, Ocarina of Time. The world is centralized with a busy hub town you have to return to constantly. Each part of the world is a spoke off of that hub, leading to a full quest on the critical path and sidequests the mess around with in your off-time. The three day cycle lends itself to prioritizing individual side quests whenever you pick up the game, making it really easy to just do a five minute sidequest for some cash, 30 minutes for a mask, or even an hour or two for a full dungeon.
The quest structure is linear, but modular enough that players can tackle sidequests at any point, and approach the game at their own pace. In fact, Majora’s Mask’s legacy as the “weird Zelda” is probably what makes it feel so fresh. Instead of looking back to Link to the Past, like every Zelda ever has, it looked forward, and cribbed from early open world games like Mario 64 to design something that’s more modern than pretty much any Zelda game aside from 2013’s A Link Between Worlds. Majora’s Mask 3D is a game that felt strange and out of place in 2001, but in 2015, it just feels right.
And yet, there are still problems. The sidequests that require standing around and waiting for something to happen are still nightmares, albeit shorter ones. Buying maps for every area you enter gets really annoying every time you forget to pick up rupees at the bank, and any puzzle that requires deft swimming was designed by a madman with a four dimensional brain and split second reaction times. But otherwise, the game is as you remember it, just not necessarily how I remember it.
Majora’s Mask was my first console Zelda. I didn’t own an N64, but I played at a friend’s house, and I occasionally rented one. The game terrified me, not only because of the deeply upsetting moon and strange, otherworldly aesthetic, but because I was afraid of the concept that I couldn’t save everyone in its world. Every time I reset the clock, that was another hundred Terminians wiped from the face of history. The game is dark, and part of it comes from that same obsession with memory. It wants you to remember. It asks you not to forget, from both a mechanical and a narrative standpoint. And thus, you remember failure. You remember each reset, and the people you couldn’t help on that cycle.
My memories of what Zelda was like to me then are hazy, but playing Majora’s Mask 3D crystallized them. It made me confront them in ways that rattled my brain and forced me to rethink the game, and my relationship with my own memories. If Majora’s Mask is a game about memory, then Majora’s Mask 3D is a game about legacy. It’s about what you do with those memories once they’re all jumbled up and rearranged the way we want to remember them. It turns out, what you do is fix your old mistakes, as if they never happened.
There’s a part of Majora’s Mask 3D where you impersonate a fish-woman’s boyfriend and play her a song she remembers from her childhood. She sings the song, and never question the fact that her boyfriend suddenly wears a green skirt and occasionally turns into a little elf boy.
The game never really settles the fact that you’re deceiving her, and how wrong that is, but that scene really taps into what’s so great and just a little uncomfortable about Majora’s Mask 3D. Our memory is deceitful sometimes. We remember things better than they are, and we rewrite history to make that so. But sometimes, it’s good to hold on to that nice memory, no matter how dark it seems in the moment. Majora’s Mask 3D rewrites history by recasting the obtuse original into a modern classic forgotten by time, and you know what?
That’s exactly how it should be remembered.