Majora’s Mask 3D is the creepiest, most interesting, and most humane Zelda

As much as I love the Legend of Zelda games, Majora’s Mask never clicked with me. Between the game’s central premise of repeating the same three days over and over again and the ever-present timer counting down my doom, it presented such a change from Ocarina of Time and Wind Waker that I never gave it a chance to make an impression. Thank goodness Nintendo has worked so hard to bring their back catalog of older games to the 3DS, because without the release of Majora’s Mask 3D, I would have missed out on one of the creepiest, most interesting, and most humane of the Zelda games.

After the break, time is a flat circle.

At the risk of sounding like a crotchety old man, Majora’s Mask feels like a game better appreciated once you’ve taken a few trips around the block. Ocarina of Time and Link to the Past play to the Big Hero aspirations of the young when we all feel like we can still change the world. This game, on the other hand, focuses less on the coming destruction of the world, despite how large it literally looms in the sky. It instead highlights the lives of those soon to be crushed under that horrifying moon. That’s not to say there’s a time limit for saving the world, but when the world has dulled your sharp edges dulled a bit, it’s easier to see how simple gestures of humanity mean as much, if not more, than grand heroic tasks.

That’s not to say that you won’t be saving the world. The usual model of dungeon diving to find a new weapon used to fight a boss, put on loop through many dungeons, is jettisoned. You instead focus on four dungeons and solving the problems of the various residents of Clock Town and the outlying areas. This paring down of dungeon exploration may turn off those weaned on the series more sprawling entries, but it’s this very brevity of exploration that has drawn me in. After many Zelda games, exploring dungeon after dungeon starts to wear down one’s desire to find the usual keys and compasses.

More importantly, by choosing to focus on solving the problems of the game’s residents, Link gets a ground level view of the oncoming destruction rarely seen in modern games. The responses to the coming moon run the gamut from defiance to resignation to regret over not having the opportunity to do more, see more, live more. You experience these reactions first hand while constantly restarting the flow of time, rewinding lives in the process. In the grand scheme of things, with planetary destruction seventy-two hours away, does it really matter if the ghostly hand finds its way to some toilet paper? Probably not, but if you have the power to manipulate time, to solve problems both big and small, why wouldn’t you take a cycle to help with such a task?

Which brings me to the biggest joy of the game. Namely, the ability to take what you have learned along with a selection of items that resist the rewinding of time to go back and fix mistakes you couldn’t fix before. Who among us has the luxury to take another stab at past problems, armed with a better set of tools and perspectives? Sure, our mistakes teach us as much, if not more, than our successes. But we all have some lessons we would have avoided if we could go back and do things differently. While most games allow the player to step into the shoes of a hero and pull off amazing, otherworldly feats of heroics, this is one of few games that allows us to defeat two of life’s most prickly adversaries: the Past and Regret.

Nintendo realizes some of what made the original game so prickly. A timeline notebook was useful for maybe the aforementioned toilet paper quest and not much else. There was a scarcity of save points. Majora’s Mask 3D adds concessions to both modern gaming and the younger audience courted by handhelds. This time around, Link’s Bomber’s Notebook is actually helpful, automatically filling in with quest information and a timeline to let you know who needs what and when you can visit them about their problems. Additional save statues have also been added for more frequent saves and fast travel spots. Those that spent hours sussing out the needs of the game’s residents may scoff at such niceties, but you’ll always have your memories of the Nintendo 64 to keep you warm. Me, I’ll be soaring to Clock Town at 3PM because I need to see a Postman about a timer game.

Boss battles have also been reconditioned, but they still follow the template of using your new weapon or new mask to hit the boss’s glowing bits, awarding you with a new heart container and the ability to progress further in the story and solve more problems. I can’t speak to how much they have changed as I never got to a boss the first time I played the game, but I haven’t seen anything that far out of the usual Zelda repertoire of Big Bads.

On a somewhat related note, playing the game on Nintendo’s confusingly named New Nintendo 3DS XL is an absolute joy with the snappier processor bringing a real shine to the upgraded visuals. The face tracking 3D wizardry allowing me to use the 3D functionality without risking a splitting headache. The additional thumb stick, seemingly ported from the middle of a ThinkPad keyboard, isn’t quite the joystick I would have liked but it works in a pinch for moving the camera around. I started the game on my 3DS XL before traversing the Nine Levels of Nintendo Content Transfer Hell to bring the game to the New 3DS XL and of all of the added features, that little thumb nubbin is the one I use the most.

No doubt about it, this is an odd little game, infused with equal parts magical delight and foreboding dread. But that singular mix makes it interesting. A game like this — a weird almost art-house game following on the heels of a game not only considered the series high watermark, but one of the greatest games of all time — simply would not get made in today’s focus group driven, sky high budgeted, AAA game development environment. It would be as if Avengers 2 took place entirely in that shawarma restaurant while our heroes spent 90 minutes talking about loss, regret, and the destruction of their innocence.

Thankfully Majora’s Mask 3D has more going for it than simple strangeness, delivering a poignant mix of big heroics and touching humanity on top of the solid Zelda formula. Thanks to the magic of remakes, if you missed it the first time, this is one mistake you can go back and fix.

  • The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask 3D

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  • 3DS
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