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Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask (N64)

Zelda: Ocarina of Time for N64 was heralded by many both before and after its release as quite possibly the greatest game to that point in time. Regardless of whether one held it in that high regard, it certainly was a very well-received game, to say the least. Living up to that sort of standard certainly wasn't going to be easy. With the SNES, Link to the Past was the only Zelda game that console received. With N64, however, after work finished on Ocarina of Time, soon after work began on a follow-up in the Zelda series. Originally work was done on a 64DD expansion to Ocarina of Time itself, but with the 64DD having long delays, and even when it came out only being released in Japan and with only a small handful of games being released for it (none of which being the Ocarina of Time expansion), hopes for a new N64 Zelda game would have to shift back onto the N64 directly, and in the form of a separate game. While Majora's Mask certainly is a separate game, it shares many things in common with Ocarina of Time, where someone who enjoyed Ocarina of Time and was looking for something more was likely to be quite happy with the result. Something so similar to a game so highly regarded might seem like an easy success. Unfortunately, there was one change in particular which had a dramatic effect on the package as a whole.

Majora's Mask picks up soon after the conclusion of Ocarina of Time. It's not necessary to have played Ocarina of Time first in order to understand the storyline, but, that would be a good game to play first regardless. In either event, after the events of Ocarina of Time, Link heads off with his horse Epona. Along the way he is attacked by the Skull Kid, who runs off with both your Ocarina of Time, and your horse Epona. Of course, it wouldn't be very nice of Link to just let his horse be stolen like that, so, he chases off after them. After finding them, however, he is transformed into a Deku Scrub by the Skull Kid, who runs off yet again. Being a little bush-like creature certainly isn't going to make finding his horse any easier, so now there's the new task of figuring out how to change back to himself. Proceeding further along he encounters the Happy Mask Salesman, another familiar character from Ocarina of Time, who tells him that he can transform him back to his normal form, but he just needs a little bit of help with something he wants in exchange. He's going to be leaving in three days, however, so he would appreciate it if you would be quick about things so that he can get going. Leaving him and going out into the open, Link finds himself in a completely new town, similar to a town he might encounter in Hyrule, but yet very different at the same time.

Without walking through the full events leading up to doing what the Happy Mask Salesman wants, the short of it is that it culminates with you recovering the Ocarina of Time from the Skull Kid, learning a song which brings you back to when you first arrived in this new place - more on that in a moment - and showing it to the Happy Mask Salesman. He shows you a song to play on the Ocarina which not only changes you back to your normal Link form, but produces a mask of the Deku Scrub. Masks, and the Happy Mask Salesman, are again something which is familiar from Ocarina of Time, but in Majora's Mask the masks play a much more central role. Unlike Ocarina of Time, where a mask was simply placed over your face and its effects were limited to some different dialog, in Majora's Mask, special masks allow you to take on the form of the creature in the mask. So, with the newly created Deku Mask, Link can put it on and take it off to switch between a Deku Scrub and his normal form at will. This is great for Link, but unfortunately not quite what the Happy Mask Salesman was looking for. In fact, what he was looking for, Majora's Mask, it seems is in the hands (or on the face) of the Skull Kid. So, while Link has gotten what he wanted, he still is obligated to recover what the Happy Mask Salesman wanted as well.

The three day time limit that the Happy Mask Salesman gave you isn't just something that's important to him, as if he has a dinner date to get to or something. As you'll discover as you're chasing around the Skull Kid and getting your Ocarina back within that initial window of time, you'll notice something ominous coming down overhead. It appears that the moon that's over the world is getting closer and closer, and by the time your limit is almost up, it's nearly on top of you and ready to crush you. So, waiting around more than three days isn't something that would be possible, as it appears there wouldn't be anything left to explore after those three days are up. Fortunately, having recovered his Ocarina, Link quickly learns a song to play on it which sets time back to the beginning of that three day period, when he first arrived in this new land. Back at the beginning, the moon is high overhead and the danger of imminent destruction is removed, at least for the moment. So, he sets out again to work on getting what the Happy Mask Salesman wants, which, as one might guess, involves plenty of adventure and journeys over the new world in which Link now finds himself.

This new land - Termina - is quite different from Hyrule, but many of the general ideas of the land are quite similar. The initial area in which Link finds himself is a town bustling with people to talk with who will give you information, shed light on problems, assign tasks to be completed, and all sorts of other interesting things. After venturing outside of the town, Link will find himself in a large open area, which can be explored and in turn leads to other side areas where new tasks will be found, including dungeons and other enemy-infested areas to conquer. So, little by little Link will begin to explore this new world and all the troubles it contains, and figure out what it is he needs to do here to solve all of these issues. The only problem is, that moon is still there, and it's getting closer by the minute.

Time limits in games are nothing new. Whether it's simply a timer counting down which isn't usually anything to worry about and just gives some points at the end of a level like in Super Mario Bros. 1 or a more pressing counter such as a specific time limit to solve a puzzle in a puzzle game, timers can provide a bit of guidance or a sense of urgency in completing tasks. In a wide, expansive game like the Zelda series presents, however, it's something much less familiar. The counter is for three days, but it's not three days of real time but instead a much quicker counting down of these days which passes before one has a chance to come anywhere close to accomplishing all of the goals the game has to offer. Instead, as opposed to heading off on a long journey, the process of completing goals is going to be interrupted when the moon gets too close for comfort. Playing the song to return to the beginning of the three days, which is also the only way to do a permanent save of the game, saves some things, such as finding key items, but resets many things, such as the amount of quantity-related items collected, rupees, and other similar things. More significantly, however, it also returns Link to the starting town every single time he plays it. So, if he had wandered over a large expanse of land to find his way to a dungeon and had made his way through a large part of it, he is going to have to literally retrace his steps in order to get back to where he was and resume what he was doing before feeling oppressed by the moon.

Unfortunately, what this means is that quite often the game has a large feeling of urgency and rushing to it. In some games this might not be a problem, and in fact might make things more interesting. In a game like Zelda, however, where there is so much to do, so much to explore, and such a lengthy journey ahead, this constant heading back to the start and resetting of many things can put a huge block in the way that one might otherwise choose to play a game like this. For instance, if one had the urge to spend some time exploring the main world, or the path on the way to a dungeon, that's all well and good, but it would likely mean there isn't enough time left to actually complete the dungeon, meaning one is going to have to head back to the beginning and start over again. Again, some things are saved, and fortunately there are various "warp points" of sorts which Link can use to jump back to an area close to where he had left off, but there will still be much retracing and re-doing of previously done things in order to get back to where he had been before. There is also a song which Link will learn which will slow down the passing of time, which is very helpful. Still, however, there remains that threat of the timer counting down below, which always is creating a rush to finish up what needs to be done before running out of time, and the frustration of needing to repeat so much after restarting, which makes it very hard to take time out and just wander and explore, and creates a very different pacing and feel to the flowing of the game.

The central core of the game, again, is very similar to that of Ocarina of Time. This isn't, however, to say that Majora's Mask is an exact copy of that game, and in fact there are many new and interesting things presented by this game. There are new items which will perform different tasks, which can have some interesting results. As well, as noted, the masks play a much more integral role in the gameplay than they did in Ocarina of Time, actually transforming Link and granting him different powers and abilities. The Deku Scrub mask is just the first of a number of shape-changing masks which Link will discover, and one of a large number of total masks to be found. In addition to the central masks which have a dramatic effect like that, there are also many other masks to be found which are just placed over the face while Link remains in his normal form, but which have different effects on some of his regular abilities. Many of these masks are optional and don't need to be found, but can provide a challenge to find all of these extra things, and seeing the different effects they can have. Indeed, Majora's Mask is full of many interesting side-quests like this. Yet, there is again that concern about the time limit imposed by the game, which makes the urge and ability to head off on side-quests much less appealing or convenient. Indeed, side-quests practically become their own individual quests, as one needs to set aside a specific cycle of days and time to head off to accomplish it, before saving and going back to the beginning again. They're less something that can be done to the "side" of the main quest, but something which either need to be done on their own, or which draw too much time away from the main quest where it is going to result in needing to go back to the beginning before finishing up the main goal one had wanted to complete and having to start over much of it again.

There is much to see and do in Majora's Mask. There are a wide variety of lands to explore and discover, both with familiar themes and new. All of these areas are beautifully created with intricate detail and fascinating to look at and explore. Of note, Majora's Mask requires the N64's Expansion Pack, and is unable to be played without it, as it uses it not just for an optional improved graphical look as many games do, but as an integral part of the design of the game. In addition to how everything looks, there are also the beautiful sounds and music to listen to while exploring all of these areas, again with a wonderful mix of familiar songs and new and interesting songs unique to this game. As well as all this, Majora's Mask has its own story, unlike what one is familiar with or what one might expect. Both the overarching story of the game, and the sidequests and pieces of the story one learns along the way really serve to draw one into the game, and to become immersed in this new world in which Link finds himself.

Yet again, however, everything always seems to come back to that time limit imposed by the game. Majora's Mask offers a wonderful experience in gameplay, but unfortunately it is impossible to extricate it from the time limit that is such a central part of how the game is constructed. Everything positive about the game - the wide areas to explore, the side-quests, all the new and interesting things which are able to be done - are always qualified with the note that there simply isn't the freedom to do them in an enjoyable way, but instead constantly needing to feel segmented and interrupted by the returning to the beginning and repeating much of what had already been done. It would have been wonderful to be able to explore and experience this game without that moon and that timer always counting down, but considering how central the timer is to the game it wouldn't even really be a practical request to be able to play through the game without the timer - say as an extra mode after having beat the game - since it's so inexorably linked to how the game is created.

So, what is left is to see that this game is brimming over with possibilities, but which are cut short and damaged by that omnipresent timer. To be sure it creates a different experience - one of urgency and rushing and a constant demand to be quick about things - but is in direct contrast to how it would be best to experience an expansive and involved game of this sort. The journey will be over far too quick, in large part due to the rush to get things done before running out of time. Certainly there are plenty of interesting things to go back and see and do after having beat the game, and will be much easier to find the time to do with the main goal taken care of, and quite possibly going back afterward and doing all the extra stuff without needing to worry about the main goal is a more enjoyable process than the actual initial time through the adventure. As a follow-up to Ocarina of Time, it at the same time offers many of the same concepts which were so enjoyable about that game, while presenting many new things of its own. Still, the total package leaves a feeling of disenchantment, at all the possibilities presented by the game, crushed by the overbearing presence of a moon.