There are a lot of nostalgic 20-somethings writing on the internet about how awesome the 2000 Nintendo N64 game The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask was. If you’ve never played this game, I think I’ve written this article with enough explanation such that you shouldn’t be confused, and it should be interesting even if you haven’t played. Most discussions of Majora’s Mask hit on one major reason for why this game was awesome – the foreboding mood created around the game’s most striking visual, the grimacing moon constantly coming closer to earth. The player’s goal in Majora’s Mask is to prevent the moon’s impending collision with the ground by repeating the three days before impact, gathering magical items over multiple three-day cycles. The moon, along with the abstract clock at the bottom of the screen, becomes a constant visual reminder of the pressing time limit that is the player’s greatest enemy in the game. Nintendo did an extremely good job, even for Nintendo’s high standards, of creating a cohesive and appropriate visual and auditory mood for the game, especially given the fact that The Legend of Zelda series was already an established franchise whose past games had been straightforward “hero’s quest” stories and this game was anything but.
I’m going to talk about a reason for Majora’s Mask’s success that I think is underrepresented and underappreciated in most discussions of the game. The gameplay in Majora’s Mask was designed to take an unintentional drawback that was standard in videogames, multiply its effects, and turn it into a feature. Majora’s Mask takes the Groundhog Day effect and makes it fun and challenging.
The game starts out with three days (in real-time, about three hours) before the moon crashes into the land of Termina. But Link, the hero, gets a magical ocarina that allows him to return at will to the beginning of the three days by playing a magic song. As soon as the player goes back in time once and starts playing through a second cycle, patterns are obvious. It always rains on the second day. Some characters only appear on certain days or at certain times. And as the player completes more and more cycles, one can predict the movements and actions of the townsfolk, using the knowledge of who-goes-where-when to complete tasks. There is a sequence of dungeons and bosses one must defeat in order to complete Majora’s Mask, but a large amount of the game involves the hero Link gaining power-ups (most often masks that give him certain abilities) by helping and otherwise interacting with the denizens of the world. Both Link and the player are strangers in this world, and while the player and Link learn about the people that they help over multiple three-day cycles, the citizens of Termina always see Link as a stranger.
In the film Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, the climactic scene is bifurcated when the titular hero is killed by the villain. As the movie takes place in a videogame world, Scott simply comes back to life to try again. But he respawns at the beginning of the level, so to speak. He has to pass a number of minor challenges before he can attempt to take down the final boss. These minor challenges, which had been puzzles of their own the first time around, are blown away by Scott as he speed-runs toward the boss. After dying, Scott gets a second chance, and this way he can use his knowledge of his first try during his second.
It’s a concept familiar to any gamer, and it’s beautifully and hilariously illustrated in Scott Pilgrim. The Groundhog Day effect, from the 1993 movie of the same name, in which a time loop repeats until a set of conditions are met, doesn’t turn up in video games by design, but by accident. In old-school video games like Super Mario Brothers, you respawn from a set point after dying and must go through the level, which is unchanged, until you complete it successfully or run out of lives. The level gets easier, not because it changes, but because you know what’s coming. In a game like Resident Evil 4, the effect is even greater, because much of its difficulty stems from the scariness (or at least the jarring sensation) of monsters popping out from behind each corner. The first time you play through Resident Evil 4, it’s challenging and scary. The second time you play through, it’s still fun (it’s got great controls and action sequences) but it’s no longer very challenging and it’s definitely not scary. You already know the monster is behind the corner, so you can prepare yourself for what’s coming.
Majora’s Mask turns the Groundhog Day effect into a feature rather than a bug because knowing what’s going to happen is itself the way you complete tasks. And the required knowledge of the game’s mechanics is not limited to spatial cues (e.g. “the monster is behind this corner,” “The warp whistle is behind this door”) but to the unique actions of non-playable characters (NPCs) within a complex space.
In games before Majora’s Mask (and many games afterward), NPCs were stationed around the game in generally fixed places (or pacing back and forth) and, if engaged by the player, would usually say an unchanging line of dialogue. Certain NPCs would change their position and their lines, but this was usually to some sort of trigger engaged by the player elsewhere. Here’s a hypothetical example: after beating the dungeon boss, the innkeeper is found at the gates of town rather than at his inn and will bid you safe travel rather than offer you a room. But that game just makes the innkeeper appear in a different spot when you emerge victoriously from the dungeon.
The innovation in Majora’s Mask was that the characters all had their own programmed schedules in which they didn’t stay in one place, but moved from building to building or even in and out of town throughout the three day cycle, and, most importantly, you could see them make these movements. This sounds like a minor change, but the only way that this kind of system was even possible (at least for a regular-sized 3D console game at the time) was through the increased memory capacity offered by the new Expansion Pak upgrade for the N64. It was a small advance that made for a big change in gameplay. The complicated schedules of Majora’s Mask’s NPCs increased verisimilitude, but it also allowed the player to use their past experiences with the game and the clock at the bottom of the screen to time events exactly. As an example, before 4:00PM on the first day of the game, Link can get a room at the inn. The inn is fully booked, but if you falsely claim that you have a reservation, Anju the innkeeper responds that there is indeed a reservation under your name, and gives you a key. But if you return to the inn at around 4PM, you see that another traveler named Link arrives and is denied a room! Later, you can find him sleeping outdoors. Of course, access to that room at the inn is necessary for a variety of tasks in the game, and if you fail to get the room before 4PM on that first day, the other Link takes the room and you lose access to the inn, and those tasks, until the next three-day cycle.
Of course, unless you use a walkthrough guide, there’s nothing to tell you when your window of opportunity at the inn will close, other than trial and error. What’s more, it’s not always even clear what the time-sensitive goals are, much less when you must do them. The challenge of Majora’s Mask is not staying alive in the face of enemies or executing complicated moves as much as it is playing alertly and patiently. While frustrating at times, the idea of memorizing, predicting, and capitalizing on the actions of a whole town is appealing to those who want to play god as well as old-school gamers who spent hours upon hours perfecting their skills at Contra or Castlevania.
Majora’s Mask was released at the tail end of the 1990s fascination with apocalypse. After September 11, 2001, less than a year after Majora’s Mask release, apocalyptic stories hit a little too close to home, and such stories took a break for a few years. For many game players, it represents both a game from a simpler era and a precursor to the more complex, open-ended games that became more and more prevalent as technology advanced in the early 2000s. The game is also popular with video game devotees because it is at once a game from an enormously successful, long-running series and also a concept game, where a gameplay innovation becomes the point of the game itself. Like Shadow of the Colossus or Ico, Majora’s Mask is a cult classic praised for its innovative approach to gameplay and storytelling. But because it has the pedigree of The Legend of Zelda franchise (and the accompanying control scheme, user-friendly and familiar), Majora’s Mask was also gateway for mainstream gamers who would might not have played those cult classics otherwise.