The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask is one of The Games That Got Away. Released when I was but 10 years old, the twisted kid brother of Ocarina of Time proved too dark, too surreal, too existentially threatening for my young mind to grapple with.
An immediate sequel to Ocarina, the game sees classic Zelda protagonist Link transported to the parallel world of Termina. As the name might suggest, this place doesn’t have long to go, chiefly because the moon is going to crash into the town square in exactly three days. Oh, and said moon looks like it’s been given a generous dose of amphetamines and has taken a curious disliking to anything that breathes.
Gone are the simple morality-play antics of that grand, old game, with its maniacal villain and damsel-in-distress to be rescued. Instead, the villain of the piece is a mischievous imp, playing pranks and accidentally triggering the end of the world in the process. Or maybe it’s that titular, inanimate mask, possessed of powers unknown. Then again, it could be the giant, terrifying, furious moon bearing down on us all, wreathed in flames and threatening annihilation.
The rot runs deeper than that. Majora’s Mask was precision-designed to lure in innocent young fans of the franchise, so it could chew them up and spit them out. Everywhere you look are characters and locales familiar from Ocarina, twisted and set to new purpose. The world is familiar, and yet not, a Zelda title from across the Uncanny Valley; you’ve got to get close before you realize it’s just not quite right.
Then again, in its own way the game shows its true colours early on. In the opening moments, the elfin hero is transformed, against his will, into a Deku Shrub, a sort of shrunken version of Lord of the Rings’ Ents. The moment of transformation is brief but violent, the vision of Link’s tortured face accompanied by echoing screams and a distinctly unpleasant crunching sound. It’s Nintendo turning its hand to American Werewolf in London, made all the worse by the fact that it’s a process you must inflict on Link again and again throughout the game, punishing him relentlessly as he seeks to save a world to which he does not belong.
That transformation is one of the game’s two most novel mechanics, the second being its introduction of a repetitive temporal loop. With only three days to save the world, you must travel back in time and relive them over and over, building upon your successes incrementally as you progress through the game. That complexity of gameplay, coupled with its nightmarish strain of surrealist horror, proved too much for my young mind. So I quit.
I never finished Majora’s Mask. If you had asked me at the time, I’m not sure I could have articulated why I finally put my controller down, but looking back it’s hard not to see that this strange creature just wasn’t the Zelda game I wanted. I needed more of the same, and Majora’s Mask did not fit the bill. The later-released Wind Waker and Twilight Princess would have better scratched my itch—both games showcasing familiar narratives supported by comfortable gameplay. But as it happened, I was left only with the sour taste of defeat, my young mind echoing with dungeons unseen, bosses unfought, and pesky playground chatter about the revelation of an ultimate mask at the game’s conclusion. But it was simply not to be.
It would be some time before anything challenged me in the way that Majora’s Mask had. Gaming once again offered predictable comforts, colourful platformers eventually giving way to gritty shooters—neither a threat to my mental integrity. More Zelda games came and went, some light, some dark, but all timid beneath the shadow of that inescapable, gurning moon
It fell to cinema to pick up the slack. First came Alien, its slick eponymous predator hinting at horrors unknown, waiting just out of view. A few years later, my eyes were opened again by the joint forces of Davids Cronenberg and Lynch. The former took bodily manipulation to its extremes, twisting and distorting the flesh. The latter did much the same, but to reason itself, crafting worlds that defied logic. In the simultaneously dark and innocent surrealism of Twin Peaks, I had finally found something that lent context to the threatening, challenging game from my youth.
So it was with some trepidation that I approached the 3DS re-release of Majora’s Mask. Would I get it? Would it once again prove too strange for me? Or would I finally find myself able to appreciate the elusive quality so many others had found in it all those years ago? It felt as if my very status as a critic was on the line, the game now emblematic of some sophistication of taste I had once lacked and now hoped to possess.
So I returned.
Link’s first bone-crunching transformation remained a shock to my senses, though perhaps less than it once had. The impish Skull Kid was still unsettling, though his nature as a tragic villain now made sense, placed as it was in a wider context. And then the moon appeared. That leering, unflinching body, somehow, impossibly, rendered with even more malice in its modern incarnation. A spectacular visual embodiment of hatred, inescapable and overbearing. Age and experience were cold comfort here, they hadn’t dulled its impact, not even by a fraction.
It was only once I started gazing beyond the game’s overt horror tropes and general surreal aesthetic that I really began to see things in a new light. That time loop was no mere mechanic, but a stark expression of futility itself. No matter how much I devoted myself to helping the citizens of Termina, my work was destined to be undone. I might reunite the separated lovers, but for what? A quick reset of the clock, and their distance returned. I could remove poison from the waters, save a wrongly imprisoned monkey, free restless spirits, but nothing lasts. As much as modern games like to track, record and visualize every ounce of progress, Majora’s Mask didn’t just ignore my work, it undid it. No good deed went remembered, until their goodness itself came into question, my actions drifting apart from morality itself. Why even be good if your impact on the world is destined to be summarily erased?
Despite misgivings, I persevered. I noted, with relief, the point at which I began to discover areas and enemies that I hadn’t even foggy memories of, realising that I had triumphed over my younger self. I was doing it. I could beat the game. I could get the game. I could love the game.
The culmination of years of confused wonderings was ahead of me. Not only could I beat the game, I could complete it. I could best every boss, discover every Piece of Heart, collect every mask. Playground speculation bubbled once again to the surface, the tantalising prospect of the ultimate mask, the Fierce Deity, ahead of me. The end was in sight.
“Will you play… with me?”
Unexpected first words from a final boss. “Let’s play good guys against bad guys,” he continues, the embodiment of innocence shrouded by a sinister mask.
“Are you ready? You’re the bad guy.”
As a child, I never reached these climactic moments. I’m not sure quite what I would have made of them. It’s a challenge not only to the easy notion of a conventional villain, but, more strikingly, to the straightforward hero of old. Was I the bad guy? Doubt began to creep in.
The fight began. I became the Fierce Deity. I stood tall, rippling with new power. My doubt crystallised. This was wrong. I was too powerful. My enemy could barely touch me, as I batted it around the room with swinging sword strokes. The fight was over almost before it had begun. This wasn’t what I’d imagined. I’d expected triumph, but all the game left me with was regret. I was a bully, driven by the game to amass power, and this my sad achievement.
Nothing is as deceptive as one’s own expectations, and few of mine remain intact. Majora’s Mask is not another simple fantasy adventure. Nor is it the game that left me reeling as a 10-year-old, or even the surrealist horror I’d imagined growing up. It’s more and it’s less. Horrifying and charming, surreal and straightforward. It let me save the world, but left me wondering if that was really enough.