If you have been following The Legend of Zelda Experience, you may have noticed that I have released my impression of some titles in pairs. I would have purposely waited to lump Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask together even if I had done all the rest of them individually. These two titles are woven together for more than the obvious reason that Majora’s Mask was developed on the heels of Ocarina of Time with limited development time and therefore reused innumerable art assets. The themes, ideas, gameplay, and consequences of these two titles are interwoven in ways that only the following two titles (Oracle of Ages and Oracle of Seasons) in the franchise can compare- and that’s not fair considering the Oracle games were developed simultaneously. Although Ocarina and Majora are extremely different games in tone, they nonetheless share that mystical aura of the Nintendo 64 era. Without further ado, let’s dig in to Ocarina.
Ocarina of Time:
Nostalgia is a powerful force. It can be so powerful that when we possess nostalgia on a given subject, we must call our judgment into question. In the case of Ocarina of Time, I have a great deal of nostalgia but also a great deal of weariness. I have completed Ocarina of Time more than any game I have ever played and so it is hard for me to enjoy the experience of actually playing it, even if I do have a great deal of appreciation for it. To mitigate my familiarity some, I used the Master Quest version of the game for this review as I have only completed it twice prior.
Ocarina of Time faced the daunting challenge of bringing The Legend of Zelda into 3D, a very young medium at the time. Three dimensional gaming had been done before, but it was stumbling around with all the grace of a toddler. It’s almost meta that Ocarina of Time is a coming of age story as it represented 3D’s coming of age. If the industry owed an unplayable debt to the franchise because of the original, then that debt is doubled by its introduction into 3D. Much of the standards, ideas, and structures of modern gaming can be traced to Ocarina of Time.
The gameplay is similar to that of A Link to the Past, but extrapolated into three diminsions- there’s a (then) sprawling overworld crammed with secrets and goodies, and scattered throughout it are towns and tribes of creatures you’ll only find in a Zelda setting, and, most gloriously, dungeons. Each dungeon is filled with another bit of gear to add to Link’s utility belt and exciting puzzle designs that test us in the proper use of each new piece of gear. The dungeons in Ocarina are some of the most revered (and feared) in the franchise, but I found them kind of drab compared to the more contemporary takes on Zelda Dungeons. I must take a moment to specify, however, that these are not the sprawling mazes of Diablo, nor are they the boring network of similar but reskinned caves that can be found in The Elder Scrolls. There are eight dungeons in Ocarina of Time and while there are repeated elements, the forms, functions, and designs of each dungeon vary wildly. None of these are extra content padding and all of them represent an antiquated but refreshing design preference in games of that era: if it’s not unique and identifiable on its own, it shouldn’t be added. Hyrule is extremely varied , there is little in common between Kokiri Forest and Zora’s Domain and there shouldn’t be. One would assume the trade-off would be a much more truncated or brief experience but that is not the case with Ocarina. It’s no hundred-hour marathon. It is long enough to feel satisfying and still remain hungry for more. Too many games are so large and so long that by the 50% marker you don’t really WANT to do it anymore but this is not so with most Zelda titles. By the time credits are rolling, you feel both immensely satisfied and a longing for more.
Oarina of Time also marks the first time the series made a valiant effort to establish a bit of lore to the franchise. A Link to the Past gave us some glimpses into the history of Hyrule, but Ocarina of Time literally gave us the Genesis story of Hyrule. A triumvirate of Goddesses worked together to create Hyrule. Din shaped the very Earth with her might. With her limitless wisdom Nayru gave it natural law and the laws of morality. The world was filled with life by the courageous Farore. They departed the world and left in their wake three Golden Triangles of unspeakable power: The Triforce. This relic was sealed away in a Sacred Realm (as seen in A Link to the Past) because he who possesses the Triforce will have the deepest desires of their heart fulfilled. Now the Zelda series has quite a bit of a pantheon but none of the deities featured in the series are as important as these three and this dynamic has lead to some interesting stories. Ocarina’s being no exception.
This iteration of Link is one we have never met before, he lives in the quaint but mystical Kokiri Forest where all the inhabitants are either child-like wood spirits or fairies. Each Kokiri possessed a fairy of their own, but not Link– not until the opening of the game that is. We are first introduced to Navi the Fairy as she listens to the words of the wise and venerable Deku Tree. The Deku Tree is a guardian spirit for the Kokiri who has long watched over them. As Link is plagued by nightmares, the Deku Tree sends Navi to summon him and then explains of a prevailing “climate of evil” that both he and Link are sensitive to. Link’s first task is to enter the Deku Tree himself and remove a powerful and wicked curse. Even as a young child, Link heroically charges in and defeats the monster plaguing the Great Deku Tree, but it is too late. The Deku Tree presents Link with a Spiritual Stone and explains how this curse was laid upon him by a man from the desert who demanded the very same Spiritual Stone from the Deku Tree. In his last words, the Deku Tree implores Link to venture to Hyrule and warn its Princess, the Princess of Destiny, of this coming evil.
Link departs from the Forest, leaving his childhood friends confused and sad. When Link arrives in Hyrule and sneaks into the castle to gain an audience with Zelda, he comes to find that Zelda has been having prophetic visions as well and is already aware of the situation. Indeed she has attempted to warn her father, the King, but he heeded her not. Link and Zelda then set in motion a plan to stop the man from the desert, Ganondorf, from entering the Sacred Realm as he purposes. The Sacred Realms was sealed away behind the Master Sword inside the Temple of Time which is itself sealed away by a door that only opens when one possesses all three Spiritual Stones from their respective guardian tribes and then use the Ocarina of Time- in instrument of importance to the Hylian Royal Family- to play the Song of Time before the doors. These Hylians are REALLY good at locking things up. Long story short, they succeed just in time for Ganondorf to betray and attack Hyrule Castle, causing the Princess and her attendant to flee. When Link opens the door and claims the Master Sword, however, we see that Ganondorf intended for Link to do that for him. Link is not the age he is supposed to be in order to properly wield the Master Sword and so it seals Link away in the Sacred Realm to slumber for seven years. In that time, Ganondorf has stormed the Sacred Realm, seized the Triforce, and took over Hyrule. Cheery beginning, I know.
Rauru, the Sage of Light, is the one to greet Link as he awakens as an adult in the Sacred Realm. He briefs Link on their desperate situation and sends him back to Hyrule. Link meets a myserious survivor of the elusive Sheikah Tribe– Sheik. Sheik informs Link that there are five more Sages in Hyrule that represent different elements who need to be awoken in order to even confront Ganondorf. What follows is an adventure that will have Link discovering what life under Ganondorf has been like for Hyrule, even returning to his home to destroy evils and awaken a Sage who slept there. Link is able to put back the Master Sword in order to return to his youth and then pull it again if he seeks to return to the future era. There is a beautiful contrast between the young Link’s Hyrule, in the peak of prosperity, and the Hyrule on the brink of despair seven years in the future. The game beautifully layers these two similar and yet distinct Hyrules over one another. Link as both child and man at differing times is able to awaken all of the Sages, with the help of Navi and Sheik that is.
Just before the time comes to confront Ganondorf, Sheik reveals himself to be the lost Princess Zelda of the adult era. Zelda had been hiding and resisting Ganondorf’s rule those seven years as that mystical ninja. In revealing herself, however, Ganondorf catches and imprisons her. We learn that Ganondorf had not been granted his heart’s desire by the Triforce. He had been given power according to his already might stature because he represented only one of those cardinal virtues of the Goddesses- Power. The other two parts scattered and found their abodes in the two who most embodies their virtues- Wisdom in Zelda and Courage in Link. Ganondorf has again outwitted them by allowing the other parts of the Triforce to reveal themselves to him so he could kill their keepers and at last claim the Golden Power for his own. The battle between Link and Ganondorf is a good one that results in Zelda’s freedom, however Ganondorf brings his mighty castle down around them and in its ruin the Triforce of Power transfigured him into the hideous Demon King Ganon. Link and Zelda are able to bring Ganon into a stalemate while Zelda and the Sages imprison Ganon in the Sacred Realm, ending the long conflict. Zelda recognizes the work needing to be done to restore Hyrule, but also the childhood Link has lost in his quest to save the Kingdom. As a gift to Link, Zelda sends him back to his original time so that he may have his life back while she works to rebuild the mess they caused. It is a heartwarming and heartbreaking conclusion to a simple yet gripping tale of overcoming evil and sets in place a template for future titles in the series to follow.
Nintendo struck gold with Ocarina of Time and they seemed to know it. It was a milestone achievement at a time when the world was just beginning to take the medium of gaming seriously. Although the experience, even in its updated form, feels a little dated, there is a magical, timeless quality that endears folks to Ocarina of Time even today. It’s not all nostalgia either, new generations are experiencing Ocarina of Time for the first time and are wondering where this gem of a franchise has been all their lives. But, while Ocarina of Time may be the cornerstone of my childhood, it is not my favorite game in the series so far in this Experience. That comes next.
Having only two years in development time on the heels of Ocarina of Time, Majora’s Mask stands as a testament to the focus, dedication, and even courage of Nintendo to put out quality work despite an impending time crunch. The development of Majora’s Mask parallels the plot itself. The team had, metaphorically, three days to complete everything before the moon fell on their head. Much of the design choices, including the reusing of most of Ocarina of Time’s assets, reflect that tiny window of time.
The core mechanic of Majora’s Mask has never been copied since its release, even though certain concepts have been borrowed. Unlike previous Zelda titles, you have three in-game days to accomplish whatever you can before time has to be reset and only the obtaining of speacial items is carried over into the next “cycle.” You see, Majora’s Mask takes place in Termina, a parallel deminsion from Hyrule and it has a big problem. The lonely Skull Kid has stolen the wicked and frighteningly powerful Majora’s Mask from a traveling Mask Salesman and has cursed this wretched land at various points. Not the least of which is the Moon (now sporting a terrifying, vengeful face) bearing down on Clocktown and threatening Termina’s utter ruin.
Much of Majora’s gameplay is borrowed from Ocarina with one major caveat: masks. Masks existed in Ocarina, but their uses were mostly limited to quirky new dialogue options with NPCs, here they range from simple bomb replacements to body-altering, gameplay bending transformations. The Deku, Gordon, and Zora Masks help Link to take the form of those races. In addition to quirky dialogue (and troublesome descrimination for Deku Link), the gameplay totally changes. Deku Link can hop atop water, glide from launching flowers, and spin to attack. Goron Link has powerful punches, a great ground pound attack, and can roll himself into a fast moving boulder. Zora Link can swim swiftly, walk along the bottom of pools, rivers, and oceans, and use his arm fins as boomerang. Mastery of Majora’s Mask requires mastery of every form Link has and one cannot neglect the clock ticking towards doomsday.
While Majora’s Mask only has four dungeons, and only one of them is good, the main thrust of the title is out in the overworld- a reversal of the tropes Zelda had built for itself up to that point. Furthermore, the focus of Majora’s Mask is not a Genesis sized creation myth, an epic tale of the rise and fall of kingdoms, or anything of the sort. Yes, there is a main threat and a prevailing doom, but the focus is on ordinary people and their problems. One memorable side-quest involves reuniting a cursed groom with his bride and soaking in the bittersweet reunion as the sinister moon looms over their wedding day. Each NPC feels like a living, breathing person with legitimate (if extremely odd) problems that you really want to help them with. This personal focus helps to make Majora’s Mask stand out, and feels even darker when one considers that after you reset the cycle, the problems that torment them return and you can’t possibly help them all.
Majora’s Mask has been the source of wild speculation and theory due to the game’s darker tone and psychological storytelling. There are numerous analyses of its themes, messages, and implications all over the internet. This is in part because the villain of Majora’s Mask is essentially a lonely child whose prankish frustrations take a dark and dangerous turn when he is possessed by the titular Mask. Ironically, the only way to stop the Moon that the Skull Kid has bearing down over Termina is to unite the Four Giants- the Skull Kid’s friends whose absence he mistook for abandonment. In a sense, the one person who needs your help the most is the Skull Kid, going through the same lonely journey as Link to find lost friendship. There are bizarre moments, like saving a Ranch’s cows from being abducted by aliens, and there are heart wrenching moments like seeing the cold Skull Kid befriending Tatl and Tael, twin fairies (and an excellent pun). It’s small wonder that Majora’s Mask has captured the hearts and minds of hundreds of Legend of Zelda players. It’s got my heart and mind wrapped around its warped, gnarled fingers.
Neither Ocarina nor Majora were new territory for me and yet they have undoubtedly been the highlight of The Legend of Zelda Experience thus far. These are some of the most widely available titles Nintendo has ever produced and so if you have never played these games, you owe it to yourself to experience them. The remakes on the Nintendo 3DS are the best way to experience them but they are still wonderful in any form you can find them.