The wait for The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask 3D has felt a lot longer than it has, in reality, been. Although it was only officially announced for the first time during last November's Nintendo Direct presentation, it needed little time to build up a considerable buzz ahead of its release.

Of course, this hype was undoubtedly pre-fuelled by a great deal of speculation and fan demand over the past couple of years. The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time 3D and The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker HD have shown that Nintendo (and also Grezzo in the former's case) can deliver remasters that reinvigorate classic Zelda titles to such an extent that they feel almost as magical as when they originally launched, if not more so. Following the success of Ocarina of Time 3D, and the very vocal expression of demand over the past few years, it only made sense that Nintendo would eventually restore The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask.

Majora's Mask is arguably the best Zelda game to undergo Nintendo and Grezzo's remastering treatment, too. When it originally released on the N64 back in 2000, it had the immensely tough job of following The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, a game that dramatically transformed the gaming landscape at the time. Moreover, Majora's Mask launched during the declining years of the N64's lifespan which — combined with the mandatory use of the N64 Expansion Pak add-on — meant the title was overlooked by many. In fact, it sold less than half the number of copies of its predecessor.

That's a shame, because Majora's Mask is a fantastic game that built upon the successes of Ocarina of Time and, in a number of ways, surpassed it. It's an incredibly unique entry in Nintendo's long-heralded adventure series, albeit one that proved divisive with fans upon its original launch. That's because it goes against the formulaic grain of most 3D Zelda games: there's less of a focus on dungeon-crawling (although there's still more than enough to do in this regard), and instead places more of an emphasis on the wider game world, how it evolves over time, and — most importantly — how Nintendo's famous green-garbed hero can influence and interact with it and the characters he meets.

This enhanced edition for 3DS brings Majora's Mask to a handheld for the first time, along with a new visual sheen and other tweaks and improvements. It's now a much smoother experience than it was on N64 — those that have played the original will recall that it wasn't always clear what you had to do at times. The changes are all mostly positive ones, although there are some missed opportunities and minor niggles here and there. Nevertheless, the brilliance of the original game still shines through, and it's this — more than anything — that makes The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask 3D a fantastic game that you simply must own.

For the uninitiated, Majora's Mask is a direct sequel to Ocarina of Time and features the same Link, albeit in his child form. This Link's second quest begins when he inadvertently crosses the path of the Skull Kid, a forest imp that has been possessed by an ancient mask (which as the game's title suggests, is called Majora's Mask) that's hellbent on destroying the world. Link's first encounter with this sinister new enemy doesn't pan out too well, and he's transformed into a Deku Scrub. To make matters worse, he winds up in a parallel world called Termina, which will be destroyed by a falling moon in just three days.

In terms of both gameplay and story, this is where things get really interesting. You're essentially given 72 in-game hours in which to save both yourself and everyone else before the moon falls. There's just one problem — it's impossible to do all of this in the time given (the three days equate to roughly an hour in real time). As a result, Link must call upon the mystical power of the Ocarina of Time that he obtained in the previous game to repeatedly go back in time to the dawn of the first day. Finding himself in a similar situation to Bill Murray in the 1993 film Groundhog Day, Link is forced to relive the same three days over and over again until he is able to find a way to vanquish Majora's Mask and break the cycle.

It's a novel concept that provides you with not only a different type of gameplay challenge, but also a world unlike any you may have experienced in other Zelda titles. It's worth noting that the time-based system doesn't eliminate the opportunity to explore Termina in a carefree fashion — you can go back in time as many times as you like — but it does demand good time management from you when tackling the main quest.

Going back in time is less of a solution and more of an unwanted necessity. It is not to your benefit (although it does beat getting crushed by the moon), and the game does a pretty effective job of reminding you of this; time travel naturally resets the world to a state before you were able to truly interact with it. As a result, any progress you've made in terms of dungeons or quests is wiped, without exception. Furthermore, any consumable items you have collected during a three-day period — arrows, bombs, fairies, quest items — are all lost; key items somehow survive the journey across time and space, which is just as well or else the concept simply wouldn't work.

Therefore, Majora's Mask 3D demands quite a lot from the player. It's entirely up to you what and how much you choose to do during a single cycle, however, you must also determine what is feasible given the constraints. Three in-game days is more than enough time to complete a temple (and potentially a few other activities), so although you're playing against the clock, it's unlikely you'll find yourself into a position where you run out of time unless it's as a result of your own error. Nevertheless, it's possible to use the ocarina to further alter the effect of time, slowing it down so that you have a bit more of a buffer. You can also jump ahead in time, and — new to this version of the game — you can jump forward to a specific hour of your choosing (as opposed to jumping to the next dawn or sunset). This is especially useful if you already know what you're doing or are repeating a quest and don't want to wait around for the game. It's a feature which, in our eyes, makes Majora's Mask better suited to a handheld system.

This is implemented well as far as gameplay challenge is concerned, but the true magic of such a system is that it creates a world that persistently (and consistently as a result of the time-travel element) evolves over time. The mood, the weather and, most noticeably of all, the non-playable characters (NPCs) all change as time flows. With regard to the latter, many NPCs actually live according to routines — they don't just idly stand or sit there and act as a quick point of information. It creates the illusion of a living, breathing world, albeit one that is relatively rudimentary as a result of the game's 64-bit origins. Nevertheless, it's vastly more interesting than the static worlds we still often come across, even in modern games.

Nowhere is this made more apparent than in Clock Town, a bustling haven that sits at the very centre of Termina. Link's arrival coincides with the town's preparations for its annual celebration, The Carnival of Time, which is due to take place on the fourth day — after the moon has fallen. Over the three days, you witness first-hand the toll that this cataclysmic event is having on most NPCs and their lives. On the first day life carries on as normal, albeit with some wariness of the moon's increasing proximity; by the third day, the streets are mostly empty, the carnival all but abandoned, and many NPCs having traded in their once-cheery dispositions for one of fear, sadness and lost hope.

As you may have already guessed, Majora's Mask 3D is a much darker entry in the Zelda series, quite possibly the darkest; themes of doom and Ragnorok are prevalent throughout the entirety of Termina, which in turn make this an unusually emotional experience. It's hard not to feel some sense of foreboding when you look up at the sky in the game to see the moon closer than it was 10 minutes ago. Equally, you can't help but feel the pressure each time the ground shakes as the moon edges closer on the final day. And despite repeatedly going back in time and playing the same three days over and over, this sinister and uneasy ambiance never dissipates.

This is all greatly enhanced by the impressive visual overhaul Nintendo and Grezzo have implemented in this version. Textures are vastly improved, as are the character models, and the opportunity to play the game in full 3D (something we highly recommend doing on the New Nintendo 3DS with its Super Stable 3D feature) all these years later is a welcome benefit. One of the challenges the original development team faced was ensuring that the game could provide a long draw distance in its larger, more open environments. That remains the case in Majora's Mask 3D, and through Circle Pad Pro compatibility (and C-Stick support on the New 3DS), you can freely move the camera around to take in the sights. That's essentially the only reason why this feature was included (although it's sometimes useful for solving puzzles in the dungeons), and while it doesn't boost your enjoyment of the game's look and feel a great deal, it's nevertheless a nice feature to have. There are few instances where the frame rate drops — usually when there's lots of action on-screen — and while it's certainly noticeable, it doesn't have enough of an impact to negatively affect the gameplay.

In addition to the time-based/time-travel system, the core quest centres around the use of masks. As mentioned earlier, Link is transformed at the start of the game into a non-human state, and this actually becomes a central part of the game. Without going into any spoilers, Link eventually gains the ability to switch between his human and Deku form, as well as turn into a Goron or Zora, through the use of special masks. Each transformation brings its own unique abilities to the table; for example, Goron Link can roll and perform powerful ground pounds; Zora Link is a proficient swimmer and can throw his fins like boomerangs; and Deku Link can fly through the air via the use of special launch flowers in the ground. These masks are a superb feature, as they make Link a much more complex character from a gameplay perspective. Moreover, as you can only use a single mask at any one time, the control input is never convoluted or excessively intricate.

Only by using all of these different forms and abilities can you succeed at saving Termina. The game's dungeons (of which there are four “main" ones) each require the use of these masks in conjunction with items in order to solve puzzles, defeat enemies and progress. Much like Link's transformation masks, dungeons are themed in accordance with their location, so in most instances you'll primarily use one mask per dungeon. Nevertheless, there is some overlap from time to time, meaning that out-of-the-box thinking is occasionally required. The overall dungeon design certainly benefits from the extra features that Link's transformations bring, although you'll still feel an overarching sense of familiarity if you've already experienced another 3D Zelda game.

Majora's Mask 3D incorporates a similar touchscreen menu interface to Ocarina of Time 3D, and this is immensely useful given how often you switch between masks and items. As per the last 3DS outing, you can assign items and masks to the X and Y buttons and two touch buttons on the top- and lower-right corners of the touchscreen. The setup is more than sufficient, but that's not to say that it couldn't be better; having the three main transformation masks assigned to a fixed part of the touch interface would have saved more buttons for items. As a result, you have to stop and swap out items and masks more often than you had to in Ocarina of Time 3D, which does disrupt the flow of gameplay a little.

It's worth noting that one of Link's abilities later in the game requires the use of the ocarina to activate. You have to do this multiple times as part of the final dungeon, which means constantly have to stop, play a song and then repeat the same action multiple times. There was a golden opportunity on the development team's part to streamline this aspect and make it less tedious, and it seems strange that it wasn't considering the other types of improvements have made their way into the experience.

Moving on from those points, if you entered a state of mild panic earlier in this review after reading that there are only four dungeons in the game then do not fret: Majora's Mask is only a short game if you choose it to be. Blitzing your way through all the dungeons (and the sub-dungeons/quests that come with them) will have the credits roll up on-screen in 10-15 hours. However, doing so will not result in the full, proper ending of the game.

That's because Majora's Mask 3D places a heavy emphasis on side quests, which you need to complete in order to see the full conclusion (and get double the playtime out of the game for that matter); it's in this area that the game truly triumphs. As you progress you'll come across a number of NPCs who you'll help or interact with in some way. As we've already said, many NPCs live according to set routines and schedules, which means you may need to approach a character or carry out an action at a specific time in order to help someone. Often, you'll need to do lots of different things at various points throughout the three days just to help one person.

These quests are, in most instances, a lot more substantial than what you'd typically expect from a Zelda game. There's the usual fare of collecting heart pieces and completing mini-games to unlock upgrades for Link as well, but it's through these bigger side quests that you acquire additional masks. These provide further abilities and benefits, and some even help to unlock other masks. It's hard to give an in-depth overview of this without dishing out some pretty big spoilers, which we'd rather avoid so you can experience these side quests for yourself — if you haven't already.

Nevertheless, it's another element that makes Majora's Mask 3D unique; it's not often that a game expects you to invest such a considerable amount of time and effort into the secondary detail; while you certainly don't have to, you're missing out on a wonderful aspect of the game if you don't. That's because this title empowers the player: only you can influence and alter the set paths that NPCs follow. This — combined with the dark, doomsday setting — results in side quests that are nothing short of an emotional rollercoaster.

Termina is home to a wealth of characters that are memorable due to the central roles they play in both the side quest and the main story itself. The world's doomed status, and the way in which this becomes more apparent, moulds these characters over the three days, on top of your own interactions with them. It might be a bit of a stretch to say you place an emotional investment in any of these characters — the game simply isn't advanced enough — but it's hard to not at least take an interest. Moreover, the constant flow of time (and the ability to travel back) means that this title is ultimately a lot more effective at showing you the positive and negative consequences of your actions. Failure can lead to some pretty dark moments, and this enhances the creepy mood even further.

Working out who needs help and how to help them in the original, meanwhile, revolved around the use of an item called the Bombers' Notebook, a log which keeps tracks of people's schedules. While it is a useful guide, it doesn't always make it clear what exactly you need to do. This feature has undergone a slight transformation in Majora's Mask 3D — schedules are still tracked, but events are logged more clearly in a separate window. It's worth noting that you are in no way spoon-fed the solution to the quests, so veterans need not worry about the game being dumbed down. Instead, it just makes it a lot easier to keep track of events that have happened.

Nintendo and Grezzo have made a number of other minor gameplay tweaks, some of which make sense; others are seemingly random. For example, hints are far more abundant this time when it comes to side quests, and the Sheikah Stone from Ocarina of Time 3D — which gives you a visual glimpse of what to do next — also returns. The structure of most of the boss battles has also been changed; there wasn't really anything wrong with these the way they were, but there are some interesting new ideas that both new and returning players will enjoy. The original version could be quite challenging at points, and it's fair to say that this is still the case in Majora's Mask 3D, despite some pretty considerable changes in places.

Conclusion

The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask 3D is a magnificent remastering of one of the finest Legend of Zelda games to date. The visual overhaul, the streamlined features and other improvements make this version an even more enjoyable and accessible experience than the original N64 release. Minor flaws seem insignificant as the superb concoction of timeless game design truly shines: the unique gameplay ideas, the dark and haunting theme and a cleverly crafted game world — aspects that made the original so great — enable this updated version to provide a near flawless experience.

It's strange, perhaps, that a game in which the main premise revolves around repeatedly travelling back in time was so ahead of its time. In its enhanced form, The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask 3D defies its age and manages to stands shoulder-to-shoulder with the very best games on 3DS. Quite simply put, it's a masterpiece that every 3DS owner should play.