There are many things The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask is not.
It is not the prettiest Legend of Zelda game. Exactly 20 years since its Japanese debut, the discernible polygons that make up the world and characters of Termina locate the game squarely in the fifth console generation. While we respect its Expansion Pak-enhanced visuals in the context of their day and we have a fondness for that era's aesthetic, Majora's Mask can't hold a candle to some of the other entries in the series, even with Grezzo's excellent work on the 3DS update.
It's certainly not the most accessible or player-friendly Zelda, either. If its downbeat, foreboding atmosphere doesn't put you off, the pressure of its three-day cycle--which effectively resets your progress in just under an hour of real-world time--proves stressful after the relative freedom and relaxation of Ocarina of Time's Hyrule. In Termina you don't have the luxury of languorous hours hunting Gold Skulltulas or kicking back at the fishing hole waiting for the Hylian Loach to bite.
It's not even the most original Zelda. Its engine and many assets were borrowed from Ocarina of Time and its base mechanics remain largely unchanged. And neither are those mechanics best-in-series. They were hugely influential, having been iterated on many times since (until Breath of the Wild gave the template an overdue revamp), but returning to the second-ever outing of those 3D mechanics only highlights the subtle enhancements made over the years, particularly to Z-targeting and swimming. Yes, even without that oft-maligned ticking clock, Majora's Mask can be frustrating.
So, why then is it often considered the 'hidden' best of the series? All the cool kids claim it's their favourite, but why when the game is so obviously flawed?
Simply put, it's the most interesting Zelda has ever been. Visually, the kingdom of Termina is a mash-up of Ocarina of Time's locations, with the addition of snow and ocean regions. Although it feels darker, the actual world is pieced together with similar earth tones to Hyrule, plus some luminous highlights in the dungeons. The recycling from the series' previous entry extends to the inhabitants themselves, including the impish Skull Kid antagonist previously seen in Hyrule's Lost Woods and corrupted by the titular mask. The Happy Mask Salesman, too, walks a fine line between jovial and sinister - a mixture that sets the tone for the entire experience. His masks imply childlike make-believe and play, although their transformative effects on Young Link appear quite terrifying.
Much of Termina's darkness and strangeness comes from seeing familiar characters in odd places, and often acting differently. Here we get a different view of characters we thought we knew and an opportunity to empathise. Old enemies can become friends. Many characters are duplicates from Hyrule, here assigned new identities (or sometimes multiple identities, as with the Gormon Brothers or the Romani sisters). These doppelgangers exist as archetypes across dimensions; satisfying touchstones for returning players to recognise, although familiarity with them enables the developers to subvert our expectations. Our memories of the egotistical Ingo from Ocarina colour our impression of Gorman the Troupe Leader, and give him a more textured personality when we discover his real story and his anger at failing to succeed in show business.
The three-day cycle, a cause of confusion and fatigue for many, actually provides context for the characters' endlessly repeating paths and dialogue and gives us a far more detailed view of their lives. In this short cycle, every cause has an effect. If the bomb lady is mugged on the first night, the Bomb Shop will lose its stock. If Anju isn't on reception at the Inn, she'll be cooking lunch or taking a walk in the rain. People don't just despawn or disappear in Majora's Mask; they're always somewhere. In those 72 hours we become intimately familiar with these people - their hopes and fears, the risks they take, the secrets they keep.
The real draw of Majora's Mask is the universal questions it poses about mortality, acceptance, attachment, friendship and failure. It asks the biggest of all questions: What is our purpose here? The four moon children at the end of the game quiz the player with the queries in the dialogue boxes throughout this article. Meeting these masked characters around a grand tree in a glade at the end of the game was a revelatory moment for this writer and those questions lingered in an impressionable young mind. They come after many hours spent completing tasks and experiences to which they are directly related.
You spend the majority of the game learning life lessons. It's impossible to please everybody all of the time, but we empathise with the people of this world and their failures because we have witnessed their potential - their best selves - in another time. Majora's Mask can be a gloomy proposition with the enemy-filled map and the looming lunatic face in the sky. No, I don't have time to save the Gorons today, so their winter will not end. The shambling mummies of Ikana must be ignored today because I'm needed elsewhere. Our power to affect the world is great but so are the demands on our resources. And, just as in the real world, time is our most precious commodity.
Perhaps this is one reason why so many take umbrage with the time 'limit'. The three-day cycle denies players the escapism of other games and forces self-reflection and management. From a company that habitually prizes mechanics and game-feel over story, the moments when Nintendo do explore narrative ideas and deeper questions seem all the more profound in a catalogue of work featuring a deluge of kidnapped princesses.
Early on, the Happy Mask Salesman instructs us to work to improve the world and create happiness through the use of masks. The essential duality presented and mirrored throughout the game by the recurrence of doubles, twins and alter egos reflects the fact that pretence and play are very necessary components of a person's life, and of the human condition itself. The themes it throws up tie into the very nature of games themselves, video or otherwise. The creators at Nintendo are experts at enabling play; Majora's Mask asks us to consider why that is so important, and does so brilliantly.
Not such a terrible fate, after all. Share your thoughts and feelings on Majora's Mask below.