To celebrate the 35th anniversary of The Legend of Zelda, we're running a series of features looking at a specific aspect — a theme, character, mechanic, location, memory or something else entirely — from each of the mainline Zelda games. Today, Kate explores the philosophy and tragedy behind Majora's Mask...
After The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time was released on the Nintendo 64 in 1998, the development team was exhausted. The idea of working on another multi-year project was daunting, so they made a deal: they had just one year to make the next Zelda game. It would be a race to the finish, using whatever they had on hand to save time, and then it would be done. Bonus points if they could make it good, of course - but with so little time invested, and a much smaller team to pay, at least it wouldn't take as long to break even if the game was a dud.
In the end, it took 18 months to finish what would become known as The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask, using assets created during Ocarina of Time's development and twisting them to create a whole new story. It sold relatively well, but only managed about half the sales of its predecessor. Its success was much more slow-burning than the instant classic of Ocarina of Time, and that's because it plays with convention and formula in unexpected, inventive ways, largely owing to its constraints - it takes a long time to see it as more than just "Ocarina, but weirder". Eventually, though, it got its dues. Today, it tops many critics' lists of best Zelda games, and even makes its way into lists of the greatest games of all time on a regular basis.
What is it about this strange, experimental mutation of Zelda that captures the imagination? Why do so many people adore a game that reused a bunch of assets, and was almost entirely made up of side quests? Why is one of the most popular Zelda games the one that doesn't actually have Zelda in it? To begin answering that question, we have to start long before Majora's Mask even came out.
Ocarina of Time is a classic largely because it follows the classic (and satisfying) Hero's Journey path. The "Call to Adventure" is literal: Link receives a message from The Great Deku Tree, and is given "Supernatural Aid" from the fairy, Navi. The "Threshold Guardians" are the three dungeons that give Link the three gemstone keys to unlock the Master Sword's chamber, where it slumbers in wait for him, and his transformation into an adult as a result is the "Death and Rebirth" nadir of the story.
By completing the temples, and restoring the six Sages, Link - now the Hero of Time - is able to defeat Ganondorf and save the Triforce. Ocarina of Time, and the Zelda tradition, is the greatest monomyth in video games - and Majora's Mask throws that all away.
And that's precisely what makes Majora's Mask so brilliant. It is a reversal, a twisted mirror reflection of Ocarina of Time, which literally takes the imagery so familiar to us - child Link, the Song of Storms, recurring characters - and turns them into something unfamiliar and unsettling. Even the Song of Healing, the game's signature theme, is Saria's Song reversed - a perfect example of how Majora's Mask turns comfort, safety, and the familiar into something unfamiliar, distressing, and foreign.
The child Link of Majora's Mask is a stranger in a strange land, wandering the earth as an itinerant nobody. He is not the Hero of Time, because he never grew up to be a hero; he exists in a timeline where he is little more than a kid with a sword and a horse. If Ocarina of Time is Lord of the Rings, then Majora's Mask is The Hobbit: a story about a no one who becomes someone almost entirely by accident. Link is merely in the right place at the right time to save Clock Town and Termina from its fate.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. At the start of Majora's Mask, Link is pulled, unwillingly, into the story by virtue of being cursed. There was no Call to Adventure - he's just stuck as a little tree boy, and needs to figure out how to return to his regular boy form. By chasing the Skull Kid, and unlocking the core time loop of the game, Link is drawn further into Termina's predicament: the moon is falling, and they have just three days left before it crashes to the ground, killing everyone.
That's dark, man. Zelda games are normally about killing big bad monsters, and defeating evil - but people don't usually die! Except Dampé, but if anything, dying made him better at his job. And all of this has to be done by a child?
Ocarina of Time, philosophically, presents the players with an altruistic choice: can Link sacrifice his innocence and childhood for the good of Hyrule? Link himself is a bit of a stoic: silent, uncomplaining, accepting of his fate. Altruism and stoicism are simple, virtuous philosophies that mean giving up something you want to help others, and accepting the unfairness of life - a sort of "might as well get on with it" policy. Link's role as the Hero of Time requires a Hero's Sacrifice: something bold, selfless, and straight out of a fairytale.
Majora's Mask, in contrast, presents us with a much more adult philosophical concept: nihilism. Many of the people in Clock Town, faced with the slow realisation of imminent death, become despondent, chugging dairy at the Milk Bar to drown their sorrows. Combined with another mature philosophical concept, absurdism, Majora's Mask replicates the kind of existential crisis we all go through in our difficult teen years, when we suddenly understand the weight of death, mortality, and the ephemerality of everything we've ever known.
Absurdism is how we cope with mortality. As a philosophy, it's a response to the search for meaning, for a point to everything, so our deaths can have meaning, too - but absurdism instead acknowledges that there is no point, everything is stupid, and we're all just Sisyphus pushing a boulder up a hill and watching it roll down again. Majora's Mask is full of absurd strangeness, with alien invasions, a mask that attempts to impose "order" on the world, but really just makes you good at herding chickens, and a creepy Mask Salesman who seems to be a trickster god in secret. Things are strange in Ocarina of Time, but they make sense. In Termina, nothing does.
Just as Ocarina of Time presents us with a typical Hero's Journey of defeating evil, asking the question, "What would you give up to save the world?", Majora's Mask looks inward, and asks - "What's the point of saving the world?" Indeed, what's the point of anything? We're all going to die.
Pushing past that initial existential fear is what gives us the game, of course. Even though it all seems hopeless, Link soldiers on, fulfilling the requests of the townsfolk, defeating bosses, and living on through timeloop after timeloop in the vain hope that he'll someday find a key to stopping the moon. It's worth noting, too, that despite its appearance, the moon isn't evil - in fact, neither is Skull Kid, really. Link isn't fighting evil as much as he is trying to restore peace and order to a world that makes no sense.
Link eventually does figure out how to stop the destruction of Termina (spoilers: it's masks), because it's a video game, and video games always have neat endings - but in real life, that existential crisis that we all have at some point in our lives never really gets solved. We just decide to live on despite the crushing weight of mortality.
Majora's Mask, at the heart of it, is about loss - the loss of innocence, the loss of stability, and the loss of ourselves upon realising that we will all, one day, cease to exist. This theme of loss runs through the game like a delicious swirl of chocolate through a tub of Ben and Jerry's: Link loses Navi and Epona, Tatl loses Tael, the Deku Butler loses his son, Lulu loses her children, Darmani loses his life, and, at the centre of the whole story, Skull Kid loses his friends. One of the stages of grief is anger, and one is depression, and all of these characters feel one or another as a result of their loss.
Majora's Mask guides us, and the characters, to the resolution of grief and loss: acceptance. We travel through the lands of nihilism, despondency, absurdism, and bargaining, resetting the cycle over and over again in an attempt to change things. Eventually, the story is resolved by helping Skull Kid come to terms with how his life has changed, and how friends move on - but that doesn't erase their importance to us, or their love for us.
The two songs that are key to completing Majora's Mask are the Song of Healing and the Oath to Order. They represent the two sides of the story - loss, and acceptance - and composer Koji Kondo uses clever music theory to tell that story through sound.
The Song of Healing uses an F-A-B pattern of notes, similar to the creepy Nocturne of Shadow from Ocarina of Time. This sequence of notes revolves around dissonance, using tritones to create a tone of tension and unease. Dissonance is unpleasant to the ear, and requires resolution - a return to the original key - to put the listener at ease again. However, even when resolution does arrive in the Song of Healing, though, its minor key setting leaves us feeling unsatisfied and unsettled - just like nothing can soothe us when we are grieving.
The end of the game revolves around the Oath to Order, a slow, melancholy tune that, although mournful, is intimate, and ultimately, accepting. The end of Link's quest in Majora's Mask is not a neat and tidy one where the world is saved, and everything is returned to normal - instead, it is about Skull Kid, and Link himself, learning to move on from changes that can't be reversed. Acceptance of grief, change, and loss is not about moving on entirely, but in accepting a world that is different to the one we once knew. Like the Oath to Order, acceptance is slow, and bittersweet.
Secretly — or perhaps not so secretly, given the many, many deep-dives that have been done on the topic — Majora's Mask is also about growing up. Not as a result of some magical sword, not for any divine, prophetic reason, but slowly, naturally. Link has been given back his childhood, but at the cost of becoming an adult the proper way, and losing his innocence and naivety across the years, rather than all at once. Ocarina of Time is a holy tragedy - but Majora's Mask is a human tragedy, and that's what makes it all the more special. It's about us.
Excellent article. MM has always been a bit of a thinker and the way that it twisted Hyrule and its people into a strange mirrored image seems to have laid down the tracks for a link between world’s two settings.
I remember preordering this back in 2000. I had only played Ocarina for the first time within the year before its release and therefore got to play both games as I transitioned from teen to adult. Whilst I’ll always love Ocarina more (it’s hands down the best Zelda for me) MM has a special place in my heart. It’s still probably one of the strangest, most uncomfortable at times, games to revisit.
If only Nintendo were a bit more willing to be strange more often...
I think what I liked about MM and OoT in particular was the common theme of time - and the uncomfortable, almost destructive nature of it. MM really did feel like, in many ways, what it’s like to be a teenager (perhaps because I was a young teenager when I first played it). The unsettling sense that you’re growing up and having to accept the consequences of this - quite immediately - within that 3 day cycle. OoT never showed you that middle part - you were either young or old. MM on the other hand was at times a painful process of self-discovery and individual actions.
On a side note - Kate I really enjoy reading your Zelda articles. They always have a lot more nuance and analysis to them than others.
Possibly my favorite Zelda game. No other in the series is like it!
Play it and if you regret it don't talk to me.
Very nice piece. Thank you for writing it.
I was a little bit too young when I first played this, so I didn't finish it and that haunts me to this day. I still have the 3DS HD remake which I - regretfully - didn't finish too.
If they re-release the HD version on Switch this year, I solemnly swear to finally complete it!
And if not, I'll have to grab my trusty 3DS.. Because this has to happen one day.
My favourite Zelda. Just read the captions to the illustrations and I can’t wait to read the whole piece *adds to reading list tab
Why this and Ocarina of time are not already available on switch is beyond me! For shame Nintendo!
I couldn’t read it all. But that was a deep dive into philosophy. My head is spinning.
MM and WW just never really did it for me. I must be some kind of weirdo, come at me with burning pitchforks.
How could you, I saw Skull Kid and practically jumped!
I wish they would get weird again.
@Zeldafan79 - "Why are any non-SNES/NES title not already available on switch is beyond me! For shame Nintendo!"
There, I fixed it for you
"He is not the Hero of Time, because he never grew up to be a hero; he exists in a timeline where he is little more than a kid with a sword and a horse."
I'm not sure if this was verified or not, but isn't the Link in Majora's Mask the one who went back in time at the end of OOT and became a kid again, losing Navi in the process (the finding of who is supposedly the premise of this game)?
Nitpick aside, this was an interesting article. I don't believe I've heard anyone bring up the idea of acceptance when discussing the theme of despair present in the game, nor do they go that in-depth into the musical theory side of things (although given there's a linked video talking about just that, maybe I've just not seen/read many pieces on the game yet), so it was interesting to hear those ideas being brought up. It just goes to show just how much can be drawn from this game, which, considering its development and that it was working from a series that was (mostly) fairly straight-forward stuff, is pretty incredible.
As much as I like Majoras Mask I can't forgive it for introcuding Tingle but the themes and side missions (especially the alien farm invasion) were all great.
@Gamecuber Nah, A Link Between Worlds is just copying what A Link To The Past did rather than being inspired by Majoras Mask.
When this came out, recognizing all the faces from Ocarina of time really gave it a dream like quality (akin to something like Wizard of Oz.) These days, there are folk with so little imagination they would just call it an asset flip lol.
Brilliant article, for a brilliant game - one I’ve sadly only ever managed to play the once, despite owning multiple copies. I really must get cracking on a replay soon...
@jump Link between Worlds as a direct sequel to Link to the past obviously borrows heavily from it, but the twisting of Hyrule and Lowrule is very similar to Hyrule and Termina. Then again, Ocarina’s child timeline and dark adult timeline also owe a lot to the different worlds of Link to the Past. The recurring themes and moods of the Zelda games is something I love about the series. So either way, it’s all good 😊
I've beaten Majora's Mask 7 times, and it's not even in my Top 10 favorite Zelda games. In no particular order (so I'll just go release order), my Top 10 include.... The Legend of Zelda, Zelda 2: The Adventures of Link, A Link to the Past, Link's Awakening, Ocarina of Time, The Wind Waker, The Minish Cap, Twilight Princess, A Link Between Worlds, and Breath of the Wild.
I've written, in the past, several times, why Majora's Mask isn't in my Top 10. Arguably not even in my Top 12. So, not going to go into detail right now, as, I don't want to right a full article about it right now. But, perhaps I will again, soon enough.
I love Majora's Mask, playing through it again right now coincidentally.
It might not have been intentional but it shares a lot with Link's Awakening, the other weird Zelda. They both have the same sense of melancholy, the sense that we're seeing the last days of a world about to end. And both games have a stronger focus on characters and theme (compared to ALTTP and OoT). I really care about the NPCs in those games.
It seems like, once Nintendo have established the new status quo for Zelda in a generation, they're freed up to do something new and weird. Both Link to the Past and Ocarina of Time told the standard princess-rescue story and established the rules of Zelda for their respective generations. So, Majora's Mask and Link's Awakening were free to be more experimental with their stories. I'm hoping the same will happen for BOTW2 - the first one can be the flagship Zelda switch game. The new one can do it's own new thing.
@kategray is on fire with her articles.
Great article, bought a tear to my eye near the end.
I never beat Majora's Mask because I could never figure it out when I was younger, but now that I'm older, I reckon I could beat the game if I played it again. I'm really hoping for a Zelda 3D All-Stars collection on Switch this year so I can play it again.
Every second Zelda console game released on the same system is drastically different than the first. Hopefully BoTW 2 does not break that tradition.
Majora’s Mask is my favorite piece of art/entertainment of all time. Period.
The best part of MM is that you know all these problems are happening in Clock Town - if you help them, you doom the world. If you save the world, their problems remain.
What does it mean to be a hero? What is salvation?
THIS GAME IS PHILOSOPHY, @kategray is right about the nihilism
@GannonBanned Yes, but what is a man?
"It sold relatively well, but only managed about half the sales of its predecessor". Isn't that literally the opposite of relatively? You're comparing it to something else saying it did well, but compared to the other thing it did much worse.
Anyway, this is a fascinating game, I agree. I strongly disliked OoT so for the longest time I didn't play MM because of that. I eventually picked it up on... WiiWare, I think. I found it really interestingly, but frustrating. I would probably give it a try again if it gets a remake or if I suddenly find myself with a lot of time on my hands. Say in 30 years when I retire! =D
Never could get into Majora. Tried it for the first time on 3DS and just didn't like it. I can respect the weirdness though.
I hope Breath of the Wild 2 takes more than a few pages from Majora’s Mask. Nintendo being weird is more often good than bad.
There are 3 reasons why I love Majoras Mask:
1. The ephemeral nature of the game. It doesn’t matter how hard you fight and how much effort you put in, at the end of the day everything will reset. There is a lovely melancholy in that: Snowhead becomes frozen again, Woodfall is poisoned and so on.
2. Most of the game is side quests. The 4 dungeons are all incredible creations but the meat and potatoes of the game is actually just helping people out. Is there a Zelda game with a quest line as good as Anju and Kafei? I like to imagine that when he defeats the Mask at the end everything he has done merges into one timeline so everyone is happy.
3. The ending. Despite his efforts in saving the world Link is never rewarded with anything. The happy mask salesman doesn’t whisk him back to Hyrule: Link remains stuck in Termina. I always wondered what he got up to as he got older. Did he settle down with the girl on the farm and grow old? Did he decide to sail away and see if he could find Hyrule again? Did he have new adventures to complete? Who did summon him to Termina anyway?
Link never gets to go home and be with Zelda. In fact his very disappearance is what causes the great flood in the first place. It’s pretty brave of Nintendo to have Link actually fail at his primary quest.
@jump at least they had the courage to have Tingle have a bewildered and exasperated loving parent
@BloodNinja I Link, Therefore I Man
@GannonBanned I'm sorry sir, but the correct internet reply is "a miserable little pile of secrets." You still get a non-tracking, google-free cookie, though. Enjoy!
I happened to pick up OOT and MM recently to play on our 2DS.
Haven't started them yet. I'm saving them for when I have a bit more time.
But looking forward to the adventure!
NOTE: Great article. But I stopped reading it, just in case there were too many spoilers!
Christ, does Kate ever stop writing? Not that I am complaining!
I didn’t actually play this game until 2003. When this had come out on the N64, I had moved on to the Dreamcast.
I eventually played on a Game Cube collection disc.
I never completed the game. I loved the Side Quests, but the part I didn’t like was having to do all 4 bosses in time span (when I say didn’t like, what I really mean is a found in too difficult).
I have it on the 3DS, but still have completed it on that either.
What i love about this game is it feels like a Dream in the world of Ocarina of Time, where people you know from the real world, have an alternative life, and different jobs.
We’ve all had those types of dreams......haven’t we....?....haven’t we?......<gets coat>
I never knew it reused assets, but that makes sense now how they got it so quickly in comparison. Very interesting. I preferred this to OOT, even though I never completed it Maybe a little re release would not go amiss.
@BloodNinja “BloodNinja Cookies - Now With 10% More Blood!”
@Mana_Knight these past couple weeks have been a crazy stretch of hits - if you would have told me a year ago that a NintendoLife column would be some of my favorite writing on the web I would have been very embarrassed for you (and I love NintendoLife haha)
Its very easy to answer that question of why MM was popular. And for me l liked the game because, it was unique and dark but thats not my answer how it became popular, there's much more.
I never had a chance to play this game im gona buy 3ds again just for this
@Mana_Knight haha, I wrote a lot of features this week! I just had so many ideas!!!!
This was... a very good deep dive into this gam that has such powerful thematic resonance. The reverse Hero’s Journey, or rather the ditching of the Hero’s Journey, was a very fascinating and well earned design choice.
I played OOT while pregnant with my first son, so MM got lost to the black while that is the first few years of bringing up wee ones! I was always sad to have missed out on this title, and this article has just elevated that to almost a painful level! Clinging to the hope it gets a rerelease for the anniversary 🤞🏻
Finally gave in and read it all. Great article. Really sums up how the developers managed to create such an original and inspired parallel universe in a series that was already very rich, using the same assets, tweaking a few things here, adding layers there, while meandering across the implications of redundancy of life and human mortality. Guess technical and time limits do foster creativity. Well written, @KateGray!
Majora's Mask seems like it never should have been made. I guess Shigeru Miyamoto and Hiroshi Yamauchi were desperate to milk that series rather than create a Metroid game for Nintendo 64. It's a sore point with me, especially since Samus gets ignored every five years except for themes and costumes in that one Mii game for phones.
What a brilliantly written piece, thank you. I’m going to have to replay MM very soon. I wonder how it’ll look on my N64digital upgraded console in a few weeks time.
Great article, loved the concluding paragraph
I love this game: it's challenging, packed with content, has brilliant dungeon designs, and a real sense of urgency.
This can't come to the Switch soon enough, for me.
An excellent, excellent read. Very on point for the most part.
I was later to the Zelda party than many (first game was Twilight Princess), so I didn't get to experience this masterpiece of a game (same with OoT) until it migrated over to the 3DS in 2015. Before that, I dug into some of the soundtracks on YouTube. Much of this game's music is phenomenal and fits its themes quite well! I'm particularly fond of Oath to Order, Kamaro's Theme, the Stone Tower Temple theme (both versions), Ikana Canyon, the Pirate's Fortress, Clock Town...etc.
Music aside, besides the tone of the game, I love how fleshed out so many of the NPCs in this parallel reality are. They have personalities, worries, schedules, can be triggered to behave differently, and varying reactions on their impending doom. The most interesting/depressing part? No matter how much you squeeze in to each time loop, you CANNOT save everyone.
I realize the timeloop itself is why some people have problems with the game, but I find it more manageable than other time-based mechanics in some games. See: Pikmin.
Great read, I definitely learnt a few terminologies there which is not a prob though, I like learning new stuff! Please Nintendo Life do more articles like this, just seems like nowadays articles are shorter and videos are taking over but I still like having info presented in the form of writing.
My first experience of this game was on 3ds and it's easily one of my favourite games! When I have time in the summer this year, I want to play through OOT and MM again.
I'm trying not to be biased because Majora's Mask is all time for me, but I do think this is the best article I've read on Nintendo Life.
And now I look at the writer I've got to wonder if she (Kate Gray) was writing all those Majora's Mask Articles for ONM - back when they were calling it Zelda Gaiden - that I would devour on a monthly basis until this game was released! Funny old world.
Edit: She's much too young to have written those!
First, thanks for a dedicated series on the 35th anniversary. I have been so disappointed that such an important event has been left forgotten!
About the article... It's awesome! 100% agree. MM will always have a special place in my memory. The darkest and weirdest Zelda there is, probably only rivaled by Twilight Princess (I'll be waiting for that article as well)
Kate is killing it lately. It's getting to the point where I start reading and think, "Wow, this is really good, did Kate write it?" Spoiler alert: yes.
Majora‘s Mask is one of the worst-selling Zelda games, which is series that has never sold over 9 million before Breath of the Wild, why?
To me this game is the same as Link's Awakening where what the hero going to do after completing their main hero goal which I doubt that Link was going to retired at the age of 10 at the castle anytime soon.
I wish I liked MM more. The themes, story, lore, etc. are great, but the actual gameplay of the 3-day cycle never clicked for me.
This was still a great article though!
Majora really isn't a good Zelda game. That annoying AF 3-day cycle, and the inferior dungeon designs really felt like the leftover scrapes from Ocarina cobbled together for this entry. Sorry, fanboys.
@EVIL-C finally, someone agrees with me on Majora's Mask. Has some cool concepts and mechanics, sure, but it hasn't aged well. Also Nintendo was on some hardcore stuff when they designed Star Fox cough Black Hole and Out of This World levels cough
Yet another Majora's Mask article... I've read like 100 of them -.-
Then again, it's no wonder since it's one of the best games ever. Too bad they ruined so many things in the 3DS remake.
Maybe it is an age thing?
I was already 40+ when I played MM.
To me it was just DLC to OoT.
Smaller, simpler and not really worth the full price of a new game.
One year before I had nearly vowed to never buy a game again (to my three teenage boys) after the stupidly expensive DK64 + memory expansion pak.
In this context MM looked like a cash grab.
PS: I love OoT, WW and BotW more than the other Zelda games.
@Fre4ked the 3ds version is totally HD! A crisp 240p I think.
The biggest reason MM sold less than OOT was because of needing an Expansion Pack, which was a nightmare to get hold off both in terms of stock and also additional cost.
This is tied with BotW for my favorite Zelda game. Thematically it's just so good, and it's honestly one of the hardest Zelda games I've played (maybe THE hardest). I loved the article.
The Zelda devs have said they believe BotW 2 is darker than Majora's Mask, so. I'm very much looking forward to it.
Using the Orcarina was one of the coolest aspects of Zelda. I'm glad they implemented it in a way in Wind Waker and hope they'd do it again one day. The music was fantastic and had fan favorites. Hopefully the sequel doesn't feel like a expansion and more like an all new epic adventure.
@Zeldafan79 Amen, I call it laziness and foolishness by Nintendo. But that's kind of no surprise to longtime fans because they tend to purposely piss us off every console generation. I'm on the brink of cutting them off if they don't deliver with their next AAA first party games this Switch cycle.
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