This review originally went live in 2016, and we're updating and republishing it to mark the release of Majora's Mask on Switch, available as part of the Nintendo Switch Online Expansion Pack N64 library.
The Zelda games have a lot of fans and there's also been plenty of opportunities over the years to revisit previous instalments in the series, and indeed The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask has seen a few re-releases since first appearing on the Nintendo 64 back in 2000. It was included on the GameCube's The Legend of Zelda Collector's Edition compilation, then saw a Virtual Console release on the Wii and Wii U, and (most notably) appeared on the 3DS as a wonderful glasses-free-3D remaster that sanded off some of its rough edges and made it more approachable for modern gamers on a handheld system (re)experiencing Link's quest in the world of Termina.
If you've not played Majora's Mask before, know that it is an absolute cracker, providing plenty of entertainment with its dark, different-from-the-norm tale that engrosses from start to finish. You begin the game by encountering the menacing Skull Kid who promptly turns you into a Deku Scrub and runs off with your ocarina. It's not long before you find yourself in Clock Town where you soon realise you have more to worry about than simply returning to your normal form.
As the town prepares for its Carnival of Time celebrations, a menacing-looking moon slowly descends from the sky. You have three days to stop it (game time: a little over an hour) which, unsurprisingly, is insufficient. Luckily you are able to regain your ocarina and perform the Song of Time to throw yourself three days back in time. The good news? You're safe. The bad news? The maniacal moon is still falling. Cue lots of reliving the three days as you run around like a Hylian Bill Murray in a strange land trying to figure out a way to prevent the apocalypse and save the lives of the residents of Termina.
For the 3DS the extra power of the handheld was used to give the visuals an upgrade whilst retaining the look and feel of the Nintendo 64 original. The aim may have been to recreate the game as people remembered it, and if that was the intention then the reality of the source (or the cleanly upscaled version available to Nintendo Switch Online Expansion Pack subscribers) is somewhat blockier and with lower resolution textures.
Although you'll encounter polygonal objects with sharp corners that threaten to take your eye out, Majora's Mask is one of the later and better-looking N64 titles. A good variety of locations and characters combine with decent effects such as rain, flickering flames and an effective day-night cycle and make for a game that holds up well. If you play on Switch you also get option for the full-speed 60Hz version in PAL regions rather than the the slower 50Hz version used for the Wii U Virtual Console release. The GameCube disc release supported 60Hz but unfortunately suffered sound glitches and sometimes froze, so it's good to have the game on the TV finally running at full speed.
The quality of the game still shines through. As is to be expected from a Zelda game, there's plenty of exploration and battling throughout and it's as enjoyable as its ever been. The inclusion of the repeating three-day cycle works well, shaking up the formula and adding a sense of urgency to proceedings — although it's exactly this time 'limit' that put people off back in the day. Time loop games are ten-a-penny now, so if you've bounced off the game in the distant past we'd urge you to revisit it. Majora's Mask has a relatively slow opening, with the dark Deku Link section arguably putting up another barrier to entry for people expecting something more open and inviting — something more like Ocarina.
Persevere, though, and you will be rewarded with narrative that delivers some of the series' most touching, profound moments. You can keep jumping back in time as needed and additional songs can be used to manipulate time to your advantage, but you have to carefully consider your approach to a task if you are hoping to complete it before the moon comes crashing down. If you do run out of time, be sure to bank your rupees before travelling back, or your acquired wealth will be wiped out. No, it doesn't make sense, but hey, it's a video game.
Characters you — many of them strange alternate versions of people you met in Ocarina's Hyrule — encounter add immeasurably to the atmosphere. Initially unconcerned by the moon, their mood changes over the course of the three days until those who haven't fled are stuck looking on in fear as the end approaches. The music also plays a big part in this change, beginning with breezy cheerful tunes and ending up considerably more menacing towards the end.
As you make progress, more areas of the world open up to you and, as well as learning new songs, a number of masks are collected that allow you you to interact with different characters and provide some useful abilities. For example, the Deku Mask — which transforms Link into a Deku Scrub — allows you to shoot out of flowers for flight, whilst the Zora Mask is the preferred option for speedy swimming (and rocking out on an awesome fishbone axe), and the Goron Mask lets you roll around at breakneck speed.
This variety is a core part of Majora's Mask, and when you add in the innovative three-day cycle, the four main dungeons, and a rich narrative in a game that lets you follow and really get to know every single character in a manner unlike any other entry in the series, it's no surprise that there are many people who prefer Majora's Mask to the mighty Ocarina of Time.
Majora's Mask is a rich, complicated game and quite distinct from its predecessor despite appearances. As with Ocarina, the existence of the 3DS remaster only serves to highlight the game design shortcomings of the N64 original, but even if that updated version remains the 'easiest' way to get into the game — especially for newcomers — that doesn't render the original version 'unplayable' or undesirable. The fact is Majora's Mask is still magnificent, delivering the usual Zelda blend of action and adventure through a skewed, surreal lens that feels thrilling to this day and remains unique in the series. With music, visuals and characters that create an incredible mood, Majora's Mask turns watching the end of the world approach into a pleasurable experience.