Game Pile: Majora’s Mask

Released in the year 2000, on April 27, Majora’s Mask is a Legend of Zelda game. Preceeded by Link’s Awakening DX, it’s generally seen as a followup, or maybe-sequel or sort-of-related game to The Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time. This is already a sentence that other types of games writers would navigate a lot faster but here I am, being deliberately picky to avoid saying something that’s generally accepted as true, but I don’t want to be part of reinforcing.

One reason to be careful about the wording is to just try and avoid someone nitpicking. After all, I don’t know anyone who’s likely to point out well actually, the DX release of the gameboy Zelda game came out between Ocarina and Majora’s, but somehow, going that extra mile keeps me extra safe, right?

I considered doing this one on my birthday, or, right by it. This game, after all, came out on my birthday, and it’s definitely a game with an enormous cultural presence. It is a ‘first Zelda’ for a large group of people, both those who started gaming in 2000, but also those who started gaming around 2015. Or the people who started gaming in 2010, with a second-hand N64 from a thrift shop, and some carts that were still good, still worked just fine. The game didn’t redefine the landscape of the videogame world the way Ocarina of Time did, but instead did something much harder – it made a better game than Ocarina of Time.

Following up something great is so commonly seen as challenging there are a host of metaphors for it. You’ll sometimes here it called a Difficult Second Album or a Sophomore Slump or a Second Season Sting or the Followup Curse. When you do something very impressive, it can be extremely difficult to make something that compares to it in terms of being impressive.

I resisted calling this game a sequel to The Ocarina of Time. I don’t think it is, because that term, sequel, implies a continuity between these games in the in-universe narrative. Maybe some nerdy types will point to examples of things that are ‘called’ sequels that don’t share a universe, or lack some sort of narrative continuity, but broadly speaking, sequel tends to be used to refer to ‘the next bit in the story,’ a fact that I don’t like suggesting about Legend of Zelda games.

Legend of Zelda games, in my mind, don’t have sequels, except the occasional loosely-connected pairing like Spirit Tracks and Phantom Hourglass. The events of one don’t sequence into the next, and the idea they are feels like it diminishes each of these great adventures, implying that all their size and the way you can spend as much time as you want in them is still going to have a next thing.

Yet, they have the same general control scheme, many of the same or similar assets, a lot of common fundamental traits in movement, combat, and dungeon design. It wouldn’t be wrong to think of these games as ‘sequels’ even if I sharply think they have no common continuity in plot. And given how enjoyable Ocarina of Time was as a game, it would have been easy for Majora’s Mask to just do more of the same; same basic plot, go to the temples, get all the things, maybe with some basic world-swapping thing like the Light World/Dark World you got in Link to the Past or something like Ocarina’s time-travel element.

In Majora’s Mask, the game decided to give you a timer, which changed events in the world based on timed events, then they gave you mode switching based on masks, then they gave you a whole Narrative Adventure element with how the masks change your basic interactions with a whole host of things in the world, and then on top of all that, the game uses the masks to create whole gameplay switches like momentum racing and speed swimming and drifting and it becomes sort of like Lost Vikings all at once.

And then they send you to go to all the temples and get all the things.

Now, good or better or bad or best are all nonsense subjective terms, but I think that it’s a reasonable call to point to Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask as games that define and refine the ways their genres were going to work respectively. Ocarina of Time had to set the rules, and then, with those parameters (and many of the assets) made, Majora’s Mask served to build the first truly great game in that space. Once the game had worked out the basic way that a world can work, Majora’s Mask filled that world with life.

There’s another reason why Majora’s Mask stands out to me. It’s a game that matters an enormous amount to two women who matter to me enormously; one, a programmer and speed runner (and a lot of other things, but we’d be here all day) wants to understand the game in its every most intricate way, in order to understand the absolutely optimal way to finish this game. This is an amazingly challenging topic, a research project with an entirely self-maintained network of sources.

This pursuit is an astoundingly thorough, detailed examination of the game. It wants to find things that can meaningfully improve an already complicated play experience, an experience that can be best summarised as ‘play this game perfectly for two hours or so.’ This is a topic with a whole book’s worth of writing about it, a book that is still full of contentious and political arguments. What’s a glitch? What isn’t a glitch? Should version changes be considered? Is a change that can only be executed unreliably be considered progress?

These are not simple questions.

It’s a pursuit of a sort of all-consuming excellence, a need to shave even the most minor advantages in a game that has already been iterated on over and over again. There’s forced exploration, attempts to find if there’s some undiscovered deviation in some other places that can solve a problem, then a question of how usable that solution is. It’s hard work, and it’s complex work.

The other side of this is a living mastery, of Fox’s relationship to this game. Fox wanted to complete everything in the game, but she wanted to do it on her own. No guides, no helping, no collaboration or coordination. The way Fox got through Majora’s Mask was just as allconsuming, just as focused, but it was a mastery that didn’t just care about a measurable result like a finish time, but a mastery that absolutely wanted to know as much as possible about what it meant to be in that world.

It’s very strange, really, that despite having never realy played Majora’s Mask – oh yes, the sudden twist, I guess – I’m so familiar with the game’s progression, the game’s story, and the way the things and places in this game all interrelate.

This game is not so much a game, as much as it is a place.

To the people around me, it is a home.

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