Majora’s Mask is widely regarded as one of the best Zelda games ever made, but because it was released towards the very end of the N64’s life cycle, comparatively few people actually played it when it was first released. So it’s a good thing that Nintendo gave it a proper re-make for the 3DS last year. Having never played it before, and aware of its high critical standing, playing Majora’s Mask was one of my top priorities when I acquired a 3DS earlier this year.

Majora’s Mask eschews the older version of Link who figured prominently in Ocarina of Time and later games like Twilight Princess, focusing instead on Young Link. The story seems to pick up where Ocarina left off, and finds Young Link travelling the world trying to find his ‘friend’. I couldn’t figure out from the game who this was supposed to be, but apparently it’s Na’vi, Link’s erstwhile fairy companion. During his travels he is accosted by the mischievous ‘Skull Kid’, who steals a bunch of Link’s stuff, leaves him stranded, and turns him into a Deku Scrub! What a jerk. Link’s adventure starts by trying to return to normal, but soon expands into a mission to save the land of Termina, a kind of parallel dimension inhabited by the Skull Kid as well as a bunch of other characters who are more or less familiar from Ocarina of Time.

Majora’s Mask’s world occupies an odd place, being quite reminiscent of Hyrule in many respects, and containing a lot of its iconography and races, but also seeming quite separate and distinct. This has given rise to a slew of fan theories about the true nature of Termina, its inhabitants, and its mythology, ranging from dream-state theories to how the whole game is a metaphor for Link’s sense of grief. This all seems a bit excessive to me: the game was made in a single year, heavily recycling a lot of the aesthetic and technical assets of Ocarina of Time, and there is a simple practical explanation for the perceived tension or ‘weirdness’, in that the designers faced a challenge in making the game artistically and thematically distinctive from Ocarina while still relying on that game’s engine and art pool.

What is unique about Majora’s Mask is its three-day time cycle. Link is tasked with preventing an apocalypse, as Skull Kid is pulling the moon towards Termina, threatening to crash it into the surface and obliterate all life. It’s a terrifying prospect, enhanced by the deeply disturbing appearance of the moon itself. Fortunately, Link can use his ocarina to turn back time, meaning he has a seemingly endless supply of three-day cycles to complete the various tasks necessary to stop Skull Kid’s plans. The time-travelling mechanic is well-executed, and integrated into a lot of storylines and side quests.

Majora’s Mask has a somber and at times very sad atmosphere. It’s not just the impending destruction of the world, as if that weren’t bad enough; the game is full of the spirits of people who have died, often in tragic ways, and who are often filled with remorse or regret. Similarly, there are many characters who have lost loved ones, and are filled with pain and loss. Many of the game’s quests involve Link working to help people come to terms with their grief, which can lead to some quite moving moments. At the same time, one of the curious things about the game is that every time you reset the cycle, all these incidental events are reset, meaning everyone goes back to the state they were in before, plunged once more into the midst of their pain and grief.

From a gameplay perspective, this resetting of the gameworld contributes to a certain amount of frustration. Many of the side quests have a specific time limit, as you have to complete a certain task by a certain time in order to leave enough time to move on to the next step of the quest. Sometimes this can be quite arbitrary, for example if you have to wait until the next sunrise or whatever. Considering that in order to even begin certain sidequests, you have to kill a dungeon boss to, say, change the season in an area from winter to summer, this can turn a potentially interesting side mission into a frustrating chore. Moreover, the game has a certain inherent difficulty: this isn’t exactly Dark Souls, but neither is the difficulty trivial, and it has the potential to be a punishing experience for players unfamiliar with older Zelda games.

The fact you are always playing against the clock makes this even more acute. This can create a positive sense of tension, as you race against the clock to get things done, but it can also lead to frustration if you run out of time when trying to complete a long-winded side quest and have to go back to the beginning. Some people won’t mind this, of course, but from a contemporary point of view it is quite a ‘hardcore’ mechanic.

Probably the most interesting thing about Majora’s Mask is its general sense of poignancy and its thematic emphasis on loneliness and companionship, and love and death. It’s a curious mix, and for a company not known for its fondness for ‘mature’ themes, this is an emotionally mature and sophisticated game. In a world where it seems most people don’t get a happy ending, the game emphasizes the value of kindness and compassion in a way that’s all too rare. Although Majora’s Mask is probably not for everyone, it’s certainly a unique and memorable experience.