Nintendo made a lot of Legend of Zelda fans very happy last week with the announcement that The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask would make its way to Nintendo 3DS in 2015. The second Nintendo 64 installment of the long-running Zelda series remains beloved by core fans, who arguably expressed greater excitement for this announcement than they did for the HD upgrade of The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker or even The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time.
When one thinks of all-time great Zelda games, the first two that often come to mind are Ocarina of Time and The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past from 1991. Yet Majora's Mask garners a kind of cult affection that a sector of Zelda fans don't quite understand. What is it about this particular version of Zelda that's had fans dying for its re-release?
The main answer is that, in many ways, it's unlike any other Zelda game made. Let's break it down.
Our young hero
Fans knew they were in for something different with the game's opening act. Just as in Ocarina of Time, the story opened with Young Link. In wandering the forest, the younger hero would eventually wander into a completely different world that needed his help. This was the world of Termina, a kingdom similar to Hyrule, but one with its own distinct history and characters.
Unlike previous Zelda iterations, there would be no growing up for Link. (Not exactly, anyway.) Link would remain a child throughout the entirety of the story. Unlike Ocarina, however, his age wouldn't hold him back from being the hero he's meant to be. He's able to collect many of the same weapons that his adult self could pick up, like the Bow and the Boomerang. With Majora's Mask, as Link grows stronger through the collection of dungeon items and heart containers, it really starts to feel like a natural progression of Link's strengths. There's a sense of growth as Link completes dungeons, as well as many of Termina's side missions, which we'll touch on later.
There's one other thing to note about Majora's Mask story that sets it apart from other Zelda games. Link has always been destined to save Hyrule. But there was no destiny written into Termina. Young Link didn't save this world because he was destined to. He did it because he had the power to and because it was right.
The big shake-up
Now that the hero has been set up, it's a good time to mention that Zelda games through the late 90s (and even into the next decade, arguably) could often be described as formulaic. Complete dungeons, collect weapons, defeat the big evil at the end, save Zelda, and finished! So Majora's Mask, to say the least, turned many heads with the biggest change to any game in the series to that point.
Majora's Mask did not feature Zelda at all.
Aside from flashbacks, the princess plays no part in this story, whatsoever. Instead, it's Link left to his own devices to play out his own story, also one that was completely revolutionary to the series. A strange Skull Kid from Kokiri Forest had come across the mysterious Majora's Mask after ambushing the mysterious Happy Mask Shop owner from Ocarina of Time. The Skull Kid quickly went mad and summoned a giant moon to come crashing down on the world of Termina.
Link had suddenly been confronted with his greatest foe: the clock. The moon was on a collision course with the central hub of Clock Town and would crash down in 72 hours. If the Skull Kid wasn't stopped in that time, the world would come to an end and it would be 'game over.' Link could prolong Termina's fate by using his ocarina and the Song of Time to return to the beginning of the 72-hour period, but it would come at the expense of his disposable inventory, like rupees, arrows, bombs, etc.
This was a mechanic never before seen in a Zelda game and one that would never be seen again. There's never been a finite time limit in place before and it added a sense of urgency to the game's proceedings. It made prolonged fights with Wizzrobes frustrating and suddenly made getting lost in dungeons more consequential. The challenge level was increased like never before and it was an idea that appealed to many Zelda fans that had begun to tire of the series' formula.
The mask system
Though Young Link had much strength, he still couldn't do everything, which is where Majora's Mask's other major innovation stepped in. Link's first encounter with the Skull Kid made it so that he could don certain masks and transform into other Hylian races. The first one on display was a Deku Scrub.
Each race had its own specific power set. Transforming into a Goron provided great strength, while changing into a Zora would offer enhanced swimming abilities and power boomerang-like weapons. This shook up some of the game's boss battles in a big way, because it was suddenly no longer all about finding the dungeon item and using it to win. Link had to use the masks to his advantage and it led to some creative encounters. The battle with the mechanical Goht, for example, required Link to don the Goron mask and use his rolling abilities to keep up with its rampage.
These masks also made interacting with Termina's characters more interesting, because they'd react differently to Link, depending on which guise he donned. In some cases, wearing a different disguise would even assist Link in completing certain tasks. This also fed into the idea of Termina having its own history, separate to Hyrule. People would react to the visage of Darmani the Goron warrior and Mikau the Zora guitarist with great reverence, making it apparent that they carved out their own legacies long before Link ever arrived. There was a certain tragedy in these people not realizing that their heroes had passed away, but it was interesting to watch Link complete their work and finish the stories that they had started.
Of course, there were also other secondary masks that would simply give Link certain boosts. The Bunny Hood, in particular, would double Link's speed, making it one of the few masks that could be donned over the course of battle and beyond. There was also the Postman's Hat that allowed him to check mailboxes, while the Stone Mask would allow Link to act incognito in certain situations. Collecting all of the masks was one of the main side challenges of Majora's Mask and one of the most invovled in the series to that point.
Speaking of side-challenges, there were so many people in Clock Town that needed help that Link had to keep track of all of them through the Bomber's Notebook. Certain events would happen to many of the game's characters at certain hours of the day and the Notebook would help Link document those times. There were simple tasks, such as saving the old lady from a prancing thief, but there were others that were far more complicated.
The big one, of course, was the love story between Anju and Kafei. Anju was the hotel maiden that was waiting for her lost love to return, while Kafei had gone into hiding after he was cursed. Re-uniting the couple was a side quest that would literally unfold over the course of the entire game, with Link only able to complete the task with inventory and masks collected at the very end of the story. Even then, some luck was required, because being off by a minute would mean having to start over.
That was the other big challenge of the side quests. Time was not on Link's side and if he missed any of the steps to completing any of these tasks, his progress would not be saved. Remember that using the Song of Time resets everything, including side quest progress. That often meant having to see much of the same dialogue repeatedly, but that's to be expected in a time travel story.
This should offer a good window into why many Zelda fans still hold Majora's Mask in such high esteem. It should also be noted that while Ocarina of Time has seen several re-releases and compilations, this second game hasn't had nearly the same kind of treatment. Majora's Mask was collected in a special promotional compilation disc that featured all of the main console Zelda games through 2003, sans A Link to the Past. The GameCube collection was released as part of a bundle with Mario Kart: Double Dash!!, but I also distinctly remember getting this disc with my one-year renewal of Nintendo Power.
Unfortunately, the Majora's Mask port suffered from a lot of issues. The emulation came out buggy and would often freeze up, which was a killer in a game that was built on resetting your progress. It wasn't quite unplayable, but it certainly wasn't ideal.
That does not look to be the case with next year's The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask 3D. It seems that Nintendo has heard their fanbase loud and clear and will be offering a fully re-mastered version of their cult classic, nearly 15 years after it was first released.