By now it's safe to say that The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask is among the most divisive games in Zelda canon, and perhaps in Nintendo's library as a whole. And that's for good reason. This follow-up to Ocarina of Time was downright weird in some significant ways, but it has held a vice-like grip on its cult fanbase. As a long-time Zelda lover who started it several times but never managed to finish, I wondered if its 3D remaster might turn my apathy into idolatry. I can't say it's turned me into a devotee, but still, I couldn't escape its bizarre charm.
As opposed to its direct predecessor, and most Zelda games in general, Majora's Mask isn't a story of triumph. There's no stirring heroic quest, no prophecy, no inscription on stones. It's melancholy and personal. Link has set out to find someone important to him that has gone missing, and along the way runs into a similarly lonely Skull Kid. The villain has taken the drastic step of bringing the moon down on the little town, but he's not malicious or power-hungry. He's a broken person.
There exist reams of theories on the Internet about the hidden meanings and significance behind Link's strange journey to Clock Town--from it being a metaphor on grief to symbolize Link coping with losing Navi, to the idea that this is some kind of purgatory. I was vaguely familiar with them before I started. No matter what amount of credence you give them, though, this is a uniquely pensive game for Nintendo. The ending resolves the major conflicts, but leaves some loose ends noticeably dangling.
Nintendo made some major changes in this latest iteration, to help bring it up to par with mondern sensibilities. The Bomber's Notebook is now a bona fide quest-log, which automatically keeps track of all the various quests with extra detail and time stamps. It even helps point you toward rumored events for side-quests you haven't discovered yet. If finding all of the masks in the previous version was a chore, it's at least somewhat less of one with the leg up provided by the new notebook.
Switching between masks feels easier now that they can be quickly swiped over to the slot using the stylus and with a dedicated Masks menu button, though I still would've preferred some kind of quick-select tool for the three primary masks. Even with the added functionality, it's still somewhat annoying to have to swap them out in a puzzle that requires more than one. It has also changed the locations of a few items, and the strategies of some boss encounters. The end result is that even long-time fans of Majora's Mask won't be able to rely purely on muscle memory for this remaster.
This is also the first Nintendo-published game to make use of the New 3DS functionality, which works passably well. Z-targeting to snap the camera behind Link was just more handy than relying on the thumbstick, so most of the time I forgot that the thumbstick was even there. When I really needed to peek around a corner, though, I was glad to have it. Plus, as mentioned in my hardware review, the 3D works fantastically well, and really accents the nicely revamped visuals.
On the other hand, other aspects weren't changed, and those can make Majora's Mask feel like a game out of time. These are simple matters of tedium that should have been streamlined: the ability to tap on a song to play it automatically, for instance, or skipping Tingle's ridiculous introduction after the first time you hear it. Plus, not all of the 3DS changes are positive: unless you have extremely sure hands, you'll want to turn off motion controls in the Options menu immediately, before you miss key arrow shots by a hair.
Majora's Mask earned its following for a reason. For all the oddities that might have rubbed me the wrong way when I first tried it, taking another look made me keenly aware of its unique qualities. The dungeon design is among the most clever of the series, and for Zelda, that's truly saying something. Being able to design around four unique power sets let Nintendo stretch out and create some insideously difficult puzzles. My personal favorite, the Stone Tower Temple, got extra mileage out of quite literally flipping the dungeon on its head.
For the most part the dungeons are bite-sized, much smaller than the usual sprawling Zelda dungeon. But, in a bit of design trickery I didn't fully grasp when I first played it, it's really more like they're split into two parts. Each of the four areas has at least one special quest or dungeon-like environment to conquer before getting to the "real" dungeon, and this lends the environments extra variety. Given that Ocarina and Majora's shared art style can border on garish to modern eyes, a little variety is appreciated.
I will admit, though, that sometimes the fetch-quests required to access new areas got on my nerves. The first few were no big deal, but by the time I was ready to take on the final main dungeon, I had a veritable checklist of side-quests to finish before I could make progress. It's just as true now as it was in 2000: backtracking is no fun.
Odd Link Out
The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask 3D is just as much an oddity as it was fourteen years ago. While some aspects of it haven't aged well, Nintendo has made enough smart changes to make this remaster worth a second look for those like me who left the original undone. It's nicely presented, shows some real growth of the seeds planted in Ocarina, and is easily among the most unique games in the franchise.
This review is based on a 3DS download code provided by the publisher. The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask 3D will be available in retail stores and on the Nintendo eShop on February 13, for $39.99. The game is rated E-10+.