The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask
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(originally published June 15, 2011)
"[The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask is] the best prom ever!"
The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask is the day in your life that you look back upon years down the road and say: "That was the last time anybody ever treated me right." Chronologically, Majora stands after your loss of innocence but before the onset reality of adulthood. In Majora, you say goodbye to firefly-questions, and accept that you do indeed have to live in a world where you must consciously accept your ignorance to the universe around you -- a universe that is entirely full of monsters and that you must nonetheless live in until the day you die. Majora is the first and only time you experience genuine, crystal-clear, 1080p, surprising euphoria following the appropriate build-up.
Many stories are journeys. Majora is journeys through a story.
Isn't that what the best memories are? Revisited again and again -- on purpose or not -- to honor the best bygone moments. The memories that stink of emotion, of fire, and of revelation. We can come at this story over and over, in repetitious discovery, with repetitious joy. Layered as it is, it can't be sullied, it constantly cleans itself like an obsessive-compulsive cat with a disorder.
After Majora, videogames entered an awkward phase. Like slavery being the base-cause of the American Civil War -- despite the cries for "states' rights" and a thousands of other actual reasons -- the base-cause of videogames' slide into self-fellatio was Halo: Combat Evolved. Now, we love Halo, but it was such a sudden growth-spurt that we all started tripping over our comedic ginormagantuan-foots in excitement, and we still, to this day, have not yet arrived at the equivalent of the Emancipation Proclamation. Today, we will continue to kill our brothers.
With Halo's arrival, games shed personal purpose in favor of pleasing a focused-tested personality. Videogames began to be created in order to serve us. People began to seek out what connected best to their own pre-constructed personality. It wasn't like when rock 'n roll happened and everybody wanted to be rock 'n roll. Today, people build out a meager semi-self-styled personality, and then walk towards the nearest counter-culture they can find -- there is something for everybody, marketing made sure of it. Portfolios in databases in mainframe blade servers at corporate headquarters have been filled out to make sure that you, sir or madam, have been served, and that your needs and tastes have been met. There is a shade of paint for every man, woman, fatty, grandma, and child's needs now. There's something for you, designed just for you, tailored just for you, crafted just for you. . . and for those like you.
It will never be like that anymore though. That feeling of innocence's closure, before you knew what it was even called. It's more an acceptance than an ending. Majora dwells in prolonged instant of emotional osmosis. It's the feeling of personal transference made sweeter in retrospect. After that discovery, after that encounter, after that end, as the sun sets, you understood where you'd been and even though you might not know where you were going, you look back on that memory -- altered for time and content -- in blurred joy. It couldn't have been as good as you remember it, and only in that very specific endorphin-infused moment of your life could it have been that good.
It's the best prom ever!
Falling out of the sky like the moon crashing in from orbit, Majora starts weird, gives you tools to inflict your own weird, and then challenges you to de-weirdify your world. Different from the other Zelda games because it hates you, Majora is a moody middle-child's re-arrangement of his younger sibling's toys. This is no longer young-adult literature, comprende? This is The Legend of Zelda & The Half-Blood Prince.
Men in love will die at your feet, begging you to save their illegitimate children. Seriously! Horrifying. Seriously horrifying.
There are people in this land, Termina, it's called, that you can indeed trust, but they aren't the ones expect. There's unease in your heart from the first snap. The defense, mothering in Majora's precursor (The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time | * * * * (Certified: Best Game Of All Time)), is smothering this time around.
. . .so begins our actual conversation on the game which you shall play when plugging The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask cartridge into your Nintendo 64. . .
In the game, you are Link, again, and you've been mugged. And turned into an anthropomorphic shrub. It's far from your standard intro, growing progressively more emo when you're told time is really short, what with the goddamn moon about to go totally Cretaceous on your asses in three days. Everybody will die if you don't master time travel, because you can't stop a lunatic, you can only hope to contain him. . . with time travel!
The weirdness and the hopelessness plants an angry, rebellious fire in you. It gives you the the Ash Williams swagger -- the "I'm going to fucking take shit over" attitude. While others not named Link would buckle and cower under the pressure, you decide (that Link has decided) he'll grow a pair and claim the three weird magical transformation masks as his own, maybe saving this 'effed up bizarro world in the process. Groovy. Lambada-a-go-go, motherfuckers!
There are a lot of corners in Majora. Corners to turn and corners to hide things in. There are basically 6 versions of the world, two per day (night time and day time) of the three days you have left on earth. You can travel back in time to Dawn of the First Day, but no further. To save your game, you must go back in time to Dawn of the First Day. This is done by playing a song on your ocarina, portable pipe-organ, bongo drums, or fish-bone guitar.
Chunga-chunga! 72 hours remain.
The sound effect that greets you when you spawn back at the center of town, lunar crisis averted for just a little while longer, is that of a machine being kind to you. The time travel takes all your "gathered" stuff but not your "personal" stuff. To save money, you have to go to the bank and deposit your cash at the bank vault, which we assume exists in some kind of pocket dimension -- it will be waiting for you when you Groundhog Day yourself.
We got away from our earlier point about corners. You need to explore every corner at every time of day on each of the three days. It's constantly changing. It's a great, purposeful reason to travel around the world again and again because you might find something new. We don't mean that in a World of Warcraft, "oh, maybe Goldshrubs or Arcanite drops will finally respawn over here," way. No, it's way better than that. We mean that the something new you discover might be the solution to a friend's problem. There's no arrow, there's no compass, no indicator saying: "check here for quest completion." The best you can hope for is maybe somebody's loose suggestion to "go north tonight." It's enough to pique your curiosity. Almost every NPC in the game has a story, an issue, or a lost, uh, something, or whatever. Helping people with whatever is the kindest form of helping, or whatever, that a person can give. You want to help them because they deserve to be helped. You can't be everywhere at once. Explore the world as many times as you can. Fortunately, you have all the time you need.
We almost summed up this review with the tagline: "The day before an unwanted pregnancy." This is the Internet, you can be horrible here if you need to. But Majora isn't horrible, and we would want to be horrible to her. A friend once said that cars and boats must always be named after women, because if he's going to enter anything, it's going to be a lady. We sidestepped the question about mechaphelia, but we laughed at the statement, because it was funny and it seemed right at the time. Videogames are asexual, they can be either bros or bitties. Majora is a girl though. She's sensitive and complicated. Men are never sensitive and they're only complicated if it helps them fake sensitivity (which they do a lot).
As always, we wish we could review games in a vacuum but Majora's resonance only grows brighter in recent years. What's past is certainly not prologue. What's to come are shitty sequels. We loathe Twilight Princess even more with every passing day. If Twilight Princess were our twin sister, we'd push her into a marble quarry and delete her Facebook profile. We'd tell everybody! We accept the world we are in and we love the games we play. Yet we are in a down-generation. The HD era of the PS3 and Xbox360 will not be looked back upon fondly. We promise you that.
Here's how it works. Odd-numbered generations age badly. We don't count the Atari generations because they're fucking terrible.
1st, the NES era. Go back and play Metroid or Dragon (Quest) Warrior. They are janky, poorly-programmed, over-imagined pieces of ass. Exception: Super Mario Bros. 3.
2nd, the SNES / Genesis era. Timeless, even today. Chrono Trigger, Donkey Kong Country 2, Sonic 2 -- these are the literature of videogames.
3rd, the N64 / PS1 era. Muddy 3D, foggy draw-distance -- blurry character faces and limited voice acting clash with good music and CGI FMVs. Games on CD are cheap to make and are pumped out rapidly. Games on cartridges are expensive to make and few are released. A few gems, but even fewer have aged gracefully. Good RPGs and a few 3D platformers. Final Fantasy IX, Ocarina of Time / Majora's Mask, and Soul Reaver are diamonds in the rough. Developers like Rare shot for the stars and missed, their games ending up as brilliant space-dust, purged out the opposite end of cold reality by a supermassive black hole. See: Jet Force Gemini, the closest we ever got to Itchy & Scratchy: The Videogame.
4th, the PS2 / Xbox / GameCube era. The 3D realm is mastered. Dozens of quality games that endure into this modern era, so well, in fact, that the good ones like Shadow of the Colossus are getting HD-remakes to fix textures and framerates. Other fond memories exist with Devil May Cry 3, Half-Life 2, and Resident Evil 4, better than most games released today. The pieces of technological presentation are in sync with the design limitations imposed by the hardware. For a while, ambition and capability were one, and things were good. Also, Shadow of the (FRAKKING) Colossus!
5th, the present, PS3 / Xbox360 / Wii era. And it's also the modern iPhone / handheld / Zynga era. Yes, we'll look back upon that fondly, won't we? What a fucking preemie generation this is. We have the winners of the generation, sure. Mass Effect 2, Gears of War 2, and Assassin's Creed II. But honestly, this is just the previous generation without the limitations that force developers to actually think. We get new Halo, new God of War, new Grand Theft Auto (urgh), new Mario Galaxy (twice), except their production and vision is so laser-focused that we can't help but feel like we're being led around on a leash. Don't get us started on Call of Duty's nauseating annual popularity. We adore the joke that is Metal Gear Solid 4 even more with every passing day.
So how is it that Majora, an afterbirth / sketch-dump / bastard child of a down-generation in game development become such a smooth operator? What business does she have being this good? She could make Vanilla Coke cool. Damn, we love Vanilla Coke. How weird is it that for once, adding vanilla to something makes it "non-traditional?" What a mind-fuck. Yes, Majora does the impossible, like a church without stained-glass windows, an irregardlessly anti-backwards nega-concept, so revelatory, so Elvis, so übermench, that if you described it to a man, it would impregnate him with a Star-Child, and if you described it to a woman, she would orgasm every time she sneezed for the rest of her life.
The best, brightest light shines on Majora.
See, this was before players demanded "balance" in their games. There was never "too much combat," or "not enough puzzles," or "broken mechanics." If they got sick of fighting, they went off and did something else. The Zelda formula -- and Majora in particular -- was flexible enough to allow this. Occupying the game space is the most fun you'll have, so being freed from the main quest once in a while is double-liberating -- meaning that you're taking time off from your demanding world-saving within the game that you play during your actual, human-person time off. The concept of "getting stuck," was once a good thing. It meant you got to faff about and swim around as a fish-man and forget about saving the world. It was vacation². The dictation of that flow doesn't feel like it was not put there by design. No, we, not some code monkey, put that happiness there.
At it's heart, Majora is a moment of focus in a blurred life. It hurts a lot to see other moments lose clarity in comparison. The swimming is the best in any videogame ever. You don't swim, you soar like electrified oil among ocean waves. The NPC-relationships are the best in any videogame ever. You see the effect you have on their lives, and then after traveling backwards in time to avert disaster, as you must, you see them again reliving what they would have been without your help. The whole game is a side-quest you aren't told about and then you are overjoyed when you realize the whole game is not a dream.
So much is packed into this game's molars. You want it to chew you forever.
Why is it only * * * 1/2 out of 4 stars? Because of that cow-protecting / alien shooting quest. The first-person, inverted y-axis (Why, Japan? Why?) arrow-aiming while riding on horseback is the devil's grundle. It is not Fleshy Fun-bridge. It's so bad that we knock an entire half-star off of an otherwise flawless game.
It's weird inside Termina, so all you want to do is be good and inflict good on a person, on a town, on a world that's been dealt a bad hand. That spark ignites the whole quest -- your compulsion to complete a videogame will never be more pure than in Majora's Mask. It never has before and it never will again.
-- @Alex Crumb (originally published 6/15/11)