Majora’s Mask is the forgotten step-child of the Zelda series. Smaller, shorter than Ocarina of Time, with a depressing story about a suicidal moon and a deranged child kidnapping horses and fairies, it nevertheless received good reviews at the time. Since then, though, I’d argue that the game has become an also-ran, a second best behind the blazing sun of Ocarina of Time, and if it’s odd and diverse you want, you’re generally a fan of Wind Waker instead.
But Majora’s Mask is well worth your time. In fact, I’d suggest it is among the best Zelda games ever made – if not the best. This is in no small part due to the terrific use of space in the game. Though the world is smaller than Ocarina of Time, I would argue that in many ways, it is more successful.
The central hub of the game, Clock Town, is a beautifully constructed piece of clockwork. It’s an elaboration on a cuckoo clock, a wind-up toy, an automaton. Each character in the game operates according to their own rules and functions, giving life to the city beyond Ocarina‘s characters, who were cemented to the spot to serve the player. Some characters follow specific arcs that you can engage, or not engage with throughout the three days. Some only take brief instants, like being in the right place at the right time to foil the robbery of the Old Lady who runs the Bomb Shop. Others take almost all three days, like the heartbreaking story of Kafei and Anju, who only wish to get married and await the destruction of Termina together. Even the postman follows a distinct story and path.
If you spend enough time in the wonderful world of Majora’s Mask, you begin to instinctively know exactly where each character is at any given moment, and what they are doing. Each character becomes more than the humorous blank slates found in other Zelda games. They are individuals who have plans and emotions. And they have a schedule to follow.
In many ways, I feel like the town is Nintendo’s illustration of Isaac Newton’s clockwork universe theory, of a world wound up by a God and left to run smoothly on its own predetermined route for ever. It is only the intervention of the player that causes this Groundhog Day to ebb and flow. The whole of Clock Town feels on rails of sorts, like one of those old clocks that on the hour would give the viewer an excellent display of rotating gentlemen pursuing rotating ladies.
It’s no surprise then, that the major thematic preoccupation of Majora’s Mask is time, like Ocarina. Except in Majora, time is built into the game space in a different way. In Ocarina, we saw the effects of time as two snapshots: of the ravages that time can cause over seven years through two bookends. In Majora’s Mask, instead we see time as a force that flows through the game space, having impact in real time. It moves characters, it furthers plots (whether the player has anything to do with them or not), and it inflicts death upon all characters and the world if allowed too much freedom. And all this is conveyed through Majora’s space. The player can slow time, and even reset the three days, but can never escape its power. Time and space are always interlinked concepts, but never have they been made more so than in Majora’s Mask.