[NOTE: This article was originally published on 1UP.com in December of 2012. Given the slow death of 1UP’s archives and the release of Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask on the Nintendo 3DS, I thought I’d sprinkle a pinch of Phoenix Down on this feature. Enjoy!]
Shortly before the launch of the Wii, word got around that one of its most anticipated titles, The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess, would be receiving a “Teen” rating from the ESRB. Sure enough, if you pick up a copy of the game today, you can see the bold “T” tattooed on its cover and its disc, along with supplementary information about its contents: “Animated Blood and Fantasy Violence.”
The rating generated a lot of buzz about the maturation of the Zelda series, and that buzz was especially voluminous because Twilight Princess followed after the bright, cel-shaded visuals in The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker (which generated a lot of criticism for being too cartoony, but all was forgiven when Link shoved a sword between Ganondorf’s eyes). Fans wondered if the beloved adventure series was finally going “dark,” but many overlooked an important point: The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask for the N64 plunged the timeline into some pretty dark times six years before the ESRB even laid eyes on Twilight Princess.
In fact, the apocalyptic storyline that powers Majora’s Mask ranks amongst the most depressing writing to come out of the typically family-friendly Nintendo—and when you break down the story, you quickly discover that Majora’s Mask is in fact one of the most depressing games of all time for a very simple reason. Remember that ditty about the “song that never ends?” Majora’s Mask features the apocalypse that never ends. At the risk of sounding hyperbolic, playing the game can be emotionally draining.
Carnival Cancelled on Account of Moon
The Zelda games have never steered away from apocalyptic or emotional scenarios. The series utilized grim language as far back as Zelda II: The Adventure of Link, wherein minions seek to revive Ganon by pouring Link’s blood on the demon’s ashes. Ganon’s twisted version of Hyrule in The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time probably isn’t anyone’s idea of prime real estate. And if your heart didn’t do a small flip when the flute boy from The Legend of Zelda: Link to the Past turned into a stump while listening to Link play the beloved ocarina he could no longer use, your emotions might be broken.
But Majora’s Mask doesn’t have one or two sad incidents laced through its narrative. The entire game is a series of unfortunate events churning under a murderous moon. The people living in the game’s hub, Clock Town, are in a dismal mood to begin with because the celebration they’re preparing is on the verge of being ruined. Not by rain, not by high winds, but by small planet that is on course to squash the works.
Moreover, smaller problems branch from the moonfall like a flow chart of misfortune. The Deku scrubs’ swampland has been poisoned, which has made the race suspicious and violently xenophobic. The Gorons are slowly freezing to death in an endless winter that has claimed the life of their hero, and they’re also being driven slowly mad by the shrill cries of the tribe’s prince, whose father is MIA. Mikau, the guitar hero for the Zora band Indigo-Gos, dies while trying to rescue the eggs he presumably fathered with his band mate, Lulu (Mikau reserves his last song for Link, who finds him thanks to a sudden influx of seagulls. Reminder: Seagulls are scavengers).
Termina’s Got 99 Problems
But the three story points that earn Link his transformation masks don’t even showcase the game at its saddest. Even though Majora’s Mask is a fantasy game like the rest of its family, it has moments wherein it pounds you with some brutal realism.
For instance, the patriarch of a small family living on a plot of land infested by Redeads and Gibdos is turned into a half-Gibdo monstrosity. His young daughter, Pamela, is left alone to take care of him—and shield him from little green jerks that tend to get sword-happy. Cremia, the older half of the sister team that runs Romani Ranch, does what she can to comfort her naïve little sister in Termina’s final moments, which includes letting her drink “Chateau Romani,” a milk-based drink that’s for adults only (though Link can chug it down as much as he pleases provided he can pony up the Rupees). Though it’s never outright stated that Chateau Romani is spiked with happy sauce or any other kind of illicit substance, it’s doled out exclusively via a “milk bar.” It’s difficult to think of Termina’s milk bar without immediately thinking of the milk bar in “A Clockwork Orange” wherein Alex sips drugged milk alongside his depraved mates.
Also, there’s that Goron that is forced to sleep in the street because Link steals his room at the Inn. And speaking of the Inn, nobody can use the establishment’s toilet because there’s a dude living down there for some reason (let’s presume his house burnt down in a fire. A little tragedy helps him fit right in with the Terminians).
But the most memorable problem in Majora’s Mask is the messy game of broken telephone that occurs between the innkeeper, Anju, and her fiancée, Kafei. There are various reasons why Kafei is literally unable to show his face to Anju, and when Anju’s mother gets wind that Kafei is gone, she suggests that he ran off with Anju’s best friend, Cremia.
Anju’s mother attempts to salve her daughter’s grief by sensibly (if coldly) stating that Cremia’s ranch probably needs the support from Kafei’s rich mother. Even moms in the Zelda universe are prone to saying heartbreaking things in misguided attempts to cheer up their offspring.
If you do manage to complete the complicated sidequest that reunites Anju and Kafei, they enjoy about five minutes of each other’s company before the moon turns them into a pink paste. Job well done.
Apocalypse on Loop
Here’s the thing about Majora’s Mask. You don’t travel a straight line to the moon and tidy up Termina’s issues as you go. You solve a problem, and then reset it so that you can solve another problem.
You can’t stop the moon’s descent until the very end of the game. Most of Link’s adventure revolves around fixing the smaller problems, righting wrongs, and healing the wounds of Termina’s residents. You have three days to fix things, which is barely enough time to learn how to make a good sandwich, let alone save the world. Luckily, you have time travel at your disposal, so you can relive the same three days over and over like some kind of miserable, apocalyptic take on Bill Murray’s Groundhog Day (which was arguably miserable and apocalyptic to begin with. Swisssh).
Unlike most video games, your reward for helping people isn’t a grateful NPC that smiles woodenly until you delete your save file and start the adventure again. You might get a thank you, but more often you get a checkmark in your notebook and an item that brings you a little closer to the final showdown.
Those small tokens are the only permanent indicators that you made any kind of difference to the people of Termina. When you play the Song of Time, it all goes back to how it began. The poisoned swamp. The murderous Deku scrubs. The freezing Gorons. Gibdo the Wonder-Dad. Anju and Kafei’s bogus misadventure.
All this trouble from a lonely little kid who let his guard down long enough to be possessed by a vengeful spirit in a mask.
When people talk about Zelda games’ diminishing challenge levels, nobody ever scoffs about how easy Majora’s Mask is. The three-day time limit obviously keeps the gameplay intense, but maybe the reasons go beyond that. The suffering of fictional characters is obviously nothing compared to the tribulations of people in the real world, but we still get attached to our favorite heroes, villains, and the people around them. It’s rough to watch them suffer over and over.
It’s also weird to realize that Nintendo created one of the most emotionally jarring apocalyptic scenarios to haunt a video game.