Wednesday, February 15, 2017

The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask

Earlier, I praised The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time not merely for representing gameplay and design at its purest, but for instigating an evocative revolution that caught on with people. The dungeons were at their finest, the moments of character beating underneath the surface captured us, and there was no cure for getting the Lost Woods theme out of our heads. It's something that made the market demand a direct sequel; more perfection iterating upon perfection, you may say.

And yet as Nintendo would say it, The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask upends the tea table in a matter that took everyone off-guard. Contextually, it's a sequel to Ocarina of Time -- it all begins with Link searching for his fairy companion Navi -- and yet everything barring asset reuse is as different as could possibly be. There are time limits circumvented only through your magical ocarina. Masks are equipped either for transforming purposes or to elicit response. It is fiendishly, grievously dark, openly playing with symbolism that'll zip over the non-attentive player.

It is not by any means accessible to the casual Zelda fan; indeed, while it's earned an adoring cult fanbase and sold moderately well, it never reached the legendary status of its N64 predecessor. Personally, I am of the opinion it is the very best Zelda has to offer, the approachable perfection of Ocarina of Time or A Link to the Past be damned. It's not the first or last formula-changing Zelda, yet for a game developed only in a year's time, it achieves a level of successful ambition that puts the other efforts to shame. All Majora's Mask has to do is be the inverse of Ocarina of Time: whereas that game embraced a perfect duality of pacing and player-to-character connection, Majora's Mask is a compact challenge that bears its own enigmatic heart. 

Everything to do with this involves the Three-Day System. The land of Termina is under existential peril by the threat of a falling, sentient moon, and you only have three days to stop it. A task that would normally instill intense pressure, the good news is thanks to the Song of Time, the same three days can be repeated and again. Everything from clearing dungeons to NPC schedules are at the mercy of time, so your adventure must be planned accordingly. 

The very presence of a time limit, no matter what the context, should destroy the freedom-stitched fabric of Zelda, yet Majora's Mask renders it as natural as breathing. The only possible negative is the bulking exposition at the game's beginning, and even that's so damn interesting that you can't help but be swept up in its presentation. The Skull Kid's curse in turning Link into a Deku Scrub (represented by a nightmare sequence of him being swarmed by said species), the grinning, phantom-like enigma that is the Happy Mask Salesman, the soothing churning of the Clock Tower and, of course, the ever-looming threat that is the moon itself.

It's starting out as a Deku Scrub that first sends the message you've hit rock bottom. From the very moment Deku Link steps into Clock Town, he's greeted by a dog that'll bully him relentlessly. There's no reason given; everything from your snout-like protrusion to your stubby little legs pisses it off, and it'll make every attempt to make your life hell. That it's half your size signals no one will take you seriously, right down to the guards refusing to let you venture outside of Clock Town.

And yet even in spite of this difficulty/time time, the heart of freedom and exploring beats wildly here: not only is time essentially unlimited, but you'd have to purposefully wait for the moon to crash. That you're given options to even slow down time presents an effective level micromanagement alongside your adventures in Termina: for instance, do you have enough time to clear the Great Bay Temple with only one day remaining, or would that be time better left tackling the beaver race sidequest?

Anyone who says the Three-Day System deters exploration has missed the point entirely: the inner workings and activities of Clock Town --nay, the entirety of Termina and its inhabitants-- is the exploration. Character schedules are intertwined, encouraging you to uncover every facet of their lives. Your successes and failures will have consequences; ones you can simply erase through time travel, but their effects ranging from both intriguing ("oh, wow, I can do that?") to the depressing (which we'll showcase later) display the organic constitution that is the world of Majora's Mask.

An organic world, mind, that expands twofold through the use of masks. It enthralls on both levels of gameplay and engagement: once his curse is lifted, Link can transform into a Deku Scrub, a Goron or Zora, utilizing their innate abilities (Gorons' super-strength/high-speed rolling or Zoras' supreme swimming) all the while. It works not merely as fanservice (who hasn't wanted to play as a jolly, rolly-polly Goron?) but as a unique mechanic that actually works; in particular, Zora Link is easily the highest example of 3D swimming in the N64/PS generation, with not a trace of clunky control in his dolphin-esque movements (just feel that jump!).

Being at the forefront of Majora's Mask, it's only natural they, too, embrace the game's thematic duality. Putting aside how the transformable masks takes on the past life of a departed soul (which is an incredible tragedy in itself, particularly when you're conversing with friends and family of the deceased), even the collectible masks echo their use in Ocarina of Time; you come for their intended uses--be they the Great Fairy Mask attracting fairies or the Kamaro Mask's hypnotizing dance--and stay for the reactions they draw from people, not the least of which is the surprise found in the dastardly Gorman Brothers. Dishonest milk thieves who prey upon the neighboring Romani Ranch, all it takes for their nastiness to collapse is the presence of a certain weeping mask. Moments like this can be stumbled completely on accident, compelling us to endlessly experiment. Could even the Bomb Mask elicit an emotional response? Probably not, and you're crazy for putting it on, but you can't help but try.

Which reminds me: it's Zelda not just at its most organic; it is poignantly gripping, more than any other entry. Compare to how Ocarina of Time handled its subtler themes: it didn't beat us over the head with character development, leaving it up to us to fill in the blanks regarding the tragedies of Mido and the carpenter family. Majora's Mask does this too, but only as a tantalizing sprinkle (and the occasional side-dish) upon effective character sequences that I cannot praise enough, be it the famous Anju/Kafei marriage or the faux courage of the Swordmaster, whose crumbling facade in the final hour has always spooked me.

These sobering episodes chill us right down to the bone; just look at the mayor's meeting, whose participants take all-too-real positions: the carpenters, denouncing the obvious threat looming above for the sake of monetary gain; the soldiers, who instantly perceived the danger and recommend immediate evacuation; the mayor, the one in power who's too cowardly to take action (or could it be he has something else on his mind? His son's been missing, after all...). Naturally, the aforementioned masks are vital in these events;  did you know you can actually break up that meeting with a certain mask?

Even without masks, however, the NPCs are evocative on their own. The events at Romani's Ranch --whereupon aliens make their annual visit to abduct cattle--are another perfect example; this time, however, we witness Majora's Mask delivering a raw penalty in guilt. Romani, a young girl and the ranch's only denizen who realizes what's going on, recruits Link in fending off the ghastly extra-terrestrials. Succeed, and you earn a bottle of health-restoring milk. Fail, and you get this.

Caught up in the abduction, a brainwashed Romani spends the remainder of the days either aimlessly walking about the ranch or struggling to remember her identity. Her older sister, Cremia, weeps in the barn, regretting she never believed what she dismissed as an overactive imagination. It's a level of despair almost never before heard of in a Nintendo game, all because you didn't try hard enough.

Or is it because you didn't try at all? Since the game's default schedule is absolute, this happens every time you have to focus on other matters and ignore the quest. Through guilt and failure, Majora's Mask forces you to care to fully complete the game, lest you want broken families and ruined engagements to populate Termina. Even after you solve their woes, time travel will reset their trials and tribulations into motion; knowing that I have to move on breaks my heart (and that's not even getting into even if you succeed, and how the sisters prepare for the moon falling, which...well, I'll let you find out for yourself).

I mentioned earlier about the game's open-employment of symbolism, which is up there with Mother 3 as being Nintendo's finest in thematic storytelling. Anyone can pick up the relationship between time and the abundance of children at the game's center, but is it really coincidence that the shape of Majora's Mask itself provides an empty black heart on the back? And that's not even mentioning the moon itself: a grinning visage of death whose insides belie a stunning truth...

Even within the actual gameplay does the symbolism permeate the entire experience. Not once do you ever escape the countenance of the moon. The bone-chilling scream Link unleashes every time he equips an enchanted mask calls into question the relationship between host and soul; one perhaps answered within the haunting song-based gimmick of Stone Tower Temple, the game's best dungeon. 

Not that any of Majora's Mask's themes would be half as effective without Koji Kondo's music. Taking the helm for the majority of the soundtrack, his absolute finest contribution lies in what may arguably be the game's theme: the Song of Healing. Premiering early on as the haunting, ethereal Clock Tower theme and thereon appearing in piano/ocarina motifs, the Song of Healing is a chilling piece accompanying even the most noble of Link's deeds not merely as a gloomy framework, but to represent the souls at peace.

I say Song of Healing is "arguably" the main theme since while I'd personally say it's more in-tune with the story, Clock Town is one you'll hear more often. While the melody is retained throughout the three days, the song shifts accordingly to each of their respective moods: bustling denial, sober melancholy and fragile, rapid uneasiness. Above is my favorite of the three: the second day, albeit not accompanied by the pitter-patter backdrop of rain.

While the game's theme for Termina's four main provinces echoes the world's melancholy--it's also worth noting Majora's Mask is the one 3D Zelda with the distinction of possessing the classic Zelda overworld theme--I've always been taken by the music for specific locations. In particular, half of what makes the Astral Observatory and the Stone Tower Temple two of Zelda's most evocative set-pieces have to do with their themes; the former the heavenly illumination of an elderly man's youthful neverland, the latter an eerie mix of chanting, tribal percussion and flutes forging the tower's bewitching identity. 

As it happens, Majora's Mask is the first Nintendo game featuring mainstay composer Toru Minegishi. While his involvement is minimal, his works are anything but when considering they're all battle themes. Out of his contributions, I'm quite fond of the mid-boss theme: an urgent, tension-filled frenzy most effective when Skull Kid hastens the Moon's falling ("What'll I do?!? What'll I do?!?").

Let us not dismiss Kondo's status as being the star, however, for his attempt at doomsday would have to be the soundtrack's most haunting. Spectral and imminent as it may be, not even the above embedded video does it justice: hearing it accompanied by the constant rumbles of earthquakes, the intensifying chimes of clock tower bell --which echo across Termina no matter where you are-- and the neon glow of the afflicted sky instill a deathly, awe-inspiring power I've yet to see replicated anywhere else.

Which goes for much anything Majora's Mask does; seventeen years later, only perhaps Sony's Shadow of the Colossus has matched it in infusing such a grim blend of reality and guilt within the player's motivations. Not that Majora's Mask doesn't embrace Zelda's offbeat humor -- be it the debut of fairy-wannabe manchild Tingle or the hand that lives in the Stock Pot Inn's toilet -- but even such twisted humor goes hand-in-hand with that pressing imminence of darkness that renders it Zelda's most warped adventure (only 2006's Twilight Princess attempts to take that title, and that has more to do with its relatively-grimy color scheme).

And yet somehow it's perhaps its most replayable one. I suspect this has to do with, again, how flexible the Three-Day System is. There is urgency, yes, but not a constraining one forcing players to complete the game. By having us relive those three days again and again, tackling them any which way we want, that wonderful sense of discovery isn't just retained from Ocarina of Time; that game's own organic anatomy is perfected into a seemingly infinite state, be they the aforementioned mask reactions or simply marveling at how the Ocarina of Time transforms into a fishbone guitar via Zora Link.

It doesn't matter you're not Adult Link or that the game has a paltry four dungeons: it's a game we return to again and again because we want to explore this dark dimension, want to discover that one reaction, that one character moment that escaped us the first time. Or the second, and even the third. Majora's Mask entire system is a risk built not to capitalize on its famous N64 predecessor, but instead an attempt to craft a living, breathing video game that thoroughly pays off in capturing our attention.

The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask transcends the medium in that once-a-generation experience like EarthBound and Shadow of the Colossus before and after it. It is not merely Zelda's best game, Nintendo 64's finest, or even one of Nintendo's most outstanding: it is one of the greatest games ever created, and while perhaps the likes of Ocarina of Time, A Link to the Past and even the original Zelda may enjoy that accolade more -- however deservedly in themselves -- none of them grip our hearts as both player and guest as they do here.

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