Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Top Ten Reasons The Legend of Zelda Majora's Mask is Amazing

Hey y'all.  So one of the things readers of this blog might notice is that I can be pretty negative at times.  This is because it's usually easier to describe what one dislikes about something, rather than what one likes -- it's easy enough to say that something is fun or inspirational, but when you dislike something, you have to really explain it for other people to get why that's the case.  Thus, an explanation of dislikes is more likely to be detailed and informative.  Unless you like something other people don't, but generally people tend to be accepting of what other people like rather than what people dislike.  You would not believe how hateful fans of the movie Clue can be to people who recognize Clue for the schlock it is.

All the same, this blog can use more positivity.  I tried to write a happier blog once about Mortal Kombat (1995), but it got too long and ranty.  Since I'm on a Legend of Zelda kick right now, why not talk about Majora's Mask for the time being?

Now, I did not grow up playing Legend of Zelda games.  My brother played the first one decades ago, but we didn't have that for long so I think we just borrowed it from someone.  In any case, there is no nostalgia factor involved when I say that Majora's Mask is a magnificent game.  Huh, I wonder if it's the same way for other people who came into the franchise late.

As a short summary for anyone unfamiliar, Link has left Hyrule to discover what happened to Navi, his fairy companion from the previous game, Ocarina of Time.  Instead, he encounters two rogue fairies and Skull Kid, a boy who has gained phenomenal power from the evil, mystic Majora's mask. The Happy Mask Salesman sends Link to Termina to get the mask back, only Skull Kid has now brought down the moon, which will crash into the land of Termina after three days.  Link has to use his ocarina to relive the past three days over and over to rescue the four guardians that will help him stop the moon from killing everyone, with the help of magical masks, including three infused with the spirits of dead Termina citizens.

There are lots of reasons why Majora's Mask is one of the absolute best games in the Zelda series. Here are a few.

---- Top Ten Reasons The Legend of Zelda Majora's Mask is Amazing ----

10.  It resolves a delay problem common in Zelda games.

One of the things I've noticed while watching Twilight Princess and now Windwaker is that there's a significant plot/gameplay delay in both games -- there's the "why aren't you solving the problem now?" question.  In Twilight Princess, the player immediately wanted to go after Zant...and is sent on three massive fetch quests before directly assaulting him, with only a few encounters with Zant's forces along the way.  If Zant has this crazy army that's all out to conquer, then Link should be doing things that involve stopping this army.  As is, the player rarely feels like he's directly doing anything against the bad guy, who could be doing anything while Link is hunting light bugs and finding mirror shards.

It's even more apparent in Windwaker.  Link's sister was kidnapped there, along with other girls. When Link is stopped from immediately saving her, he has to go through two whole dungeons before trying again.  Uh, Link?  Ganondorf could be doing anything to those girls while you're gone.  What's with the delay?  The delay in both games is made worse by the numerous side-quests, making Link look frivolous while there's danger afoot.

Granted, this is not a huge problem in either game, as an element of suspension of disbelief should always be present.  It's a video game, so if you're having fun, whatever.  What makes Majora's Mask so special in this area is that Link does go immediately to the problem -- Skull Kid and his powerful mask -- and there is a perfectly logical reason why he can't just solve the problem.  Link needs the four giants of Termina to come and hold up the moon.  This perfect blending of story and gameplay is that extra something, that pinky off the teacup, that pushes Majora's Mask to another level.

Ah, logic.  Ain't it a delicious thing?

On an unrelated note, I'm watching Windwaker now, and I'm a little surprised that the fanbase was so against it at its release.  There's a ton of older game references and such, so it's not that different from other games in the series.  Even the cartoon-y look was already present in Zelda handheld games.  On the downside, the gameplay's really repetitive, particularly in the second half.

9. Majora's Mask has great morals.

Now, a game, or any story in particular, doesn't have to have a moral.  Some games have bad morals, and others have no particular morals at all.  They simply show desperate people in desperate situations.  Few games dare to have real morals.  Majora's Mask, on the other hand, not only has good morals, but it's not preachy at all.

Link's adventures in this game involve nothing but doing things for other people, and people who desperately need help.  From kidnappings to zombie problems, Link's there to help without fear or hesitation.  Of course, that's Link in every game.  Link is probably the single most selfless hero in all of gaming.

It's the rest of the story that really works hard on this end.  Majora's Mask centers around forgiveness and the consequences of one's actions.  This is told through the stories of Skull Kid and Majora.

We are never directly told what Majora's backstory is, but we get hints of it.  The Happy Mask Salesman states that Majora's mask was used by an ancient tribe for evil ceremonies, but they had to seal it away. When the tribe died long ago, there was no one left to keep it sealed.

Skull Kid was a lonely boy, one who was unable to make friends because he's a prankster.  The fairies Tatl and Tael, likewise naughty people, think it's a great idea to prank other people too.  That's what not only causes them to steal Link's ocarina at the beginning of the game, but what causes them to steal Majora's mask from the Mask Salesman earlier on.  Thus, Skull Kid's mischief is exactly what leads him into dooming all of Termina.

Skull Kid "abandoned" by the giants of Termina.

There is a theme here of loneliness turning into mischief, and then into evil.  Powerful stuff, and far more real-world applicable than most video game fare.  While usually the real world is a bit more subtle than putting on a mask and suddenly throwing a moon into a city, the metaphor works.  There are some people who want others to suffer for their pain, and they're willing to go to extremes to get it.  Magic is the only fictitious aspect.

What makes the morals work even better are the two fairies, Tatl and Tael.  They're both accessories to Skull Kid's actions, having participated in the mugging of Link and (presumably) the Mask Salesman. Tael spends most of the game at Skull Kid's side, terrified at what his friend has become. This happens while Tatl must follow along Link and witness how Skull Kid's actions have hurt everyone.  While the game implies rather than directly states Tatl's reactions to what she sees (another point in its favor), a novel of this game would doubtlessly go into detail about how she feels to know that Skull Kid killed the Deku Butler's son.

What I like about Tatl's arc is that she's not really like Skull Kid.  Skull Kid pulls pranks because of deep insecurity, while Tatl does so simply because she's thoughtless.  By accompanying Link, she comes face to face what what can become of a "harmless" prank.  Her insincere apology to Link for her involvement in his becoming a Deku scrub implies a base form of morality in her, as though she at least knows right from wrong in the beginning.  At the end of it all, her knowledge of good and evil goes deeper.  She goes from having conflict between being boring vs bending rules for fun, to instead the idea that choices have consequences.  By following alongside Link, Tatl gets to know his perspective on morality: not merely that hurting others is bad, but that hurting others can hurt you too.

Granted, this is a video game, and so it can't go on moralistic diatribes.  But the lack of diatribes is what makes the morals come across so well.  Instead of being told how we should feel, players experience for themselves the horror of letting one's own pain cause pain for others.

8. The simplicity of the horror is the pinky off the teacup

Majora's Mask is genuinely haunting, but not because many of its visuals are in and of themselves frightening.  The concepts behind everything are what makes the game so viscerally disturbing. It's proof that things that are scary are generally not overcomplicated and convoluted things.

For example, the morals of Majora's Mask are frightening.  Not in a way that will make a person scream, but in the way it slowly shows loneliness becoming evil is relatable.  Most people know what it's like to be lonely, and so Skull Kid's plight as a rejected, unsocial boy can hit us right where we are.

But it's not just about the story elements.  Every concept in this game is a subtle terror. There are many references in Majora's Mask to the number four, which is the number of death in the Far East. There are four areas, dungeons, and bosses.  When Link learns the song Elegy of Emptiness, he can make a statue for each of his four forms.  There are four arrows in the game: light, bomb, fire, and ice.  There are four transformation masks: deku, goron, zora, and the fierce deity masks.

One of the four areas in Majora's Mask is Ikana Valley, the land of the dead.  Cheery, no?  Its dungeon is claimed to be based on the Bible, and its height is supposedly representative of building up to Heaven...and when that temple turns upside-down, that represents God putting mankind in its place.  Granted, I learned about that basis secondhand, so I don't know if it's true or not.  Still pretty cool.

There's really no beating the elegant simplicity of a first time player entering Clock Town, and they look around.  At first, all they see is a pleasant enough town, where people are going about their daily lives without a care in the world.  And if the player should look up, there's a giant moon hanging low in the sky, and it's got a horrifying murder-face staring down at the hapless people below.  What makes it better is that the game never explains the moon.  It never says why the moon has a face, and how Majora can control it.  The player is in a constant state of being under a malevolent thing slowly going downwards.

The moon represents true fear conceptually. That is, a malevolent thing that has no real benefit in hurting you.  It doesn't want to fight you, conquer your country, or steal something from you.  It just wants you to suffer.

But the thing that scares everyone the most?  It's all the people.  They are frightened, desperate, and are suffering in one way or another.  In most cases, Link can save them, but not always.  There's the despair of the moon going to fall soon, for one thing.  In other cases, it's too late.  Mainly in the case of those who die and turn into transformation masks.  Darmani, the goron hero, is a ghost when we meet him, and is in despair because his people have been afflicted with an unnatural blizzard that's freezing the entire land.  All Link can do is play the Song of Healing, and then take the goron mask that Darmani's spirit forms to save their people.  Darmani is still dead, and won't come back to life.

Still, Darmani died a beloved hero after having lived to adulthood.  The Deku Butler's son, whose death provides Link with the Deku mask, was only a child.  One of the very first things we see in the game is his tree-corpse.  It's also strongly implied that Skull Kid killed the Deku Butler's son so that he could turn Link into a Deku scrub at the beginning of the game.  All we know for certain is that he's definitely the son of the Deku Butler -- at the end of the game when the day is saved, we see the Butler weeping before his son's dried and shriveled corpse.

Probably the most confusing of these deaths is Mikau's, the provider of the Zora mask.  He dies right in front of Link, after a failed attempt at saving the eggs of a member of his band from pirates. When Link wears his mask, people mistake him for Mikau, never realizing that their friend is dead the whole time.  It's not clear when or even if Link tells them the truth, as the end credits show Mikau's band playing, with "Mikau" apparently there.  Given how the Deku Butler's son and Darmani didn't come back to life, this is more than likely Link wearing the Zora mask one final time.

Heartbreak is, I suppose, the scariest thing of all.

7.  The characters are great and sympathetic

It's true.  There's so many good characters in this game.  Some of them don't have much to say, but they're all interesting and have stories that enrich Majora's Mask's experience.  Take, say, the postman.  He's devoted to his job to the point of not fleeing the moon's wrath because his mail schedule won't allow him.  Then there's the Swordmaster, who pretends to be brave on the first and second day, only to be hiding fearfully in the back when it's clear there's nothing he can do.   Perhaps the most endearing story is that of Kafei's and Anju's, a couple who have been separated because Skull Kid turned Kafei into a child.  By completing their quest, you bring them together on the final night, where they spend their last few minutes alive together in each other's arms.

I don't feel the need to belabor this point.  Anyone who plays the game can see for themselves how good the characters are.  It helps that the plot involves every single one of them, as no character is unaffected by the fact a friggin' moon is going to slam into the planet in three days.  Every character thus has to ring true to the player to make the player care about their plight.

Kafei and Anju.

6. There are few dungeons.

A complaint about Majora's Mask is that it has few dungeons.  People expect a lot of specialized puzzle solving areas in their Zelda games, and since Majora's Mask is following the "four" superstition, there are only four dungeons.

Am I the only one who sees this as a positive?

Granted, when playing a game, a dungeon can be fun.  It can also be really boring and tedious. Instead of interacting with the characters of a world or learning more about the plot, going through a dungeon means fighting and solving puzzles in a dark place where nobody lives, and is neither plot relevant enough or visually interesting enough to warrant a separation from the beautiful worlds in the Legend of Zelda.

A few Zelda dungeons have tried to overcome this.  In Twilight Princess, one dungeon is a city in the clouds populated by freaky chicken people.  Another dungeon is the home of the Yeti couple, whose story is funny and cute.  On the opposite side of the coin is the Earth Temple in Windwaker, whose puzzles are tedious and repetitive, which prove more annoying than challenging.

Majora's temples are just enough, in my opinion.  There's one for each of the three races (Deku, Goron, Zora) and one that is the temple of death, involving the use of multiple races.  Each temple can then be designed for a specific gameplay style, involving puzzles that are specifically designed for the race which Link just transformed into.  Because there are only a few temples, the player isn't separated from the story aspects of the Zelda world for too long, and the temples themselves get more focus so that their puzzles are more interesting than they would have been otherwise.

That, and it would feel tedious to go through a lot of dungeons when the game is the same three days over and over.

5. The designs are wonderful and iconic.

The Ocarina of Time/Majora's Mask visual style, perhaps more greatly influenced by the limitations of the Nintendo 64 than anything else,  I've heard someone call them "realistic", as in realistic for the 64 period, but honestly it's so blocky and cartoony.  Look at the mayor, his wife, Skull Kid, everybody really -- most characters are exaggerated in looks in a way that will show their personality. The circus leader is grumpy and sad, so he gets excessive eyebrows and a glare.  Kafei is a man turned to a child, so he has a smooth, cute, anime-type face.  The great fairies are mystic people made from smaller fairies, so they're creepy, sinister, and wear too much makeup.

"Realistic," sure....

Basically, all of this was a fairly natural lead-up to Windwaker's style, though of course Majora's Mask has the creep factor going for it.

In any case, I like the way Majora's Mask looks.  Each character feels deliberately designed, and Link even looks better than he did in Ocarina of Time.  Probably my favorite character designs are Majora's various forms and phases.  I like the idea of a mask that can not only take over other people, but also sprout tentacles and body parts at will.  It's a shame that his final form, Majora's Wrath, isn't too difficult to fight, given how dang awesome he looks.

I'd like to point out that I've seen bits and pieces of Majora's Mask 3ds, and while many of the images there are okay, they can't possibly compare to the awkward blockiness of the Nintendo 64.  Why? Because Majora's Mask is only made all the creepier for its "outdated" graphics.  The blockiness is just as much a part of the art style as the designs in the game.

And I have to say that the new moon doesn't look at all scary.  The haunting nature of the old moon was that it felt like a force of nature; a despairing hunk of rock that just so happened to have a hideous face.  But in the new style, the face-to-moon ratio is way too large.  Instead of it being a moon with a face, it instead feels like a giant face that happens to be rock-colored.  Why is this important? Because it's easy for people to imagine what would happen if a giant rock hit the ground. It's less easy to imagine a giant face hitting the ground.  Thus, the idea becomes a fun thought exercise or an entertaining joke, rather than something that will make you stare at the sky in hopelessness.

Goofy vs. scary.

That, and the nose really should be sharp.  There are plenty of people in real life with broad noses, and that's not scary at all.  A nose like a knife edge is not only unnatural, but has a literal impact on what the moon does when it falls into Termina.  Imagine the pit left behind by that kind of nose.

Now, it's not that I'm saying that the moon should look the exact same in the 3ds remake as it did in the N64 original.  The greatest image search ever is looking up Majora's moon fan art, and there are some people who have done straight up glorious work.  All I wanted was to look up and see a moon that inspires despair.  The original does that, in spades.

UniqueLegend's horrifying masterpiece gets second place...

...And Vincentbisschop's monstrosity comes first in glorious moon destruction.

4. I can't get enough of the masks.

The idea of having magical masks in a game really ups the gameplay ante.  Not only must there be a large enough number of masks to satisfy the gamer, but each of them has to have a unique ability that makes it worth using.  Plus, every mask must have a satisfactory quest to get a hold of it.  Thus, just the idea of having masks requires developers to put a lot of though into their work.

I will grant that in a few cases, the masks did not quite reach their full potential.  Getting the bremen mask is as easy as talking to a side stranger, the couple's mask is only good for getting a heart piece, and the giant's mask can only be used in one boss battle.  But that doesn't change the fact that the bremen hat leads to the bunny hood, the couple's mask is just a bonus after the most emotionally rewarding quest, and the giant mask...well, I assume somewhere there's a hack where a player can wear it on the rest of the map.

What makes it an even better concept is the whole idea of the transformation masks.  Their storytelling appeal is superb.  Mikau, Darmani, and the Deku Butler's son all die to give Link their respective masks, and not even saving the day will bring them back.  It's a true message of the dark side of giving up one's life, and how that despite that their deaths weren't in vain, these three characters really will be missed, and it won't be easy for their friends and family to recover.

The weight of those masks makes one wonder about the others.  Where did they come from?  How does their magic work?  Why does Kamaro's mask not transform Link?  Are all these masks the Happy Mask Salesman's doing?  What exactly does his business entail if he's all the time trying to find the most dangerous masks there are?

Probably the most telling aspect of the mask's quality is that Majora's Mask is one of the few games that even more casual players will try to complete one hundred percent.  By making masks both story-relevant and quirky in nature, getting them all isn't a mere fetchquest, it's a way to learn more about the land of Termina.

Basically, I wish music-based gameplay would take a break in the Zelda series, and mask-based to have another game.  It doesn't have to be a permanent change, I'd just like to see how the developers could get new ideas to improve upon another fun system.

3. Tatl is best companion.

Yeah, I said it.  Navi's annoying, Fi's repetitive, Midna's two or three characters stapled together, The King of Red Lions is alright, and Ezlo is snippy.  'Nuff said.

Lol.  Anyway, Tatl is the best companion because, for one thing, she's not annoying.  She doesn't say a whole lot, and when she interrupts the player, it's almost always for important plot reasons.  She's not saying always saying something stupidly obvious, or constantly saying "Hey, listen!"

You can find this little darling over on etsy, by Hyliancrafts.

Moreover, she's got a good personality.  Her personality's so good that the developers copied her attitude onto other characters: Ezlo, King of Red Lions, and Midna.  Trouble is, none of these really worked.  Ezlo is mostly okay, but it's still really weird that a guy who was rescued by Link would be so snippy to Link.  It's the exact same problem with Midna, who is only slightly better off than Link in the beginning of Twilight Princess, and yet bosses him around.  The King of Red Lions isn't as bad, but it feels strange that one of the first things he does is insult Link.  While King mellows out quickly, it's out of place that the developers wanted so many of the sidekicks to be so discouraging.

Note to writers: the reason why people argue about whether Kirk or Picard is better is because they are different from each other.  Nobody chooses other Star Trek captains because they're all rip-offs, in one way or another, of the characteristics of Kirk and Picard.  Wannabes never win.

Another way these three characters echo Tatl is plot relevance.  Tatl, on the other hand, has a rather subtle connection to the rest of the plot.  She's a friend, and then quickly a former friend, of the game's antagonist.  This isn't treated like a plot twist, but directly shown.  And from then on Tatl is just there to add personality to the story.  She's the opposite of Link.  He's the righteous, kind one, and she's the rude, prankster one, just beginning to learn that actions have consequences.

Basically, the difference between Tatl and other partners is that they're about plot.  Tatl is about character and personality.  She is a perfect fit into the morals and adventure of Majora's Mask.

2.  This is the single best story in all of Legend of Zelda

Some people would say that Link's Awakening has a better story.  I disagree, but if any plot was going to beat Majora's Mask, it would be Link's Awakening.  These games have something in common: every single character in both games is affected by Link and the main conflict.  There are no simple side characters, just to look funny or say some cute tidbit.  Their fate is inevitably tied to the player, making the player feel more responsible for what happens.  This raises both games above the others.

Another thing that uplifts these two games is that they aren't the same story, told over again.  It's not the story of a sleepy boy becoming a great hero, it's about a hero having a new adventure.  I don't know about others, but I'm about ready for a game that builds on what Link has already done, rather than rebooting his story for the fourteenth (or however many) time.

I've heard someone say that Ocarina of Time has a better story than Majora's Mask, but that's pretty laughable.  Ocarina of Time's story is not only standard for a Zelda game, it's pretty standard for gaming in general.  A hero, blessed by deity/ies, becomes a hero and saves the princess.  Okay. Not that it's too important for a video game to have a great story, and Ocarina of Time certainly came up with good race backgrounds, but at the end of the day, it's simply Legend of Zelda's classic story, if the best example of it.

Majora's Mask is all about story.  Every other aspect of the game bows to it.  From the usage of the symbol of four to the fairy partner, from world design to gameplay gimmick of masks, every single aspect of the game is trying to tell the story of Link and Skull Kid.  And when that much of the rest of the game is dedicated to telling a story and tells it this well, how can it not have the best story?  The story was the goal, and Majora's Mask more than achieved it.

1. The player feels good after playing.

One of the most cited things when talking about Majora's Mask's positive aspects is that it's the darkest of the Zelda games.  While this is true, and probably draws in a lot of players, it's not, in my opinion, why MM is so good.  It's only a part of it.

See, Majora's Mask has what I call the "scrubbing effect."  It's a mode of storytelling that's very old, but nowadays is normally trivialized away, as though it doesn't exist.  Today's "dark" and "edgy" games and movies are often emotionally pointless, melodramatic stories with, very often, depressing endings.  These kinds of media pretend very hard to be important, more so than trying to appeal to audiences or tell a good story.

The darkness of Majora's Mask, however, doesn't leave a person feeling sad.  It makes them feel happy and haunted.  The bad, terrible thing that happen in this game are spooky and strange, but it makes the ultimate victory at the end all worthwhile.  It's like scrubbing a floor.  The abrasive brush and acidic cleaner tear at the tiles, but afterwards the floor is polished and clean.

Majora's Mask feels like that because the ending is a brilliant contrast to the body of the game, like a person lost in a cave finally coming out into the sunlight.  The story goes to very dark, scary places, but the end is a reward for it all.  The evil is defeated, Skull Kid is forgiven, and he and the fairies have learned to be more mature and show more concern for other people.  Best of all, the moon isn't going to smash everyone.

But the ending is still far from happily ever after.  Mikau, Darmani, and the Deku Butler's son are all still dead.  While Link and the giants have forgiven Skull Kid, it will likely take more time for the general populace to feel ready to do the same.  None of the player's questions about the Happy Mask Salesman have been answered, and by his final comments and vanishing, he only adds more.  Not to mention that Link isn't even slightly closer to finding Navi.

All the same, the people of Termina can celebrate their victory over Majora, and Kaifei and Anju can finally get married.  The Carnival of Time is back on, and it's time to party.  Off Link goes, back on his horse to go off on his next adventure.

Another gem by Uniquelegend.

Y'know, you can't really blame anyone for wanting a direct sequel to this game.  Not only in the sense of giving Majora's Mask a resolution, but also as a direct chain from Ocarina of Time too. People make much of comparing Ocarina to Majora, but that's not really logical.  These two games represent a chain of events that could have made an epic tale.  Sure, it was well within developer rights to go off on a new direction with Windwaker, but it feels like the story of the Legend of Zelda was thrown away unnecessarily.

Ocarina and Majora are partners together, creating the most interesting Link that has ever appeared in the series.  He has a great story, with great motivations.  If there had been more of a direct sequel to Majora's Mask, it wouldn't need to be anything like Majora as far as gameplay or graphics, so long as it was this, experienced Link who got to do something new.  Instead, we got three games with three different rebooted Links (handheld games aside).  These three Links had their good points, but the epic storytelling scope that Ocarina and Majora had was never again reached.  Instead of getting a vast world built up with each game, we now get a rebooted world with every sequel.

I know, I know, the Legend of Zelda is the franchise of change.  Change in gameplay is well and good, but quite frankly, people are going to get tired of the same old story formula sooner rather than later.

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