Remaking The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask was never going to be a simple matter. So much of what makes the game great is a tightrope walk between the unpleasantness that helps sell its bleaker tone and the focused design principles for which the series has always been known. Even if Majora’s Mask has started to show its age in the decade and a half since release, attempting to streamline an experience that’s so tenuously successful—not to mention highly regarded—is basically asking for trouble.
If you’re not sure what I mean, consider this: The best Zelda games (or at least the most prototypical ones) have either been built on clear communication and accessibility, such as Ocarina of Time, or on the freedom to discover a mysterious world on your own terms like the series’ debut and A Link Between Worlds. Majora’s Mask frequently offers the worst of both approaches, with ambiguous solutions holding up your progress through an almost totally linear main quest and a looming deadline that makes it difficult to discover the way forward through exploration and trial-and-error. To be clear, I loved every second, but I’m old enough now to realize that a lot of that enjoyment came down to the fact that 10-year-old Josh convinced his parents to buy him the Prima strategy guide to help hunt down every last mask and piece of heart.
At the same time, I’ve also developed a much keener appreciation for why Majora’s Mask chose to be so alienating in its design. This is a Zelda in which the titular princess is relegated to a single brief flashback and Ganon(dorf) is wholly absent. Termina is Hyrule through a twisted lens that throws the mythology of the series out of balance, asking us to explore what courage means in a world without wisdom or power, without true good or evil. Villains that at first seem maniacal reveal themselves to be nothing more than lonely children in the end. Progress, from a storytelling standpoint, means undoing the good you’ve done for the people you’ve met along the way and becoming a total stranger to the world you’re trying to save.
The three-day countdown, the sinister moon, the sense of panic and dread—all so thematically rich, all made more impressive by the fact that they’re defined by or expressed through gameplay mechanics. At every turn, you’re pushed to realize that you’re not becoming a hero because of destiny, but because you’re fighting against it. For my money, Majora’s Mask remains the only thing Nintendo has ever produced with such a profound worldview. It’s probably also the closest we’ll ever get to Albert Camus: The Video Game.
Thus the acclaim for the old, thus the skepticism for the new.
Happily, all the most fundamental changes have been handled about as well as any fan could possibly hope for. The tweaks made in service of convenience—moving the bank, allowing you to warp forward to a specific hour, a less complex save system, recurring cutscenes that are shorter and more skippable—are completely welcome as a way to speed up and modernize the tasks performed most often. If you’d asked me in advance, I probably wouldn’t have thought to include them, but now that they’re here, I’m not sure how I ever lived without them in the first place.
More crucially, the changes explicitly designed to make Majora’s Mask 3D more accessible are surprisingly subtle and smart. As in the original, you have a notebook that chronicles who you’ve helped and when; now, it’s capable of keeping track of every single sidequest in the game, rather than the 20 most important ones. If you’re looking for new side content, the kid members of the Bomber gang in town will run up to you with optional hints that point you in the right direction of a new quest without being too overt. If really stuck, you can climb into the Sheikah Stone inside the clock tower to watch videos of whatever you’re missing, offering an alternative to turning to a walkthrough. Rather than holding your hand the entire way, enlisting the game’s assistance is entirely voluntary and tiered such that the core experience can be kept intact.
Are there still rough edges? To be sure. Juggling masks and items is still a bit of a pain in some dungeons, though the extra item slot, the touchscreen interface, and the dedicated ocarina button have eased that issue. Even with tweaks to Zora Link’s swimming controls, underwater segments still feel clumsy by modern standards, especially when the camera decides to misbehave. If you play, as I did, on a New 3DS XL, you’ll probably notice that the camera in general could use work in a few frustrating boundary cases. The direct control on the C-Stick works just fine when you’re out and about on foot, but should you tinker with it, then go into a roll as Goron Link or an underwater dash as Zelda Link, it suddenly loses the ability to properly right itself on quick turns, rendering a few key segments nearly impossible until you realize you’re better off just keeping your right thumb to itself.
And, boy, am I not at all on board with the changes to the Twinmold boss fight. Yes, the original version was a huge pushover, especially for how late it showed up in the game, but the update here—which moves the Giant’s Mask to the middle of the fight and forces you to wrassle the pair bare-handed once you’re large—doesn’t add challenge so much as tedious length. Plus, watching an embiggened Link waddle around, shout in his new dopey, pitch-shifted voice, and suplex worms felt profoundly silly and out of step with the rest of the game.
But a few shortcomings, new or recurring, can’t do much to diminish the thrill of seeing Majora’s Mask remade with the bravado of the original intact. On balance, I’m not sure if anything meaningful has been gained through the various changes—including many so subtle I didn’t notice until reading about them after the fact—but nor can I say with certainty that anything meaningful has been lost by them, and that’s really the larger victory. Every bit as much as it was 15 years ago, Majora’s Mask remains a powerful reminder of the surprising things Nintendo can accomplish when it decides to shake things up, exercise a little restraint, and leave its princess firmly in another castle.
Some aspects of Majora’s Mask haven’t aged quite that well, and one boss fight has been changed dramatically for the worse, but on the whole, Nintendo has done a stellar job updating the quirkiest and most thematically rich Zelda game for newcomers and old fans alike.
E10+ – Everyone 10+
|The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask 3D is available on Nintendo 3DS. Primary version played was for Nintendo 3DS. Product was provided by Nintendo for the benefit of this coverage. EGM reviews on a scale of one to five stars.