While I have many games to talk about in the coming days, I’ve been neglecting to post one important thing. Following up on my write-up regarding Majora’s Mask and how I felt about it, the friend that I played the game with chose to write his own thoughts on the matter as well. This turned into a rather lengthy but interesting discourse about the key differences between Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask, including what each does best.
Since it’s such an interesting read and in keeping with the general spirit of this blog, he’s requested that it be posted here and I am only too happy to do so. He’s chosen to remain anonymous, but nonetheless, the rest of the post beneath the cut is all his writing.
I had many reasons for wanting to sit down and experience my second playthrough of Majora’s Mask a few weeks ago. The simplest and most relatable was because I literally haven’t played it since it came out, i.e. since my early teens, and it’s a brilliant game for which a replay was long overdue. I was also looking forward to the format that I would be playing it in. My first playthrough was mostly a solitary experience but this time I was to play through it with a friend, handing the controller back and forth as our energies waned. Zelda games typically lend themselves to this kind of shared experience. The little puzzles and the level of freedom granted to the player demand a level of concentration and focus that, for me at least, is hard to maintain for longer periods of time. My first playthrough took a couple of months, from memory, where as this one was finished in just four days.
But I also had more… let’s call them philosophical reasons, for wanting to play Majora’s Mask again. It’s a far more mature game than any of the other Zeldas that I’ve experienced (for the record, that’s: Ocarina of Time, Majora’s Mask, Wind Waker, and Twilight Princess), and I had a vague feeling that my 13 year old self didn’t really “get” it in the way that I would now. But what I was most curious about was how Majora’s Mask would compare to Ocarina of Time, almost two decades later. For me, as was the case for a lot of young Zelda fans, Ocarina of Time was the greatest game ever made, and while Majora’s Mask was good, since it wasn’t Ocarina of Time v2.0 we could never like it as much. I expected my opinion to change this time around. The consensus is definitely shifting among players of my generation. Ocarina of Time is no longer held in as high regard, and perceptions of Majora’s Mask have, if anything, become more positive. Some are even bold enough to claim that, actually, Majora’s Mask is the better of the two games.
Weighing in on that debate wasn’t my main objective in writing this, but since I’ve mentioned it I probably can’t avoid revealing where I stand, and the truth is I just don’t think it’s important. I think a case could be made for both of them, and the only thing that I can say with confidence now is that they’re both very, very good. I’ll flesh that out a bit more later though. For now, what I really want to talk about was what can be learned about Ocarina of Time from playing Majora’s Mask. Specifically, I think that Majora’s Mask, more than any other game, reveals Ocarina of Time’s flaws; and in doing so, also elucidates what it does well, and why it’s so highly acclaimed. Of course, Ocarina of Time’s flaws have been written about extensively now so I doubt anything that I say here will be new, but I’ll try to cover the main points briefly.
Many of the items in Ocarina of Time are basically useless. The most famous example (as foretold by one of the elusive gossip stones, so even Nintendo was aware of it) is the ice arrows. Not only are they not required to complete the game, but it’s hard to find a situation where I could even class them as useful. They’re not necessarily the most useless item—the claim check, for example, is so useless (once you’ve got the Biggoron’s Sword, of course) that it’s almost standard practice to glitch it into a bottle, and if there’s a reason to wear the Kokiri tunic once you’ve obtained either of the other two outfits, I haven’t found it—but they’re definitely the most useless for the amount of work that they take to acquire. You literally need items from the last two temples in order to obtain them, leaving an absurdly small window of opportunity for use, within which I can’t really think of any moment where they’d come in handy. Ocarina of Time’s useless/underwhelming item list goes on though: the Mask of Truth is pretty disappointing considering how long and obscure the quest to obtain it is (not to mention the other three masks that you gain access to at the end of that quest, which are even worse); of the three magic spells, the only one that I ever used was Din’s Fire, and even then only because it was required (Nayru’s Love might have been useful for a difficult boss fight, but it’s acquired so late that you barely get the opportunity); the light arrows for some reason only do as much damage as a regular arrow, making them useless outside the final boss battle; and even rupees barely have a use past the first shield purchase. I’ve heard the megaton hammer included as useless but I disagree. It can be used to break rocks, flip tektites, cheese Dark Link, and as a replacement for the Master Sword in the final boss fight. Apparently deku nuts are useful but over multiple playthroughs I don’t think I’ve ever used more than five.
It’s not that Majora’s Mask has fewer filler items, since a number of the masks would fit neatly into that category, but the items not in that category are far more varied, and have interesting and satisfying uses both in and out of combat. Furthermore, many of the items carried over from Ocarina of Time have been improved. The Deku Nuts, despite their additional use as Deku Bombs, still seem rather useless to me, unfortunately, but all of the issues with magic arrows have effectively been resolved. Each has been granted an interesting and useful effect outside of combat, and the light arrows now do four times as much as a regular arrow and twice as much as the fire and ice arrows. Turning to the masks, for items that I thought would be collected mostly for the sake of collecting them, it’s amazing how many of them are useful enough to warrant being worn for extended periods of time, and at many points throughout the game. Significantly, the Mask of Truth can now be included in this category of useful masks, thanks to its new feature and the fact that the hints from gossip stones in Majora’s Mask are now, well, good. Overall, the impression one gets is that there was a lot more thought and planning that went into the items in Majora’s Mask—not just in terms of their effects, but how those effects might be used and when it makes the most sense for the player to acquire them. It’s clearly an improvement over Ocarina of Time.
Combat has also been improved. A big part of this is due to the variety of strategies available, in particular the ones opened up by the transformation masks. A lot of the time it’s really just up to the player which form they want to use, and discovering what each form is capable of is both fun and rewarding. Human Link’s quick, precise sword strikes are often just as feasible as goron Link’s slow but powerful punches and pounds, for example. But the enemies themselves have been improved too. Combat feels faster and less tedious in Majora’s Mask. Less time is spent waiting for enemies to be vulnerable, and to compensate, they subject the player to quicker and much more potent attacks. On top of that, fewer enemies are the kind that seem impossible when you haven’t figured out their patterns and weaknesses, only to become too easy or monotonous when you have. Of all the bosses in Ocarina of Time, I doubt that many of them would manage to do a single heart of damage to a player on their second playthrough, so easy are they once you know how to beat them. I couldn’t say that about the bosses in Majora’s Mask though. Generally, a modicum of still is required. By modern standards, Ocarina of Time’s combat is actually almost bad, where as I think Majora’s Mask’s holds up quite well.
Level design is better too. A big part of this is again thanks to the transformation masks, but the puzzles are more varied and satisfying to solve as well. Ocarina of Time has nothing as interesting as the way the huge pillar in Snowhead Temple restricts movement, or the way the direction of the water flow in Great Bay Temple serves the same function. Switching gravity was tried briefly in Ocarina of Time’s Forest Temple, but it’s used much more and to a much greater effect in Stone Tower. This cleverness and detail carries over to the mini games and sidequests as well. Majora’s Mask’s shooting galleries are harder than Ocarina of Time’s, but they’re also a lot more fun and interesting. The various races in Majora’s Mask are better than anything Ocarina of Time has to offer, i.e. the pathetic horse race, or the timed fetch quests if you think they’re the equivalents. The sidequests, which in Ocarina of Time appear almost as a mere afterthought, come close to taking centre stage in Majora’s Mask. Facilitating this is the immensely detailed Clock Town, where each character follows an elaborate schedule over the game’s three day cycle. Ocarina of Time’s characters, for comparison, typically have just two states: one for day and one for night. In itself this extra detail is really only a minor feature—it just means that the world remains mysterious for longer—but the quests that surround are incredible, and probably one of the main reasons why people rate the game so highly. Don’t get me wrong, Ocarina of Time’s sidequests are passable, but nothing more.
The main point that I’m alluding to here is that in a lot of ways Ocarina of Time is sort of awkward. In retrospect, it strikes me as exactly what it was: a game hindered by inexperience, since it was the first 3D Zelda, as well as by the Nintendo 64’s limiting cartridge format and mismatched hardware. Considering the circumstances, I’d say Nintendo did a fantastic job with Ocarina of Time, but it’s still sloppy by modern standards—at least in the ways that I just talked about. Majora’s Mask seems like it’s been planned out a lot better, and there are many ways in which is improves over its predecessor. Unfortunately (because it’s quite difficult to explain why), I still think Ocarina of Time is brilliant, and while I wouldn’t personally consider it the greatest game of all time, it’s one of the few that I think is worthy of that title (Majora’s Mask is also worthy, in my opinion). Because of how influential or innovative it was, perhaps? Or because of some nostalgic connection on my part? Maybe there’s a little of that going on, but mostly the answer is no. I’ll now talk about the two Zelda games on a different level, and hopefully do a decent job of describing what they both do exceptionally well.
So that it’s out of the way, the story in Ocarina of Time is terrible, at least if you’re going to take it at face value. The whole Triforce backstory is nonsensical and irrelevant, and the sequence that plays out in the temple of time as Link grabs the Master Sword strikes me as nothing more than a flimsy excuse to add time travel. Majora’s Mask’s story doesn’t make a lot of sense either, truthfully, but the absurdities of it are at least given less attention. I also prefer the politics of Majora’s Mask’s inexplicably evil mask over Ocarina of Time’s inexplicably evil person. No huge life lessons behind either, but at least in Majora’s Mask we can see that people who do evil sometimes can’t be blamed for it, and that sometimes we need to be able to feel sorry for them.
To begin my defence of Ocarina of Time, I want to turn to a criticism of it that I think misses the point: the emptiness of Hyrule Field. The standard argument goes that Hyrule Field is a mass of empty space that serves as nothing but padding to slow the player down in an attempt to mask how little there is to do in the game. Parts of that are true. Hyrule Field really is a big and mostly empty space, and it definitely does—and was probably intended to—slow the player down. However… One thing that Ocarina of Time really tries to establish during the early part of the game is that, in the land of Hyrule, Link is a weak and powerless child. In the opening dream sequence, Link—small, terrified and completely unequipped at this point—is contrasted with the heavily armoured Ganondorf, atop an imposing black stallion. Immediately afterwards we’re told that Link is a small and insignificant boy (without a fairy) in an small and insignificant forest community (made up entirely of ageless children who can’t leave the forest, and whose detached, carefree lives are protected from outside evils by a guardian spirit), before his small size is highlighted to us again by the contrast between him and the enormous Great Deku Tree. This theme continues more or less for the entirety of Link’s adventures as a child. Adults struggle to take Link seriously (not necessarily in a hostile way though) and his access to certain areas is frequently restricted. It’s from this perspective that the enormity of Hyrule Field can be seen to serve a purpose. Its enormous size and the way it slows down travel are two of the ways in which the game tries to make the player feel small. For a game that relies so much on making players feel, this size suddenly becomes extremely important. To be clear, it’s not that Hyrule Field needed to be exactly as it was, but that criticisms of it typically don’t acknowledge the feelings and associations that come along with vast open spaces.
Use of space is a recurring theme throughout Ocarina of Time. The enormity and depth of Lake Hylia doesn’t have a practical purpose either, but what it does do is evoke certain feelings. Again there’s the sense of smallness that players get from Hyrule Field, but what Hyrule Field makes intimidating, Lake Hylia makes beautiful and awe inspiring. The same effect can be found in other areas as well, most notably Gerudo Valley and the Desert Colossus. The sheer depth of the ravine in Gerudo Valley, combined with its powerful waterfall and strong river’s current, make it a really spectacular place; and the enormity of the Gerudo Statue in the Desert Colossus makes it an incredible thing to find out in the middle of the desert, so far from civilisation. It’s the size of these places that gives them their effect, so to question what they add from a gameplay perspective is, for me, missing the point. This use of space in Ocarina of Time is excellent, and unfortunately it’s basically missing from Majora’s Mask. Of course, Majora’s Mask couldn’t have used space in the same way as Ocarina of Time because it’s a different game and the point was never to bring back those same feelings, but what I mean to say is that Majora’s Mask doesn’t really use space at all. It’s for this reason I’d actually argue that Hyrule Field adds more to Ocarina of Time than Termina Field does for Majora’s Mask. There may be more to do in Termina Field, but there’s no feeling that I associate with exploring it so for me Hyrule field is the better area. Majora’s Mask has other strategies for making players feel, which I’ll get to later, but the use of space is still a point in Ocarina of Time’s favour.
Sticking with visuals, the characters in Ocarina of Time are among the most expressive that I’ve ever seen in a game. Saria’s sad but understanding expression when she parts with Link on the bridge between Kokiri Forest and Hyrule Field is one that stays vivid in most people’s minds, but it’s more than just her expression, it’s in the gentle way that she hands Link her ocarina, and there’s even contained fear to be seen in the rhythm of her breathing. Compare that with how Mido’s expressions and posture capture his haughtiness, Zelda’s confident and playful squints, Impa’s solemnity, Ruto’s flirtatious mannerisms, and the simple and friendly way that the gorons sit and then stand to greet you. There’s such a range of emotions on display here, and Ocarina of Time communicates them all almost perfectly. Majora’s Mask does it well too, of course, but if I had to pick it I’d say Ocarina of Time has the edge.
Another strong point for Ocarina of Time is the atmosphere. I touched on this above when talking about the use of space, but returning to the cutscene with Saria, part of what makes that scene so effective is the atmosphere. The seclusion and soft lighting of that Lost Woods bridge is a really fitting and symbolic place for two friends to give an uncertain goodbye. Another really good example of atmosphere is the stained glass windows and dark lighting during the battle with Ganondorf. But for me the best one is the room where the player battles Dark Link. The fight itself is disappointing, as many have pointed out, but the setting for it is staggeringly haunting and surreal. This is especially the case when the battle ends and Link’s hazy surroundings transform back into a regular room. It’s like waking from a dream, and for me it’s one of the most impressive moments offered by any video game. Majora’s Mask definitely isn’t bad in this regard either. In fact, Ikana Canyon captures perfectly the despair of the innumerable undead, caught indefinitely between life and death and desperately seeking eternal rest to put an end to their suffering. Truly, Ikana Canyon is excellent, but unfortunately I found most of the other areas in Majora’s Mask quite forgettable. Ocarina of Time has its low points too, to be clear, but I think there’s less of them.
It would be remiss to analyse Majora’s Mask on this level and not mention its incredible cutscenes, and the origins of all the transformation masks. Watching Darmani come to terms with his death, seeing the Deku butler anguish over the fate of his son, and literally watching Mikau die (unfortunately that one is sort of marred by Mikau awkwardly delivering his final words in energetic verse), are all so viscerally sad and confronting that they’re almost traumatising. Another scene that’s almost on par with those is the one with Pamela and her father in Ikana Canyon. Really, the amount of emotion packed into that game is immense. And as if those scenes weren’t enough on their own, later on, when you’re able to play the Elegy of Emptiness, the shells that you leave behind serve as a stark reminder of the horrors that enabled you to take each of the non-human forms. Ocarina of Time has some decent cutscenes too, with the aforementioned one involving Saria probably being the best, but Majora’s Mask wins here easily.
Now it’s time to discuss what I think Ocarina of Time probably does better than any game that I’ve ever played. I’ve heard a few people say the main theme in Ocarina of Time is exploration. I think that’s wrong. For me, Ocarina of Time is about escapism; that is, indulging in fantasy to escape a reality that is traumatic and beyond our control. Link is clearly in a reality that he would like to escape from. He is bullied for being different, isolated from the world by his belief that he will die if he leaves the forest, and while Saria is warm and kind to him, he can’t help but feel that the differences that separate him from his peers, separate him from her as well. No child would be happy in Link’s situation. Link’s dream at the start of the game, while later shown to be a prophecy, I also interpret as a metaphor for escapism through fantasy. He’s dreaming of another world.
Zelda’s situation is surprisingly similar. The reality that she wants to escape from is one where she’s confined to the castle by her role as princess, isolated from other children, and ignored by her father. Zelda also has one person who she could call a friend: her protector, Impa. But Impa is an adult, and while there’s love between them, they’re also very different people. Like Link, Zelda also has dreams, and I interpret hers the same way. Of course, the game shows the events in Ocarina of Time as if they’re all actually happening, but it’s hard not to notice the similarities between what Zelda and Link do, and the way a child might use fantasy as a form of escapism. The difference is that, while in the real world we can only pretend that our reality is something else, in Ocarina of Time, those fantasies come to life. Link and Zelda’s worlds switch from being ones where they have no control, to ones where they’re heroes and everything is in their hands. For me, Link and Zelda’s adventures as children mirror what life might be like for a real child who insists that their fantasies are real. In both cases there’s a clash between how adults see reality and how Link/the child sees reality. And of course in both cases it’s the adults who get the final say (to their detriment in Ocarina of Time!) because the child is powerless. When Link grabs the Master Sword and becomes an adult, this symbolises the fantasy world taking over, and the “real” world no longer existing. Link is no longer a child and no longer treated like one, and there’s no longer any conflict over what reality is. The final conversation between Zelda and Link can also be interpreted metaphorically. The end of the game can be seen as the conclusion of the fantasy, when Zelda and Link are finally ready to again face their respective “real” worlds, this time with the skills, confidence and new identities gained from fantasy. After all, Ocarina of Time ends with everything being put back exactly the way it was, with only Link and Zelda having any knowledge of what actually transpired.
I have no idea if Ocarina of Time was supposed to be interpreted this way, but what matters is that it can be; and when you do, the story goes from being one that’s sort of terrible, to one that approaches brilliance. Link and Zelda’s powerlessness is really easy to relate to, and the adventure that enables them to escape that reality mirrors the ones that we use to escape our own realities. What makes Ocarina of time so special, and why I think it’s so dear to so many gamers, is because it manages to speak to them on this level. I don’t mean that all Ocarina of Time fans all have deep wounds or painful realities that they need to escape from, because I certainly don’t think that’s a requirement to enjoy the game. But they probably do have active imaginations and a proclivity for dreaming up amazing new worlds inhabited by strange creatures like gorons and zoras, and with mysterious and beautiful places like Lake Hylia and the Desert Colossus. To be clear, Ocarina of Time isn’t perfect even on this level, and to be honest I’m only assuming that other players see these themes of escapism and helplessness as clearly as I do; I’m not sure if that’s actually the case. But for me this is Ocarina of Time’s strongest feature, and something that it does better than the vast majority of games that I’ve ever played.
There’s a theory going around that Majora’s Mask’s main theme is dealing with loss. If that’s true at all, I don’t feel it a strongly as I do the themes in Ocarina of Time. On top of that, I find Link harder to relate to in Majora’s Mask (even though it’s a direct sequel and he’s literally the same person) because the game never really explores who he is. Does he actually care about Clock Town any more than the next person? Is he still searching for his lost friend by the game’s end? I’m not sure because none of this is ever really explored.
I said near the start of this article that Majora’s Mask reveals Ocarina of Time’s strengths and weaknesses more than any other game. I think that’s clearly true. Their similarities make possible a lot of direct comparisons, which are useful for that kind of analysis. Ocarina of Time’s gameplay was praised when it first came out but I don’t think it can be praised now, in 2017. Majora’s Mask is a significant improvement over Ocarina of Time in terms of almost all aspects of gameplay. In terms of visuals I think it’s pretty close. Ocarina of Time’s graphics have definitely aged but I think it still has the edge just because it’s visuals better serve the main themes. I haven’t talked about music at all yet, which is odd in retrospect since both soundtracks are widely praised, but for now I’ll just say that it’s something that both games do well and it’s hard to say which one is better. The Spirit Temple theme is incredible and one of the rare tunes that can be lifted from a game and still enjoyed outside of that context, but the way the music changes in Majora’s Mask as the end of the world draws closer was a fantastic idea that was implemented almost perfectly. In terms of the amount of emotion to be found in the game, again it’s a strength for both but Majora’s Mask has the edge thanks to its cutscenes and everything that happens in Ikana Canyon. Ocarina of Time wins in terms of the themes though, easily.
As a final note, I think it’s important for anyone reviewing video games to be clear about what they value in a game. If you’ve been reading between the lines you may have noticed that gameplay isn’t particularly important to me. This is true and to show just how much that’s the case, I’ll reveal that the Water Temple is actually my second favourite dungeon in Ocarina of Time. It’s not that I disagree about it being tedious, it’s that I don’t notice it being tedious because it’s not something that I care about. What I notice is how nice the atmosphere is, and on that level the Water Temple is incredible. This is also why I don’t care to weigh in on whether or not Majora’s Mask is better than Ocarina of Time. In some ways it is and in some ways it isn’t, and it really just depends on what features you value. I think both answers can simultaneously be correct, depending on how you reach them. It’s only when someone says that Ocarina of Time’s gameplay is better, or that Twilight Princess is better than both of them, that it might be worth disagreeing (apparently Skyward Sword is even worse, which is why I haven’t played it). For me they’re both excellent games, and if you haven’t played them then you should definitely try to do that somehow—especially if you can do it with a friend.