The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask is, to this day, one of the strangest, most unique titles in The Legend of Zelda series. There is no princess to rescue, no Ganondorf to defeat, no Hyrule to voyage through and defend. Majora’s Mask was a foreign game in a foreign land. And, unlike past Zelda games, it was dark and mature.
The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask is a trip down the rabbit hole of nightmares that happens without introduction. Majora’s Mask doesn’t start with Link, in a village inhabited by characters who already have relationships with him. It doesn’t tell you about how you’re supposed to be the hero. You’re already the hero, we don’t need to go through that slow introduction that so many other Zelda games, or games in general, force the player through. Majora’s Mask doesn’t waste your time and you damn well don’t want to waste its time, but we’ll get to that later.
So this is how it goes down. A mysterious masked stranger steals your horse, runs off with her, and casts a curse on Link turning him into a lowly Deku scrub. The only sensible option is to give chase, until you find yourself in a clock tower with a strange man: The Happy Mask Salesman. The Happy Mask Salesman is a chipper, but disturbed, man faithful to his namesake. He tasks you with retrieving the mask worn by the mysterious stranger, which was stolen from him. In return, your curse will be undone. The catch is that you only have three days to complete this mission because the masked salesman plans to leave town at that point.
One thing not mentioned by the salesman is what happens in three days. In three days, the moon will fall upon this land, known as Termina, and kill everyone. This doomsday prophecy is where Majora’s Mask’s unique time system comes into play. Majora’s Mask’s time system gives every NPC a set schedule during the three day period, almost as if they all had their own lives. The schedule isn’t just made on a daily basis, but times of the day such as the morning, afternoon, evening, etc. Over these three days people become aware of the disaster and adapt to the situation accordingly. Some will panic, others attempt to leave town, while some stay and deal with the situation in their own way. The people here aren’t just lifeless NPCs that just stand in the same place forever, they have a sense of humanity to them. They all know the end is coming as the sky shifts to a crimson red and the wide-eyed moon, comes ever closer to the town. The thing is that once Link obtains his ocarina fairly early on you gain the ability to slow down and reverse time back to the first day. So while you progress through the game you’ll experience the same three days over and over again, but what you do in those three days will always be different. You’ll watch the moon loom closer and closer every day as the people panic again and again. It’s a grim situation you’ll have to endure if you ever want to reach the end of this journey.
When I first played Majora’s Mask as a child, I didn’t know what to expect. Not just because it was my first Zelda game, but everything I knew about it was based on a trailer from a video tape and the details on the box. I didn’t expect the disturbing imagery of Link’s hideous mask transformations or an ominous moon constantly staring down at me. I wasn’t in for the depressing circumstances the story set up for me. Back then I never even made it to the point where I could turn back time, all I did was witness the moon falling down on me again and again. I never returned Link to his normal form, instead he remained a sad Deku Scrub as he was struck down repeatedly. It was a terrifying, endless cycle I had to go through quite a few times. At least until the period I could keep it as a rental was over with. Nonetheless, that game made its mark on me and all I had to go through were the opening hours.
In its opening chapters Majora’s Mask shows the player just how grim and terrible it can (and will) be. Termina, the people living in it, the three days you have, Link’s dark and gloomy form as a Deku scrub, they’re all indicative of what the game is: a nightmare-like story with recurring themes of depression. It’s darker than any Zelda game has ever been and you don’t have to play for very long to find out how true that statement is.