Majora’s Mask – Nintendo’s Fluke
This morning, Jody wrote a sweet little article on why he loves Phantom Hourglass (go read it, it’s pretty rad). As much as I love the lad, I completely disagree about Hourglass. It’s a good game, don’t get me wrong. I just didn’t really like it. Something has bothered me about it ever since I finished it, but I couldn’t quite figure out what it was until this morning.
The title of this piece probably has you wondering what this has to with Majora’s Mask. Well, to completely simplify it, everything comes down to thematic structure. Majora’s Mask was a bizarre, unrepeatable fluke for Nintendo. It was one of the most mature and complex exercises in gaming narrative that has ever existed, and it came out of a company most famous for a princess who is the target of repeated kidnappings and the man who has to save her ad nauseum.
What the hell am I talking about, and how does it relate back to Phantom Hourglass? The answer lies beyond. It’s a bit of a long, winding, and slightly pretentious road, but everything will hopefully make sense by the end.
Recently, Leigh Alexander wondered when “mature” games will actually be mature (read this one too, I’ll still be here when you get back).
This actually happened back in 2000, albeit on a bit of a technicality, as Majora’s Mask was rated “E for Everyone” in the United States. But that makes this all the more poignant. Why is it that this E-rated game is more mature than the bulk of games rated Mature? It isn’t because of boobies or blood, nor is it because Link decided to take up superfluous, forced swearing as a hobby. It’s because Majora’s Mask is a game that evokes an incredibly guttural emotional reaction from the player. I don’t mean glamorized emotions like love or anger, either – the centerpieces of what would be a real “mature” title. Majora’s Mask instead evokes far more primal emotions – those of fear, anxiety, and hopelessness.
The majority of Zelda games take Link and build him into the fated warrior his destiny dictates him to be. They represent the classic coming of age story. Yet the opposite is true of Majora’s Mask. From the beginning, Majora’s Mask takes an experienced Link and renders him helpless. Link is turned into a Deku scrub, a weak and weaponless form that could be brushed away with a strong gust of wind. If that wasn’t enough, it quickly becomes clear that the world is coming to an end and there isn’t exactly much that Link can do to save it. From the beginning, you are left with seventy-two hours to prevent the moon from crashing into Termina with seemingly no way to stop it.
Very few videogames deal directly with the concept of defeat. There is an implicit understanding between developer and player that the main character is meant to win. MMORPGs are notoriously addictive because they empower the player in this respect. Every character in an MMO is a badass. Final Fantasy VI is the most direct example that I can remember of a game that rips all hope away from the player. Halfway through the game, the bad guy wins. The world is torn asunder and your characters are thrown to the wind. It is a powerful experience to be utterly defeated, and both Final Fantasy VI and Majora’s Mask are made far more memorable because of this.
In Majora’s Mask, you are trapped in the same three-day cycle over and over again. Despite knowing that you are utterly unable to defeat the Skull Kid, you must wait until that very last minute before turning back the clock. You are faced with that hopelessness, and you have to overcome it to win. Of course, this becomes easier as the game progresses. You slowly acquire more powers and weapons, and you quickly learn ways to work within that oppressive time limit. In my opinion, your progression through the game is twice as rewarding because, at the same time, that feeling of hopelessness is disappearing. When you manage to complete a dungeon with time to spare, you actually feel like you accomplished something.
Another thing that few games deal directly with is the end of the world. Nearly every role-playing game has a villain that could potentially destroy the planet. However, there is a pretty huge difference between the threat of the apocalypse and the clear and present apocalypse in Majora’s Mask. There isn’t the “possibility” that this bad guy could blow up the planet. The sky is literally falling. The moon is constantly drawing closer as a very literal reminder of your time limit. There is no death laser, no hypothetical device. From early on, there is a massive celestial body speeding towards the ground. This visual cue is far more effective at creating a sense of anxiety than any cackling villain could ever be.
If this next part sounds pretentious, forgive me and bear with me a little longer. Cool? The themes of Majora’s Mask are completely reflected by its art style. On one level, Termina is similar in many ways to the more familiar Hyrule of Ocarina of Time, save for this niggling little difference. Just as Majora’s Mask is a thematically darker game than Ocarina of Time, Termina is a slightly twisted and diseased version of Hyrule. The clearest example of this is in the character and monster designs. Majora’s Mask leans a little more towards the grotesque. When Link puts on a mask, the transformation is not exactly smooth. He almost appears to be in pain as he is twisted and bent into his new shape. The game is filled with these little artistic marks, these indications that something is wrong with the world. Even the innocent townspeople smile in this way that makes them seem a little more suspicious.
The darker themes are reinforced by the color palette. Typically, a game with darker themes makes them quite literal by setting the game in a “dark” world. Even the Zelda series did this inTwilight Princess. Majora’s Mask is a little different, and therefore a little more effective. Majora’s Mask uses a darker color palette, but it doesn’t do this by turning down the brightness. Instead, it heavily focuses on harsher colors like purple, red, and green. Many areas and characters in Majora’s Mask are just as “bright” as those in Ocarina or Time, but the difference is that through their colors, they are made more alien: familiar, but a little different. Again, everything seems just a little more twisted and, by extension, a little darker.
The first time that I played the game, I didn’t fully comprehend these emotions and why I felt them. It is only with multiple play-throughs and another near-decade of maturity that it all makes sense. Majora’s Mask may be rated for everyone, but I think that it is a game that is most interesting and rewarding to the mature gamer. The games that are rated as mature are filled with things that are only of interest to the immature. Who cares about blood? Who cares about sex and titillation? Sure, they can be used to make a mature artistic statement, but most of the time they aren’t. These things are usually thrown in by snickering developers and are of the most interest to people who snicker when they see a nipple or who think it is awesome when Scorpion rips out some guy’s spine. I think that the true mark of a mature game is when the game makes an emotional or artistic statement that becomes all the more nuanced with time and maturity. There are very few games that even attempt to do this, and I think that Majora’s Mask is one of the most effective.
This brings me back to the title of this article. Majora’s Mask is a fluke for Nintendo. It was a one-time only occurrence where the wires crossed in just the right way. Eiji Aonuma was faced with the enormous task of following up Ocarina of Time and was given the freedom to do what he wanted. Nintendo is an infamously conservative company and with good reason. It usually works out well for them. However, Majora’s Mask came during a period of confusion and uncertainty for them. They were no longer the king of the gaming industry, and they had no idea what they wanted to do as a company. Because of this, Aonuma was given the rare gift of creative freedom. Majora’s Mask and Wind Waker are arguably the two most ambitious games that Nintendo has ever made and neither of them would be approved if they were being pitched today.
Nintendo is not an ambitious company. They are successful because they stick to what they do best. This has always been true, but it seems truer today. Nintendo’s “touch generation” strategy was hailed as innovative, and it did take a leap of faith for them. The tragedy is that the success of the blue ocean strategy has destroyed their creative ambition. Their strategy was innovative the first couple of times, but it has become boring. Their recent titles have been their most successful in years, and it has rendered Nintendo as a company afraid to do anything that doesn’t follow the same template.
This is what bothers me about the more recent Zelda titles. Twilight Princess and Phantom Hourglass were fantastic games. The gameplay mechanics were as solid as they could possibly be. But they were unsatisfying, and I think the reason for that is that they were “safe” games. Ocarina of Time, Majora’s Mask, and Wind Waker were amazing, ambitious games that, despite sharing common gameplay mechanics, were all radically different experiences. Every Zelda game to come since then (with the slight exception of Minish Cap) has felt like a retreat to, and retread of, familiar ground.
Phantom Hourglass contains many of the components that made Wind Waker great. The beautiful graphical style survived the transition to the DS surprisingly well and the thrill of discovery is intact via the sailing element. The problem is that Phantom Hourglass feels like Wind Waker robbed of its ambition. It was critically acclaimed for its controls, but they weren’t actually innovative. The movement to touchscreen controls was implemented exactly the way that one would expect it to. Sure, it was different in the way that buttons and touchscreens are different, but “different” is neither synonymous with “innovative” nor “creative.” I wasn’t looking for a scaled-down, portable Wind Waker. What I wanted was something new. I wanted something like Majora’s Mask, something that felt like a Zelda game at its core but that wasn’t rehashing the same previously-covered territory.
Will Spirit Tracks, the Zelda game announced earlier this week, be the game I’m looking for? I’m not exactly filled with hope since the game was basically introduced as Phantom Hourglass on a train. The new gameplay mechanic of controlling a monster sounds intriguing, but the game still sounds entirely too safe (granted, we haven’t heard much else about it, so there may be a few surprises yet).
Reaching out to a new audience took a leap of faith for you, Nintendo. But then you seemed to stop trying. I want you to take another leap of faith. I want you to create something even half as ambitious and emotional as Majora’s Mask. Defy my expectations. Surprise me. You’ve done it before, and I know that you can do it again.