Any game worth its salt does not rely on a singular facet to be good but rather relies on a harmony of various aspects which complement each other, crafting a memorable and worthwhile experience. Games like God of War and Bloodborne can often be misconstrued to be reliant on one thing but that is far from the truth. The developers for these games carefully thought out the design in both a gameplay and visual aspect to create some of the best experiences around. Majora’s Mask is no different. We’ve already discussed the stories of Majora’s Mask, now let’s talk about why the design of Majora’s Mask helps make the game as incredible as it is.
Majora’s Mask is a very weird Zelda game because it is an outlier with its overarching design. Most Zelda games have a main gimmick that the developers built the game around: Ocarina of Time had the time travel, Twilight Princess had Wolf Link, Wind Waker had the King of Red Lions/open seas, but none of them were able to communicate the atmosphere and ideas of their respective games as effectively as the three-day time loop from Majora’s Mask. In the spirit of Groundhog Day, players are restricted to the game’s events occurring inside just 3 days. On paper, this might seem like lazy design or a cheap idea, but when you couple this with the writing and the purpose of the characters within the world, it all starts to fall in place. You have to relive the tension of the looming presence of the moon, and more often than not you will have to return to the first day after cutting it close with some of the dungeons and quests in terms of time (the previously discussed Anju & Kafei questline ends with basically 5 minutes of time left). This sets a sombre tone with fleeting permanence since everything is in a constant cycle of being reset. This also raises the stakes because failure has real consequences. Taking too long in a dungeon may revert you to day one, resetting everything in the dungeon you have not finished yet. Even from personal experience this sets an incredible atmosphere. I remember having to reset the unforgiving and complex Stone Tower dungeon. Better yet, on my first playthrough I was freaking out during the Great Bay Temple because I insisted on collecting all the fairies and couldn’t figure out how to get them. It wasn’t until the last 30 minutes (which runs faster than your normal clock) that I managed to find the very last fairy and then had to rush back to Clock Town before the clock reset. In a way, this is similar to the last 100 seconds of a 2D Mario game, where you are forced to rush through the level or risk failing entirely.
The aforementioned Anju & Kafei questline is by far the longest questline of the game, and it often requires the player to go through multiple resets unless they really know what they are doing. At the bare minimum the player is required to have the Hookshot, among other things, which is an item found around halfway through the game, if not later. It’s one of the few questlines where the choices you make in the world can have a major impact on how it turns out. Rescue the Bomb Lady and cause the shady crook, Sakon, to not show up at the Curiosity Shop during the night of Day Two. On the final day, you can give Kafei’s letter to his mother directly at the Milk Bar and receive an empty bottle as thanks, or you can give the letter to the Postman and he’ll deliver it for you – following him allows him to finish up his job and leave Clock Town to try and survive the impending impact, rewarding you with the Postman Hat. Everything about this quest is so beautifully and meticulously designed. From the weight that your choices have, to the clever use of familiar environments and secrets hidden in plain sight, this questline is designed in a way that doesn’t overshadow the rest of the game’s design, but rather complements it perfectly by placing the player in the shoes of a hero who is trying to heal the wounds of a relationship, which changes the pace for the rest of the game. It’s this contrast in design and pacing creates such an impactful and meaningful questline which enhances the potency of the rest of the game’s design. Even going as far as making the player wait until the very last hour of the three-day cycle to complete the quest and see the lovely pair reunited and bonded in matrimony.
Anju & Kafei isn’t the only way that Majora’s Mask’s design excels. If you want prime examples of excellent level design, look no further than the dungeons in this 3D Zelda game. More specifically, Stone Tower Temple. This dungeon makes use of practically every skill that you would have learned leading up to this point and turns it upside down, literally. Majora’s Mask was already making effective use of 3D space in its earlier dungeons and stages, the Gerudo Pirate Fortress being a great example. Requiring the player to explore and find creative solutions in order to traverse environments with the help of the Hookshot, Majora’s Mask asks the player to keep a variety of its key items in mind when trying to solve its puzzles, both in the short-form and the long-form sense. Stone Tower Temple is the best example of where the game’s design challenges players to solve puzzles with knowledge they’ve learned from all the game’s prior mechanics. By introducing new puzzles that use the same mechanics as before, but with greater complexity and scale, you are building on your accomplishments and reliving these gratifying moments. The aforementioned Hookshot has the unique ability to pull the player towards an anchor point. A simple concept, yes, but when put into practice it can be used to hide the key to a puzzle in plain sight. Couple that with the Light Arrows which flip the entire dungeon around, an inventive and interesting utilisation of 3D space.
One of the bigger, and arguably better, changes made to the 3DS remake of Majora’s Mask is the bosses. In the original release, the bosses weren’t that challenging. The game’s first boss, Odolwa, could be easily beaten by hacking and slashing him. In the 3DS remake, the player is required to use the skills and abilities present at that point in the game (the Deku mask and Deku Nuts) to reveal a weak spot. Do enough damage to the weak spot and you defeat the boss. While a lot of purists will say that this change is terrible, it’s a design point present in most Zelda games and is entirely appropriate for the 3DS remake. Zelda games love to test the player’s familiarity with the game’s mechanics, both old and new, with the hopes of ensuring that the player never forgets about the mechanic(s) in question as you never know when they’ll be used.
The real hero of Majora’s Mask’s design is definitely its central mechanic, the three-day cycle. This cycle really ties in the raw experience and theme of the game – futility and failure. As discussed in stories of Majora’s Mask, the game offers a consistently haunting and dark tone. From using the Song of Healing to heal Mikau, the Zora who you find offshore in the Great Bay, by way of laying him to rest, to the way in which you arduously fight to reunite Anju & Kafei, only for them to forget who you are when the cycle repeats itself. The game lifts you up with these incredible moments only to pull you back down with the grim reality that nothing you do will really have an impact while Skull Kid still poses a threat and all your hard work will be reset. Even if you do manage to save Termina, it’s highly likely that those meaningful decisions you made for the people of the region won’t have much impact because you simply don’t have time to fix it all in one cycle. Do you put the individuals first and heal broken hearts or do you save the land but leave sadness to run its course? Majora’s Mask often doesn’t afford the player the luxury of combining both of them without incredible knowledge of the game beforehand, so the new player will experience both relief and regret when the credits finally roll. It’s this beautiful dissonance that can only be achieved when the writing and the design of a game are in complete harmony. Anything less and the stronger of the two will expose the weaknesses of the other.