June 5, 2016

N64:20 #5: The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask (2000)

In 2016 the Nintendo 64 turns 20 years old. It was Nintendo's third videogame console, produced to succeed the enormously successful SNES. Upon its release in 1996 Time magazine claimed it was "machine of the year". While the N64 failed to best Sony's enormously popular PlayStation - a console in whose early development Nintendo had a key hand - it still sold almost 33 million units worldwide and hosted some of the greatest videogames ever made. To celebrate its anniversary I'm counting down my top 20 N64 videogames; not necessarily the best titles released on the format, but definitely my personal favourites.

Nintendo's much-delayed The Legend of Zelda title The Ocarina of Time was a massive hit in 1998, selling 7.6 million copies worldwide and becoming pretty much the most universally acclaimed videogame of its year. Nintendo was keen to avoid another lengthy delay between sequels - there were seven years between A Link to the Past and Ocarina - and so rather than develop the next game from scratch, the graphics engine was re-used and a small team assembled to quickly produce an Ocarina sequel as quickly as possible. Thus Majora's Mask arrived only two years later, looking very much the same as its predecessor but with a new setting, an all-new story, and an original game mechanic that ensured it stood out very much on its own.

The game sees the standard protagonist Link become trapped in the world of Termina, where the moon is about to crash into the surface of the world within three days. It is impossible to save the world in time, but thankfully Link can travel backwards in time. Every time the world ends, he has to jump back and begin again. It all sounds rather repetitive, but by moving from one dungeon to the next the player can create shortcuts to make the quest faster and faster every time. It is a remarkably clever mechanic that makes Majora's Mask a distinct title within the franchise.

Of course what the game gains in complexity it also loses in terms of stripped-back purity. There is a gentle, rather sweet simplicity to The Ocarina of Time that Majora's Mask loses. It is more complicated, and tonally darker, and both factors lead to the game feeling a little bit less satisfying than its predecessor. Of course as a game in its own right it is remarkably good, and a must-play title for the Nintendo 64.

Recently Majora's Mask has received a second lease on life thanks to a 3D conversion for the Nintendo 3DS handheld console. It gives players today the chance to play a really sensational and inventive fantasy adventure.

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