Gaming websites were abuzz all week with anticipation for the upcoming release of The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask 3D on Nintendo’s 3DS. Though the game doesn’t officially come out until February 13th, early reviews are in and they are overwhelmingly positive. A Majora’s Mask re-release is something fans have wanted for a long time too. The fact that a special edition Majora’s Mask 3DS sold out incredibly quickly is proof of this. It was even going for double the price by consumers willing to make some extra money. Very few games out there, especially a re-release, can generate such excitement, but Majora’s Mask was always something special. It is easily one of the most unique Legend of Zelda games ever made, which is saying a lot when you consider how much the series has evolved.
There are plenty of reasons why Majora’s Mask was so incredible when it first arrived nearly 15 years ago. Had the game been a standalone adventure, something akin to Wind Waker without any type of lead-in, it still would be considered one of the best. Yet there is no denying how beneficial it was to have one of the most critically acclaimed games (the most according to Metacritic) come two years earlier: Ocarina of Time. Majora’s Mask is by no means trapped underneath Ocarina’s shadow, but the success of one most definitely guaranteed the instant success of the other. It was that way on the Nintendo 64 and history appears to be repeating itself now as Majora’s Mask 3D is following up Ocarina of Time 3D. The two go together in many ways as well. So in an effort to celebrate this exciting return, and to finish off a two-part celebration of two games that defined a major Nintendo property, I’m going to work backwards and breakdown why Ocarina was so special.
In terms of story, Ocarina is the epitome of a classic Zelda journey. All the major players were present in forms that have since become classics. Link is a young Kokiri boy who is thrust on a quest to save Hyrule and its leader Princess Zelda from the ruthless Ganondorf, featured as a human for the first time. Link as a child explores a variety of dungeons to obtain the legendary Master Sword, only to get sealed into a chamber for seven years as Ganondorf decimates the world around him. Then as an adult, Link fulfills his destiny by rescuing the seven sages and sealing Ganondorf, now the Demon King Ganon, away. The story itself is very similar to another hit game, A Link to the Past, except it explores in immense detail the future horrors evil brings without heroic intervention.
Ocarina’s influence on the entire Zelda series is immense. Thematically, the game is about failure and redemption. When it begins, Link is too young and weak to defeat Ganondorf. The solution to this is literally sealing the hero away to grow while Hyrule is forced into the dark ages. It’s Link’s destiny to defeat Ganondorf, and though he accomplishes that in the end, he had to lose first. It’s honestly a bitter pill to swallow, but Nintendo made players willingly go through with it regardless, and it lead to an incredibly compelling story. Because of this, future Zelda games followed the same concept. Majora’s Mask in particular opens up with Link losing everything and forcibly becoming weak Deku Scrub. Then there’s the whole impending apocalypse that Link experiences repeatedly before he can actually do anything to stop it.
There is also the game’s heavy focus on music, which makes sense when you consider the title. On top of the masterful soundtrack by composer Koji Kondo, Link’s journey revolves heavily around the mystical Ocarina of Time. It’s through the power of song that Link can unlock dungeons, travel to distant locations quickly, summon his horse or a powerful storm, etc. It was at this moment that the Zelda series became all about musical influences. Nearly every game after this one brought players on vast journeys accompanied by enjoyable compositions. The Wind Waker especially is one such example, with the titular item being a baton that allows Link to literally compose the winds to his whim.
The timing of Ocarina’s release is notable too. It came when the industry itself was in a very historic period of transition. The fifth generation was the first one to make the big leap from 2D environments to 3D worlds, and whether or not a company could successfully capitalize on this determined their future. Many, many games faded into nothingness because developers simply were not able to create appealing 3D adventures. Super Mario 64 already proved that Nintendo was very much safe during this change, but Ocarina was the first Zelda game to get this improved treatment. They absolutely knocked it out of the park too. This was Hyrule like no one had seen it before. The vibrant green fields, searing red heat of Death Mountain, deep blues of Lake Hylia, and the relentlessly dark hues of a doomed future all came across beautifully in this massive world. How the game was played changed completely because of this, giving Link a previously untapped fluidity to his movements and combat. This upgraded style also introduced players to series staples like Link’s horse Epona, vast underwater regions, and legitimately fun fishing games. The stronger Nintendo 64 truly made Ocarina a massive epic that was packed to the brim with material.
Like many people my age, Ocarina was the first Zelda I ever got really invested in. The amount of hours I dedicated to completing that game and finding all of its secrets is absurd. I simply could not get enough of this grand scale adventure. Neither could my brothers, which turned this single player adventure into a prime bonding experience. One thing that will always stick with me is the game’s previously mentioned emphasis on music. There are very few games out there that can usher in such feelings of musical nostalgia for me and this is one of them. It’s so powerful, hearing the sweeping opening title music made me a little misty eyed remembering those fun times.
The Legend of Zelda series truly hit a creative high on the Nintendo 64. The game’s have always been innovative and exciting, but fans frequently point to Majora’s Mask and Ocarina when they consider their favorites. Both are absolutely phenomenal entries that jointly made one of Nintendo’s biggest properties infinitely more popular. Yet from a critical standpoint, one is definitively superior to the other, and that’s Ocarina of Time. It was Legend of Zelda…no, gaming in general, at its finest.
Luke Kalamar is Pop-Break.com’s television and every Saturday afternoon you can read his retro video game column, Remembering the Classics. He covers Game of Thrones, Saturday Night Live and The Walking Dead (amongst others) every week. As for as his career and literary standing goes — take the best parts of Spider-man, Captain America and Luke Skywalker and you will fully understand his origin story.