The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time is widely considered one of gaming's all-time classics. Sales peaked at 7.6 million copies while Metacritic boasts an average review score of 99%. Its sequel, The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask, however, didn't receive quite the same level of acclaim. It was, at most, a cult-classic, with bolstered popularity in recent years from online communities. The game went on to sell 3.36 million copies and still pulled a strong Metacritic score of 95%.
When it came time to breathe new life into Ocarina of Time and Majora's Mask with 3DS remakes, Nintendo took polar opposite approaches to developing each game. Nintendo and Grezzo held Ocarina of Time up as a masterpiece in need of a simple update. Majora's Mask, on the other hand, was treated like an inherently-flawed train wreck that needed to be salvaged. One has to wonder how such a negative development approach impacted the final product.
It was never a question of whether or not to remake Ocarina of Time; it was simply a question of when. Legend of Zelda series creator Shigeru Miyamoto affirmed the late Nintendo President Satoru Iwata's prompting that he had "always wanted to remake" Ocarina of Time, adding that "we couldn't release them too soon." The remake came in 2011; Miyamoto said it could appeal to "a new generation" who "[didn't] know a thing about Ocarina of Time." His biggest motivating factor was "to see the majestic scenery in stereoscopic 3D," but also to implement gyro-controls and the smoother framerate of the Nintendo 3DS.
A Majora's Mask remake was never quite so certain. Zelda Producer Eiji Aonuma said Ocarina of Time had a natural "outpour of emotions" in support of a remake, so they developed it. With Majora's Mask, he had to provoke that "output of emotion and clamor from fans" by saying "it wouldn't be an utter impossibility." A small teaser was also put into A Link Between Worlds, where the titular mask could be found hanging in Link's house. Aonuma wouldn't commit to a remake, though: "at some point in the future hopefully, maybe, we'll be able to do something."
It was a stern order from Miyamoto that led to Majora's Mask 3D beginning development, despite Aonuma's resistance. He spoke in an Iwata Asks interview about how he "didn't want to open that lid again." He went on to say that he "didn't want to work on another iteration," and even that he wished he could "pretend it didn't happen." Aonuma was not proud of Majora's Mask, considering it a personal failure. From there, Aonuma says his mentor Miyamoto pressured him to scrutinize "every aspect of the game" and "ask myself if everything was all right the way it was."
This led to him creating what became known as the "what in the world list," basically a list of aspects wrong with the game that would need fixing. The list was further added to by others throughout Nintendo and Grezzo, reaching a "sheer amount" that Aonuma deemed "astounding." Following these comments, Nintendo Software Planning and Development's Tomohiro Yamamura gestured to the list's length; the interview transcript read that he "spread hands widely top to bottom, as if holding a big batch of paper."
Ocarina of Time 3D was a chance to correct some issues in the original game and address some regrets. In Aonuma's words, "we set some priorities and tried to fix things that should be fixed." For him that was the Water Temple, and especially having to pause to change into the iron boots: "what I'd like to do is lay this evil shame I have to rest by implementing the touch screen in such a way that it makes it very natural and smooth and easy to put those iron boots on."
Majora's Mask was the regret itself. Throughout the "what in the world list" Aonuma wrote comments such as "I'm sorry that this comes from the one that made it this way." At other times Aonuma even wrote that, at the time of developing Majora's Mask in the 1990s, "I think there was something wrong with me."
The original Majora's Mask was developed in a strict one-year time constraint, while the 3D remake spanned over three years. Development began "almost immediately after" Ocarina of Time 3D's release in mid-2011, but the game wasn't revealed until November 2014 and subsequently released in February 2015.
Aonuma explained in a Miiverse post: "although we've been working on the game for quite some time, we didn't want to say it was being developed until we were at a point where we could proudly say that this is not going to be just another remake and that it's going to be worth your time." If we read between the lines, it seems they weren't sure whether they could salvage the original game to make it worth releasing. Put in the words of Satoru Iwata, remaking Majora's Mask with the guidance of the "what in the world list" was "cleaning up after someone's mess."
Majora's Mask 3D was developed with the belief that the original wasn't good enough for players to finish. Aonuma believes that while Miyamoto felt there were enjoyable aspects to be found in the game, "people aren't able to see them because they weren't able to get there." Aonuma specifically addressed this group of people in his Miiverse post, writing to "those of you that played it and gave up mid-way through." Even Tomomi Sano, liaison between Nintendo and Grezzo, admits she "was one of those that lost the challenge!"
The many changes made to Majora's Mask 3D make a bold statement from Aonuma: the source material wasn't just full of flaws, but was itself a flaw. The frame of mind of second guessing every aspect of the original made every aspect malleable, whereas Ocarina of Time had been considered sacred and mostly untouchable. The Water Temple was simply fixed with some subtle navigational marks on the walls and a change to equipping the iron boots for its 3DS iteration.
Majora's Mask's iron boot equivalent was the saving system, which Majora's Mask 3D amended, but they need not have taken it much further. Some of the changes were no doubt welcome, for instance: subtle clues pointing players in the right direction, having a place to note the Bomber's secret passcode from the get-go, as well as a better explained and implemented Song of Time.
Conversely, other changes served only as attempts to overcorrect what the developers perceived as wrong. For example, completely redeveloping the boss battles, altering the location of stray fairies, creating a Bomber's Notebook that endlessly intrudes on the experience, restricting Zora Link's swimming controls, and moving the locations of the Stone and Giant's masks; these where all changes born out of this perceived need to fix aspects that weren't actually wrong.
Majora's Mask 3D became the most altered Legend of Zelda remake to date. The Wind Waker HD's biggest change was the simplifying of the quest to obtain the Triforce shards. Twilight Princess HD barely saw any drastic changes at all and was mostly characterised by new additions: stamps, the Poe Lantern, and the Cave of Shadows. While Ocarina of Time 3D was characterized by the new Boss Rush mode and the inclusion of a mirrored Master Quest, Majora's Mask 3D's only addition was two fishing holes; minor expansions of the mini-game from Ocarina of Time.
Nintendo and Grezzo took their time with Majora's Mask 3D, but too much time! Semantic saturation is a phenomenon that occurs when you hear or read the same phrase repetitively until it becomes meaningless, and there's a similar occurrence—also common during proofreading—where after repetitively reading or writing a word you become convinced that it isn't spelled quite right, a sort of linguistic-fatigue. Majora's Mask 3D suffered from both development oversaturation and development fatigue.
Ocarina of Time 3D's sales have surpassed 4.3 million, while Majora's Mask 3D has just slipped by 2 million copies. Metacritic reports strong satisfaction towards Ocarina of Time 3D with a score of 94%, but Majora's Mask 3D saw a drop down to 89%. Ocarina of Time 3D became the definitive version of a classic, while Majora's Mask 3D is even more divisive than the original. In the words of gaming commentator Alex Plant, Majora's Mask 3D turned out as "a compromise between the game fans adore, and the one critics couldn't quite wrap their heads around 15 years ago."