As the direct sequel to Ocarina of Time, one of the most critically acclaimed games of all time, Majora's Mask had colossal expectations to live up to when it debuted in 2000. Fans of Ocarina might have expected the follow-up to be another grandiose adventure, set in an even wider world, packed to the brim with dungeons to explore and bosses to conquer—in other words, a game that built on the core conventions of the Zelda series.
What Majora's Mask inevitably delivered, however, wasn't quite in line with the vision of a convention sequel—it was a deeply personal adventure, set in a more intimate world, driven as much by a desire to spread happiness as by the threat of evil. Where past Zelda games turned players loose in a vast world that they could explore at their own pace, Majora's Mask focused more on experiencing the stories of the characters that inhabit its world—lived out over and over again as the clock counts down to oblivion.
Fast-forward to 2015, and Majora's Mask is still a delightfully offbeat, deeply personal quest to bring happiness to a troubled world. But just as Majora's Mask divided fans over its controversial shifts from the conventions established by Ocarina of Time, the 3DS remake revisits many of the original's cherished elements—and the results are similarly mixed.
DISCLAIMER: If you're looking for a verdict on elements of Majora's Mask that remain unchanged in this remake, you won't find it here—the game's coming up on its 15th birthday, and its reputation is pretty well-known at this point. This review is focused on whether Majora's Mask 3D is a worthy remake of a fan-favorite classic, and whether the changes and enhancements improve on or detract from the original.
Time is on Your Side
For better or worse (I'm inclined to lean toward “better”), the three-day system—which lets you manipulate the world of Termina, its characters, and a series of often-interlinking stories by reliving three in-game days and nights over and over again—is the defining feature of Majora's Mask. That hasn't changed in the 3D version. What has changed is the degree to which the game helps you manage your progress over the course of those three days.
The most obvious changes impact the game's save system. The original game only allowed you to save your progress in very limited places and circumstances—you could either return to the Dawn of the First Day, keeping your core items but having to restart in-progress quests and dungeons, or you could create a one-time save at a limited number of warp points.
It's easy to imagine how that system could be an inconvenience—if you needed to suspend your game in the middle of a dungeon or quest, you often had to leave the current area and return later. And if you were concerned about permanently saving your progress, you had to reset the clock and backtrack even further. In a game where you're under constant pressure to race against time, these kinds of restrictions felt more like unfortunate technical limitations than deliberate design decisions.
In Majora's Mask 3D, the save system is dramatically simplified. Instead of a two-pronged save structure, the only way to save is at save points. While that may not sound like much of an improvement, save points are more plentiful than in the original—you'll find them in every major dungeon or sub-dungeon. That means it's easier to quickly drop out and drop in—a must for a game that, in addition to running on a timer, is now running on a handheld. What's more, the game only uses permanent saves, so there's no pressure to return to the Dawn of the First Day if you're worried about preserving your progress.
Some purists decry these changes as detrimental to the core experience of Majora's Mask, but they don't hurt the game's trademark time-driven gameplay. You're still required to be acutely aware of the passage of time—the main difference is that now you're not fighting so hard against the time restrictions just to record your progress. And that's a good thing: if there's any area where games could stand to be easier, it's moving out of the way for players who just want to save and pick up where they left off later.
There's another major change to the three-day system—a revamped version of an in-game mechanic that lets you skip through time. Previously you could only fast-forward to the beginning of a day or night. This meant a lot of waiting around for events to start if you wanted to pursue a particular sidequest chain, like the beloved Kafei and Anju quest. With the new system, there's a lot less dead time—if you just want to focus on a series of scheduled events, you can fast-forward to any specific hour, day or night (Your 3DS battery will thank you!).
Other than these convenience tweaks, the underpinning gameplay that drives three-day system is precisely the way fans remember it. But for new players who might not be as intimately familiar with the characters and their schedules, Majora's Mask 3D introduces one more time-related change: a significantly expanded Bomber's Notebook.
Originally, the notebook was a completely optional item that helped you track schedules for 20 sidequest-focused characters. Now it's handed to you through a mandatory cutscene and points you to basically any optional content that's connected to a character, from minigames to secret mini-dungeons. In addition to tracking events you discover through player-driven curiosity, the five members of the Bomber's gang will also share “rumors” if you stop to talk to them. The notebook even helps with multi-tasking by letting you set an alarm for an upcoming event.
As in the original game, you're free to exploit or ignore the contents of the Bomber's Notebook as you please. But if you're used to games that are saturated with tons of extra content and prefer to have a handy way of keeping track of all the side stuff (or finding some of it in the first place), it's a handy tool. There's even a brand-new, easy-to-miss sidequest to pursue for veterans who've memorized all the characters' original schedules.
If you're a diehard Majora's Mask fan who's wondering whether everything you know and love has been preserved in the 3DS version—don't worry! These changes refine the three-day system in a way that keeps the essential elements of Majora's Mask intact while eliminating a lot of the tedium that bogged down the original game.
Changes in Dungeon Management (and other Zelda-themed clichés)
The typical 3D Zelda dungeon boss follows a pretty predictable formula: attack the super-obvious weak spot (hint: it's usually the giant glowing eyeball) using your shiny new item. Interestingly enough, Majora's Mask didn't follow this formula. The bosses didn't have super-obvious weak points. Instead, you had to avoid their attacks and get close enough to get in some solid hits. As a result, the bosses in Majora's Mask are much more combat-oriented than in your average 3D Zelda title. Apparently series producer Eiji Aonuma, GREZZO, and co. thought this was a negative change, since they've revamped each of the four major dungeon bosses, adding new weak points that are literally giant Majora-themed eyeballs popping out of various parts of the bosses' bodies.
The results of their boss battle changes are easily the most jarring differences between the new Majora's Mask 3D and the original game on N64. They're not just balance tweaks—they're substantial tangible changes to the game's original content. It'd be one thing if these changes actually improved the boss fights—in most cases, they either severely dumb down the required skill level or awkwardly shatter the tempo of the fight.
As an example, the game's first boss was originally designed around a large palette of attack patterns. The strategy was to avoid the attacks while looking for a chance to hit him, either with your sword or by attacking him with one of your mask powers. In the 3DS version, most of his offensive moves have been removed, leaving only a small handful of very predictable attack patterns—and many more easy opportunities to hit him.
After you've delivered a few direct hits, you'll stun him—that's your cue to attack him for massive damage. Amusingly, this is more or less the same thing you had to do the first time around, except you can't just attack him anywhere on his body—you have to hit him in his giant
Zelda cliché eye. I guess “hitting a boss anywhere that isn't an obvious weak spot” is what Aonuma meant by “randomly attacking the boss,” since adding that eye is the only change to the first boss that actually involves pointing the player to a specific “weakness.”
In other cases, the changes are more mixed. The game's third boss could originally be easily exploited, but is now fought in two distinct phases, offering a more engaging challenge. However, the second phase plays out awkwardly, throwing a surprise game mechanic in the mix that only applies to that specific battle—and that isn't designed particularly well (it also has a brand-new and totally unnecessary eyeball weak point).
Similar surprise changes were added to the fourth boss, which was originally a throwback to the Lanmola boss from the Desert Palace in A Link to the Past. In Majora's Mask 3D, however, you now attack it using a completely new—and supremely unsatisfying—battle mechanic involving a certain mask. The results of the change are rather ironic, given Aonuma's desire to avoid situations where players win by “randomly attacking the boss”—the new mechanic took a relatively conventional Zelda boss and turned it into an exercise in wildly mashing the B button.
While most of the gameplay changes in Majora's Mask 3D refine mechanics that were previously clunky, the revamped boss battles actually wound up feeling rougher than in the original. Given that most players will have to re-fight many of these battles at least once or twice to experience all of the game's content, these changes cast a serious blemish on an otherwise promising remake.
Some Game that You Used to Know
Majora's Mask 3D comes with a slew of other miscellaneous changes. Touch screen elements have been added, based on the second-screen features from Ocarina of Time 3D. You can organize and equip your items, view the game's map (which has now been fully migrated to the touch screen, dynamic mini-map icons and all), and adjust game options using 3DS's second screen. You can also aim the camera with the gyroscope, either in first-person mode or while targeting. If you have a New Nintendo 3DS (or a Circle Pad Pro), you can also manipulate the camera with the second analog stick.
In addition, the graphics have been given a major update, with updated textures and models that align with the standard set by Ocarina of Time 3D. If you're in the camp that felt Ocarina 3D's dark and moody moments were a bit too bright, you'll be pleased to know that this isn't the case this time around—even the near-pitch-black room in the game's first dungeon is just as dark as you remember it.
That said, Majora's Mask 3D is less of a 1:1 remake than its predecessor. The game's starting area has been partially revamped to make important utilities like the local save point and the bank easier to discover and access. Brand-new fishing galleries have opened up in two of the game's regions to give players who have mastered the game something new to tackle.
Since this remake is targeted at new players, unlike the original which was aimed squarely at Ocarina of Time vets, a handful of NPC interactions have been added to point first-timers toward some of the more nuanced objectives (and veteran players toward some of the new content and changes). In addition, a few extra shortcuts have been made here and there to reduce backtracking, and some quests, enemies, and optional items have been moved to better suit the game's difficulty curve.
For the most part, these miscellaneous changes aren't particularly good or bad—just different, designed to bring a unique, easily misunderstood game to a new audience. Veterans might be a bit thrown off when they learn, for example, that the hide-and-seek game in the first cycle isn't exactly as they remember it. However, some changes—like the game's new swimming mechanics, which tie the fluid dolphin-like aquatic mobility of Link's Zora form to the magic meter—are decidedly negative.
The Verdict: a Divisive Remake of a Divisive Game
The overall result is a game that looks and feels a lot like the original Majora's Mask, and improves on some of the flaws of the original, but isn't quite the faithful remake that Ocarina of Time 3D was. And since the changes aren't all positive, I wouldn't say Majora's Mask 3D is the definitive version of the game—it's more of a compromise between the game fans adore, and the one critics couldn't quite wrap their heads around 15 years ago.