The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask 3D review: time after time

Game Info
Platform 3DS, N64, Virtual Console
Publisher Nintendo
Developer Nintendo Entertainment Analysis and Development
Release Date Oct 26, 2000

The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask is a bizarre game, and not just because it contains things like a horrifying monster-faced moon, a toilet ghost and an alien abduction subplot.

More than any other Zelda title, Majora's Mask is all about the things you do when you're not dungeoneering. It's about meeting people and solving their problems before the game's three-day play clock expires, sending you back to the start. Over your countless cycles through the 72-hour loop, you become intimately familiar with the world of Termina and its citizens, giving the game a level of character and charm that outshines any other entry in the franchise.

As magical as that framework is, the game's original iteration on Nintendo 64 also had the propensity to be super annoying. Majora's Mask's repetitive nature occasionally got the better of it; there were a few menial tasks that needed doing with nearly every loop, and a few quests that required mindless waiting around for the in-game clock to crawl to a prescribed time.

The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask 3D does a lot of things right, but its biggest success is how it's sanded off all those rough edges from the original's core conceit. It is, 15 years later, the grand, time-traveling adventure this game always deserved to be.

majora's mask review screen 1

Majora's Mask 3D's structure is as novel as ever, tossing Link into an unfamiliar land, and giving him three days to conquer its dungeons before the moon comes crashing down. At any point, you can reverse time back to the start of the three-day loop, but you'll lose your non-major items and any side quest progress you made during that cycle.

There really isn't another game out there like Majora's Mask, in the Zelda franchise or otherwise. Figuring out not only the solutions to the land's problems, but the timing of those solutions makes for a brilliant, non-linear quest. It's still a bold design for Nintendo, giving the game an urgency the series has never known, and a melancholic streak a mile long.

What's remarkable about Majora's Mask 3D is how it refines that structure, and does so without compromising the premise — save for one notable exception.

majora's mask review filmstrip

The star of the show is the revamped Bomber's Notebook, a key item from the original that tracked the requests and schedules of each notable character. In Majora's Mask 3D, the notebook is far more thorough, providing detail on each step of each quest as you discover them. It's not just the big stuff that lands in the book, either — almost every Heart Piece and every treasure you encounter on the map gets an entry.

This is a massive booster shot of modernity for the Zelda franchise, functioning like a proper quest log. Townspeople can tell you rumors, adding leads to your notebook on the location of the game's super-powered Masks, mini-games you haven't discovered and chests you left unopened. All these clues add up to give time loops a much clearer and more rewarding sense of direction.

There are other major upgrades, too. You get the Song of Soaring, a tune that lets you fast travel to discovered locations, earlier in the game, making the beginning of your journey much smoother. The best tweak was made to the Song of Double Time, which used to toss you forward to the next night or day — now you can choose the hour you fast-forward to, meaning you'll never have to just stand around and wait for a certain event to start.

One major change undercuts Majora's Mask's concept

It's smart stuff, but one major change kind of undercuts the concept: You can now save in the middle of your three-day loop.

In the original Majora's Mask, the only way to save your game was to reset time, while the game's fast-travel statues allowed you to create temporary suspend states that would erase when you loaded them. Now, those statues — and tons of new, special save point statues — let you create proper saves on the ground. It takes a lot of difficulty and tension out of the proceedings, as screwing up during a cycle doesn't mean you have to restart that cycle; it just means you have to pick things up from your latest save. While that scheme is perhaps more streamlined, it's also a bit less interesting.

Fortunately, Majora's Mask 3D introduces a ton of little changes to the original that will serve to befuddle returning players. A bunch of characters, masks and objectives aren't where you left them on the Nintendo 64. There's also an expanded version of the fishing mini-game from Ocarina of Time that completionists will need to wrestle with.

The biggest alteration was made to the game's dungeon bosses, which were the original game's biggest weak point. There are only four main dungeons, and all but one of the bosses were pretty uninspired. For Majora's Mask 3D, most these bosses have been revamped, making them smarter, more challenging and more exciting to take down.

The game's visuals have also received a dramatic boost. It not only looks as stellar as co-developer Grezzo's 3DS remake of Ocarina of Time, but it also enhances the unique, genuinely unsettling atmosphere of the world. Clock Town is more colorful, in sharper contrast with the deep despair of most of its inhabitants. The descending moon is, as unlikely as this may seem, even scarier than its original, already terrifying iteration.

majora's mask review screen 2
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Wrap Up:

Majora's Mask 3D sands the rough edges off of a brilliant core concept

Even with the safety net of a revised save system, Majora's Mask still feels like the franchise's uncharacteristically dark and dangerous off-shoot. The game wasn't just ahead of its time when it first launched 15 years ago; it's still ahead of its time today. This remake carries a level of polish and consideration that Nintendo excels at, but it's the old stuff — the three-day structure, the inescapable gloom, the non-linearity — that remains its most exciting feature.

The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask 3D is the best version of a game that’s still unlike any other game ever made. And that makes this remake something very few remakes are: Unconditionally fresh.

The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask 3D was tested using a pre-release final download code provided by Nintendo. It was tested primarily on a New 3DS XL unit also provided by Nintendo. You can find additional information about Polygon's ethics policy here.

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