Monday, February 8, 2010

Video Game Review: The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask

First an iPod app, and now a video game. And all along, you were probably imagining that this blog is about books, right?

Really, it’s about stories.

First of all, I tend to enjoy anything that messes with the structure of time, and so back in 2000, when a younger version of myself was addicted to the award-winning Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time and Nintendo Power, I renewed my subscription early with a Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask bundle pack that included a collector’s edition gold-colored N64 cartridge of the game, an N64 expansion pack, and the official Nintendo Power player’s guide.

The game had plenty of things to anticipate: Improved graphics, improved use of the same engine of Ocarina of Time, and a focus on the roleplaying elements of the series. Ocarina introduced the protagonist Link’s ability to move through time by playing certain melodies on the eponymous instrument, the Ocarina of Time; he could travel between his childhood and early adult years in order to defeat certain enemies and collect various items needed to progress the storyline. Chock full of side quests and opportunities to interact with various characters, Majora’s Mask takes this premise of time travel and the magical stone flute, compresses all of that into a three day (i.e., 72-hour) cycle for a doomsday story (the moon is about to crash into the land of Termina!), and forces Link to solve the impending crisis and the numerous trials of the other characters he encounters.

Fortunately, the Ocarina of Time allows you to travel back to the first day and avoid an untimely death from a falling moon. The downside to this is that resetting time does not reset the frustrating nature of this game.

The Zelda series traditionally leans more on the side of action/adventure game, although taking control of Link and performing tasks or interactions that further the narrative and the development of Link’s character give it a slight hint of some RPG goodness. At the time of its release, Ocarina was the most successful of the games in negotiating the line between those two game genres. Nintendo took the experiment further with Majora’s Mask and opted to emphasize the roleplaying element.

To the designers’ credit, the game has a fantastic focus on the development of Link’s character; he’s searching for a lost friend (Navi, the annoying fairy from Ocarina who tries telling you to do what you’re already doing every three nanoseconds), and in so doing gets transformed into a different shape by the Skull Kid, who has absconded with the titular Majora’s Mask, an artifact housing the magic of an ancient evil spirit. So after using the Ocarina of Time to heal himself, Link goes on a series of adventures through four dungeons, and in these travels he uses magical masks to take on the forms and identities of other creatures: a forest creature called a Deku Scrub, a Goron (rock person) warrior named Darmani, and a Zora (fishfolk) rock star called Mikau.

With only four dungeons, this game focuses on the side quests, which--unfortunately--is the game’s downfall. In so doing, it becomes nearly one giant side quest (truth be told, if you play the game without acquiring any of the extra, unnecessary items, the game can be defeated in the matter of an afternoon or two). To get any value out of the game, you have to take Link through the events of the side quests, many of which cannot be performed in tandem. But to the game’s credit, it’s the first Zelda title that bears a trace of verisimilitude, in that actions generally have to be taken in a specific order, or the consequences can be catastrophic.

Even so, the constant repetition and travel through time--the mechanics of which are a bit dodgy because you keep some items while losing others, and there’s a bank where you can invest your money and never lose it (even after continuously traveling back to the first day)--becomes simultaneously one of the most intriguing and annoying aspects of the game. To get all of the items, you often have to perform the events of side quests more than once. The game, then, becomes profoundly repetitive, which--for a game that focuses on time travel and developing a complex character--and ironically not that timeless, its replay value plummeting because of frustrating mechanics, consequences, and waiting for the moon to crash into the earth.


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