"You've met with a terrible fate, haven't you?" So begins Link's adventure in the creepily off-kilter land of Termina, the setting of The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask, which was released in Japan 20 years ago today.
Two years ago, when The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time turned 20, I hailed it as perhaps the greatest video game ever created. It seems only fair, then, to give the beloved game's twisted sequel its due: Majora's Mask polarized the masses, but it's the favorite of hardcore Zelda fans. Strangest of all—and there's a lot that's strange about this trip—Link's adventure in Termina is bizarrely relevant to the grim situation so much of the world finds itself in right now: the coronavirus pandemic.
Majora's Mask is a surprisingly sophisticated, lyrical meditation on the theme of coping with one's own mortality. It forces players to consider what the sudden, unexpected end of civilization would look like at the micro level: for a mailman who's run out of time to deliver his last letter, for the frustrated director of a theater troupe, for a lonely dairy farmer, and so on. Sometimes the hero doesn't save the world. Sometimes there are no good outcomes. Sometimes it's simply too late.
Indeed, Majora's Mask subverts one of the quintessential video game tropes from its outset. There is no princess in need of rescuing: Zelda, the titular damsel in distress, appears only briefly in a flashback. Having purged evil from the land in the previous installment, protagonist Link thinks he's getting out of the world-saving business and is ready for some personal time. The battle against the forces of darkness obliged Link to grow up too fast, Zelda fears, and thus she releases him to recapture his youth, on a quest to reconnect with a missing friend whose identity is never confirmed.
Link travels to a familiar forest, and follows a horse thief through a door to a parallel dimension. Majora's Mask owes a great debt to Alice's Adventures in Wonderland: Link enters the looking glass and falls into a world that's a mirror image of the one he knows so well. Termina is populated with familiar faces—the game, which runs on the same engine as Ocarina, reuses many of the same sprites—but none of them know Link.
At first they hardly notice him. They have their own problems: The moon is expected to crash into Termina and obliterate all life in just three days.
It soon becomes clear that this is the doing of a mischievous imp called the Skull Kid, who resembles a scarecrow with a bird's beak. The Skull Kid has stolen Majora's Mask, and unless Link can return the item to its elusive owner, the Happy Mask Salesman, the world will end.
That all sounds like straightforward hero-saves-the-world stuff, but three days later, Link fails. And then he fails again. And again, and again. Each time he can use his magic ocarina to travel backward three days. The merchant from whom the mask was stolen greets Link with the line: "You've met with a terrible fate, haven't you?" He encourages Link to try harder next time.
"Everything you do is marked by failure, by bad luck, by not having enough time to get everything done," observed The AV Club's Anthony John Agnello in a 2015 review of the game's remake for the Nintendo 3DS. "That pervasive air of cruel indifference from the world permeates the game."
That's a basic overview, but one that only begins to hint at the singular weirdness of playing Majora's Mask. A long list of horrors awaits Link: a tree with a pained expression, later revealed to be a runaway son deformed and murdered by the Skull Kid; the ghost of a hero who died in an avalanche; a farm beset by alien (yes, alien) abductions. The game's rigid schedule makes the horror more real. If Link visits the park north of town on the first night—and only the first night—he can save an old woman from a mugging. If he fails, he must buy her purloined goods from the pawn shop on night two. There's a haunted house on a forlorn beach, but Link has to cleanse it before the third day, at which point the owner loses interest. It hardly matters, because everything resets when Link travels back through time at the end of the three-day cycle. Visit the town's laundry pool at just the right moment, and a circus performer will confess that a fit of jealousy caused him to steal a magic artifact from the circus's leader: a dog. "Why was the dog the leader??" the perplexed performer wonders. Why, indeed?
This is a fantastical game that bears little resemblance to anything from the worlds of fantasy, and the game's visual style and musical cues reinforces the theme of dread. The townsfolk are pointy humanoids with exaggerated smiles and frowns. The swamp's color scheme is green and purple, giving it an unwell feeling. The background music gradually intensifies as time marches on, and the last five minutes of the third day produce a cacophony of bells and sorrowful sounds. Even the upbeat tunes have a note of understated sadness to them.
It's the little people who make Majora's Mask so memorable. Link learns their routines, their secrets, and their fears. He's there for them as they begrudgingly come to terms with what's about to happen, whether it's witnessing a last-minute declaration of love, conducting a final orchestra performance, or comforting customers at the local bar as the world ends. (The bar's patrons drink milk—this is, after all, a kid's game.) Sometimes, Link learns, the best thing you can do for people is be honest with them. Real heroes don't magically solve everybody's problems. They listen, they empathize, they offer companionship. For helping them cope with their pain, Link's new friends each give him a token of remembrance: a mask. These masks represent the folks of Termina letting go of their fears and bracing for the inevitable.
It's not exactly a spoiler to reveal that in the end, Link sets some things right. Still, the conclusion is bittersweet at best, and it's not clear whether Link ever does find his missing friend—or whether he survives his ordeal in Termina at all. (Termina, of course, means "end.") Two decades later, the game feels grimly familiar, and not just because everyone is wearing a mask.