Zelda vs. Zelda: Is Majora’s Mask Better Than Ocarina of Time?
When Zelda: Ocarina Of Time was released in 1998 for the Nintendo 64, it blew a lot of minds and topped a lot of “Bestest Gaem Evar” lists, which it continues to do even to this day. Wikipedia tells us it has been on more of those countdowns than any other game made, and Metacritic gives it the highest ranking score for interactive entertainment in history, at a jaw-dropping ninety-nine out of a hundred. Very impressive.
But with the passage of time and the re-release of Ocarina of Time onto the 3DS for a new generation, there seems to have been a bit of a reappraisal around it. Nobody with intelligence beyond a bathroom soap would deny the impact that The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time had on the medium as a whole, nor that it was a great technical feat at the time, but how has it aged? How much was only impressive for 1998, and how much actually works beyond that? And why is it that many of the people I talk to will reluctantly admit that the immediate sequel from 2000, Majora’s Mask, is the superior entry?
These seems like a perfect opportunity to pit the two against each other and see how they fare in hindsight. Zelda versus Zelda, giving it their heart and soul. And speaking of soul…
Honestly, I don’t feel that either of these stories hold up as great epics in the long term, but for different reasons. Ocarina featured a fairly cut-and-dry “Hero’s Journey” tale, but without the emotional impact and character development that supports such a story. It would be like Star Wars if Luke were played by the gonk droid, beetling around without any particular drive or purpose in mind beyond the last order given to him.
And it doesn’t work as well because of it. Yes, the focus is on the player projecting themselves onto our pointy-eared hero, but I always felt that there was a little too much of him present to really allow for that, and yet not enough of him to make for a developed and likeable character (unlike, say, in the later Windwaker game). There’s also a bit too much of an obsession with random magical crap to fill in the gaps. The sages never really get explained properly, the story of the goddesses gets too much time and yet still don’t actually explain much, and the arrows of light (the only thing that can beat the last boss, Ganondorf) appear five minutes before the final curtain, having never been mentioned previously and consequently feel a little cheap.
But Majora’s story, whilst generally better told, is also a lot less present and unstructured. That’s probably unavoidable, considering that in gameplay you’re doing the kind of things to linear time that would make Christian Grey feel uncomfortable, but it is a problem nonetheless and makes effective storytelling a greater challenge than it should be. Skull Kid is a more sympathetic and human antagonist than the generically-evil pig wizard who came before him, but he’s only really in the beginning and the end of the story, and consequently easily forgotten about. The game takes a more interesting approach to the silent protagonist idea (having him live through the guises of other people and barely register in the public mind) but can’t really get the chance to do anything more with it with the way it’s set up. There’s less sense of story progression when we have to keep moving to new places with no constant companions, besides the creepy guy hanging from the balloon and the firefly with a bad attitude.
I guess Ocarina takes this one, but only because the central narrative actually bothers to hang around for most of that game. Majora’s Mask sets up a very interesting premise, but then disappears and waits for you to get right to the end before coming back, like a parent leaving their kid in the IKEA playpen whilst they go off to get some Swedish meatballs.
AESTHETIC AND ATMOSPHERE
Oh, Majora’s Mask takes this one by a long way, partly because it’s a lot more distinct and layered than Ocarina Of Time ever was. Everything in Clock Town and the surrounding lands feels oddly unnerving from the start, capable of great beauty but also inspiring a sense of underlying creepiness that never goes away, much like the carnival that stands at the heart of everything. Most of it is pretty subtle and understated, hence why this atmosphere can exist at all. Admittedly, the moon shrieking towards you with the gurning face of madness is a constant reminder of the danger, but there’s other things that build on that. Think of how Skull Kid moves like an unwieldy marionette, or how Link gives a genuine scream of terror every time a mask changes him, or even the simple fact that the apocalypse has already happened and you’re just trying to hit the “undo” button. There’s a layer of existential awfulness in knowing that you could save the land of the Zoras, but it’s completely futile when everything will get reversed in three days time anyway.
And Ocarina, whilst well-made, can’t really compete with that artistry. Yes, it has that epic feel of scale as you charge across the plains of Hyrule, but the environments feel less creative in comparison and occasionally feel a bit more generic than they should’ve been, falling into archetypes when the idea bucket was running dry. There are things I like, but there are things in Majora’s Mask that I love, and there’s not much more that can be said about it.
Another difficult choice, because it’s a question of originality versus success, but not in the way round that one might think at first. Ocarina Of Time felt like a refinement of previous Zelda ideas into a 3D format, working to perfect and adapt them before it could go about revolutionising them. For that reason, the puzzles make a lot of sense on a technical level, but also don’t tend to be much of a challenge once all the pieces are witnessed and don’t feel particularly fresh as concepts, especially in the years since then. Now that bit isn’t Ocarina’s fault, but if people are going to demand we look at context, then that’s going to be part of it.
Contrarily, the puzzles in Majora’s Mask are more unique and experimental, but fall into error more often because of this. Replaying it, I’d forgotten how much it just refuses to tell you and demands you work out for yourself. Nobody explained to me that you can bottle up the little bugs that scurry around sometimes, but a side quest that I’d committed myself to demanded that I know this, hence a couple of emergency trips to GameFAQs. These things are fine as mechanics, but if nobody tells the player that they’re there in the first place, it just devolves into guesswork.
But I suppose they’re also more memorable. With the Groundhog Day mechanics in place, Majora’s Mask could construct more nuanced and creative puzzles on top of the standard ones that Ocarina Of Time had worked on previously. The time travel puzzles are a genuine joy to go through, having Link use clues that had already happened tomorrow to affect what is going to happen yesterday… If you see what I mean. So I think that Majora’s Mask should take this one, not only for being more brave with its design, but also making sure that most of the puzzle elements make sense in the context of the plot. After all, why WOULD the Water Temple have all those tide-altering devices in there to begin with? Were the ancient sages using it for pool parties?
This is less a question of apples and oranges, than it is of apples and slightly redder apples with a different sticker on the side. They’re so similar that it basically makes no difference, but that doesn’t stop people arguing about them when there’s really no need. Both have the same problems with an unreliable targeting system, the same strafe-slash-block-stab-dodge combat, and a selection of bombs, magic and ranged gear to support the more cautious fighter.
… Except there’s more than that to one of these contestants. Majora’s Mask didn’t just have all these things, it also had several more combat systems in place to support them. Don’t want to fight as Link? Fight as a sentient walnut instead, spinning around, launching out of flowers and spitting bubbles like Squirtle with washing up liquid in his mouth. Or maybe you want to be acombination of The Thing and an armadillo, rolling around like a lunatic and smashing everything you can see. You can even become a sexy fish form for more agile combat, as well as any underwater fights and guitar solos you find yourself in.
So again, Majora takes this one for having a few more options at the Battle Buffet. God, this is seeming a bit one-sided, isn’t it?
Normally I wouldn’t even bother with this kind of thing, but considering that a major part of these games was the ability to play instruments and that the tunes and chirpy jingles in Zelda have gone on to become cultural icons in their own right… Well, you couldn’t forget the role of music and audio within them, that’s all I’m saying.
And suitably enough, Ocarina Of Time takes this one. The best songs in Majora’s Mask ARE those that were taken from the previous game, and all the new ones are serviceable at best (and slightly tuneless at worst). So I can’t really think of any reason not to give the point to the original, unless there’s something I’m failing to remember that –
AHEM. I said that I can’t think of a decent explanation as to why I wouldn’t –
“Hey, listen! Hey, listen! Hey, listen!”
God damn it, Ocarina. Stop undermining yourself by –
“Hey, listen! Hey, listen! Hey, listen!”
… Ocarina Of Time, take the point and leave before I change my mind.
So at the end of all this, the points tally in favour of Majora’s Mask, three to two. And honestly, that’s not without good reason. Ocarina Of Time was a landmark game and has been hugely influential in the decades since its creation, but taken as individual pieces of art and valued as enjoyable or well-crafted experiences, the later entry just feels more bold, more focused and more flavourful as a whole.
And why wouldn’t it be? The goal of any sequel should be to build and improve upon the original material, elevating it into something more. Yes, Ocarina Of Time was the more ambitious title -that shouldn’t be ignored -but that fact doesn’t make it better when the two are viewed side-by-side. And with both remastered for the 3DS, it’s become relevant again to ask which is the more sensible purchase. And it’s Majora’s Mask.
Whilst both have their charms and are worth playing, something that still manages to be original sixteen years after its creation is, in my opinion, a far superior achievement to the choices made by its predecessor. And now I’m going to take cover whilst a lot of angry nerds explain to me in great detail why the awkward, one-sided dialogue between Link and Princess Zelda in Ocarina was totally convincing and romantic. Which it wasn’t in the slightest. Come at me, bro.