Don't think of the children! Let's discuss The Walking Dead!


December 24, 2012

Let's discuss The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask (Part 1).


>breaching boundary

>accessing terminal

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video

Well.  This is not a good situation to be in.


The last time I put a Zelda game under the microscope, I declared it as one of, if not my favorite game of all time.  I considered it to an apex of Nintendo’s storytelling capacity, weaving subtle commentary on the nature of a destined hero with gameplay factors to make those lessons and ideas all the more effective.  And it certainly helped that the game itself -- while not 100% perfect -- was still unduly satisfying.  (It’s also worth noting that it’s more mature than what most people would expect from the Mii-peddling, seventh-generation Nintendo -- it’s a game where you gore a boss several times via multi-story jumps.)


But there was still something eating away at me.  There’s no doubt that Skyward Sword is a fantastic game, and worthy of the Zelda mantle.  But how did it compare to the other games?  More importantly, what if there were traits and nuances in the earlier games that I missed the first time around -- especially since I never finished some of them?  Twilight Princess, Wind Waker, Majora’s Mask, and of course, Ocarina of Time -- if I’d guessed right one of those was worthy of the title of “my favorite video game.”

So you can consider my next words to be extremely tentative -- tentative, but well-deserved.  Right now, Majora’s Mask is my favorite game.

Such is the expected result.  Humans are all too easily entranced by power they cannot hope to comprehend.  And those that dare to grasp it are bound for a terrible fate.

That’s true.  And it’s because of it that they’re bound to meet with more than just misfortune.  But let’s keep the pondering about the nature of man to a minimum here, okay?  This post is probably going to be long enough without the musings of a cursed mask.

You seem to have found quite a bit of nerve all of a sudden.  Has the puppet learned to pull his own strings?  And how long can he do so before being tangled by his own wild dance?

Who’s to say at this point?  All I can do is write -- and that’s exactly what I plan to do.

Then by all means, continue.  Do what you must, so that our game may become even slightly entertaining. 

(Just keep your cool.  Majora’s Mask is giving you the chance you need.  Don’t waste it -- pull it all together, and strike back.)


Last time, I focused more on the story aspect of Skyward Sword than on the gameplay -- but this time, I feel like I have to say a little more about this decade-old game…namely, that it holds up remarkably well.  The first thing that’s immediately noticeable is how fast everything moves; it takes maybe about an hour to go from the first text box in the prologue to getting the Deku Mask and starting your adventure in earnest.  For the record, that means you get some backstory about Link’s past adventure (i.e. OoT), his encounter with the Skull Kid wearing Majora’s Mask, the pursuit, the transformation into a Deku Scrub, the entry into Termina, the meeting of the Happy Mask Salesman, helping Clock Town’s Great Fairy, meeting and catching the Bombers, exploring the sewers, grabbing the Moon’s Tear, trading it for a Deku Flower, using it to blast off to the big clock at midnight, facing off with the Skull Kid, getting your ocarina back, resetting time, and finally turning back into regular Link.  Actually, all of that probably takes less than an hour, because I decided to explore the town for the three day period instead of skipping ahead when all the affairs were in order.  It really says a lot about the design philosophy of past games -- Zelda game or otherwise -- when you can blast through a healthy chunk of it in less time than an episode of Monk.

That’s not to say the game is short, though.  In theory and in overall game time, it might pale to, say, OoT.  After all, its predecessor had eight main dungeons, while MM can only boast four.  But like its distant successor SS, this game makes it so that just reaching the dungeons (sometimes literally) requires traversing other dungeons.  The “key” to unlocking the main four is a song to be played on your ocarina, so once you have that you’re free to reset time and start a fresh set of days.  Or if you’re sharp enough, you can manage to squeeze in minigame and item-hunting time into those three days, collecting masks and Pieces of Heart and upgrades.  It’s actually quite easy to get masks and such if you’re willing to explore, even if you don’t have a walkthrough in your lap (save for one or two instances, like the infamous Kafei sidequest).  And given that time is at your beck and call, you’re free to plan out your adventure and heroism, and play things your way.  Just don’t expect to get anything done in an hour’s time like the opening; after that, it’s almost required to play the Inverted Song of Time to cut the gameplay clock down to a fraction of its normal speed.


The reason for this is because the dungeons -- while theoretically short -- are much longer than you’d expect the N64 could produce.  The puzzles aren’t exactly taxing mind-benders, but they will require you to put your brain to the test, as well as make good use of your spatial awareness and tool set.  That’s all typical of a Zelda game, especially since it uses the tried-and-true formula of “explore dungeon, get dungeon item, use dungeon item to open up new paths in the dungeon”.  But MM mixes things up by putting Stray Fairies in the dungeons.  Basically, there are fifteen little creatures hidden in each dungeon, requiring some additional legwork on your behalf to save them.  Collect them all and take them to the right Fairy Fountain, and you’ll not only have them coalesce into a proper Great Fairy, but you’ll get a special upgrade -- an enhanced spin attack, an extended magic meter, boosted defense, and the Great Fairy Sword, respectively.  How essential any of those are will depend on the player’s tastes (though I’d argue you shouldn’t even try beating the game without a greater magic meter), but it adds an additional addictive aspect for the completionist types.  I can’t say that I’m one of them, but I figured it was worth a shot.  And I decided that when it came time to collect the Stray Fairies, I’d do it in the same instance as clearing the dungeons.  I wanted to have it all done in one fell swoop, you see.

It turned out to be one of the most frustrating experiences I’ve ever had in a game…but I say that as a compliment.  See, playing the Inverted Song of Time makes it possible not only to clear most areas with time to spare (and multiple areas, most likely), but to completely undermine the tension that should come from the moon bearing down on you.  You’re supposed to have only three days at a time to do whatever you need to do, and feel the tension as a result.  But from the very second you get the ocarina (and learn the song, or know it from a past playthrough), that tension is pretty much gone.  For a game that hyped up the “you have 72 hours” angle from the outset, in some respects you’d consider the complete dissolution of tension to be a failure.  But that tension is back with a vengeance if you try and clear a dungeon while grabbing all the Fairies.


Imagine walking into a dungeon for the first time with a full 72 hours on the clock -- and slowed-down time, no less -- ready to both beat the boss and earn your power-up.  You’re pretty confident that you can wrap up the whole dungeon with just enough time to spare, as long as you keep your wits about you.  So you take a deep breath and start on your way, trying to figure out the “trick” of each dungeon -- the central hub, places you’ll have to return to, and the like, all while keeping an eye out for Stray Fairies (something you’re more than capable of doing, since you had the sense to get the Great Fairy’s Mask beforehand).  And as you venture inward, solving puzzles and making your way to new rooms and setting up pathways for return trips, you manage to find some fairies -- some by way of spotting them in the distance, and others by way of sorting out devious puzzles.  “I’m finding a lot of these pretty quickly,” you say to yourself.  “I’ll be done in no time.”

But then things stop going your way.  The Fairies are getting harder and harder to come by, and the dungeon’s rooms are getting trickier and trickier.  You may have cleared a room, but the hair on your Great Fairy’s Mask is still sparkling; there’s still a Fairy you’ve missed.  “How am I supposed to get it?” you say to yourself.  And as you do, you realize that that’s not the only room you’ve left behind while your mask sparkled.  “The rooms must connect somewhere else.  I just have to search again from a different perspective.”  But getting to just the right room proves harder than you expected.  Getting to Room A requires manipulating Room B, which requires venturing back to Room C, but first Room D has to be taken care of.  So in addition to figuring out the dungeon, you also have to backtrack and figure out what went wrong -- why you haven’t gotten all the Fairies, and more importantly why you haven’t made it to the boss’ room yet.  And while all this is happening, the clock is still winding down.  Down, down, down, ticking away until you reach the second day.  And then the third day.  And you’ve still got plenty of Fairies left to find, with no boss room in sight.  And suddenly, you’re faced with the possibility that everything you’ve done has been completely pointless.


“I can figure this out!” you tell yourself, trying to ignore the headache brought about by the still-ticking clock.  “I’ve just got to stay calm, and think things through.  There’s no way I’m doing this over again.  I can do this.  I can do this!”  And then you realize you’re about fifteen seconds away from entering the night of the final day.  And then you really start to feel sick.

And then you put that Bunny Hood of yours to good use as you hoof it across the entire dungeon to flip it right-side up, head back in to get the final Fairy, then head back outside to re-flip the dungeon so you can enter the boss’ room, necessitating another run through the dungeon, and then beat the boss by mashing as wildly as you can, hoping you’ll hit its weak point, and then finally running to the Fairy Fountain and getting your reward.  And all of that with a few minutes to spare.  And you’ll say to yourself “See?  I knew I could do it!  No problem at all!”

It’s actually a brilliant psychological move on the developers’ part.  Not being a resident of Termina, the player is in no danger.  So how do you make them feel fear, and drive them to go as fast as their minds and fingers can carry them?  Easy: threaten them with failure.  Give them something they want or need and put a mile-wide pit between them; it’s a true test of character, skill, and mental fortitude to see how far they’ll go to get what they want.  Even if they aren’t the altruistic or empathetic sort, there are still ways to leave players genuinely affected by the game.


Incidentally, in spite of the focus on getting the player to do things as quickly as possible, the game falters whenever it has to handle speed.  The most obvious example is that the frame rate isn’t exactly what I’d call rapid, and it tends to sputter during moments of high activity.  I know it’s not exactly fair to point a finger at a game from two generations ago, but considering that it’s unplayable without an Expansion Pak, and that Super Mario 64 is virtually immune to slowdown AND has a significantly-higher frame rate, it just comes off as a little jarring.  More importantly, Link + any amount of speed can quickly lead to frustration.  Just putting the Bunny Hood on extends his jumps, sometimes to the point where he’ll completely screw up his distance and fall into the abyss. 

If the game demands that you do anything besides traverse a wide-open space while rolling around as a Goron (the final “dungeon” comes to mind, but the mountain race is just as good an example), be prepared to screw up and bounce off walls into oblivion.  The Zora Mask lets you swim quickly, but you’re occasionally required to navigate turns and tunnels, and it just turns into a mess of wall-bashing and under-turning -- and the less said about trying to pop out of water onto a ledge, the better.  You only need to use Epona about three times in the entire game, because rolling as a Goron is likely faster and can be done virtually anywhere.  Zelda games -- as I understand them -- are about deliberation and exploration, and getting in deep with whatever area you’re in; the idea that so much emphasis would be placed on quick traversal, and questionably-implemented at that, seems like a notable misstep.  Not a deal-breaker, but more than a little annoying at times.


To be fair, it is more than a little refreshing to be able to play as several transformed versions of Link.  Whereas the Hero of Time has used various tools to help him get from A to B, MM has him relying on innate ability to travel and succeed.  Each form has dominion over a specific subset of the landscape -- land for the Goron form, air for the Deku Scrub, and of course the sea for the Zora -- and each one, as intended, requires a different approach to combat, traversal, and exploration.  Gorons can’t jump and hate water, but don’t mind lava and are heavy.  Zoras can’t handle getting frozen, but come pre-equipped with the boomerang and is probably the second-best at combat (falling short of human Link).  The Deku Scrub is weak against fire, but can hop across water.  In their specific regions, each form is indispensible -- and you’ll have to rely on their powers in the future.  Granted it’s not nearly as often as it was at the start of the game, but the idea is there, and you’re better off playing mostly as Link in the long run.  That said, the Scrub Form is my favorite of them all (even though the first time around the Zora Form was…for obvious reasons).  It sparkles when it spins, after all.

Though actually, I’d argue that the Scrub Form is the most important of all -- if not in terms of gameplay viability, then by virtue of helping to reinforce the game’s narrative theme and ideas.  Here, take a close look at it.


I think it’s the coolest-looking of the forms, but I can’t help but think that Link looks more than a little sad in that form.  Why?  Well, if I remember correctly from Nintendo Power’s official strategy guide -- and the canonicity of this is suspect -- apparently Link’s favorite form is the Goron Form because of the power it gives him.  If it IS true, then it says a lot about Link’s character…but I’ll get to that.  For now, considering that Scrub Form is by far the weakest of the forms, you can understand why he might be a little dour-looking.  Of course there’s the fact that he started out trapped in that form, but what’s important is that from the outset, Link’s got it rougher than he’s ever had it.

Scrub Form reinforces one of the game’s major themes: despair


Despair…such a beautiful thing to be observed, and such a horror to be felt.  But I consider myself quite fortunate -- I have no need, no ability to feel despair.  Only joy...and the delight derived from one’s despair. 
    
You wouldn’t be much of a villain without a sick sense of ethics. 

Ethics?  You misjudge me.  Ethics are nothing more than a safeguard -- a barrier to prevent one from embracing their lust for elation.  But it is a barrier I have long since discarded.

(This thing sure likes to brag…but then again, that’s what I’m hoping for.  I just might have it right where I want it.)

(I just need a little bit of luck…)

>system error -- failure to complete

>resuming upload in part 2



2 comments:

  1. I hate this game. Merry X-Mas, bro.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Merry Christmas to you, too. But I'd be a little wary about throwing thoughts like that around here -- I'm already in the thick of an interdimensional showdown with Majora's Mask, and I'd hate for it to pull you in, too...



    (Now that's what I call staying in character.)

    ReplyDelete