The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild has been out for almost two months now. It’s a fantastic game that not only establishes a new identity for the storied franchise, but that rethinks the nature of open world games. After a period of unprecedented acclaim, however, it’s time to look at Breath of the Wild with a more critical eye and see how it stacks up to the rest of the series’ catalog, in particular, the small, strange, and criminally underrated Majora’s Mask.
Breath of the Wild doesn’t have much of a narrative presence. The entire game is built around the player’s discovery and interpretation of the open world rather than a directed story. There are pieces of story players can discover that reveal details about the world’s past or memories that show who Link and Zelda were before Ganon’s devastation. The story that is present, however, feels like more world-building than a fleshed out narrative.
Majora’s Mask, on the other hand, has one of the best stories in the entire franchise. Part of this is due to its break from tradition. Rather than rehashing the “Link/Zelda save Hyrule from Ganon” conflict of the previous games, Majora’s Mask introduces a new villain: the creepy, corruptive, and sentient titular mask. The mask itself is unsettling and terrifying, more a manifestation of chaos than an evil villain. It feels more threatening, more elemental than Ganon and the relationship between player and antagonist is more complex because of this. Where Ganon stands as mostly a physical danger, Majora’s Mask creates an atmosphere approaching horror. Though the mask is evil, the being it has possessed, known only as Skull Kid, is not.
This raises the question of identity that is prevalent throughout the game due in no small part to Link’s, and many characters’, constant use of masks to hide their faces. Many of the citizens of Termina, the game’s location, are not who or what they appear to be. A lot of Link’s tasks throughout the game involve healing inner demons, including the game’s opening when Link is transfigured into a different species and the final confrontation in which Link frees Skull Kid from the mask’s influence. This thematic weight lends a richness, a complexity, to Majora’s narrative core that most games even today fail to approach.
One of the weakest parts about Breath of the Wild is the best part about Majora’s Mask: sidequests. Breath of the Wild pulls off some truly impressive sequences for the game’s many Shrine Quests but almost all of the quests you can obtain from people in Hyrule are just uninteresting or repetitive. Not only that but the general villagers lack personality. This isn’t really a problem as there are more than enough awesome experiences in the game’s natural exploration to make up for this.
The key to Majora’s Mask’s consistently great sidequests is two elements: character and reward. Every quest giver in the game has a weird, sometimes frightening, but always compelling personality. Not only that, the game’s central conceit, restarting the same 3-day cycle over and over again, leads to a much more complex understanding of the people you encounter. You watch them live their lives according to schedules, demands of the day, and every other factor that influences human lives. The best of these quests run over the course of all three days, creating extended, multifaceted journeys with these characters.
At the end, however, you are always given a physical reward, usually in the form of new masks. These masks aren’t just power ups, they fundamentally change how you are able to experience and interpret the world around you. For example, gaining the bomb mask enables you to detonate an explosion at any time, whether you have bombs or not. While this does damage to Link, obtaining this item makes you less reliant on having a specific item to progress, allowing you to adapt your approach to the game accordingly. Other masks are useful only in specific situations but each one has a purpose and the epic Fierce Deity’s Mask, the ultimate reward for obtaining every mask in the game, is one of the coolest items in any game. In contrast, the most common reward at the end of any quest in Breath of the Wild is a weapon that will eventually break or the spirit orbs at the end of shrines. While these are great rewards for that game, they do not open up new aspects of the world like the masks in Majora’s Mask.
Impact on the World
I mentioned previously that one of the reasons interacting with Breath of the Wild’s world is so compelling is that just about every action feeds the game’s ultimate goal: cleansing Hyrule of Ganon’s demonic influence. While this is true, it is mostly in the abstract sense. Freeing an imprisoned dragon or awakening the Great Fairies doesn’t explicitly change anything about the game world but it’s easy for players to connect what they’re doing with their goal. Even with main quests, you don’t really get to see the fruit of your actions. The game world and the characters within it remain mostly static.
Majora’s Mask is much more direct in showing you how your actions affect the world. By engaging with the game world you help a person come to terms with a family member’s death or facilitate the tender reunion of two troubled lovers. You get to see the results of actual heroic deeds which don’t always have happy endings. Yet the awareness that you are interacting not just with an entire world, but with people, and that your interactions with these people matter, is a powerful element that no other Zelda game has captured since.
This is what truly distinguishes Majora’s Mask from Breath of the Wild: specificity. The game has a specific, complex narrative, coupled with detailed, lifelike characters, and it shows players exactly how they are helping this world. Breath of the Wild is amazing precisely because it does the opposite, offering players a blank canvas for which they can make the world their own. A person’s experience of Termina in Majora’s Mask will never belong to them in the same way that their experience of Hyrule in Breath of the Wild will. That specificity, however, combined with the game’s mature presentation of dark and complex themes results in an unforgettably haunting experience.