“The Goddess of Time is protecting you. If you play the Song of Time, she will aid you . . .”
Time limits are overwhelming. They’re a silent arbiter, ticking down, seemingly in place solely to pressure players. Even when time limits are generous, their very presence can be enough to swear some audiences off a title entirely. It makes sense to a degree– who wants to be rushed? They’re harmless enough in 2D platformers and the like, but put a timer in a 3D space and things are suddenly a bit more stressful. 3D areas naturally call for in-depth exploration, but most players will interpret a time limit as an immediate call to action. Implemented incorrectly, all a timer does is force a player to rush; but a well thought out time limit can do a game wonders.
It goes without saying, but certain genres lend themselves to a time limit better than others. 2D Mario? Perfectly acceptable. 3D Mario? There’s a reason Nintendo didn’t bring it back for Super Mario 64. The same goes for franchises on a whole, as well. There’s a reason Super Mario Bros. has a time limit whereas The Legend of Zelda has none. A time limit in Zelda would contradict the series’ core design philosophies. Forcing a time limit into The Legend of Zelda would ruin the thrill of exploration while keeping audiences perpetually tense. Or so you’d think.
Following the release of Ocarina of Time, quite a bit of weight was riding on The Legend of Zelda’s first 3D follow up. Ocarina of Time’s depiction of Hyrule was “real,” realer than anything the series had seen prior. Players finally had a three-dimensional environment to explore. Spatial depth allowed audiences to see Hyrule beyond the overheads. To not just witness it, but to live in it. Complete with a day & night cycle, Hyrule Field was a hub players could explore at their heart’s content. A geographically cohesive landscape with secrets aplenty, Ocarina of Time’s Hyrule Field condensed what “The Hyrule Fantasy” best represented into one central hub: a living world to be explored at the behest of the player.
So, what about “The Termina Fantasy?” Logically, any direct sequel to Ocarina of Time was going to build off its foundation, but Majora’s Mask cleverly presents itself as Ocarina of Time’s antithesis. The Deku image as portrayed by Ocarina’s Deku Tree is one of kindness and wisdom, but Majora’s Mask twists the familiar face into one of anguish and suffering. Majora’s parallels may not always be overt or clear, but they are always there– that goes double for the theme of time.
Aside from sharing a Link, time is what links Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask together. These are two games ultimately about our relationship with time. The former centers itself on the passage of time. Seven years pass over the course of Ocarina of Time, and Link ends the game a man in a boy’s body. Ocarina tells a classic coming of age story, one where even being able to go back in time can’t stop the permanence of time. Majora’s Mask similarly utilizes time travel as a narrative device and a gameplay feature, but on a more intimate scale.
Given how much Majora’s Mask parallels Ocarina of Time, it’s perhaps not a surprise that the game’s three day time limit was originally a full, seven day week. Mirroring Ocarina’s seven years from the start, Majora’s Mask was always designed with showcasing the weight of just a single day. For Ocarina, time was epic– to the point where traveling through time always played a clip of Link either drawing the Master Sword from its pedestal or putting it back into place. Conversely, Majora’s Mask gives time travel as little fanfare as possible while still being visually dynamic.
Link plays his Ocarina, Link saves, Link goes back in time. It’s simple, it serves a practical purpose, and it’s treated as a natural part of the core gameplay loop. Ocarina of Time made the passage of time a grand gameplay mechanic that fundamentally changed how Hyrule was approached. It wasn’t a part of the natural loop. While players eventually have full control of time travel, the plot always designates when players need to go back. Majora’s Mask trusts the audience to know when to turn back time in a game where running out of time means the death of everyone in Termina. There’s no reminder. When time’s up, time’s up.
Link’s perpetually repeating 72 hours in Termina end up far more meaningful than the endless bursts of day and night in Hyrule. In demystifying time travel, Majora’s Mask also gives it greater weight and consequence. In the original Nintendo 64 release, traveling through time isn’t just a player’s way of resetting the time limit, it’s the only way to permanently record progress. Cycles where players need to make the most out of their three days can be incredibly tense. Getting a game over does not reset time and saving at an owl statue only creates a temporary save.
Players are encouraged to sit down and dedicate time to their cycle, in turn giving themselves the opportunity to soak up Majora’s nuances. Majora’s Mask requires more out of a player than Ocarina of Time does, and each new cycle chips away at that initial overwhelmingness– but only if players do make the most of their time. The time limit in Majora’s Mask doesn’t exist to rush players, and anyone who tries rushing to the credits will likely find the experience unfulfilling. Majora’s Mask isn’t Ocarina of Time, and its relationship with the concept of time is far more all encompassing, going beyond the confines of the game’s world.
Part of removing the tension from Termina relies on players understanding what Majora’s Mask wants. This is a game that wants your time. This isn’t Ocarina of Time where saving was as easy as hitting ‘Start’ and pressing ‘B.’ Want to make real progress? Get ready to put in real time. Majora’s Mask is demanding in that regard, but there’s an outstanding amount of value in a game that’s willing to go to such lengths to engage its audience on a deeper level. More importantly, placing the game on a 72 hour schedule allowed The Legend of Zelda to create what is still one of the most alive worlds in gaming.
Time & Tension
It’s immediately obvious what the major benefit of Majora’s time limit is: NPCs can now meaningfully engage with the world. Although Ocarina of Time had a day & night cycle, NPCs had static schedules for both times of day while time only passed in the field. Any NPC in Ocarina of Time could effectively only have four possible actions: one during the day in the past, one during the night the in past, one during the day in the future, and one during the night in the future. This isn’t even taking into consideration the NPCs who don’t appear in the back-half and vice versa. All this works in the context of Ocarina of Time, but Majora’s Mask was never going to be able to afford the same luxuries as its sister game.
It was decided fairly early on in development that Ocarina of Time’s sequel– while using the same engine– would strive for something more unique. Series creator Shigeru Miyamoto originally propositioned the idea of Ura Zelda, a remixed version of Ocarina of Time, before the team expressed their desire to create a brand new proper entry. From the get-go, the final goal for Majora’s Mask would be to create a game like Ocarina of Time, which was distinctly not Ocarina of Time.
On a foundational level, Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask are near identical. They share the same movement, the same combat, and the same camera. Any technical skills picked up in Ocarina of Time will naturally transfer over to Majora’s Mask. In that respect, Majora’s Mask can be seen as a natural extension of Ocarina of Time, but that isn’t quite right. Like any good antithetical pairing, the two Nintendo 64 Zelda games share basic key similarities, but Majora’s Mask differs where it counts. Just look at each game’s opening to see how Zelda’s relationship with time and tension evolved in between titles.
Ocarina of Time opens in the heat of it, with Link in the midst of a terrible nightmare. Hyrule drawbridge slowly descends as Princess Zelda is forced out of her kingdom by Ganondorf. With no way to defend himself, the would-be-Hero of Time is seemingly killed by the Demon King. It’s tense, but it sets the stage fast and puts control in the hands of the player just as fast. Once the introduction is over, players are encouraged to get through the rest of the opening at their own pace. It’s a well structured, thoughtful opening that doesn’t waste anyone’s time. Majora’s Mask’s opening is far different by comparison.
“In the land of Hyrule, there echoes a legend. A legend held dearly by the Royal Family that tells of a boy. . .”
Where Ocarina opened with Link trembling in fear in the comfort of his own home, Majora’s Mask opens with a despondent Link riding on Epona. Head down, Link’s body language sets the tone for a very different kind of journey. The introduction moves at a slower pace, with Epona methodically moving through the forest before the Skull Kid ambushes Link. From there, the game feigns giving players full control, allowing them to play as Link in a safe environment for a brief period of time. So brief, in fact, it makes the reveal that this is still all part of the opening even more shocking.
Ocarina of Time begins in earnest when players first gain control of Link. Until Link pulls the Master Sword out of the pedestal, there are no major gameplay changes or additions. Not so for Majora’s Mask, less than a minute after gaining control, players will find themselves plummeting down into Termina and twisted into a Deku. Players are then forced to explore Clock Town not as the familiar Hero of Time, but a weak shrub. Majora’s Mask lulls players into a false sense of security, before ripping the rug out from underneath them.
What begins as a quiet opening is quickly made hectic as Link is ambushed. Even then, though, there’s this sense of security. This Link is storied. He’s the Hero of Time, the warrior who defeated Ganon and saved Hyrule. Link is visibly more expressive than he was in Ocarina of Time, almost confident. There’s a bravado to his movements, performing flips from platform to platform. Even his weaponry is more intimidating, the Kokiri Sword seeing a huge visual upgrade and the Hylian Shield traded for the appropriately titled Hero’s Shield. Link’s character model is even a bit taller, signalling that a not insignificant amount of time has passed since the end of Ocarina.
Without the time limit at the bottom of the screen, this incredibly early and brief portion of the game even looks like Ocarina of Time, just a prettier extension of the Lost Woods. It’s enough to trick anyone into thinking all is well. Unlike its predecessor, Majora’s Mask is only pretending to put the tension away. Epona was stolen, and that’s a strong enough motivation to kick start an adventure, but Skull Kid isn’t Ganon. He isn’t satisfied just striking Link away with some magic or stealing his horse. Skull Kid wants to play games.
Link’s transformation into a Deku calls back to his nightmare from Ocarina of Time. He’s helpless in an unfamiliar land, but this time he won’t be waking up. This is no dream. Where the Hero of Time once awoke greeted by his own personal Fairy, he finds himself face to face with pure agony. No sword, no shield, no Ocarina, no Navi, and no way to travel through time, players are stripped of anything remotely familiar. That’s overwhelming enough, but the Happy Mask Salesman immediately giving players a 72 hour time limit (roughly 54 minutes real time albeit only 33 in the first cycle) can feel like overkill as a result. It results in the tensest opening a Zelda game has ever had. But that’s important.
This first cycle teaches everything players need to know so that they can control their tension and time in Termina. That early burst of tension can be overwhelming, but this is also the only time in the game where players do not have direct control of the flow of time– and only briefly, at that. With any similarities to Ocarina pushed aside, Majora’s Mask allows players to comfortably explore the game’s core concepts without distraction. As time passes, perceptive players will notice how dynamically Clock Town changes around them.
It’s easy to write off Clock Town’s visual business as just that at first glance, but suddenly you notice the Postman running through different areas in real-time. Anju leaves her post in the middle of the day. Gorman has an active schedule that takes him across multiple establishments throughout the day. Characters who stay inside during the day, come out at night. Shopkeepers take breaks & exchange shifts, and on the second day, it rains until midnight. Sure, some NPCs stay in place across all three days, but stuff like that is ultimately just necessary in games. It’s not a flaw, and in the case of Majora’s Mask, it just highlights how intricately scheduled the NPCs are.
Which in itself only adds to the tension. How do you keep track of everyone? How do you decide what to do? These questions are exactly why the first cycle opens with a clear goal in mind: talk to the Great Fairy. Upon talking to her, players will then need to find a Stray Fairy, play hide and seek with the Bombers, go underground, trade the Moon Tear, and wait until midnight of the final day. The main goal at hand keeps players distracted from dwelling too much on the intricacies of NPC schedules on a first playthrough, while still being able to acknowledge them on a design level. By the time it’s the second cycle, players will have spent enough time in Clock Town to have some idea of what to attempt first. It’s not overwhelming, it’s variety.
Most important of all, the first cycle goes out of its way to show that characters aren’t just moving around from day to day with new little comments. They’re living their lives. Trapped inside as Deku Link, players will notice the mood in Clock Town slowly deteriorates over the course of 72 hours. Everyone’s cheery enough on day one, but the second day’s downpour brings with it a chilly aura. Tensions start to rise and Clock Town’s once cheerful music is moodier under the beating of the rain. By day three, the music is gone, Clock Town is in a frenzy, and NPCs start to face the facts: they’re out of time.
Time and tension are interconnected in Majora’s Mask. The more time passes, the more the tension rises. Players can head back to the dawn of the first day, but time will just tick back down. NPCs will suffer, the Moon will fall, and Link will have to turn back time all over again. There’s no need to be overwhelmed, though. The cycle will always repeat, but always at the behest of the player. Majora’s Hyrule Field isn’t Termina Field, it’s the 72-hour schedule. By being able to turn back time, players control every aspect of the pace in which they explore Termina. Beyond NPCs, the best quality of the 72-hour time limit is how it ends up creating unique set pieces for each individual player.
Three Days in Termina
With the Ocarina in hand, players now have full control over the passage of time. You can slow down time, warp into the future, and turn it back. Tension will naturally rise with the passage of time, but that’s nothing the dawn of the first day can’t fix. Tatl nudges Link towards the Southern Swamp at the start of the second cycle, but players are free to explore at their own pace now that they can turn back time whenever. Some might come to the conclusion that this trivializes the time limit, but the point of Majora’s Mask’s time limit was never to exclusively serve as a time limit.
It’s an excuse to give Termina a degree of depth Ocarina of Time couldn’t have with its passage of time. Because the flow of time is palpable in Majora’s Mask, Termina is more recognizably real. NPCs realistically have schedules, go to work, go home. Their moods change from day to day. Jovial one day, in tears the next. They have lives when Link isn’t on-screen, and they go about their schedules even when players are away from Clock Town. NPCs always have something to do, even if that something is waiting for their next action. NPCs have arcs over the course of Termina’s three days; as does the player.
Termina’s 72-hour schedule isn’t just impressive because of how fleshed out NPCs end up being, it’s impressive because of how it contributes to the gameplay loop. Majora’s Mask is designed with the idea that players will make the most out of all their time, and that means seeing cycles through to the third day. While fun, it’s not enough to randomly goof off. Players need to have some idea of how they’re going to use their time, if only by picking an initial goal to domino effect from. To put into perspective how dense a three-day cycle can be, here’s what makes the most of an average cycle can look like:
“Only 6 hours remain. But time is not eternal. Please make the most of your time.”
Having dedicated the previous cycle to learning the Goron’s Lullaby at the Goron Village, Link can now head to Snowhead Temple. Immediately, players should slow the flow of time, warp to Snowhead, play the Lullaby, and enter the dungeon. Entering Snowhead Temple isn’t easy, though, as players need to use Link’s Goron Roll to make their way up. While falling off the edge doesn’t hurt Link, it places back at the entrance of the area and wastes time. Typically, full cycles can be dedicated to dungeons, but Snowhead leads to a special bonus for those who can clear it before the end of the first day: the Gilded Sword.
Upon clearing Snowhead Temple, players can obtain a Powder Keg, to blow up a race track, to compete in a Goron Roll race, to win Gold Dust, to eventually exchange for the Gilded Sword. But players can’t upgrade the Kokiri Sword directly to the Gilded Sword. Not only does the Razor Sword serve as an in-between upgrade, but it also takes an entire day to reforge the sword. All three days are required to get the Gilded Sword, and the most convenient time to upgrade to the Gilded Sword is right after Snowhead Temple. Naturally, this places pressure on players to get through the temple quickly, but Snowhead is long, arduous, and punishing for anyone struggling to remember the layout.
Anyone aiming to get all Stray Fairies will find themselves eating up most of the first day before even reaching the boss. Goht himself is one of the longest boss fights in the game, especially in the Nintendo 64 version. Players have to either frantically race around the track, chipping away at him with Link’s Goron Roll, or patiently wait for Goht to pass by so he can be sniped with a Fire Arrow. There’s no quick and easy way around Goht, and players are still expected to have the time to at the very least deliver their Kokiri Sword so it can be upgraded. Oh, and Link better have enough Rupees.
After bringing spring back to Snowhead, players have to carry a Powder Keg from the safety of Goron Village across enemy riddled territory so they can compete in a race and deliver the Gold Dust to the base of the mountain before the end of the day. Link can pick up the Razor Sword as early as the dawn of the second day, but it has to be given back before the day’s up with Gold Dust to boot.
Anyone who hasn’t mastered Goron Rolling by this point will have to dedicate quite a bit of their second day to fine-tuning their skills. Those who have, however, will be able to spend their second day how they please. One player may have beaten Goht with more than enough time to spare, while another ran out because they didn’t know they could turn back time. But running out of time isn’t a bad thing in Majora’s Mask. If anything, it leads to greater opportunities.
Following this hypothetical Link for one more cycle, he warps back to Snowhead and, having defeated Goht in the previous cycle, can now warp directly to the boss room. Beating Goht at the start of the cycle, this Link now has more than enough time to get the Powder Keg, grab the Gold Dust, and upgrade his sword. Assuming everything goes smoothly, this Link can also head to Romani Ranch and get Epona. Granted, Link will be swordless during this portion of the game but that in itself is memorable.
At Romani Ranch, Link can agree to help defend the ranch from aliens at 2:30 a.m. of the first night. Time that might have been spent waiting for a sword upgrade is instead spent wisely. Given there’ll be some time in-between players agreeing to help Romani and 2:30, the ranch has one Heart Piece and one Mask to collect, giving players something to do in the meantime. With Epona, players can even head into Ikana Cemetery where they can obtain a mask that lets them grave rob in the evening. However players kill time until 2:30 a.m., Link fights the aliens until the sun rises at 5:30 a.m., with the dawn of the second day following shortly after.
The fun doesn’t end there, though. After delivering the Gold Dust for the Gilded Sword on the second day, players can then return to Romani Ranch to hitch a ride with Romani’s sister, Cremia, at 6:00 p.m. Considering the free time players have until the evening, now serves as a good time to get Don Gero’s Mask in Snowhead. Without the Inverted Song of Time, the process should eat up enough time where players won’t need to wait too long once they grab the mask and warp back to Milk Road. Players can also use their downtime to race the Gorman Brothers on their own track. Beating them even nets Link a mask that allows him to access the rest of Ikana Valley.
At 6:00 p.m., Link protects Cremia from the Gorman Brothers on route to Clock Town in an FPS-esque minigame and players are given the rest of the second night to either hit up the Milk Bar, plunder graves in Ikana, or just explore the Great Bay. Logically, though, it makes sense to continue plundering graves as each day allows Link to dive down into a new resting place. Naturally, the third night will see Link back to plunder, but how this Link is about to end their cycle proves just how masterfully Majora’s Mask utilizes both time and tension.
“My final message . . .
. . . Will you listen to it?”
Majora’s Mask makes it impossible to ignore the passage of time. By the third day, the sky is twisted, the moon is dangerously close to the ground, and Clock Town’s music is completely disoriented. Come night, silence settles onto Termina one last time. Heading to the Great Bay reveals an ocean lost in ambiance, backdropped against an unnatural sky. Beyond the coast, seagulls flock around a dying Zora, prompting the player to pull him onto the shore. With his last breath, Mikau the Zora pleads with Link with save his beloved Zora eggs. All that’s left is to play the Song of Healing and watch a soul fade against, unaware of the world ending around him.
The passage of time directly affects not only how the player interacts with the world, but how the world interacts with the player. Mikau’s death, while meaningful, doesn’t have as much impact on the morning of the first day when Great Bay’s music is blaring and the sun is shining in the sky. With a “safer” environment, Mikau’s please isn’t as tense. At the same time, there’s something profoundly tragic about this image as well. Even at the start of a cycle where Link can turn back time, he can’t save everyone. That’s an observation that’ll come clearest to those who visit the Great Bay on day one. And that’s ultimately the beauty of Majora’s Mask: creating your own story.
Not every Link will experience the same series of events. The time limit makes sure of that, adding flavor to each time of day, to the point where any story event is fundamentally changed by the context in which players approach them. How long has it been since they saved? What time of day is it? How’s the music? The weather? These are all small factors influenced by the passage of time that help build or alleviate tension– and all in the hands of the player.
Majora’s Mask calls for in-depth exploration with its 72-hour schedule. It looks at the audience and shows them a living world where NPCs co-exist outside the context of Link. Termina’s own inner-world exploration doesn’t suffer for it either, with Link’s actions dynamically changing the overworld, with & without the passage of time. Each NPC tells their own story, even if all they do is stand in place. The Bombers never once move from their designated spots as time passes, but they’re kids. They’re oblivious to the world around them– to the point they don’t even realize they’re going to die.
What one gets out of Majora’s Mask is ultimately dependent on the time you put in. It’s a game with a richer world than most, where every NPC matters to some extent, even if it’s in the most minor of ways. There’s a natural tension that comes when playing anything with a time limit, but Majora’s time limit isn’t a call to action. It, like time, just is. There’s no use in fighting it. By accepting the passage of time and simply going with the flow, Majora’s Mask becomes an incredibly rewarding game. One where just saving feels like a triumph in and of itself because of how much potential progress it locks in.
At the end of the day, the time limit is very simply Link’s greatest ally. It’s the time limit that allows players to correct past mistakes, to relish in a game world where NPCs are more than just a few lines of dialogue. Turn back time to relive the past. Turn back time to see a different tomorrow. Turn back time just because you can. Majora’s Mask gives you all the time in the world. Make the most of it.