The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time is not a particularly challenging game, but it also couldn’t afford to be. Understandably, Nintendo’s ambition in transitioning the medium from 2D to 3D came with restraint towards difficulty– a necessity as games like Super Mario 64 and The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time introduced audiences to 3D game worlds that had depth beyond their three-dimensions. Neither title is a walk in the park, but they’re hardly the hardest games in their franchise. Ocarina of Time was arguably even the easiest Zelda game at the time of its release. Z-Targeting was outright designed to make combat easier, a means of keeping enemies from ganging up on Link.
Ocarina of Time’s lower difficulty curve is rooted in the story’s pacing. The first 3D Zelda takes its time easing players into an entirely new game world for the era. Kaepora Gaebora guides Link up to Zora’s Domain, the first three dungeons have no small keys between them, and the nonlinearity of the Temples keeps the difficulty curve mostly static during OoT’s back half. The first game of its kind, Ocarina’s low level of challenge was as necessary as it is reasonable. Doubly so as Nintendo’s intent was always to expand on Ocarina of Time through the Nintendo 64DD.
Contrary to popular belief, Majora’s Mask did not begin life as Master Quest (then Ura Zelda) but as Zelda Gaiden. Both titles were in development simultaneously, originally for the Nintendo 64’s Disk Drive add-on, with Gaiden specifically stemming from Eiji Aonuma’s disinterest in remixing Ocarina of Time’s dungeon design for Ura Zelda. Philosophically, both games are rooted in the same want to accomplish what Ocarina couldn’t. For Gaiden, this meant embracing difficulty wholesale. Even though the three-day schedule alone makes Majora’s Mask wholly unique as a Zelda game, what’s perhaps more novel is that it expects you to have played & beaten Ocarina of Time beforehand– a fact reflected in the difficulty curve.
It’s by no means unusual for a sequel to expect some familiarity on the audience’s part, but Nintendo games tend to make it a point that anyone can jump in fresh with any entry. In spite of The Legend of Zelda’s long history of direct narrative sequels (some semblance of a canonical timeline has existed since Zelda II,) each entry generally stands alone. The Adventure of Link focuses on the aftermath of defeating Ganon, but having played the original isn’t necessary for enjoying the sequel. Similarly with Link’s Awakening, a game that makes use of A Link to the Past’s imagery for thematic purposes but is otherwise a completely standalone adventure.
It’s as significant as it is strange that Majora’s Mask is as conscious of its status as a sequel to Ocarina of Time as it ultimately is. Beyond reusing OoT’s assets, the difficulty in Majora’s Mask logically builds from where Ocarina of Time left off. Link’s time in Termina is considerably more difficult than it was in Hyrule, but not randomly so. The opening hour is on the easier side so players have a chance to ease into MM’s oddities, but the game’s first major dungeon has more in common with the Spirit Temple than it does the Deku Tree. Majora’s Mask seldom shows Ocarina’s generosity or restraint, and it’s all the better for it.
The clearest tell of Majora’s Mask’s expectations is Tatl, Navi’s antithesis. Where Navi was helpful to the point of being annoying in Ocarina, Tatl’s resemblance to her predecessor ends in that they’re fairies. Tatl is actively unhelpful and outright belittles Link for having the audacity to ask her for advice. Sometimes she won’t even leave a tip with her insult, the Giant Bee hint capturing the essence of Tatl’s character perfectly, “Don’t ask me! You can either fight it or run… it’s up to you.” Navi offered tips to help players understand gameplay in a 3D space. Tatl chastises you for forgetting lessons you should have already learned in Ocarina of Time.
Immediately turning Link into a Deku is a symbolic act narratively and thematically– stripping players of all familiarity in an unfamiliar land– but it also raises the gameplay’s stakes. Deku Link is weakness personified. Without a sword or shield, he’s fragile and can be taken down by mere puppies. Soldiers outright forbid Link from leaving Clock Town because of just how dangerous Termina is for a defenseless Deku. Outside of a lone Skulltula in the sewers, there aren’t even enemies to fight. Majora’s Mask uses its opening to establish Clock Town as a safe haven and Termina Field as a dangerous setting.
Wolfos, once mini-bosses in Ocarina of Time, are now common enemies who appear as early as the Southern Swamp. Link encounters a grand total of one Wolfos before he pulls out the Master Sword in Ocarina of Time, whereas Wolfos are the Swamp’s main enemy at night. White Wolfos regularly pop out of the snow regardless of the time of day in Snowhead, replaced by normal Wolfos once spring returns. Majora’s Mask isn’t interested in teaching audiences how to combat a 3D world. That’s what Ocarina of Time is for.
More impactful to the difficulty curve than turning mini-bosses into regular occurrences is the 72 hour time loop. Having three in-game days to solve any given problem adds an inherent tension to gameplay, especially inside of dungeons. You can’t afford to waste time or get stuck. Termina only has four themed dungeons compared to Hyrule’s eight, but they’re all as challenging as adult Link’s were in Ocarina of Time. Woodfall Temple doesn’t even feel like an introductory dungeon, already expecting players to know how to platform by auto-jumping, where to shoot with the Bow to unlock doors, and what to do with movable blocks.
This approach to the difficulty is all in benefit of Majora’s Mask. Cutting away the fluff and trusting players to have conquered Ocarina of Time allows for Termina’s dungeons to get away with more sophisticated puzzles. Majora’s Mask also uses linearity to its advantage. Players now have to visit each Temple in a set order, but this just means the dungeon design can consciously implement more of Link’s equipment. Great Bay Temple can make use of the Fire Arrows because players need to have beaten Snowhead Temple beforehand to gain access to the Great Bay. The Stone Tower Temple can feature unique set pieces for Deku, Goron, & Zora Link because Link needs the Hookshot & Ice Arrows to reach Ikana Valley.
The Bow & Arrow in particular play a notable role in Majora’s Mask. Link trades his Fairy Bow for the Hero’s Bow, but he gets more use of it as a result. Woodfall’s dungeon item is the Bow itself, Snowhead has the Fire Arrows, Great Bay has Ice Arrows, and Stone Tower has the Light Arrows. Arrows as sole dungeon items also relegate the rest of Link’s equipment to out of dungeon setpieces, often leading into Temples themselves.
In turn, each dungeon ends up making varied use of Link’s toolkit for puzzle-solving and traversal. The Lens of Truth & Goron Mask are just as active as the Fire Arrows in completing Snowhead Temple. Great Bay Temple is designed around the Ice Arrows, but the majority of puzzles in the first half make extensive use of the Hookshot and the Zora Mask, which is basically the Iron Boots combined with the Boomerang. Even Woodfall, the opening dungeon, has multiple central items in the Deku Mask and Hero’s Bow. Termina may only have four dungeons, but they’re incredibly elaborate and made all the better by Stray Fairies.
Stray Fairies are introduced during Deku Link’s first cycle in Clock Town, but don’t pop back up again until Woodfall Temple. Each major region in Termina has a Great Fairy who’s been split apart by Skull Kid, with their 15 Stray Fairies scattered across Termina’s four dungeons. Finding every Stray Fairy in a dungeon and returning them to their respective Fairy Fountains rewards Link with magical upgrades– from a stronger spin attack to double defense & magic. As finding every Stray Fairy in a dungeon is optional, they can get away with being tied to harder puzzles than those mandatory for completion.
Finding every Stray Fairy requires checking every nook & cranny, looking in spots you normally wouldn’t, and recognizing level design oddities. Two Dinolfos attack Link in an otherwise empty room? Kill them both to find Stray Fairies. A crate is placed conspicuously on top of a pillar? Throw a well-timed bomb to blow it up and free a Fairy. Underwater jars lurking in hard to reach places? They must be Stray Fairies. The way Majora’s Mask uses its Fairies encourages the audience to think harder about dungeons while playing up exploration. When paired with a time limit, Stray Fairies make already challenging dungeons even harder.
Of course, this only makes their rewards all the more rewarding. There’s no guarantee that you’ll comfortably find every Stray Fairy blindly going through a dungeon for the first time, but it’s always worth the effort. If not for Great Fairy goodies then to experience one of the best improvements Majora’s Mask brings to the table. Stray Fairies downplay empty rooms & empty space inside of dungeons. Stray Fairies also lend greater value to chests, replacing the often useless Rupees that littered Hyrule’s chests. More importantly, they teach players to think critically on a level that’s not often required in 3D Zelda. As far as puzzle design goes, Majora’s Mask is essentially a better-realized version of Master Quest– not just recontextualizing Ocarina of Time’s puzzles but actually pushing them further.
There’s no better actualization of Majora’s Mask’s design philosophy than the Stone Tower Temple, arguably the hardest dungeon between OoT and MM. It’s a test of everything you’ve learned up to this point, the ideal final dungeon. The Temple is made even better thanks to Majora’s Mask’s intimate connection to Ocarina of Time. The Stone Tower Temple is 12 dungeons in the making, a swan song for The Legend of Zelda on the Nintendo 64. Puzzles make non-stop use of most of Link’s equipment– from the Hookshot, Bombs, and Fire Arrows to the Ocarina of Time. Each room has some unique puzzle to take advantage of Link’s abilities, avoiding thematic stagnation that keeps the worst Zelda dungeons one-note.
It’s also worth mentioning how the Stone Tower Temple demands more out of puzzles than usual. Block & switch puzzles usually involve Link pushing a block around a room, but the Elegy of Emptiness allows players to create blocks wherever they stand– allowing for rooms to feature multiple switches without multiple blocks, adding another layer to dungeon progression. Plenty of puzzles within the Stone Tower also make great use of the Mirror Shield. One room in particular requires you to direct light from one end to another by bouncing rays of sunlight from mirror to mirror. This is a puzzle more involved than anything Ocarina of Time featured inside of the Spirit Temple.
There’s a near-perfect balance of puzzles and action inside the Stone Tower. The Garo Master is a one on one duel where players can only create openings by dodging– not blocking– flipping how combat usually works. Wizzrobes appear yet again as MM’s most recurring mini-boss, but they’re also an important test of your marksmanship. Gomess mixes swordplay with the Temple’s dungeon item and Eyegore plays up the timing central to 3D Zelda’s combat.
All transformation masks are accounted for, as well. Deku Link has a flower gliding section, Goron Link has a few lava set pieces to wade through, and Zora swimming plays an important role in traversing the dungeon. The Stone Tower’s boss, Twinmold, outright features a new transformation mask just for the occasion in the form of the Giant’s Mask. For a dungeon with so much mechanical variety, it’s a miracle Stone Tower Temple even has a recognizable gimmick. Upon acquiring the Light Arrows mid-way through the dungeon, players will be able to flip the Temple’s structure on its head.
Turning the Light Arrows into a puzzle tool that affects an area’s structural integrity is genius. Being able to flip a room upside down at any given moment forces players to be fully aware of the 3D space they’re in. A few rooms inside the inverted Temple need to be flipped strategically so Link can avoid taking damage or properly solve a puzzle. Reverting the Temple back to its original state is even necessary for finding each Stray Fairy. Flipping the Stone Tower on its head is as much a gimmick as it is a legitimate means of fully exploring the dungeon. It’s a smarter breed of level design that makes you pay better attention to your surroundings, especially in conjunction with the time limit.
The Stone Tower Temple is almost guaranteed to take at least 24 hours, but this is one of its greatest strengths. A savvy player can get through the first three Temples in a single Terminan day comfortably (albeit pushing it,) but the sheer complexity of the Stone Tower means that rushing through– even if you have some idea of what to do– just isn’t an option. So close to the heavens, however, the Tower’s outdoor setting lets players take in the Termina sky– whether right side up or upside down. It’s a rare opportunity to not only feel but see the passage of time inside a dungeon. The sky changes color, the world hazes when inverted, and the Moon’s fallen so far down that the Stone Tower is the one place where its menacing grin isn’t taunting you from up above. It’s as refreshing a sight as it is disconcerting.
While Termina’s Temples are on the whole much more challenging, simply having fewer dungeons makes Majora’s Mask a harder game than Ocarina of Time. Link begins both games with three Heart Containers, each dungeon offering him a new one. With Ocarina’s eight dungeons, even the worst players will end the game with at least 11 Hearts. Majora’s Mask’s four, however, means players will only have 7 Hearts during the finale if they never do side content. Ocarina of Time isn’t balanced with players getting many optional Hearts in mind, but Majora’s Mask actually is. All things considered, four extremely high-quality dungeons and 52 Heart Pieces to collect are more than enough for Termina to rival Hyrule.
Majora’s Mask isn’t Ocarina of Time 2, but it still takes its role as a direct sequel deathly seriously– more so than any other Zelda. Its story and themes resonate loudest when you’ve already played Ocarina of Time, which the game expects you to have done. It’s easy to see why Nintendo felt comfortable pushing MM so far given the era, how close Majora’s Mask released to its predecessor, and the sheer popularity of Ocarina of Time both commercially & critically, but it was still a risky move to expect so much from an audience so soon after OoT. In the end, it all comes back to Aonuma.
Eiji Aonuma felt Ocarina of Time was made to the best of the team’s abilities. Enough concessions were made where Shigeru Miyamoto wanted a remix in the form of Ura Zelda, but Aonuma knew there was no use in trying to one-up Ocarina so directly. Majora’s Mask is better than the Second Quest that Master Quest ultimately became. It’s a game that immediately challenges the 3D world Ocarina of Time built by placing an emphasis on difficulty and using a 72-hour schedule for greater immersion. Majora isn’t derivative of Ocarina, but it’s not alien either. There’s just enough familiarity where Termina can twist everything that made Link’s time in Hyrule so memorable– from story to game design. Majora’s Mask challenges what a video game sequel can be by casting a light on Ocarina of Time without getting lost in its shadows.